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Phantom JIM RAT

A Club With All the Trimmings

April 20, 1998

Beware. The Phantom Jim Rat is snooping around Southern California, looking at the best and worst in health clubs, from parking to juice bars to group exercise classes. And Jim isn't just any rat. He's been teaching for four years at various clubs in the area and is certified through the Aerobics and Fitness Assn. of America.

All those people on the treadmills in front of the window look like caged gerbils on their exercise wheels, but, hey, this is Southern California and people in shape just love to show off. But a friend of mine was wondering . . . what if there were an earthquake and there were all those people sweating on the cardiovascular equipment? Those people would be shooting out those windows, but at least they would look good!

LA Fitness in Pasadena, on South Lake Avenue, has all the amenities you would expect from one of the nation's largest privately owned health club chains. Inside the 25,000-square-foot club are treadmills, recumbent bicycles (some with built-in television sets that display a computerized course or regular TV stations), stationary bikes and stair-stepping machines, not to mention the regular assortment of weight machines and free weights. There are 10 certified personal trainers.

Each locker room has a steam room, a sauna room and a Jacuzzi room. For $5 a pop, you can slip into a tanning booth. The showers are equipped with shampoo and soap. Towel service is available. If that's not enough, how about a chiropractor, doctor, sports massage and nutritional analysis? This place is full service.

Rene VanSauter is the general manager, and he is proud of the full-service approach. VanSauter says an employee walks through each locker room every 30 minutes to pick up trash, and if vacuuming is needed, it is done. If weights need to be put away, they do that too, although every good gym rat knows to rack his or her weights.

"This company purely focuses on service," VanSauter said.

When I visited the club, only two cardio machines were out of order, and all the weight machines were working. VanSauter said maintenance is performed twice a week on the weight equipment. If a machine does malfunction, to speed up the fix, a description of the problem is faxed to the maintenance company so a repair person can bring the correct parts.

Step aerobics, boxing and indoor cycling classes are offered, and--what a surprise--the aerobics room has two glass walls.

I took a Thursday evening advanced step class with one of the club's most popular instructors, Vera Melnyk Vecchio. People wait outside the glass walls to try to get into her Tuesday night class, and there were about 30 people in the class I took.

Vera said she constantly changes her choreography, and in fact she had taped to the stereo two sheets of paper listing the moves she was going to use. Her music was great.

My only complaint was I couldn't follow all the moves. We are trained as instructors to always survey the room for new faces and, if there are new people, to at the very least preview some of the moves. That way, newcomers won't feel uncomfortable or frustrated when the instructor cues a move and all you can do is stand on the floor while the regulars gyrate around. So while the regulars got a great workout, I felt cheated. In fact, I talked to two of Vera's regulars afterward, and one said that it takes about four classes to get the moves down and that she walked out during her first class with Vera.

When I told a friend of mine who goes to this club about my frustration, she was sympathetic, saying she had a problem with an instructor who teaches Friday mornings. My friend is an advanced stepper, too, and this instructor just would not preview moves she was going to do so that newcomers could feel at ease with the moves. She spent most of the time watching instead of doing. She did have good things to say about Michael, who teaches Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 9:15. "If you are new in class, he will come over and introduce himself," she said. "And if you mess up some of the choreography, he doesn't mind meeting with you after class and going over the moves so that you'll feel more comfortable the next time you take his class." Now that's my kind of instructor.

A boxing class followed the advanced step class, and people seemed to be having a very good time hitting the boxing bags that circle the room.

According to an April 1 article in The Times' Business section, L.A. Fitness International was recently bankrolled with $100 million. The Newport Beach-based company, which has 1,600 employees and 36 clubs in California, Arizona and Florida, plans to build 20 new clubs in Southern California within the next two years. The new clubs will cost $6 million each to build, featuring more amenities than the existing clubs do, including basketball and racquetball courts and lap pools.

Maybe they'll leave out a bit of the glass.

* If you have a gym or health club you think the Phantom Jim Rat should scope out, fax to (213) 237-4712 or e-mail:

The Rat Trap

On a rating of one to four rats, four being best, here is how the Jim Rat rates LA Fitness on some amenities:

* Parking: Lots and lots. All underground. You get two hours free, then you start paying. ****

* Locker rooms: The men's room was snug but well-appointed. Guys were hanging around the TV set watching the Lakers game. The men's and women's locker rooms have steam, sauna and Jacuzzi rooms. Bathroom and shower areas were clean. ***

* Juice bar: Small but well-stocked. Get a smoothie or a thirst quencher, or give the attendant $5 to get a token to use the tanning booth. No other food. ***

LA Fitness, 201 S. Lake Ave., Pasadena, (626) 568-3598. A day pass will set you back $10.

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