Remember when eager fitness enthusiasts had to wait a few months for their Pelotons to arrive? Or when cycling devotees were outraged when SoulCycle classes filled up in 42 seconds? Those were the good old days.
Today, those coveting a lavish workout experience may do everything short of getting on their knees and begging to be accepted into application-only gyms. In the last four years, about a dozen fitness centers (though some owners may prefer to call them “wellness destinations” or “social wellness clubs”) have opened nationally that require letters of referral, long-winded applications, interviews and a deep dive through your social media to decide if you are fit to be fit.
In June, Cori Zigman decided she wanted to join Heimat, a fitness club that had opened in Los Angeles that month. So the 44-year-old real estate developer went on a tour and filled out an application which included questions about whom she knew at Heimat and what her social media handles were. Then she waited. And waited. And waited.
Nearly a month passed before Ms. Zigman received an acceptance letter — but some of her friends who also applied didn’t.
“It was awkward,” she said. “It felt like everyone wanted a membership, but they just weren’t handing them out.”
Ms. Zigman forked over $350 per month for spin and Pilates classes, a co-working space, a pool, astrology workshops, a nap room, a salt sauna and more. Her friends are still waiting to learn their fate.
Sebastian Schoepe, the president and chief executive of RSG Group North America, which owns Heimat, said he was very specific about the types of people he wanted — and didn’t want — in his fitness center.
“For those that look at a gym as a selfie opportunity, a place solely dedicated to performance-oriented training or a workout that needs to be done, you can probably find a gym that’s more affordable that can deliver those things,” Mr. Schoepe said. “We are not looking to bring in people who keep to themselves and don’t see the value of mingling with like-minded people.”
Instead, he said, Heimat welcomes “people who cultivate that ethos of mindfulness with their fellow members.” Those people tend to be in their early to mid-30s, as evidenced by Heimat’s core constituent.
Prospective members at Remedy Place, a “social wellness club” that opened in West Hollywood in 2019 and in the Flatiron district of New York in 2022, must go through an application process and an interview.
Memberships range from $595 to $2,750 per month and offer everything from cryotherapy, I.V. drips, a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, a lymphatic compression suit, meditation classes, sound baths and more.
“We’re looking for people who are a good representation of the brand, and they should inspire others to take care of themselves,” said Dr. Jonathan Leary, the founder and chief executive, who also described the average member as a young professional in their 30s. Remedy capped memberships at 200 in Los Angeles and 300 in New York, but Dr. Leary declined to say what percentage of people who applied were accepted or provide the number of people currently on its wait list.
He did, however, attempt to describe what makes the perfect Remedy member: It’s someone, he said, “who will shine bright and help teach people the changes that need to happen.”
The “who” for a majority of these gyms tends to be “cool” people in general, said John Atwood, the managing partner of Atwood Consulting in Boston, which specializes in health clubs.
“If you’re making widgets in Akron, Ohio, they may not want you, even if you have an apartment in New York,” said Mr. Atwood, comparing the selection process to how exclusive club bouncers choose people to enter their venues. “They’re looking for cool people.”
“Cool,” however, has a slightly different interpretation depending on the gym.
At Ghost, which opened in Williamsburg in 2019, members are accepted if they are “thought leaders, creatives, founders or executives,” said Aqib Mamoon, the gym’s chief executive and founder, though he added that his “wellness destination” is not exclusive to any profession. Memberships, which cost up to $300 a month, are limited and require an application, an in-person interview and an internal review process.
And at Forma Pilates, a studio with locations on the Upper East Side, SoHo and Los Angeles, where membership is by referral only, the goal is to have a “tight-knit community of like-minded individuals including but not limited to entrepreneurs, executives, athletes, celebrities, pre- and postnatal mothers and more,” said Liana Levi, the owner and founder.
Mr. Atwood, the consultant, said the exclusive gym concept emerged after the evolution of discount gyms versus the boutique clubs. Low-cost gyms such as Planet Fitness and XSport Fitness, which charge around $49 for monthly memberships, are highly profitable business models because they cram as many people into the gyms as possible. Then along came boutique fitness centers like Barry’s Boot Camp (about $40 per class) or Orange Theory (about $150 per month), which paved the way for exclusive upscale clubs.
Monarch Athletic Club, based in West Hollywood, is another example. To join, an applicant must have a medical evaluation and a physical therapy and training assessment — all done in-house — which Dr. Ryan Greene, Monarch’s managing partner and principal medical adviser who specializes in osteopathic medicine, describes as “a few layers of checkpoints.”
Once an applicant gets past those “checkpoints,” they may be invited to pay a membership fee of $595 to $2,000 per month. At the top tier, members receive unlimited personal training and physical therapy, I.V. therapy, access to their physicians, ice baths, group fitness classes and saunas.
Dr. Greene said that while health is a universal right, he decided to make Monarch, which opened in January 2020, an exclusive club because he wanted his members to be proactive. Some people, he said, believe that since they are paying a premium, they can just show up and assume that their sessions will be booked for them with white-glove service. Those aren’t the type of people he wants, he said. Instead, Monarch is seeking a community of like-minded people who are motivated to get well. And to sign up for their own sessions.
Some have tried the exclusivity model, however, only to find that inclusivity draws a larger crowd. The Ness, a trampoline and cardio boutique fitness space on the edge of Tribeca and Chinatown in New York, opened in 2019 as referral-only.
“If you were having a dinner party, you wouldn’t post your address on a flyer and plaster it all over town as an open invitation,” said Colette Dong, the founder. “You would curate a group of friends that you think mesh well together.”
But two years later, Ms. Dong said, she opened some of her classes for public booking.
This spring, when the Ness is planning to launch its second physical location in Bridgehampton, N.Y., Ms. Dong said she was going to try again as invite-only.
“This creates a better community and environment, which is really important when you’re working out for the first time, coming back into your routine or trying to stick to a goal,” Ms. Dong said. “You just don’t want to do it in front of a bunch of strangers.”