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Get your ass in gear

Our roundup of gaybourhood gyms

WEIGHTY QUESTION. Which gym is right for you?

Several New Years ago I resolved to join a gym and whip myself into shape. I watched my body change over the following months and soon I was hooked. Now, five years later, I’m in the best condition of my life. Getting fit was the best thing I ever did for myself. Sometimes it feels like having a super power. Being fit helps keep you young and happy and healthy — both physically and mentally. Eating right is essential, but to get fit and stay fit you must go to the gym… and go often.

The best way to get your ass to the gym on a regular basis is to make it fun: Find a gym where you want to spend time. A successful fitness regimen is one that you look forward to, not one that becomes a chore.

Which gym is the right one for you? Everybody is looking for something different. Most  gyms offer more or less the same basic equipment and facilities: classes, circuit training, cardio equipment and free weights. Prices vary depending on the facilities available, the length of contract and the many deals and specials on offer. Ultimately belonging to a gym will cost you between $55 and $75 a month. The real differences between gyms lie in the vibe, atmosphere and the “culture” of each gym.

Here’s what I found as I visited some of the gyms in and around the gaybourhood. Ultimately each of the gyms I visited has something unique to recommend it. But remember: It doesn’t much matter which gym you go to, the important part is going! So get your butt in gear and make 2009 the year you change your life by changing your body.

Metro Central YMCA
20 Grosvenor St.
(416) 975-9622.
Ymcatoronto.org.

On a frigid morning I march off to the Central YMCA to work out with my buddy Brendan Noonan, a personal trainer and physiotherapist. Brendan is a big Y booster, and I can see why. First off, the Y provides all kinds of community services, including childcare. Its facilities are arguably the biggest and best in the city, and include squash courts, a massive swimming pool, basketball courts and indoor and outdoor tracks.

The YMCA is Toronto in miniature, catering to people of every age, sex, ethnicity and orientation — so many different kinds of people who have come to the gym to better themselves. The Y even offers an assistance program for anyone who can’t afford the membership fees.

The biggest problem with the Y is the building itself. Its layout is bizarre! A large sky-lit stairwell runs up the spine of the building and provides access to four floors of facilities, but there is no real flow from space to space. For example, the stretching room is situated right next to the squash courts where people yell, grunt and swear constantly. It’s very hard to get into a peaceful frame of mind with guys screaming at each other right next door.

Furthermore every time I enter or exit the men’s locker room I nearly collide with somebody coming in the opposite direction. The sole washroom is downstairs in the locker room, so if you’ve got to pee while lifting weights (which I always do — my bladder is the size of a grape) you must walk all the way down four fights of stairs. I guess that’s one way to get a workout.

Then there’s the weight room. I’ve never seen so much weightlifting equipment crammed into such a tiny space. It’s always packed, often with folks who don’t know what they are doing, so you must be extra careful.

One thing in particular sets the YMCA apart from all the other gyms: the presence of children. If you like kids, you’ll love the Y. Me, I think of children as tiny alien creatures best avoided.

The Y’s enormous locker room is the best in town. It’s like a giant maze. But if you want to cruise a locker room, do it somewhere else. This is a family facility and there are kids lurking around every corner.

So the Y is a mixed bag as far as fitness training goes, but it’s got terrific staff, good vibes and is oriented around community and family. As Noonan puts it, “You just can’t beat the friendly atmosphere and high spirits of the YMCA.”

VERDICT: Best spirit, widest variety of facilities, diverse.

Yonge Street Fitness Club
7 Isabella St.
(416) 920-3157.
Ysfc.info.

Yonge Street Fitness (YSFC) is located at Isabella and Yonge in the space once occupied by the legendary nightclub Bar One. YSFC has been around for more than10 years now. It is a gym for serious athletes, weightlifters in particular, although manager Roy Thomas says they train athletes “of all shapes and sizes, from mixed-martial-arts fighters to ballet dancers.” YSFC has a resident massage therapist on staff, as well as a cute kinesiologist and several excellent personal trainers who work with members to personalize their fitness and diet programs.

On the first floor are the locker rooms, offices, a large cardio room and a bright studio where more than 500 classes a month take place. YSFC is the only place in town that offers “Cyberfitness” where you download a workout program such as “Muscle Pump” or “Hip Hop ’n’ Drop” and follow along to instructions on a large screen.

