Photos by Justin Heyes & Maria Deforrest
If you’re tired of the same old workout routine, try out one of these unique Delaware gyms striving to make fitness fun—even addictive.
In the shaky midst of a pandemic, fitness centers are aiming to provide more than just a place to sweat. Individualized, coach-led and holistic approaches that encompass nutrition, empowerment and mental well-being are just a few key trends emerging around Delaware’s popular workout destinations. Here are just 15.
Locations in Dover, Middletown and Rehoboth Beach
as a busy wife and mom working in the corporate world, Stephanie Preece was in “burnout city,” she says. “Focused on helping other people, I was the last person in line.…And I knew there were a lot of other females who probably felt that way too.”
In need of a good kick in the tush, Preece and her husband started a martial arts program that soon evolved into Ignite, Preece’s growing empire of team-based fitness centers.
Preece is one of the co-founders of Gals that Give, a nonprofit that encourages women to get involved in philanthropy. So she hardwired a tightknit community approach into her programs, which rely on an army of accountability coaches who keep fellow members inspired. Most coaches were members first, and love sharing their own journeys. “They actually care,” Preece says. “People really buy in—live, eat and breathe Ignite.”
Here you won’t find any “mean girl” stuff, Preece promises. “If you don’t want to see the people striving and growing, this isn’t the place for you.”
People tend to quit on themselves more easily than they would on another person. “What we call fate is disengagement,” Preece says.
New recruits join with an ambassador volunteer to test-drive one of Ignite’s group sessions, including the basics of kickboxing movements and terminology. Once onboarded, workouts can hit three times a week, taking advantage of Ignite’s anchored hanging bags and wave-masters, plus certified coaches and nutritionists. (As a bonus, some say they have the best gym bathrooms in the state—with gold faucets, antique scroll mirrors and a plush navy and gold sofa.)
Locations in Lewes | 245-9900
The man behind one of Sussex County’s most in-demand training regimens is Chris Antonio, personal trainer and former world-class weightlifter. Inside his state-of-the-art private/corporate fitness facility, Antonio and his team specialize in body transformations while training athletes and fitness gurus from around the region.
“We help people get in the best shape of their life,” Antonio asserts. “We tend to attract the person who is working too much, or stressed out, not feeling healthy or comfortable. Then they’re ready for us.”
Thousands have tried Antonio’s system, which comprises a 12-week window that encompasses diet and nutrition, and an über-personalized dossier based on each person’s needs, goals, injuries, medical conditions and home exercises.
The workouts are a combo of free-weight and body-weight movements, cardio, and pumps on some of the best equipment available, including Life Fitness free weights, Jacobs Ladders and ellipticals. Local companies, including development giant Schell Brothers, engage Antonio regularly to host fitness and weight-loss competitions and challenges—something he says builds togetherness and unity.
486 First State Boulevard, Wilmington | 201-803-1159
Many can understand the embarrassing strain of struggling up a flight of stairs with a laundry basket, or grunting when rising from the couch.
At Diamond State Fitness, owner Gia Tyler-O’Keefe takes a traditional CrossFit facility and methodology and centers it on functional movements at high intensity. “The foundation for what we’re trying to achieve is really simple,” she says. “The movements that translates into everyday life—playing with kids, carrying groceries.”
Inside, the play includes a rope-climb training course under 18-foot ceilings, as well as the usual CrossFit mainstays like BikeErg stationary bikes, assault bikes and “more weights and kettlebells than you can imagine,” Tyler-O’Keefe says. And the groceries bear the hallmarks of the CrossFit diet—expect to see lots of Tupperware filled with sweet potatoes, chicken, and broccoli—and a nutrition consultation is part of the on-ramp for new members.
The facility offers open monthly membership, personal training options and a diverse set of group classes, with plenty of leeway and variety in the workouts. Beginners or experts are treated the same, Tyler-O’Keefe says.
New members go through an elements program that includes a one-hour session with a coach to learn movement standards, like how to hinge at the hips for a squat. That way, Diamond State’s many coaches can help modify workouts based on any limitations. “If you’re tight in the shoulders, we’ll design some pre- and post-workout protocols to protect that,” she says. “Every class, we go over techniques for workouts and moving well.”
