Conor Pope’s mission to find the best gym in Dublin

'Over and over again he tells me that if I want to have a lean physique, I will need a time machine'

The mirrored room is lit by red neon strips, and I look around in awe as he explains how Shred and Tread worksPhotograph: Nick Bradshaw

The mirrored room is lit by red neon strips, and I look around in awe as he explains how Shred and Tread worksPhotograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

It is before dawn on one of the shortest days of the year when I discover there is a line in the sand which I will not cross and it spells the word Zumba.

I arrive at my gym full of vim for a Grit class - a high intensity full body workout - but because my morning started with a low intensity full body sleep-in, I get there minutes too late and must wait for the next class, whatever it might be.

Turns out it’s Zumba. I’ve never done Zumba, mainly because I don’t need that extra shame in my life. I know I’d be useless at it. By contrast, the class instructor - Barbara is her name - is quite brilliant, as are her 15 or so dancing gym bunnies. The last thing they need this winter morning is an oaf like me doing my Mr Bean and flapping around ruining their rhythm.

So I go for a run in Western Samoa instead - more about this later.

January is Health Month in The Irish Times. Throughout the month, in print and online, we will be offering encouragement and inspiration to help us all improve our physical and mental health in 2020. See irishtimes.com/health
January is Health Month in The Irish Times. Throughout the month, in print and online, we will be offering encouragement and inspiration to help us all improve our physical and mental health in 2020. See irishtimes.com/health

With memories of festive blow outs fading and people regretting those extra mince pies and shots of Baileys as late nights turned into early mornings, the country’s 700 or so gyms will be heaving this month with folk determined to shed pounds and mould bodies into sleeker, more toned versions.

The newbies will join half a million others who are already paid up members of the country’s gymerati. By June, half of those who signed up this month to long and often hard to escape from contracts will have stopped going.

Many others will go only fitfully, something which has always been integral to the fitness industry’s playbook.

Ahead of the new year’s surge, I set myself a challenge to work out which was the best gym close to me, by working out in as many as I could in a single day.

‘Smith doesn’t look impressed as I finish the session drenched in sweat.’ Photograph: Crispin Rodwell
‘Smith doesn’t look impressed as I finish the session drenched in sweat.’ Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

I was spoilt for choice. “Good puzzle would be to cross Dublin without passing a pub,” thought Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. An almost as tricky 21st century version of Bloom’s puzzle might be to cross Dublin without passing a gym.

They’re everywhere. Hardcore gyms for iron-pumping grunters hide in grimy lock-ups and basements of dilapidated Georgian buildings, while lavender scented fitness hubs on well-heeled streets hint at promises of eternal hotness and massages for those willing to spend thousands on themselves.

I was unable to visit one such place – Eden One. It may be Dublin’s most exclusive gym ever, but I can’t say for sure because it does not open its doors until later this month. I was able to visit its website mind you. There I learned that the gym will be “redefining the training experience with state of the art equipment that boasts seamless design, advanced connectivity, sustainability and unique movement”.

I have no idea what that means either.

When it comes to fitness I’ve been promiscuous, wanton even, over the last two decades.

The prices I understand better. Diamond membership – benefits of which include “unlimited use of Eden One and Eden Elements Spa; unlimited group exercise classes with up to 100 classes on every week; social access for up to four guests to the club lounge and dining; a personalised induction; biometric analysis and fitness review; complimentary towels, robes and slippers” costs €2,900 in year one, a price which includes a one-off €500 registration fee. It’s far from that I was reared.

When it comes to fitness I’ve been promiscuous, wanton even, over the last two decades. I lost my organised fitness virginity to a Jackie Skelly gym at the top of a long flight of stairs on Clarendon Street. It was grand but I never loved it, and left under a cloud before hooking up with the Iveagh Fitness Centre, which was equidistant from two Protestant cathedrals I never visited, and a Burdocks I visited too often.

The Iveagh had an array of incomprehensible machines, a swimming pool and a flotation tank where I once spent an unpleasantly disorientating hour. I was happy with Iveagh, but after two years my head was turned by a swankier, newer gym on Aston Quay called Crunch Fitness.

The pool area, with its gilded tiles and nightclub gloom, looked a bit like something from the Playboy Mansion, a look only enhanced by flat screen tellies on poolside walls and a giant love seat floating above the black lagoon-like water.

It was pricey and full of buff men who could have easily cracked my head like a peanut. I liked it though, and after a year of paying monthly membership of €80 or so, I thought I’d save a few bob by paying the annual fee in one go. I did this weeks before my first child was born, when I thought I had both money and time. It cost me just shy of €900.

