When people think of Russia, some picture the frozen steppes of Siberia, while others see the onion domes of Red Square. But what about this country’s long tradition of placing a high value on sport and physical fitness? That aspect of Russian culture is just as ingrained.

“The traditions and experiences of professional athletes are very strong here,” enthuses Alexander Martynov, director of group fitness for the Russian Fitness Group, based in Moscow. His colleague, Olga Burkova, director of education and training, adds, “Many types of training all over the world are based on sport traditions from Russia, such as kettle balls, choreography and functional training.”

How does that support for sport translate into the fitness realm? Easily, believes Dmitry Zhirnov, gym director at Russian Fitness Group. “We take many things from our great professional sport system and apply them to the fitness system. For example, with our history of sport camps in mind, we now take club members on outdoor camp programs that offer skiing and mountain biking. These are out of the city or country, and we train members there.”

In addition to exporting key aspects of fitness, the Russians have also imported some programs, equipment and formats that have become very popular. These include Les Mills prechoreographed programs, Pilates mat and reformer workouts, hip-hop and reggae, and even ballroom dancing. In a true melding of East and West, club members even compete in ballroom dancing competitions, in which one dancer is an amateur and the other a professional!
Other popular forms of exercise include yoga, stretch, dance, ballet, freestyle movement, functional training, circuit training and Nordic Walking. Strength training has long been a component of Russians’ love for fitness, and it is common to find people using a wide variety of equipment.

Although strength training has been popular for many years, working in pairs has not really caught on. According to Martynov, “When people think about personal training, they prefer to do it one-on-one.” Zhirnov adds, “Classical bodybuilding that requires lots of hypertrophy is getting less and less popular.” Burkova notes that classical high-impact aerobics and step have decreased in popularity, too.

A trend that these three colleagues identify is enthusiasm for programs suited to any level of “physical readiness,” as Martynov terms it. Interval training, mind-body modalities, dance classes and equipment-based workouts have also seen an uptick in interest. Over the coming year, these fitness pros expect to see more TRX®-type programs, especially those that can take place almost anywhere, with minimum setup and investment. Martynov believes that “more fitness clubs will be opened, and we will have more people who exercise,” while Burkova predicts that more fitness programs will be available to the general population, especially if programs are designed with simplicity and ease of achievement in mind.

Unfortunately, obesity has become a worldwide issue, and Russia is not immune to its impact. With a wry sense of humor, Zhirnov says, “Nobody canceled the fight with super-extra weight. Our challenge is to involve more people in fitness and sport, as the percentage of people who exercise is still very low when compared with the U.S. or Europe.” And there is a sobering assessment from Burkova: “The average life expectancy here is 56 years old. Both men and women are paying more attention to their health when they start to think about this.”

But all three experts agree that fitness continues to grow in Russia, expanding to all of its many time zones! Even the government is promoting the benefits of exercise, kicking off a program—run jointly by politicians, teachers and the fitness federation—in which students compete to become the “best physical culture class of the 21st century.”