1120 Renaissance Way, Wilmington
“We change people lives…and we’re nice.” Those are the words of Antonio DeAscanis—and not exactly the ones you’d expect to hear from a former Marine drill sergeant who induces sweaty workouts inside Wilmington’s BlkOps Fitness. But inside the spacious 6-year-old facility, athletes become family while they work together to strengthen bodies, minds and confidence through a total fitness and lifestyle approach.
At BlkOps, “You matter,” DeAscanis says. The results-oriented approach focuses on functional movement patterns that help people feel stronger and more comfortable in their daily lives—and all the picking up, pulling, moving, walking stairs and so forth that comes with it. “We look at movement patterns, then adding resistance training to develop muscle growth and flexibility,” he explains.
Group classes stress technique and form over speed. They also tend to alternate days of slow movements and control with more intense bursts. An in-depth onboarding process helps new people adjust to the style of workout, but also the culture and attitude at BlkOps, which includes access to its private Facebook accountability group.
100 Fitness Way, Hockessin | 239-6688
Referring to HAC as a mere “athletic club” is underselling the scope and impact of this gargantuan community center, where thousands of Delawareans flock to work out, swim, train, eat and hang out.
“Some of the biggest ‘wows’ we hear when we’re on a tour are [about] the number of cardio pieces we have, because there’s always waiting times for cardio at other gyms,” says marketing director Lisa Maguire. This Delaware gym has 90 cardio pieces.
HAC’s signature waterslide and retractable roof over its indoor pools are among the attractions that made it one of the area’s top family destinations—as are its highly credentialed and nationally certified coaches, trainers and even masseurs. (One HAC masseur counts Shark Tank star Lori Greiner and L.A. Rams star Troy Reeder as clients.) The group fitness classes stretch to more than 200 a week.
Among HAC’s most legendary features: a café run by one of Delaware’s top culinary talents, Chihiro Oka, whose family helped pioneer sushi and Japanese cuisine here decades ago. “From the rice bowls [to] burgers [to] flat breads, we make everything fresh,” he says. HAC members go bananas for the healthful smoothie bar, with its combination of antioxidant-rich berries and whey proteins.
14 West Main Street, Middletown | 464-6050
CrossFit Petram owner Christian Townsend knows how hard it can be to make it to the gym while juggling work, kids and busy life. That’s why his gym works to break down barriers to entry. How? By hosting classes at lunchtime, in the evenings or as early as 5 a.m. to accommodate busy schedules, and by focusing on coaching and culture.
“Coaches really set the tone for the class,” Townsend says. “It really enables us to build relationship with members and get to know them well through nutrition, fitness, motivation, and accountability.”
The CrossFit workouts change every day, so it’s hard to plateau or get bored, Townsend explains. Energetic music, fist-bumps, high-fives and other encouragements help you along. CrossFit can seem intimidating, especially for beginners, but “our corny saying is, ‘It’s the best hour of your day,’” Townsend says. “They know they’re coming for some fun, some friends; they know they’ll get [their] butt kicked, but people always feel better when [they] leave. And if they come consistently, they’re going to get stronger and healthier.”
Petram coaches tailor workouts for individual skill levels. If there are 15 members in a class, you might see 15 different sets of weights, “but with good form and technique,” Townsend says. “We can meet each athlete where they are.” The center even hosts a teenagers-only class twice a week, as well as a free weekly workout for veterans and first responders through a partnership with nonprofit veterans group The Weekly Fight.
155 Commerce Way, Dover | 242-5400
Many people who walk into CrossFit Dover initially want to improve their fitness and performance. “But they end up discovering more purpose and deeper connections with people there,” says trainer George Dobbins. That normally means friendships gained and a true community of people who give a sense of belonging, which does a lot for individual self-esteem, confidence and purpose, he says. “A sense of ‘doing life together.’”