The well-appointed locker room avoids the usual clichés by evoking a European hotel bathroom complete with subdued lighting and elegant fixtures. There are both private and group showers. It is kind of small though.

Noonan and I head upstairs to the massive weightlifting area that includes an entire roomful of leg equipment (which is good news for all those gay guys who spend countless hours working on their upper bodies while ignoring their tiny chicken legs). Some of the gear is old but you won’t find a wider variety of equipment anywhere. YSFC has a dedicated ladies weight room, so women don’t have to put up with stinky macho jerks hogging the equipment and sweating all over everything. This also prevents ogling (of women by men, anyway).

There are maybe 40 people here, so it’s busy but not crowded. House music plays at a comfortable volume. If you like hot muscle boys, this is the place for you. There’s a gorgeous blond, six-foot fourish, 40s, working out his traps next to me. Help me, Jeebus! I could climb him like a tree.

With its well-loved equipment and tough-guy clientele YSFC reminds me of an old-school boxing gym — it feels lived in. The flow of the place is pleasing, with lots of different areas to explore. I keep imagining Rocky Balboa coming around the corner.

Thomas says about 50 to 60 percent of his clientele is gay but I think he might be exaggerating a bit.

I strike up a conversation with a huge musclebound guy. He’s got the dirt. “The gays are finicky,” he says. “First they were all at Epic. When Epic shut its doors they all came here. When Epic reopened as L3, the gays all ran back there. But it’s not a gym, it’s a bathhouse. If you want to cruise, go to L3. If you want to exercise then YSFC is the gym for you. This place could use some new equipment though.”

YMCA member Noonan, however, is very impressed. “This is my kind of gym. I wish I worked out here.”

VERDICT: Best workout, classes and staff.

L3 Fitness
9 St Joseph St.
(416) 967-5300.
L3fitness.com.

The next day I decide to explore what is widely regarded as the gayest gym in town, L3. Like YSFC, L3 occupies a space that once housed a legendary bar, in this case Colby’s. It’s like the gay equivalent of being built over an ancient Indian burial ground.

You can tell it’s a gay gym right away because the lighting is terrific, there’s a tanning booth and there are bowls of potpourri everywhere.

Joe from Member Services (“Everybody jokes that I service members!”) greets me at the door. Joe says that L3 is not your typical gym. “We have high ceilings and exposed brick.” The equipment is all brand-new and the space is artfully decorated. Joe says that L3 is an extremely social environment, “but I don’t think it’s that cruisey,” he adds, before I’ve even asked.

Why is it called L3? Well, there are three levels. But the name is taken from the gym’s cheesy motto: “Live healthy. Laugh often. Love yourself.” I guess laughter can’t hurt, but I’m not sure how much it will help develop your abs.

Cardio equipment, spinning rooms and exercise studios are on the third floor, but I head for the large, open-concept weight room on the second. The music is speedy, as if your favourite ’80s song snorted crystal meth. Immediately I spot a big straight guy I know from work. I guess he’s not so straight after all. His name is Wayne. He’s worked out at lots of gyms, but he likes the quiet atmosphere here, and he too claims L3 is not as cruisey as it’s reputation. But a couple minutes later he asks for my number.

There are a few girls here but otherwise every living thing inside L3 is a homosexual male. As the evening wears on the music gets louder, the boys increase in number, the vibe gets sexier and the workout clothes get sillier. A lot of the hottest guys here are in their 40s and 50s, which is totally inspiring. For many gay men staying in shape as one gets older often means staying sexually attractive and viable too.

I am giving off a mighty stench — whew! Time to hit the showers.

The locker room is a maze of lockers and mirrors with lots of intriguing sightlines perfect for catching glimpses of the sexy guy getting changed one aisle over. The dry sauna was empty when I was there, but I made friends with a nice guy in the showers. He said he’d belonged to Goodlife, Epic and YSFC over the years, but he likes L3 best. “Everywhere else you have to deal with kids or families or straight jerks. Here you can be as gay as you want. I enjoy the camaraderie of other gay men.”

VERDICT: Most social, nicest décor, extremely gay.

