When you first step foot into a Barry’s Bootcamp studio, you might almost think you’re in a trendy nightclub rather than a gym. There’s the dim red lighting; the pulsing music blasting from the speakers; the toned, half-naked bodies glistening with sweat. But in spite of its party environment, Barry’s Bootcamp is no joke. Alternating high-intensity strength training—think functional moves like burpees, lunges and mountain climbers—with interval bursts on the treadmill, this ultra-effective, no-nonsense workout promises to scorch 1,000 calories in an hour. Since its humble beginnings in 1998, Barry’s Bootcamp has taken the world by storm, with franchise locations in California, London and Norway, among others. Lauded by fitness enthusiasts as “The Best Workout in the World,” the workout has garnered a cult-like following that includes A-List clientele such as Carrie Underwood, Jessica Biel and Kim Kardashian. Getting in shape has never been more fun…or more trendy.
We recently sat down with Barry Jay, the brainchild behind this international fitness sensation, who is living proof that anybody can turn their life around with a little determination and faith. After falling prey to the 1980s L.A. party scene, Barry discovered his salvation in fitness and renounced his carousing ways, trading cocktails for protein shakes. Now, Barry is more apt to spend his Friday night in the gym rather than the nightclub, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s like a workout party in a box,” the celebrity trainer says of his workout program. “It’s fun. There’s nothing else like it.” Below, Barry chats candidly about his party years, the inspiration behind the revolutionary workout program and his health philosophy.
Health philosophy: “Treat your body right. We only get one body—there are no returns or exchanges. This is the body God gave us. Feed it right, and exercise consistently. It’s all about aging gracefully.”
Favorite healthy meal: “I hate to sound boring, but I love egg white omelets. I’m a great omelet cook. I eat breakfast for dinner all the time. And you can throw interesting ingredients in egg white omelets to make them really fun. You can throw some chicken in there, some avocado, some spinach, a little seasoning.”
Favorite motivational saying: “Don’t say ‘I can’t.’ Our heads will tell us long before our bodies will. Our heads often get in the way of our successes. So take that ‘I can’t’ out of your vocabulary. Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.”
Favorite workout: “Well, Barry’s Bootcamp, obviously! But to be more specific, I love ‘arm day.’ I love curls, triceps, pull-ups.”
Spry: When you lived in L.A., you fell into the party scene. Can you tell me about those days?
Barry: It all began in 1983, when I moved from New York to Los Angeles to be a songwriter. I was sort of a mama’s boy—I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink, I didn’t do drugs. In high school, I was that fear-filled kid who was bullied. When I moved to L.A., my roommate smoked cigarettes and I started smoking, too. Eventually I got to a point where I was smoking three times a day. And then I tried alcohol, and something happened when it went in me. I mean, I would get drunk—supremely drunk—every time. I was putting all sorts of alcohol in one glass and downing it. It was quite a different life. Then I tried pot and other drugs. At the time, I think it was my way of being accepted by people I wanted to be friends with. And the other part of it is I’m an alcoholic and didn’t know it. So there went the 80s. They were a blur, to be honest. I remember being horribly angry and lonely and depressed all the time.
Spry: When did you decide to make a lifestyle change? Was there a specific “wake-up call” moment?
Barry: Yes. It happened on August 4th, 1988—I remember the exact date because that was the day I joined a gym. I got up in the morning, but I hadn’t really been sleeping—I had passed out. I had done every single drug in the book the night before. I looked at myself in the mirror: I was so gaunt and pale, with dark circles under my eyes. My hair had grown ridiculously long. I didn’t know who I was anymore. This huge rush came over me and I sort of woke up. Then and there, I decided I was going to quit everything, the drugs and the alcohol, and go join the gym.
Living in West Hollywood, I was surrounded by people in really good shape, and I guess I was influenced by the way they looked … they looked good, they looked healthy, they looked fit. I wanted that. So I went to Sports Connection, which is no longer there. They signed me up and gave me a tour. I knew my whole life was going to change. I kept asking the woman giving the tour, “How long before I see change?” I was so desperate to change. She said, “Just keep showing up and you’ll see a change.” So that’s what I did.
