Punch bags dangle in the dark from heavy silver chains like art installations, exercycles face what is claimed to be the world's largest immersive gym screen and titanium-clad bronze-coloured walls act as mirrors.

A glimpse inside changes at New Zealand's largest gym with 12,000 members shows a new level of drama brought to Les Mills Auckland City on Victoria St.

Mood lighting dominates the boxing studio. Photo/Les Mills
Mood lighting dominates the boxing studio. Photo/Les Mills

So far, $18 million out of a $30m budget has been spent, with the new carpark building yet to be finished, and the difference between the older un-renovated internal gym areas and the new is literally like night and day.

Unchanged areas are multi-coloured, bright and glaringly light. The three upgraded areas are all for group exercise, sporting black walls, often dark flooring, new equipment, more open spaces to cater for larger numbers and low-level mood lighting to emphasise the more flattering aspects of this collection of old buildings, with tinges of silver and bronze.

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Revamped Les Mills areas are eye-catching with chunky, industrial-style metal handrails, LED below-handrail tubes, black astroturf imported from Australia, a new boxing glove drying wall where mitts get direct heat and air and reflective decorative claddings from Taiwan.

Gym members get access to 98 bikes in the new studio. Photo/Les Mills
Gym members get access to 98 bikes in the new studio. Photo/Les Mills

"It's a big change for us," says Dione Forbes-Ryrie, Les Mills NZ managing director.

Three new areas costing $4m are:
• A $1.9m immersive cycle studio, opened before Christmas, six rows of fixed bikes in sloping theatre-style layout, giant screen 20m wide by 4m high;
• A $900,000 functional training or resistance-based studio, opened this month.
• A $1.2m boxing studio opened this month where punch bags are water, not sand, filled to be more gentle on joints.

Les Mills plans to build the world's biggest studio of this kind in Auckland. Source: Les Mills

Interior designer Rufus Knight said his brief was to create functional areas but he has gone much further, bringing drama to what is often the utilitarian: "That's not glass. We used bronze stainless steel on the walls to create an interior expression in the larger garage space. We wanted to maximise the volumes."

Read more: Convenient or ridiculous? Les Mills developing 333-space carpark building in Auckland
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Forbes-Ryrie says the black has been carried to the exterior, delineating changed areas at what the business calls 'the garage' at the upper or CBD end of its premises. Cape Construction was the builder and Knight worked with architects Monk Mackenzie on the building refit.

Working out in the new function training area. Photo/Les Mills
Working out in the new function training area. Photo/Les Mills

Herald feature writer Greg Bruce two years ago called the premises "sweaty, cramped, intense and a bit of a hodgepodge, aesthetically speaking" and Forbes-Ryrie acknowledges there is no centralised air conditioning but points to fans and natural ventilation.

Hamish Monk and Dean Mackenzie of Monk Mackenzie said the changes had resulted in areas "worlds away from typical gym spaces. This is very theatrical when you walk through the lighting."

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Of the 98-cycle studio, the business says: "Take The Trip into the future of fitness – a fully immersive experience combining a multi-peak cycling workout with a journey in sight and sound through imagined landscapes that will blow your mind and hone your body. The Trip will leave you breathless in more ways than one."

Off Wellesley St, the structure of a new 333-space multi-level car parking building is up and opens later this year and it is that project and further work inside existing buildings which takes the budget to $30m.

The new function area opened last week. Photo/Les Mills
The new function area opened last week. Photo/Les Mills

While the changes are impressive, there have long been pop culture references to well-meaning folks who pay for gym memberships that are never used.

British ad man Dave Trott, writing in international marketing publication Campaign, said gyms are "designed to attract people who like the image of belonging to a gym, but not the reality of sweaty workouts."

Gyms are often in prime locations, have attractive decoration, lots of brand-new equipment, but "they make their money by encouraging membership from people who don't want to go to the gym", Trott says.

Standard multi-club membership is $28/week, giving access to the immersive cycle studio and Forbes-Ryrie says Les Mills now has 60,000 members at its 12-club New Zealand network, up from 58,000 last year.

But Les Mills also works hard to avoid falling into the trap of being an unused gym.

"On average, people attend 2.5 times a week. The group workouts are the ones getting people attending more than others. It's that group effect - more motivation forcing you to go than working out on your own and it's big with the millennials and GenX.

"Our number one driver is to track and encourage attendance and we do that via amazing workouts. There are lots of other gyms in the world where people pay and don't go but we like to get results. It's negligible, the number who join and don't come," Forbes-Ryrie said.

However, this doesn't work for everyone. The Herald's Greg Bruce wrote: "During my first month's membership, although the gym is only 180 metres from my office and my regular attendance had been mandated and paid for by my company, I went only five times."