Goodlife Fitness Centre at Manulife Centre
55 Bloor St W.
(416) 964-0412.
Goodlifefitness.com.

If the YMCA is a community centre and YSFC and L3 are boutique gyms, the Goodlifes represent the corporate franchise fitness centre. Goodlife in the Manulife Centre is right across from the Varsity Cinemas. You enter the lobby through a turnstile. It looks like a con-venience store. Everybody is rushing about. The overall impression is that these people are very, very busy.

The manager introduces himself as Excel. “Like the gum?” I joke lamely. “Like the car,” he replies with a straight face.

Before I’ve even get my coat off, Excel hands me a book called Living the Good Life: Your Guide to Health and Success. “This is by our founder and CEO David Patchel-Evans.” Said founder grins up at me from the cover of the book, where he’s in mid-pushup position. Excel is a big believer in Patchel-Evans. “He’s overcome a lot.”

“At Goodlife we are nonjudgmental,” says Excel. He is genuinely enthusiastic about the Goodlife members. “It’s so much fun here. It’s like Cheers — everybody knows your name.” He says that the clientele is a combination of people who live or work in the neighbourhood. To my eye, the crowd is all-sorts: office staff types, all shapes and sizes. Of course there are a few requisite cute homos but this is the first gym I’ve been to with more women than men.

The place is packed and small. Excel explains that they maximize the use of the “intimate” space available. Everything is arranged in a row through a long narrow space. First up is a basic cardio and circuit training fitness room, then a spin room, then weight-lifting rooms and then a studio. Across the hall lies a medium-sized pool.

The overall effect is like working out at a corporate office where there’s no room for more cubicles. It’s completely overstuffed with equipment and people. The stretching area is just a bunch of mats jammed into a corner by the fire exit. Low ceilings and oppressive fluorescent lighting complete the cramped effect. Even the music is like what you’d hear in an office — easy listening, up-tempo.

Having said all that, the members are extremely loyal. “I’m one of the skinniest guys here and lift the lightest weights,” says one man, “and I never feel uncomfortable.” I guess it’s all a matter of perspective and of what you’re looking for.

Personally I’m finding it awfully claustrophobic. I can’t do anything without bumping into people. There’s only one spot to do pull-ups. This is not the place for weightlifters.

VERDICT: Friendliest staff and clients; too crowded.

Goodlife Fitness Centre at Bloor Park
8 Park Rd.
(416) 922-1262.
Goodlifefitness.com.

After my underwhelming experience at the Manulife Goodlife, I was less than enthusiastic about visiting the Goodlife at Bloor Park. I was in for a pleasant surprise.

Bloor Park, situated above the Bay, used to be Bally Total Fitness but it was taken over by Goodlife two years ago. Although it shares some of the aesthetic blandness of the Manulife franchise, that is where the similarities end. First of all Bloor Park is massive, spread out over four floors. It has a unique flow; the floors are arranged like steps, one after the other, which makes this gym fun to explore.

I start at the top level, which hosts a roomy stretching area and an excellent selection of cardio equipment in a large bright space overlooking the busy street below. The second level is for circuit training, with new machines all functioning properly. On the L-shaped third floor are free weights and the locker room. Below on the fourth level are offices, reception and more equipment. There is plenty of room here to accommodate many people working out simultaneously. Having enough room to do what you need to do is one of the most important features of any gym, no matter your skill level.

The other major difference from the Manulife Centre is this: There are more hot gay men here per square inch than anywhere else I’ve been. I’m flabbergasted.

My buddy Mike has been working out at Bloor Park for several years. He says, “Bloor Park is full of good-looking, powerful, professional men pissed off because they’re still single.”

On this Sunday afternoon the locker room at Bloor Park is packed with sexy men in varying states of undress. It’s very conducive to cruising. There are wet and dry saunas and a discreet hot tub. The hot tub has six cute guys in it when I’m there. Everybody seems to be taking their time, if you know what I’m saying. The showers consist of two rows of stalls facing each other. Curtains cover you only partially, so you can peek at the guys in the stalls opposite you and hide any spontaneous erections.

Of all the gyms I’ve been to I’m surprised to find I have the most fun at Goodlife at Bloor Park.

VERDICT: Best facilities, hottest men and the most all-round fun.