“I’m originally from Malaysia and moved here for grad school. I just graduated with an MBA in finance. I came here alone and the only person I knew in this whole country was my boyfriend (now fiancé). I thought no big deal, but it was during the pandemic when gyms were closed. Even school was online, so I didn’t have any friends. It was tough. I started coming to AARMY last May when they reopened, and began meeting people. I went from 1 practice a week to multiple times a day. Now I literally have a whole group of friends that I can’t imagine life without.”
–Shobana Prabakaran (bottom left), 26
PHOTOGRAPHS BY GABRIELLE REVERE
For people who enjoy group fitness classes, the reason is usually more than the workout. It’s the group. Some call it a tribe. Others a cult. But it’s a community of like-minded individuals who have found the combination of workout and instructor they love that motivates them unlike any other. They are kindred spirits who come together to sweat together, to push their bodies beyond their expectations and perceived limits, beyond what they believe is possible when training on their own.
This shared fitness experience bonds people, builds friendships, and creates a special alchemy that is addictive — especially when endorphins are surging, and bodies start to transform. For Shobana Prabakaran, Anjali Shah, Mouna Kammoun, Katie Ambrosi, and Vera Papisova (bottom left to right), that place is AARMY. In my years of taking group fitness classes, I’ve never seen a stronger group of women or sculpted physiques to match.
“It all started with this love of challenging myself — outside of school, outside of work, outside of family. It’s the mindset you build, the ‘I cans’, and the barriers that break down. You walk in here and everyone is on the same frequency. I’ve found a community and I’ve found a home.”
-Anjali Shah (top & flying push-up below), 28, consultant, PricewaterhouseCoopers
AARMY opened in September 2019, offering both Cycle and Bootcamp classes. It was co-founded by Akin Akman and Angela Davis, former SoulCycle instructors, along with Trey Laird, founder of the acclaimed creative agency Laird+Partners. But the studio closed shortly thereafter when the pandemic shut down all gyms.
Quickly pivoting, they started filming classes first for Instagram Live. An app was already in the works, and AARMY soon offered a full schedule of on-demand classes. When the studio reopened, some chose to return, but many still opted to workout at home. AARMY continued filming classes, now with a full studio of athletes, as students are called here.
“I’m from Tunisia but I’ve lived in France and London. I moved to New York in 2015. I started getting active after college when I began working. Sitting at a desk all day, I just needed to do something to move around. But the way I see fitness now is completely different. I feel so empowered and that has changed everything — the way I talk to my clients, the way I talk to my son, the way I want to inspire him. I love the mix of generations here, but everyone has that same purpose, that same dream just to do your best and get better every day.”
-Mouna Kammoun (bottom right), 41, private banker
I first went to Aarmy during 31 Days of Fitness, my annual January marathon of daily workouts at the hottest boutique fitness studios. AARMY offers both Bootcamp and Cycle classes in its downtown Manhattan studio, and a team of 5 coaches in addition to Akin and Angela. I’d taken Akin’s class at SoulCycle and was eager to try his Bootcamp.
The first thing you notice when you walk into the cavernous studio on lower Broadway is the dark nightclub vibe. Everything is black, offset by spotlights and hits of orange and white – clearly conceived and designed by Laird+Partners. Then you are hit by the fitness level of everyone in class – the women in particular – many of whom train multiple times a day, with the powerful strength to show for it. Squatting 60 lb. dumbbells is the norm.
“I grew up a competitive tennis player. My fitness goals now are rebuilding my mind-body connection after I lost all feeling as a symptom of PTSD, a diagnosis I’ve been healing since college. The more of my body I can feel, the more confident and expressive my body becomes. Although I never set goals to lift heavy, I can now lift more than most people in the room because I discovered that the heavier I go, the more mind-muscle connection I can unlock. I’ve learned that what feels like pain at first is just the discomfort of growth and experiencing the unfamiliar. My favorite lesson Akin ever taught me is that frustration is the last thing you feel before a breakthrough. Now I use frustration as my North Star.”
—Vera Papisova (bottom), 32, award-winning journalist and editor
I’ve been taking the Bootcamp class once a week since January, so impressed and inspired by their athleticism and comraderie. While hoisting a measly 15 lbs. myself, there are always high-fives after each set. It’s part of the culture at AARMY regardless of how much weight you’re lifting. Says Vera, “I love that we’re all at different levels, we all have different bodies, and we are all working on different things, but we can still celebrate together.” Classes are called “practices”, so everyone is always working to improve.
“At 26 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was a lawyer and working an insane number of hours. I fell into exercise because, I needed something to do while I was home and getting treatment. I had always been skinny and didn’t feel I needed to workout. It felt so good to be strong. The doctor said I’d never be able to do things like pushups, but in the pandemic, Akin gave us the routines and I was determined. From chemo my train of thought was all over the place and I used to be super focused. Akin’s agility drills really work your brain. He teaches confidence. It’s changed everything for me.”
–Katie Ambrosi (top left), 34, lawyer
The studio is designed and lit for filming classes. If you choose to take a filmed class, the dress code is black — or AARMY gear. Like many a woman who’s worn a uniform, these athletes know how to make it sexy. Forget racerback sportbras or plain leggings. Here it’s daring one shouldered, mesh cut out, and high sheen athletic wear.
While the bodies you’ll have to work for, the clothing you can buy. Below are the fashion credits for everything featured in this story — many of course these athletes own — plus a special 30 days free AARMY On Demand Code: STYLEOFSPORT
SHOBANA PRABAKARAN: Alo Yoga Peak Bra, AARMY Zip Bra, Alala Tied Bow Tights; ANJALI SHAH: Alo Yoga Airlift Excite Sports Bra & Carbon 38 Crocodile Takara Shine Leggings; VERA PAPISOVA: Lululemon Energy High-Neck Longline Bra with criss-cross back, Year of Ours Ribbed Football Leggings; KATIE AMBROSI: Le Ore Andria Bra, Lululemon Wonder Train High Rise Shorts; MOUNA KAMMOUN: Le Ore Corso Crossover Bra, Alala Vamp Tight