Inside the illegal underground gyms of the COVID-19 pandemic

How the pandemic created a black market for working out.

Amanda Capritto
9 min read

When gyms closed, many reopened in secret.

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Michael* pulls up to the back entrance of his warehouse gym at 4:50 a.m. He parks, walks up to the big metal garage door and begins to open it with the chain pulley, trying to be a bit quieter than usual -- just in case another tenant in the strip mall is there, too. After a few squeaks and shrieks from the chain (and a few winces from Michael), the gym is open for business. Except it's not, really. 

A few states eastward, Samantha* sits in her car in the parking lot of her local boutique fitness studio. She stares at the storefront and wonders when she'll be able to unlock the doors again. She mulls over how her studio will survive -- how she'll pay her employees -- and decides to run discreet classes for cash fees. 

The COVID-19 pandemic forced hundreds of thousands of businesses to close abruptly, including gyms and fitness studios. When that happened in early 2020, gym owners reluctantly closed their doors, hoping to reopen in two weeks when things went back to "normal." But, things have yet to return to normal, and many fitness professionals, who either didn't want to or couldn't afford to stay closed, secretly reopened their gyms against public health orders.

Michael and Samantha decided to reopen their businesses to survive. They decided to pay their bills and their employees, despite the known health risks of congregating in groups while the novel coronavirus raged on. They took as many safety precautions as they could -- limiting the number of people allowed inside their gyms, sanitized surfaces with rigor, required facial coverings and tried as best they could to keep air circulating without opening windows and doors, so no one would see the fitness classes running. They hoped those precautions were enough to protect their clients. And they aren't the only ones going against public health restrictions.

*Editor's note: Some names in this story have been changed to provide anonymity at the source's request.

Prohibition 2020


In 2020, prohibition isn't about alcohol.

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In 2020, prohibition is not about alcohol -- it's about fitness. 

In the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, most businesses were closed to prevent groups of people from congregating in indoor spaces, where the coronavirus can more easily spread. Gyms were some of the first businesses to close, based on the idea that the gym environment is more conducive to spreading germs than other spaces. In a gym, you have people breathing heavily (either masked or unmasked), sweating and touching a lot of different surfaces -- all things that can spread the coronavirus. 

Despite those safety concerns, people across the US spent several months doing something they weren't supposed to be doing -- working out at a gym with other people. Gym bros longing for a muscle pump have squeezed themselves into tiny apartment gyms (where they don't even reside), professional athletes found workarounds to practice their craft, and across the city perhaps most obsessed with fitness, Los Angeles, an entire network of speakeasy gyms have emerged to fit the needs of those who want to work out, even though the city closed down fitness facilities.

As you might imagine, opinions on this are strong. As one Reddit user said in response to an NPR story about secret gyms, "...Gym owners caught doing this should be charged with murder when this is finally over. [I'm] disgusted." 

In response, another user says, "These people know the risks associated with...working out in an enclosed space… Instead of attacking gym patrons, you should make candy bars and smoking illegal. Make it mandatory that everyone in the US lose weight, punishable by fine or imprisonment."

In any case, history shows us that prohibition doesn't work -- or, at least, it doesn't work well. Banning something people want doesn't stop people from doing that thing. It just makes them do it in secret, public safety concerns be damned.

Read more: Is it safe to go back to the gym during coronavirus?

The underground gym


Working out in secret isn't anything new, but it's definitely more common thanks to the coronavirus. 

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Michael and Samantha aren't an anomaly. Gym owners all around the US took their operations underground and offered fitness classes or workout spaces to people who were willing to risk anything for fitness. In 2020, that risk is potentially contracting a deadly disease that's killed more than 220,000 people as of this writing.

Paul Bamba, a celebrity fitness trainer and owner of the gym Trifecta Strong in New York City, says his role as a fitness business owner in New York has enlightened him to several underground gyms in the area. One in particular had to hide its operation from a US National Guard troop and state officials at one point, Bamba says. 

"It goes to show the lengths people were willing to go to get a workout in during the lockdown," he says.

Bamba explains that the underground gym isn't actually anything new. "Speakeasy gyms and underground gyms have always been around," he says, but "With the COVID-19 lockdowns, you are seeing an uptick in these types of gyms."

Sometimes, gyms get shut down for corruption (either of their own accord or by the city they're in, and often for financial reasons), Bamba says, and don't reopen publicly. Instead, these gyms reopen their doors only to long-term or high-paying clients, and they "do it with discretion because they'd have to close if they were caught."

Other fitness professionals operate underground in the sense that they conduct fitness classes or personal training in an inappropriate space, Bamba says. That is, they may train clients in multipurpose rooms, conference rooms or really anywhere they can get the job done -- but these spaces aren't always the safest places to operate a fitness business. 

Operating a true gym or studio requires licenses and permits, and operating without those could mean a building isn't up to code, the equipment is old or unsafe, or the facility isn't meeting cleaning standards for gyms. 

So, the concept of the underground gym isn't new, but the pandemic has brought it to light. And it's certainly increased the number of illegal operations. 

Why risk it for fitness? 


Exercising, especially in groups, makes people happy.

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Fitness is a vice as much as it is a healthy habit. For many people, it's a necessity. It's an outlet, a force majeure.

Most people are no strangers to the health benefits of exercise, even if they don't care enough to exercise on a regular basis. But people who have been working out regularly for months or years, well, those are the people who can't quit.

