With 122 locations across the country, Virgin Active may have made quite the impression on the UK gym scene, but US über-gym Equinox has now set its sights on London. Interestingly, it has chosen 99 Kensington High Street for its HQ – the top floor of which is Richard Branson's flamingo-filled Roof Garden. Keep your friends close, but the competition closer, as they say. I book in for a trial day.
I take the lift up to the fifth floor, where I am greeted by a friendly membership adviser, who takes me on a tour.
An elliptical domed skylight illuminates the cruise-liner-like gym floor, which is graced with every conceivable piece of equipment imaginable, including TRX, Jungle Gym, an AlterG anti-gravity treadmill (originally designed for Nasa astronauts, it is the next generation on from the Vacu Box I tried at Henri Chenot), and a special Pilates reformer known as the “Electric Chair” (essentially a chair with springs, where thankfully the only electricity generated is from the body’s energy). Small fridges around the club contain eucalyptus-infused towels that are regularly handed out to the sweaty clientele. There are also large, light rooms dedicated to boxing, Pilates and yoga, plus an indoor-cycling room equipped with state-of-the-art Schwinn performance bikes.
The shop has a carefully curated selection of pieces by Mercer & Taylor, Stella McCartney for Adidas and Splendid. The lounge area has oversized slabs of African St Laurent marble, rich walnut walls and art-deco window ironwork – with a juice bar and free WiFi, it seems a good place to wind down after a workout. There is even a laundry service and crèche.
I dash into the changing room to ready myself for a class.
First up is a 45-minute studio cycling class with Stefano Ruggeri, a personal trainer and Schwinn guru.
I enter the dark studio to find a mass of stationary bikes, where a few dedicated types – clearly squeezing in a session in their lunch hour – are already pedalling away.
I stand next to the bike and adjust the seat height; Stefano tells me that my knee should be slightly “soft” at the bottom of the pedal stroke so as not to fully extend. I adjust the handlebar height to be level with the seat so that when I ride, my shoulders and back are comfortable.
Unlike the indoor bikes used in classes such as SoulCycle in the States (interestingly, these were purchased by Equinox in May 2011), where manual upping of the resistance to the required level can be sneakily avoided simply by disregarding instructions, these Schwinn bikes are very tech-focused. They are equipped with console computers to measure miles per hour, cadence, distance and watts, while the resistance of all bikes in the room is controlled from a central source to avoid any cheating.
Numbers steadily increase and when there are around 10 of us, we begin. Stefano explains that the class is structured around sequences of cycling at different intensity levels or zones, where zone one is easy and zone four more difficult.
We begin a gentle seated warm-up for five minutes, to gently get the heart rate up. For the main sequence, we work on an interval system: one-minute surges of effort in zone three, one and a half minutes in zone four, and 30 seconds in zone one – a pattern we repeat. For the first sequence we do the high-resistance sections while out of the saddle, the next time seated. Stefano explains that each of the more difficult sections in subsequent sequences can be done either standing or sitting, although he asks that we stay between 80 and 100 RPM when sitting, and 60 and 80 RPM when standing, in order to challenge ourselves.
About three quarters of the way through the class we embark on a three-minute climb, where we steadily build the resistance. My quads are burning at this point; call me a masochist but it feels good to work this hard.
Stefano calls out encouragingly as we crank up the resistance. “Focus on what you want to achieve right here, right now.” The music is pumping and my body is soaked with sweat. At one point we get up to 150 RPM with resistance.
By the end of the session my body feels well and truly worked. I am a little light-headed as I descend from the bike, the music still throbbing in my ears, but I feel a massive sense of achievement.
Legs juddering, I cross the gym floor to the changing rooms, soothing and cooling my beetroot complexion with a refrigerated eucalyptus-infused towel handed to me by a gym instructor.
I have a shower and take full advantage of the pampering products available: Kiehl’s shower gel, plus deodorant, razors and face wipes.
I swing by the juice bar for a refreshing cooler and take a look at some of the other classes on offer: Tread & Shred interval training treadmill class, cardio dance step, kettle bells, Thai boxing, Tabata and several different yoga practices, including Iyengar, Vinyasa and Raja Flow. Classes start as early as 7am and finish at 8pm.
There is also information on the personal training sessions: all Equinox trainers must first be put through their paces at the Equinox Institute, where they are required to complete 150 hours of in-house education, to ensure members receive the highest level of treatment.
With time to kill, I catch up on some emails.
Next on the agenda: a Hungarian moor mud facial with an extraordinary twist. Check back on Saturday February 2.