Conor Pope in the Health Club at the Shelbourne by David Smith. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell
Conor Pope in the Health Club at the Shelbourne by David Smith. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

Then the baby came, and I realised I had neither. I went to the gym twice over the next 12 months, meaning each visit cost me €450.

After Crunch came a personal credit crunch and then a national one, so I knocked gyms on the head and dabbled in other fitness fads like boot camps and running. There was also a torrid affair with tag rugby.

Around seven years ago I went in search of a new love. Like all good rom coms, it had been by my side all along. I joined the Markievicz Leisure Centre, a place so close to work I could almost spit into the pool from my desk.

The Council-owned place lacked the glitzy allure of Crunch – which has since become a Westwood – or the flotation tanks of the Iveagh, but it cost just over €30 a month and the classes were good.

I spun furiously on stationary bikes, and lifted kettle bells. I swung from ceilings in TRX classes, and even did boxing (of sorts). I learned to swim there, and would sometimes sit in the sauna listening to salty tales of Dublin in the rare auld times told by men with tattooed fingers.

I actually got fitter. Then the gym closed for a few weeks for refurbishments. The building work dragged on, weeks became months, and I was forced to look elsewhere.

I found One Escape, a secret gem of a gym spread over three floors sandwiched between a hotel and a medical centre in Smithfield. Since joining, I’ve had multiple dalliances with TRX and kettle bells and boxing. There has also been body pump (weight lifting to dance music), body attack (picture me in a Broadway musical chorus line trying and failing miserably to dance in sync with everyone else). And once I came worryingly close to getting caught up in – literally – a yoga class that had people hanging from a ceiling in what look like the drapes from Downton Abbey.

Years on and I still love my gym. Because it is close to home, and the place I know best, it’s where my pre-Christmas gym odyssey starts, with a West Samoan beach run.

Well, the run is on a treadmill, but it is a souped up machine with pre-programmed runs from different locations around the world. It plays images of those locations on a small screen in front of me while tracking my progress. It is, I suppose, intended to detract from the boringness of the endeavour. It doesn’t do that.

Squeezing a fitness centre into a listed building has been challenging.Photograph: Crispin Rodwell
Squeezing a fitness centre into a listed building has been challenging.Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

After 30 minutes of pretend running on a pretend beach, I’ve covered a virtual 4km. I go for a lacklustre swim in the recently revamped pool, and then to the steam room, where I’ve three or four seconds of pleasant solitude before I’m joined by two loud men whose grunting and groaning and inappropriate sweaty stretching quickly sends me on my way.

My next stop is a swish new place on Windmill Lane called Perpetua, where I’ve booked into a class worryingly called Shred and Tread.

When I arrive I’m given a crisp white hand towel by a super smiley staff member and asked to fill in some personal details on an iPad. I’m then led to the changing rooms. I pass a dedicated spinning room and a very complicated looking gym, as well as a large space given over to cross fit, which is being used right now for a super cute mother and baby class.

The classes operate on a pay as you go model. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
The classes operate on a pay as you go model. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

The lockers are all controlled with a remote control keypad, and there is a USB charging point in each one.

So far so fancy.

Everything in Perpetua is freshly painted in bright white, and I start to wonder if this is what entering heaven is like.

Moments later I’m in hell.

My trainer – a man called Patrick – calls me and a woman into the class. She is also making her Perpetua debut.

A man a couple of treadmills up tells his neighbour that the first time he did this class he almost threw up.

The mirrored room is lit by red neon strips, and I look around in awe as he explains how Shred and Tread works. There are screens above each treadmill, pre-programmed with set speeds and inclines. We will intersperse time on the treadmill with time doing floor work using something called a Torpedo – a cross between a barbell, a kettlebell and a dumbbell. Patrick says he will tell us what speeds we need to be running at and what the inclines should be.

When the rest of the class joins us, I realise with some sadness that I’m probably twice the age of everybody else in the room and half as fit. A man a couple of treadmills up tells his neighbour that the first time he did this class he almost threw up.

Despite my advancing years, I smirk. I’m sure I’ll be able to handle it. The class starts. Within minutes I am in bits and while I manage (just) to get through the ordeal without vomiting, I do feel like dying.

It is brilliant.

Treadmill running – even on Western Somoan beaches – is mindless, but the Perpetua model makes it competitive. You can see how your neighbours are doing, and the instructor can see how everyone compares. There is nowhere to hide.

