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Mokena fitness center's unique workout expanding to other locations

Spenga in Mokena combines cardio, strength training and yoga

MOKENA – Spenga, the fitness center that opened in July in Mokena, already is becoming a national phenomenon.

Not even a year old, the center already has franchises in Downers Grove and 15 more cities, divided between Chicago and South Carolina. The goal is to have them in the 48 continental states of the U.S.

“The response we had was amazing right at the get-go,” said Amy Neilsen of New Lenox, Spenga co-founder. “Even before we opened [in Mokena], everyone already knew about us. It’s been a lot of word of mouth.”

Melissa Grady of Mokena said she joined during opening week. Grady previously served as a trainer at a “big box” fitness center and spent an hour each day doing cardio and lifting weights.

When she heard Spenga’s one-hour workout included 20 minutes of cardio, 20 minutes of strength training and 20 minutes of yoga, she was skeptical of getting a full workout in a one-hour session, especially since the yoga classes of her past bored her.

But when Grady tried the sessions, she was sold. Every session challenges her, she said.

“It’s really amazing,” Grady said. “It’s a total body workout. I’ve never hit every muscle like I do there.”

Neilsen, who grew up in Frankfort, said she and her co-founders – Heather Ruff, Roger McGreal and Dan Collins – saw a need for a different kind of workout – one that offered classes where members could work on cardio, strength and flexibility without taking separate classes for all three.

“We felt like there was still something missing in the markets,” Ruff said. “You couldn’t go to one place to get everything in one workout.”

Ruff said they chose Mokena as the site for their first center for the challenge. They felt if Spenga succeeded in a small community, it could succeed in large communities such as Chicago.

The hourlong classes at Spenga all have the 20-20-20 time schedule of spinning, high-intensity strength training, then yoga, but the trainers make each session different so members won’t get bored.

Ruff, who has a degree in kinesiology, said yoga is a necessary component in a total body workout for physical and mental reasons.

“It’s good for alignment and posture – that total body awareness,” Ruff said. “There’s a neuromuscular awareness, training your body to recognize how your back feels best, how your neck feels best.”

Ruff said yoga also is good for joint mobility and balance. Strengthening and balancing the muscles around particular joints makes the joints more stable, she added. Many of her clients enjoy the yoga aspect specifically for the postural balance strength it gives them.

“Yoga is also important for the recovery process,” Neilsen said. “After working out, you’re going to be able to recover a lot quicker. You won’t be as sore.”

Atmosphere also is important. From the moment clients walk into the center, they’re engulfed in essential oil aromatherapy. Neilsen described it as a “super-energized scent.”

Neilsen said the studio is dimly lit for spinning sessions to help members get into their zone. The trainers choose the music.

The lights go up for strength training, where the energy is kept high. Neilsen said the lights are softer for the final yoga phase of the sessions, and the music is not as high-energy, but not necessarily Zen-like either.

Spenga’s strength training includes three components: turbulence training, which involves heavier lifting; Tabata-style lifting, which is a series of short intervals of high-intensity strengthening separated by shorter rest periods; and a partner format, where members line up facing one another doing different exercises, then switch to do their partner’s exercise.

The center’s format has been attracting members of many demographics, and not just from Mokena.

Mark Swanson of Orland Hills, who has worked out most of his life, feels Spenga is the best program he’s experienced, making the long drive worth it.

“I pass easily two gyms on my way there,” Swanson said.

Weighing in at 300 pounds, Swanson said it’s important to him that members are free to work out at their own pace and that everyone is accepted. Swanson’s goals are weight loss, which he is achieving, and getting healthy.

“I’m so impressed with the trainers, the workouts, the facility and the environment,” Swanson said. “[The members] are young, they’re old, they’re thin, they’re overweight. There’s males, there’s females. ... The environment is phenomenal.”

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