As I stand naked in the middle of Hanson Fitness, a personal training studio in Manhattan, it dawns on me that I'm about to exercise. I've been so preoccupied with other concerns—mainly, what you'd expect a man to worry about—that the workout itself has been barely a second thought, and I assume that everyone else feels similarly. If you're at a nude fitness class, you probably aren't here for the fitness.
Because I do CrossFit, and because I'm gay and shameless, I'm no stranger to working out shirtless and in shorts that my mom describes as "embarrassingly short." However, as I look around at the group, well-lit by fluorescent lights and the late afternoon sun, I realize that being almost naked isn't the same as being completely naked, and I wonder what's in store for the next hour.
Harry Hanson, the gym's owner, has assured me that this will be a serious affair. When we spoke on the phone a week earlier, he'd said that, since he first announced the class in January, he'd had a flood of interest from men, women, local nudist colonies, and two TV networks considering a reality show. Of the ten available spots, he told me that all had filled, but he'd made room for me. So, after signing the waiver, I paid the $52.50 class fee, exorbitant even by the standards of Manhattan boutique fitness, and stripped down to nothing but shoes, socks, and a bandana.
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Back in the middle of the studio, Harry mentions the potential reality show again. Then, he says he's going to turn down the lights, and he walks to an office in the back. He has a clear line of sight on us, as does the employee who processed my credit card. With the lights barely dimmed, I can clearly see the other five participants, all men. Two are in their early 30s, a few years older than me, two are in their early 40s, and one is in his 50s. Most are heavily groomed, and none are anywhere near as muscular as our instructor, Dmitri, who's wearing leopard print underwear and instructs us to form two lines and face each other.
We start with mountain climbers, essentially running on the ground in a push-up position. When I look in the direction of my feet, I see myself jiggling in a way that unnerves me, but if I look up, I see the others also jiggling, so I stare at the floor. After a minute, we do push-ups, and it's only after touching my entire, uncovered body to the ground a few times that I consider how dirty the floor is and start to leave a few inches of space between us.
About ten minutes in, we take our first water break. Besides Dmitri, no one's spoken a word, so I introduce myself to the other guys. We all shake hands briefly, and then it's back to business. For the past two years, I've been covering fitness for men's magazines, and our workout is pretty in line with what's trendy right now: high-intensity interval training, with mostly body weight exercises and little rest between movements. We do more mountain climbers. More push-ups. Planks on our elbows. Planks on our hands. Class isn't even a quarter over, and we're all dripping sweat and staring at the ground.
After our second water break, Dmitri tells us to grab a set of the dumbbells he's put out for us. I know nine pounds is too heavy and ask for a lighter set, but the guys in their 30s are more confident. By the third minute of bicep curls, they're arching their chests and swinging their arms to get the weight up. When we shoulder press, we all overextend our backs at the top, and during the front squats, our chests collapse forward. One of Hanson's selling points was that exercising naked allows the instructor to better see your form, but as we start to fatigue and get sloppy, Dmitri rarely says a word.
In my experience, the more expensive the studio, the less instructors correct form, probably because they don't want to embarrass their (well-paying) clients. I always think this is a missed opportunity. When I have no idea how to do a movement, I know I'm not fooling anyone by flailing about, and if I'm paying almost a dollar a minute, I'd like there to be some exchange of expertise.
But more importantly, offering corrections is what builds a sense of community. If Dmitri tells the guy next to me that he should keep his heels on the ground during a squat, I look down to make sure I'm doing the same. If he compliments someone for staying linear during a plank, I try to hit that position, too. While we work out naked, we can't talk to each other, but Dmitri could still facilitate an interaction. Instead, we struggle in isolation.
The last 30 minutes are essentially the same as the first, though the movements get a bit more complex. We're told to do one-armed snatches and bent-over tricep-extensions and dumbbell thrusters (lol), which everyone attempts in their own, haphazard way. Then, we're told to do more mountain climbers, push-ups, and planks, and as I stare at the ground, I almost forget that I'm with five other guys, let alone that we're all nude.
A few weeks after the class, when I speak to Harry on the phone, he concedes that Dimitri could've been more vigilant about form and that they're still figuring out the curriculum for the class. Overall, though, he says that "the music was right, the lighting was right, the exercises were right, and the vibe was right." He mentions the reality show again. When I ask if he's considering any ways to facilitate more interaction between the participants, he's stern. "It's a fitness class, okay? So, it's not a social class. That's the one thing that I want to be able to maintain."
In the locker room after that first class, we take turns using the gym's only shower, and while we change, we agree that class was "hard." From there, the conversation putters. No social barrier has been magically broken by virtue of us being naked and sweaty in the same room, which is when I realize that the workout is not at all beside the point. It's essential because, without some thought and planning, nudity is just a gimmick whose novelty fades by the second water break.
As I tie my shoes, the last guy comes out of the shower with a towel around his waist, and he and I make small talk. He grabs his briefs, but instead of removing the towel to put them on, he slides them on underneath.
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