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

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It is before sunrise on one of the shortest days of the year that I find that there is a line in the sand that I will not cross that means the word Zumba.

I arrive at my gym full of vigor for a grit course – a high-intensity full body workout – but since my morning started with a slow full body sleep, I’m minutes late and have to wait for the next course, whatever it could be.

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It turns out it’s Zumba. I’ve never done Zumba, mainly because I don’t need any additional shame in my life. I know I would be useless. In contrast, the class teacher – Barbara is her name – is pretty brilliant, as is her 15 or so gymnastics dancing. The last thing you need this winter morning is a fool like me who makes my Mr Bean and flutters to ruin your rhythm.

So instead I run in West Samoa – more on that later.

January is the month of health in Irish time. Over the course of the month, we will provide suggestions and inspirations in print and online to help all of us improve our physical and mental health in 2020. See irishtimes.com/health

With memories of festive blowouts fading and people regretting that those extra mince pies and Bailey shots turned late in the morning, the country’s roughly 700 gyms this month will be full of enthusiasts aim to make the body slimmer toned versions.

The newcomers will join half a million others who are already paid members of the country’s Gymerati. By June, half of those who have signed for too long and often difficult to free themselves from contracts this month will stop going.

Many others will just be restless, which has always been an integral part of the fitness industry’s playbook.

Before the New Year’s boom, I faced the challenge of finding the best gym near me by training on as many days as possible.

“Smith doesn’t look impressed when I end the sweaty session.” Photo: Crispin Rodwell

I was spoiled for choice. “A good riddle would be to cross Dublin without going past a pub,” thought Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. An almost as tricky version of Bloom’s 21st-century puzzle could be to cross Dublin without getting past a gym.

They are everywhere. Hardcore gyms for iron-hungry grunts hide in dirty prisons and basements of dilapidated Georgian buildings, while lavender-scented fitness centers on busy streets point to the promise of eternal acuity and massages for those who are willing to spend thousands on themselves.

I was unable to visit such a place – Eden One. It may be the most exclusive gym in Dublin, but I can’t say for sure since it won’t be opening until later this month. I was able to visit the website mind you. There I learned that the gym “will redefine the training experience with the most modern equipment, which is characterized by seamless design, advanced connectivity, sustainability and unique movement”.

I have no idea what that means either.

When it comes to fitness, I’ve been wanton for the past two decades.

I understand the prices better. Diamond membership – benefits include: “unlimited use of Eden One and Eden Elements Spa; unlimited group practice hours with up to 100 hours per week; social access for up to four guests to the Club Lounge and Club Dining; a personalized introduction; biometric analysis and fitness check; Free towels, bathrobes and slippers ”cost € 2,900 in the first year. The price includes a one-time registration fee of € 500. It is far from being raised.

When it comes to fitness, I’ve been wanton for the past two decades. I lost my organized fitness virginity to a Jackie Skelly gym up on a long flight of stairs on Clarendon Street. It was great, but I never loved it and went under a cloud before connecting to the Iveagh Fitness Center, which was the same distance as two Protestant cathedrals that I never visited and Burdocks that I visited too often visited.

The Iveagh had a number of incomprehensible machines, a swimming pool and a flotation tank in which I had once spent an uncomfortably disoriented hour. I was happy with Iveagh, but after two years my head was turned by a fancier, newer gym on Aston Quay called Crunch Fitness.

The pool area with its gilded tiles and the darkness of the night club reminded a little of the Playboy mansion. Only flat screens on the pool walls and a huge love seat hovered over the black lagoon-like water.

It was expensive and full of buff men who could have cracked my head like a peanut. But I liked it and after a year of monthly membership of around € 80, I thought I would save a few bobs if I paid the annual fee all at once. I did this week before I gave birth to my first child when I thought I had both money and time. It only cost me just under 900 euros.

Conor Pope at David Smith’s Shelbourne Health Club. Photo: Crispin Rodwell

Then the baby came and I realized I didn’t have one. I went to the gym twice over the next 12 months, which means every visit cost me € 450.