"Exercise gives people a tremendous sense of well-being, with boosts to self-esteem, energy levels, mood, sleep and memory retention, to name a few," says Dr. Renee Exelbert, a licensed psychologist and certified personal trainer. 

She's right: Studies suggest that regular exercise can be just as effective as antidepressant medication for mild to moderate depression, and that exercising for as little as one hour per week can prevent 12% of future cases of depression

According to Exelbert, exercise actually causes structural changes to the brain, which explains the massive mental health benefits. Working out induces neuroplasticity, she says, which refers to the creation of new neural pathways. In this case, those pathways promote feelings of calm and well-being.

"Exercise also creates positive changes in the hippocampus," Exelbert says, "a part of the brain that is shrunken in individuals with depression and is responsible for learning, memory, mood and appetite."

There you have it. Longtime exercisers experience a dramatic downturn emotionally and physically if they go too long without working out. For these people, exercise is a non-negotiable -- if that means working out illicitly, so be it.

What about at-home workouts and digital fitness?


There are plenty of apps and devices to keep us fit at home, but they don't always hit the same.

Angela Lang/CNET

Why risk contracting COVID-19 or face legal action for reopening your gym when you could just work out at home? At-home workouts and digital fitness options definitely provide viable options for working out safely during the pandemic for some. But for others, it cannot replicate that experience of being in a gym, with access to all of the equipment you need and the sense of community from the other gym-goers.

"Hard-core gym-goers have favorite machines, favorite exercises," Exelbert says. "Many have routines, where they can alternate between various machines on certain days to amplify their gains. They love seeing if they can handle 10 more pounds on a certain machine that they use regularly, or the physical feeling of pushing through their last rep. They miss the 'high'," she says. 

People go to the gym to clear their head, shake off the day's stress and escape. The act of leaving the house and going somewhere to work out is more invigorating than walking to your living room and picking up the single pair of dumbbells you were able to buy before the fitness equipment supply chain died.


Fitness equipment is in short supply, so many people can't recreate their ideal workout at home.

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The lack of that ability to go to a "sacred place," Exelbert says, doesn't allow for the same feeling of escape, inspiration and motivation. For people who love the community aspect of their gym -- like people who frequent group fitness classes -- working out at home can feel disconnected.

On top of that, working out at home doesn't allow some people to work out the way they actually want to. For instance, if you love powerlifting but live in an apartment, there's a slim chance you can fit a squat rack inside. Can you step outside and go for a run? Sure, but if you don't like running, you probably won't prioritize it, and then your health and fitness suffer because you don't have access to a gym.

Studies tell us adherence is the most important factor in a successful exercise regimen. No matter what you like -- be it HIIT, CrossFit, running, weightlifting, pilates, barre or something else -- the best type of exercise is the type you can stick to. Lack of access to fitness facilities has ruined adherence for people who enjoy specialty workouts that can't always be replicated at home. 

CNET's Health Editor Sarah Mitroff knows that well. "It took me years to find a type of exercise I enjoyed enough to do it regularly. For me, that's rock climbing. Before the pandemic, going to the climbing gym was a big priority in my life. Since my gym's been closed, it's been a struggle to find the motivation to do other workouts, besides going for walks," she says.

All of these reasons explain why people would go to an illegally operating speakeasy gym, despite legitimate health risks or shutdowns from local health officials. For many, the threat of COVID-19 just isn't enough for them to stop going to their favorite in-person workout class or gym.

Where to go from here?


Hopefully, Zoom workouts will be a thing of the past soon.

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Now that gyms and fitness studios have opened in many states, albeit with restrictions, it's probably safe to assume that many black-market operations will come back above ground and comply with local guidelines. However, that may not be the case for all gyms and fitness studios. 

Samantha says her speakeasy-style gym made loads of cash -- and she doesn't plan to record it as business income, because there's no record of it. The same is true for trainers who went digital and began accepting Venmo, PayPal, Cash App or Zelle donations. When you're a business owner or sole proprietor struggling to survive, paying taxes is the last thing you want to do. 

However, that strategy is perhaps even more illegal than reopening your gym during pandemic shutdown orders. Accepting cash payments as a business owner and not reporting on your yearly income tax return is illegal. Even if you don't have a business license, if you depend on the cash income for your livelihood, you still have to report it to the IRS and pay taxes on it. Still, some gym owners may choose to continue this route even after gyms reopen, despite the law.

Some studios feel that the restrictions required at gyms and fitness studios make operations clunky. Wearing masks is one thing -- it's uncomfortable to work out in a mask but it's not a big deal -- but sanitizing and social distancing are the real challenges, Michael says. 

Having to sanitize everything between classes means more time is needed between classes, which means studios must run fewer classes each day. Spacing people out by six feet on all sides slashes the capacity of any gym or studio. Some people aren't willing to put up with these restrictions so they cancel their memberships, Michael laments. Others won't return until they don't have to wear a mask. Both are reasons gyms might continue to operate underground -- to avoid those restrictions. 

As the weather turns cold and it gets tougher to exercise outdoors, more and more people will be grappling for a space inside closed doors. With public health guidelines remaining in full effect, it wouldn't be surprising to see more gyms start or revert to speakeasy operations (or simply ignore the rules and hope for the best). 

More on COVID-19 and exercise

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.