I started at the gym by following people around. If they looked like they were in shape and knew what they were doing, I watched them like a stalker and basically copied their moves. I started working really hard and really consistently. Lo and behold, boom. I went from under 120 pounds to 160 pounds. I started building muscle tone. Friends were noticing. The dark circles were gone, I was feeling great.
Spry: What was the inspiration behind the original Barry’s Bootcamp workout?
Barry: In 1995, I got fired from my PR job, and I was devastated. I was referred to a fitness studio, where they offered me a job for 8 bucks an hour plus free fitness classes. I loved it. When that gym folded, I came up with this idea of bringing the free weights into a class environment and breaking up the week according to muscle groups (Monday arm day; Tuesday leg day; Wednesday chest day; Thursday ab day; etc).
I wanted to create a mood, an atmosphere. The red lights were one of the first things I thought of, inspired by all of those years in the clubs. I thought, “Red is sexy, red is hot.” People like looking at their bodies in red light. All of the fitness classes I had ever been to had this horrible lighting … big, bright, white lights. You didn’t want to look at yourself. I also wanted to bring in different music. Back then it was all this circuit party music—no vocals, steady beats, the old aerobic music. But I wanted to play something different, rock and roll and hip-hop and pop. When I presented this idea to John and Rachel, who are two of my business partners, they loved the idea. We opened up the first original Barry’s in the old fitness studio where I had worked. I always joke that I got to own the desk I used to work behind for $8 an hour. Soon, my classes were catching on. And then Joey came along—Joey Gonzales—and he brought it to New York. So that’s it. Here we are. Franchised. It’s crazy. I still remember the legal pad in 1998 with the original business plan on it.
Spry: Today, Barry’s Bootcamp has taken the nation—and world—by storm. In your opinion, what makes this workout so effective?
Barry: We always say it’s the “Best Workout in the World,” and it really is. It’s so efficient. The treadmill is, hands-down, the best way to get cardio. And then you combine that with the free weights, and it’s really the whole package. You get everything you need in one hour. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s motivating. There’s great humor in class. You get pushed. We hear all the time that we’ve ruined the gym for people. Because there’s a certain camaraderie in class—people become friends. They run with each other, they push each other. You get guided along in your workout journey. We have people not only losing weight, but also gaining muscle and seeing their bodies change. So I think it’s effective because we shock the body and organize the workout. It’s like a workout party in a box. It’s like having your own personal trainer in a group setting.
Spry: Some beginners might be daunted to try Barry’s for a number of reasons—it’s intense, high-impact, and high energy. What advice would you give to a newcomer to Barry’s?
Barry: I have newcomers in almost every class. Really, anyone can do Barry’s. If somebody has very severe joint issues, they can do the floor exercises and opt out of the treadmill portion, or they can simply walk on the treadmill at a pace that’s comfortable. You don’t get pushed to do anything you’re not able to do. I’ve had pregnant women take class, I’ve had people with back braces take class. There are so many ways inside of that room to make the workout work for you. Everyone has a personal best, whatever that may be, and our job is to push people to work at their personal best. If you’re running on that treadmill at 6.0 and feel like you’re dying, and the person next to you is running at 9.0, then that’s great. You’ll get there. It’s not about the numbers or how fast you can go. It’s about pushing yourself.
Spry: You must have a pretty crazy schedule. What are some of your tips for squeezing exercise into a jam-packed lifestyle?
Barry: I know people are telling me the truth when they say, “I’ve got kids, I’ve got work, I’m busy.” But if you start allowing that to dictate your workout schedule, suddenly you’re going to have all of these days go by and you’re going to fall out of shape. This world won’t make the time for us, so we’ve got to make the time. If you’ve got to get up at 5 in the morning to do it, that’s what you’ve got to do. You can always find an hour. If you can find an hour to workout a couple of times during the week and a couple of times on the weekend, that’s 4 times a week. So I think the main thing is don’t make excuses—make the time. You don’t find the time, you make the time.