After the crunch came a personal credit crunch and then a national one, so I hit gyms on the head and tried other fitness trends like boot camps and running. There was also a hot affair with day rugby.

I started looking for a new love about seven years ago. Like all good rom coms, it had been by my side all along. I joined the Markievicz Leisure Center, a place where I could almost spit into the pool from my desk.

The place that belonged to the council lacked the dazzling appeal of crunch – which has now become a Westwood – or the Iveagh’s flotation tanks, but it cost a little over 30 euros a month and the classes were good.

I turned furiously on stationary bicycles and raised the kettle bells. I jumped off the ceiling in TRX classes and even boxed (in a way). I learned to swim there and sometimes sat in the sauna and heard salty stories of Dublin in the rare times told by men with tattooed fingers.

I actually got fitter. Then the gym closed for a few weeks for renovations. The construction work dragged on, weeks turned into months and I had to look elsewhere.

I found One Escape, a secret gem of a three-story gym located between a hotel and a medical center in Smithfield. Since joining I have had several issues with TRX, kettle bells and boxes. There have also been Body Pump (weight lifting to dance music) and Body Attack (imagine how I try and fail miserably in a Broadway choir line to dance in sync with everyone else). And when I literally approached – in the truest sense of the word – there were people hanging on the ceiling who looked like Downton Abbey’s curtains.

Years later, I still love my gym. Since it’s close to home and the place I know best, it’s the place where my pre-Christmas gym odyssey starts with a beach run in Western Samoa.

Well, the run is on a treadmill, but it’s a pimped machine with pre-programmed runs from different locations around the world. She shows pictures of these places on a small screen in front of me and keeps track of my progress. I suppose the intention is to distract from the boredom of the venture. It doesn’t matter.

Squeezing a fitness center into a listed building was a challenge. Photography: Crispin Rodwell

After 30 minutes of pretending on the pretend beach, I covered a virtual distance of 4 km. I go swimming in the recently renovated pool and then go to the steam bath, where I have a pleasant loneliness for three or four seconds before being accompanied by two loud men, whose grunts and moans and inappropriate sweaty stretching quickly send me away.

My next stop is an exciting new place on Windmill Lane called Perpetua, where I booked a class called Shred and Tread.

When I arrive, I get a fresh white towel from a super smiley employee and am asked to enter some personal information on an iPad. I will then be led to the changing rooms. I pass a special spinning room and a very complicated-looking gym, as well as a large room that is used for the cross-fit class.

The classes work with a pay-as-you-go model. Photo: Nick Bradshaw

The lockers are all operated by a remote control, and each has a USB charging station.

So far so chic.

Everything in Perpetua is freshly painted in brilliant white, and I wonder if that’s the way to heaven.

Moments later I’m in hell.

My trainer – a man named Patrick – calls me and a woman to the class. She also makes her Perpetua debut.

A man who is a few treadmills higher tells his neighbor that the first time in this class he nearly vomited.

The mirrored room is illuminated by red neon stripes, and I look around in awe as he explains how shred and tread work. There are screens above each treadmill, which are pre-programmed at fixed speeds and inclines. We will alternate the time on the treadmill with the time we do with a so-called torpedo – a cross between a barbell, a kettlebell and a barbell. Patrick says he will tell us what speeds we have to drive and how high the gradients should be.

When the rest of the class comes to us, I sadly realize that I’m probably twice as old as everyone else in the room and half as fit. A man who is a few treadmills higher tells his neighbor that the first time in this class he nearly vomited.

Despite my progressing years, I’m grinning. I am sure that I can handle it. Class starts. Within minutes I am in ruins and while I (just) manage to survive the torture without vomiting, I feel like I am dying.

It’s brilliant

Running on the treadmill – even on West Somoa’s beaches – is pointless, but the Perpetua model makes it competitive. You can see how your neighbors are doing and the instructor can see how everyone is comparing. There is no place to hide.

Conor Pope is put through its paces by David Smith at the Shelbourne Health Club. Photo: Crispin Rodwell

Back at the gates of heaven, I get a protein shake – it’s one of the nicest things I’ve ever tried. When I leave I meet one of the owners, Dave Price.

