Johnny Adamic wants people to get uncomfortable.
One-half of New York City's first cool temperature fitness studio, Brrrn, he is a strong believer in that the body is capable of a lot more than we sometimes give it credit for. "[With Brrrn,] we want to tell people we're addicted to comfort. We're always warm," he tells me, commenting on the reliance we as a society have on climate-controlled environments. "I hated cold as much anyone did before this, but the body is a super-machine that we have to trust. It can endure a little discomfort." In fact, discomfort is when, according to him and co-founder, Jimmy T. Martin, change can happen.
This boded well for me because, despite spending my childhood between Russia and Dubai, I am averse to extreme temperatures—especially the cold. So when, the day before my first 2nd° class, a core and total body conditioning which utilizes custom slide boards in a room cooled to 55 degrees F, I get an email suggesting I wear pants, a long-sleeve shirt, gloves, and a hat (?!), I braced myself for possibly needing to walk out of the insulated space where the classes take place, aka the "fridge."
"[You step outside your comfort zone] the first moment you walk into the fridge, where you get the mild cold stress," Adamic says. "Mild cold stress" is a term that frequently and ominously appears on Brrrn's website and in conversation with Adamic and Martin. And, as I found from looking it up, it refers to "the physiological responses that the human body experiences when exposed to temperatures between 40 to 64 degrees F. The cold acts as a natural stressor on the body to which it has to react." Meaning, when your body doesn't have an outside heat source (warm weather) to keep it at its normal temperature (98.6 degrees), it needs to rely on its own heat (metabolism, fat burning) to keep warm. As Martin puts it in even simpler terms, "Cooler temperatures encourage movement."
You feel this as soon as you enter the fridge (which opens only when the class starts); once inside, you instinctively begin to rub your hands together and hug your body. And while it feels significantly cooler in the fridge, I end up discarding my hat and gloves almost immediately (most people don't end up using either in any of the classes). As soon as I complete the warm-up—a range of squats, hip and arm stretches, and signature "campfire" moves (basically, rubbing my hands together while squatting), all meant to, according to Martin, "lubricate the joints"—I end up taking my sweatshirt off. "People come in, and they may be super-skeptical, and they dress like it's wintertime, and then it becomes like a strip club in the first couple minutes," confirms Martin. "Then they're like, 'Oh, it wasn't that bad.'"
That's exactly what I think as I near the end of class. In fact, after the initial shock that I am working out in a fridge wears off, I realize I don't feel like I spent the last 45 minutes doing burpees, working on stabilizer muscles and glutes while sliding back and forth on a slippery slide board (on which you wear fabric booties), and doing intense ab work on the floor with SandBells suspended over my head. I feel energized and not a bit cold. As I lay down on the rubber floor (it feels like one giant yoga mat) for the cool-down, I notice I'm not shivering like I typically would in this temperature. But not only that, as I lay still and count my breaths as instructed, I think: I could have gone longer—which is weird since I've worked harder than I have in a long time.
According to Martin, "There's currently, like, 36,000 fitness facilities in the United States, and zero focus on anything below 60 degrees." He first got the idea for a cold-temperature studio in the summer of 2013 while personally training a client who was having trouble working out in the heat. "She was remarking on how she lost more weight, exercised better, and felt better during the fall and winter months. That kind of stuck with me," he says. "I thought to myself, If all of those things were true, then why aren't we turning the thermostat down? It just didn't make sense to me given what we now know about cycling and marathons being better in cool environments." After going into a research "rabbit hole," Martin discovered that people burn more calories in cooler temperatures (thus the name "Brrrn") and generally feel better.
It would be two years before Martin would seriously decide to pursue the concept: "I had lost my wife to cancer in May of 2014, which prompted me to really pursue this full-time, to help make people live better," he says. Soon after he met Adamic, a trained public health official who got interested in personal training and yoga after working on the obesity and chronic disease prevention task force at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; Martin hoped Adamic would help with "substantiating the science" behind his research. "Jimmy pitches me on this cold concept—and I was also writing for The Daily Beast [at the time]—and skepticism, skepticism, skepticism. [Then, I was like,] 'Hold that thought. Let me go back to public health literature.' Then, holy shit, it was a bold light," says Adamic of their meeting. "I wrote him a caps lock email being like, 'WE HAVE TO DO THIS.'"
After diving even deeper into the science of the cold to support their claims, the duo consulted with cold expert and former NASA scientist Ray Cronise, before eventually hiring an independent company to fact check their findings and research. "In the cold, your body is involuntarily spasming, and that produces heat. After about 10 to 15 minutes your body might stop, because it's like, 'This isn't super-efficient and I've burned through all my glucose. Let me shift to another fuel source: fat,'" Adamic explains. "Also, with sweat, you lose water and you lose electrolytes. So when you're working out in hotter or more ambient rooms, you're dumping that much more water and that many more electrolytes, but we need those two things to help our muscles communicate with one another."