That’s especially true when members attempt to conquer Dobbins’ tough CrossFit workouts. The gym takes beginners through a six-session on-ramp. “They might think they can’t do it, but a lot of the time they gain a newfound understanding of I absolutely can do it,” Dobbins says.
Thank the Delaware gym’s ability to reach each athlete at his or her own level. You might see five different variations of the same workout that’s on the board at any given time. “Not everybody is built the same,” Dobbins points out, “so it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Each session is led by a certified CrossFit coach from minute one to 60, with options for some freestyle time for individual workouts after classes. When you’re here, try not to dread the 15-foot climbing rope. But you’ll see the classic CrossFit accoutrements, like sandbags and farmer handles—plus fully stocked locker rooms and showers.
1708 Lovering Avenue, Suite 203B, Wilmington
Trolley Square’s Lovering Studio may be small (about 900 square feet), but as co-owner Ashley Paoli Kapes says, “We’re only as good as the community behind us. And that’s huge.”
The Delaware gym specializes in small group classes focused on TRX (Total Resistance Exercises), a form of suspension training that utilizes equipment developed by a former U.S. Navy SEAL. But Lovering’s communal vibes mean the trainers leave plenty of room for flexibility.
“We can do whatever we want,” Kapes says. “It’s not some franchise-mandated protocols.” That translates into a something-for-everyone feel, and hybrid workouts that incorporate a variety of diverse styles.
The mostly female clients have fostered a family, Kapes adds. She, along with co-owner Danielle Stock and a small team of instructors, have helped members through major milestones in life: weddings, kids, recoveries. “It’s a support system that builds people up through strength and mental health focus,” Kapes says.
Lovering, which also offers online classes, isn’t high-pressure. It’s not a place where you’ll see “some instructor yelling cues and you’re lost in the back,” Kapes says. “We can offer this individual feel. Whether you’ve had an injury, you’re an expectant mother or you’ve never touched a piece of equipment in your life.”
21232 Iron Throne Drive, Milton
Bootcamps are the name of the game at OutTrain, a small but dynamic center in Milton. Owner Megan Weber’s structured day-to-day blocks encompass and alternate all aspects of cardio. There are strength days with isolations to build muscle mass, as well as endurance and stamina days with full-body, functional movement through a variety of hybrid exercises. “It might seem overwhelming at first with all the moving pieces,” she says. “But there’s a clear pattern that emerges after one workout.”
Small, class-oriented bootcamps provide individualized attention and workouts customizable for all skill levels, with a focus on form and technique. A combination of body and weighted resistance training help increase strength, endurance and flexibility. With the backdrop of its tightknit Sussex town, community is critical at OutTrain. It partners with youth athletic squads, hosts charity 5Ks and more. Even the famous sled-push exercise at the end of a workout tends to get the whole gym involved.
401 Garasches Lane, Wilmington | 543-7226
The Delaware Blue Coats aren’t the only pro athletes appearing around Wilmington’s 76ers Fieldhouse over the last few years.
Via the in-house Titus Human Performance fitness center, you might’ve spotted the L.A. Rams’ Troy Reeder, who appeared in the Super Bowl this February, or Brian O’Neill, the Pro Bowl lineman for the Minnesota Vikings, or Darnell Savage Jr., a recent first-round draft selection of the Green Bay Packers.
Owner Shawn Hoffman has, over nearly 20 years, designed and grown a finely oiled athlete-building machine. Today he’s taking advantage of home field at the state-of-the-art training facilities inside the fieldhouse, which are widely considered among the best in the region, if not the country. His programming includes a long-term athletic model backed by science and research, as well as some of the area’s top strength and conditioning professionals.
The heart of Titus’ approach is youth sports development—working with athletes of all ages and skill levels, raising their fitness levels to move better and become more mobile, stronger, faster and quicker, and better-conditioned than their competition. Reeder started training with Titus when he was 9 years old.
Not the next phenom? Worry not. “Everybody has some athlete inside them,” Hoffman says. At Titus (which also has a location in Newark), the dynamic adult fitness program is designed to have the weekend warriors, soccer parents and more into the best shape of their lives. Hoffman and his crew of coaches take clients through small group classes that start as early as 5:15 a.m. and feature circuit training with plenty of sleds, medicine balls, weights, bands and more. “It’s an environment that helps breed hard work,” Hoffman says. “And it’s hard not to find success when you put in that kind of work.”