Conor Pope is put through his paces in the Health Club at the Shelbourne by David Smith.Photograph: Crispin Rodwell
Conor Pope is put through his paces in the Health Club at the Shelbourne by David Smith.Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

Back at the gates of heaven, I’m given a protein shake – it is one of the nicest things I’ve ever tasted. As I’m leaving I meet one of the owners Dave Price.

He and his brother Michael started out with crossfit more than 10 years ago, but kitted out their new gym last summer. The classes operate on a pay as you go model, with a single class pass costing €23 after which prices fall depending on how many class credits you buy. A pack of 50 credits costs €700, which works out at €12 per class.

Price says the model is the next big thing for gym culture in Ireland. “It has happened in the US and it has happened in the UK and it will happen here,” he tells me. He reckons people are wary of signing up to long-term membership programmes, and believes the Perpetua pay as you go model will suit people better. “If they can’t go to the gym for a couple of weeks or months for whatever reason, then they don’t have to worry about freezing their membership or wasting money . They have more flexibility and more control.”

I think back to my Crunch Fitness shame and nod. The Price is right.

From Perpetua I race to the Shelbourne Hotel, where a personal trainer is waiting for me in their posh gym.

The gym is open both to hotel guests and the public, but the high price – €1,600 a year if you pay upfront, or €149 a month – and its compact size means the membership is small and riff raff like me are not commonly found there.

My trainer David Smith weighs and measures me and assesses my fitness before giving me terrible news.

Apparently a diet of pasta, potatoes, wine and cheese is not conducive to fitness and weight loss. I try to explain that there isn’t any calories in wine because it is not even food but he refuses to listen.

Over and over again he tells me that if I want to have a lean physique, I will need a time machine, and I will need to eat less and drink less wine. I will also need to push myself harder in whatever gym I go to.

It is just ridiculous.

Many elements of the Shelbourne Gym are ridiculous. And the hotel is not entirely to blame. Squeezing a fitness centre into a listed building has been challenging. The owners can’t knock walls or remodel, so classes take place in a high-ceilinged drawing room, and much of the equipment is placed in what look like corridors.

I know virtually nothing about shower gels except that Elemis is what rich people wash themselves with

There are pluses too. The pool is lovely, and because the membership is not much higher than 200, the classes are small and everyone gets personalised attention.

As Smith puts me through my paces, I flag. I tell him it is because this is my third gym visit of the day. He doesn’t look impressed as I finish the session drenched in sweat.

I am way more impressed by the changing rooms. My locker has a towel and a bath robe and there is Elemis shower gel. I know virtually nothing about shower gels except that Elemis is what rich people wash themselves with. I have no time to dally however, and race to the Markievicz where I plan to do a spinning class.

While One Escape is high end and the Shelbourne exclusive and Perpetua super novel and wonderfully challenging, the Dublin City Council-run Markievicz is old school. The trainers are friendly, the classes varied and the pool is excellent. The gym is also value for money, and also operates a pay as you go option so – as with Perpetua – a long-term commitment is unnecessary.

I’m happy to return after all these years, but less so when I’m told today’s classes have been cancelled for inexplicable reasons. The classes the following day are off too. And the gym is closed for more than a week over Christmas. I start to remember why I left. It’s hard to imagine a privately owned gym getting away with that sort of carry-on.

I carry on myself though, across the river to a Ben Dunne gym on Jervis St.

Here, monthly membership starts at less than €30, but the pay as you go cost is a fairly steep tenner, on top of which I have to buy a lock for €4.

Perpetua on Windmill Lane, Dublin. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Perpetua on Windmill Lane, Dublin. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

First impressions are not great. The reception area is on the gym floor which seems weird, and the queue to talk to the sole member of staff is long. Eventually I hand over my money and make my way to the changing rooms, which look like they could do with a hug.

They are small and damp and one locker door is hanging off its hinges like it was in a bar fight.

The gym is split over two levels and is massive with scores of machines. With a few minutes to spare before my class I lift some weights half heartedly. To Ben Dunne’s credit his machines are well maintained and pleasingly varied.

The spin class is in the main gym where 12 or so bikes sit between the weights area and the abs and stretching section. The instructor is enthusiastic in a shouty kind of way, and I quite like the fact that when I slack off, I can watch other people grunting and wheezing as they run through their programmes in other areas of the gym. But I’m happy when the class ends, and I can hobble off to the changing rooms.

When I visit it is very quiet, but I can’t help but wonder how the six showers in the men’s changing room will cope when the gym is going full steam.

And then I am done and before you can why say “Jaysus but my legs are in bits”, I am at home on my couch eating cheese and drinking wine and watching You on Netflix, with all thoughts of fitness banished until at least the start of a new decade.

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