He and his brother Michael started using Crossfit over 10 years ago, but set up their new gym last summer. The classes are operated with a pay-as-you-go model. A single class pass costs € 23. After that, prices drop depending on the number of class credits you have purchased. A pack of 50 credits costs € 700, which corresponds to € 12 per class.

Price says the model is the next major cultural asset in Ireland. “It happened in the US and it happened in the UK and it will happen here,” he tells me. He estimates that people are wary of joining long-term membership programs and believes that the Perpetua payment model is more suitable for people. “If for some reason they can’t go to the gym for a few weeks or months, they don’t have to worry about freezing their membership or wasting money. You have more flexibility and more control.”

I think back to my crunch fitness and nod ashamed. The price is correct.

I run from Perpetua to the Shelbourne Hotel, where a personal trainer is waiting for me in his posh gym.

The gym is open to both hotel guests and the public, but the high price – € 1,600 a year with prepayment or € 149 a month – and the compact size mean that membership is low and riffs like me are not common there ,

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

Apparently, a diet with pasta, potatoes, wine, and cheese is not conducive to fitness and weight loss. I try to explain that the wine contains no calories because it doesn’t even contain food, but it refuses to listen.

He keeps telling me that if I want to get slim, I need a time machine and I have to eat less and drink less wine. I also have to work harder in every gym I go to.

It’s just ridiculous.

Many elements of the Shelbourne Gym are ridiculous. And the hotel is not entirely to blame. Squeezing a fitness center into a listed building was a challenge. The owners cannot knock on walls or convert. Classes take place in a salon with high ceilings, and much of the equipment is in corridors that look like corridors.

I know next to nothing about shower gels, except that Elemis is what the rich wash with

There are also pluses. The pool is very nice and since the number of members is not much higher than 200, the classes are small and everyone gets personal attention.

When Smith puts me to the test, I flag. I tell him it is because this is my third fitness visit of the day. He doesn’t look impressed when I end the sweaty session.

I am much more impressed with the changing rooms. My locker has a towel and a bathrobe and there is Elemis shower gel. I know next to nothing about shower gels, except that Elemis is what the rich wash with. However, I don’t have time to dawdle and run to the Markievicz where I want to do a spinning class.

While One Escape is high-end and the exclusive and super novel by Shelbourne and Perpetua is a wonderful challenge, the Markievicz Old School run by the Dublin city council is. The trainers are friendly, the lessons varied and the pool is excellent. The gym is also good value for money and offers a paid option, so like Perpetua, a long-term commitment is not required.

I like coming back after all these years, but less when I find out that today’s class has been canceled for inexplicable reasons. Classes the next day are also free. And the gym is closed for over a week over Christmas. I start to remember why I left. It’s hard to imagine that a privately owned gym can get away with this type of hand luggage.

But I keep going, across the river to a Ben Dunne gym on Jervis Street.

Here the monthly membership starts at less than € 30, but the payment is quite expensive. I also have to buy a lock for € 4.

Perpetua on Windmill Lane, Dublin. Photo: Nick Bradshaw

The first impression is not that great. The reception area is on the gym, which seems strange, and the queue to speak to the only employee is long. Finally, I hand over my money and go to the dressing rooms that look like they could take a hug.

They are small and damp and a locker door hangs from its hinges like a bar fight.

The fitness studio is divided on two levels and offers countless machines. With a few minutes before class, I half-lift a few weights. Ben Dunne’s merit is that his machines are well maintained and pleasantly varied.

The spin class takes place in the main gym, where about 12 bikes sit between the weight area and the abdominal and stretching area. The instructor is enthusiastically screaming and I like the fact that when I let up I can watch other people grunt and wheeze as they go through their programs in other areas of the gym. But I’m happy when class ends and I can limp into the changing rooms.

When I’m here, it’s very quiet, but I wonder how the six showers in the men’s dressing room can do full steam in the gym.

And then I’m done and before you can say, “Jaysus, but my legs are torn to pieces”, I’m at home on my couch, eating cheese and drinking wine and watching you on Netflix, with all thoughts of fitness at least until Are relegated to a new decade.

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