Locations in Wilmington, Middletown and Newark
Legion’s six-week challenge is, well, legendary. Owner Mitch Vannoy knows with confidence that anybody who passes the challenge and stays on his center’s fitness path can transform their health. That includes his own 80-year-old grandmother Angie, a two-time cancer survivor who’s lost 75 pounds and counting since joining.
The secret to Angie’s success? Legion’s coach-led classes focus on high-intensity interval training (or HIIT) in blocks that span and cycle throughout six weeks of programming. The workouts aren’t super gimmicky—sticking mainly with dumbbell and body-weight exercises. But this fast-paced, balanced approach ensures you never have the same workout twice, Vannoy explains. “It’s always spicy.”
More than just an exercise class, the challenge provides a personalized nutrition plan, plus a direct method of accountability. Members who join Legion can expect to hear from coaches outside of gym at least once or twice a week. Not only does it enhance the experience and keep new recruits on track but it also shows they have someone in their corner—“people who care,” Vannoy says.
2632 Capitol Trail, Newark | 600-0550
Suspended from the ceiling in a body-hugging silk hammock can be a life-changing experience. Just ask Zina DiTonno.
The proprietor of Aerial Fun & Fitness discovered the joy of exercising years ago while working out with aerial hammocks, hoops and harnesses—and has been spreading it around the region ever since.
“My passion is to take somebody who’s never done anything… maybe even hates to work out or hates to go to the gym…[and] get them in the silks and having some fun,” DiTonno says.
Her unique aerial workouts can tone muscles and improve flexibility throughout a range of disciplines, from yoga to Pilates to gymnastics. They’re also a damn good time. “You can’t go to Planet Fitness and get this,” she says. “This builds confidence and empowerment, because now you’re learning something completely new.”
The aerial approach (supported by specially engineered reinforced ceilings) is ideal for any weight class, and beginners are typically quick to adapt. The hammocks scaffold your body weight, making it easier to bend into certain positions and focus on technique and balance.
“If you’ve got an office job, your hips are constantly creased from sitting all day, and here we can get it open and use the fabric to do that,” she explains. “We get everybody to flip their first class and then sometimes that’s the first time they’ve ever done a flip in their life.”
Returning clientele have bought in hard to DiTonno’s offbeat but effective approach. Regular classes for devotees range from the soft and fun to hardcore, calorie-burning aerial grindage.
Oldies but Goodies
These three Delaware mainstays offer fun ways to work out—and a whole lot more.
8A Georgetown Plaza Shopping Center, Georgetown | 856-7771
Founded in 2008 as Georgetown’s first comprehensive fitness center and then relocated across town to the Georgetown Plaza Shopping Center, Flex World is a whopper. This Delaware gym contains more than 10,000 square feet with more than 100 lifting, circuit and cardio stations and tanning rooms. Success stories runneth over, stemming from Flex World’s 100-plus aerobics classes per month that cater to a wide range of age groups and members. That includes spinning classes, Zumba, body sculpting/weights, and even jiujitsu.
101 Garden of Eden Road, Wilmington; 478-5660
The J’s Pincus/Grant Fitness facility is known among Brandywine Hundred (and well beyond) as the friendliest gym around. Members love the 45-plus pieces of cardio equipment, Life Fitness and Hammer Strength Circuit equipment, indoor and outdoor pools, and pickup sports for kids and adults (including basketball, pickleball and something called wallyball). There’s also the ability to link up with a personal trainer to create a customized fitness program.
Eight locations statewide
You know the song—there’s a lot going on inside the walls of Delaware’s eight YMCA locations. Community members of all stripes come to these Delaware gyms for everything from running clubs to water fitness, from basketball practice to diabetes prevention. For a serious workout, consider the small-group fitness sessions that, surprise, run a diverse gamut that includes TRX, strength training, boxing and more.
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