Still, despite all the research backing their claims, they feel like they have to "debunk the myths" given the popularity of, say, hot yoga. "Your perceived rate of exertion is higher in hot temperatures, but you're actually not working out as hard... even though you think you're working out harder," says Adamic. "Whereas cold, it's all out, and you can work out a lot harder and faster and etc." Martin adds, "We almost feel like back when we used to smoke on airplanes and doctors' offices and then one day the surgeon general was like, 'Yeah. Let's not do that anymore.' I feel like we're in a similar position where we are trying to say, 'Hey, this thing that we've been associating—this correlation between a hot and sweaty workout being a good workout—we don't think it's necessarily the case.'" He's quick to point out that he is "not shitting on ambient or hot workout concepts" and is just glad that people are leading healthier lifestyles, regardless of what their workout of choice is. "I think, at the end of the day, there are some people who like sour beers, and some people who like IPAs. We're not saying that you should drink one or the other. We're saying, add us to the menu."
And their IPA comes in the form of NYC's only communal infrared sauna experience that customers can reserve for 40-minute sessions. "We need to treat heat like dessert, not the main course. Earn your heat in our studios. Celebrate it in the infrared," says Martin. "Though there's a lot of studies about the benefits of infrared, heat [just] feels good, and it feels good when you're not moving." While most wellness centers offer individual cabins for people to experience the benefits—ranging from relaxation to pain relief—of infrared saunas, Brrrn's communal sauna can fit up to eight people, "another micro disruption within our brand," according to Martin. As I sit in the infrared sauna following the workout class (a pairing that the studio recommends, though you're free to experience it before or separate from the class), I feel my entire body relax and let go of the fatigue which I failed to notice during the class. I again remark on how Martin is right—the sauna session does feel like a reward for the slide board plank kicks.
The other two classes, 1st° and 3rd°, take place in 60 and 45 degrees F, respectively, temperatures close to the ones known to cause mild cold stress. While 1st° is a dynamic low-impact class that moves in a yoga-esque flow that improves strength and flexibility, 3rd° is an intense high-intensity interval training that does not skimp on battle rope exercises, planks, and lots of dumbbell lifting and SandBell slamming. (Yeah, it's as hard as it sounds) "By having three different workout options, I feel that we can extend that cafeteria table that everyone can sit at and get people from different walks of life coming in and exercising for the sake of living better, not for the sake of having abs," says Martin.
While Adamic is the self-described science nerd (who loves this page on the website), Martin is the resident comedian (he has a background in comedy and branding) with enough dad jokes and puns to sustain any of the three 45-minute classes that the studio offers. "The only thing that remains from the cheese and beer store are the cheesy jokes," he tells me about the space they took over the first time I meet him. "That and a framed Lance Bass photo, a reminder to be in sync with one another.” There is also a photo of Channing Tatum from Step Up marking the doorstep of the fridge, to remind people to step up over it so as not to trip, a neon sign that reads, "Are you infra ready?" that leads to the infrared sauna space, and an outside chalkboard that advertises Brrrn as the "chillest workout around." And while all that may seem, well, cheesy, like the science behind the concept, every detail has been thoroughly vetted.
There are "male-" and "female-identifying" bathrooms and locker rooms ("They are a by-product of who our community is, who we have surrounded ourselves with," says Adamic. "We had a transgender client, and she was very happy to feel welcomed, which she didn't feel in other places."); a Nebia Spa Shower system that uses 70 percent less water by atomizing tiny water droplets ("People are like, 'I will literally pay $34 [cost of each class] just to shower here,'" Martin says); T3 hairdryers that turn off automatically when not in use; and Unify Water, a Tennessee-based company that donates a gallon of water to those who do not have clean drinking water with every bottle purchased for sale. ("We [looked at] XYZ water, and it was all international. Just the fact that Unify was from Tennessee and American, it doesn't get any better than that," says Adamic.)
A month after taking classes, one of the most noteworthy things I notice is how much my endurance has improved after the first few, which, I must admit, broke me down a bit. Maybe it's the result of the cold masking my fatigue and my perceived rate of exertion being lower, but, before Brrrn, I hadn't been able to ever make it through a HIIT class, let alone be able to keep up. And while all three classes are without a doubt challenging, they're not painful to get through. Martin confirms that I am not alone in feeling that way and admits that even he, despite building this workout, feels like a "boy band member singing and dancing at the same dance" every time he takes a class. "It's tough. It's challenging. But, there's something about that temperature that just guides me along and makes me forget about [that and makes me be] just completely in the moment," he says. "I think the biggest thing people have been remarking on is that they can just take themselves a little bit further than in ambient or hot environment."
And while I'll never get used to entering a cold room in the midst of summer without the hairs on my arms standing up, it now makes me keenly aware of how complacent my body had become with the same workouts that I had been feeding it, and how it has taken me stepping out of that comfort zone to get noticeably stronger arm muscles, core, and endurance. "It's from a little bit of stress that our body gets a jolt and a shock and breaks down a little bit, but from that, it grows stronger," says Adamic. And maybe there's a bigger lesson in that: Endure a little discomfort so you can see the change that you want to happen. As Martin puts it, "We want to train people for the apocalypse, not to get an eight-pack of abs."
And that's cool—and not just because the thermostat says so.