WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — The Washington Heights gym scene is about to get as crowded as a weight room at 6 p.m.
Two low-cost gym chains are coming to the 181st Street business district: Planet Fitness, which is set to open in August at Broadway and 177th Street, and Blink Fitness, which expects to open next year at the George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal.
The new gyms will elbow in on an area that has until now almost exclusively belonged to J's Big Gym, an independent exercise joint that has become a neighborhood institution since owner Jay Hirschhorn purchased it in 2003.
Currently, the only gym within 20 blocks of J's Big Gym is the women-only Lucille Roberts on St. Nicholas Avenue between 179th and 180th streets.
Planet Fitness aims to open a 29,000-square-foot, three-floor gym inside 4168 Broadway, in a building that's a block away from the United Palace Theatre and is currently a six-story parking garage, representative Joshua Rinesmith said last week at a Community Board 12 meeting.
The gym, near the intersection of 177th Street, will be Planet Fitness' third outpost in Washington Heights and Inwood. The chain also has a location on Dyckman Street, which opened in 2011, and a branch at Broadway and 157th Street, which opened in July 2013. Planet Fitness, which bills itself as the place fitness buffs can work out without being judged, offers memberships for as low as $10 per month.
Blink's opening date will be determined by the oft-delayed GWB Bus Terminal renovations, which began in September and are scheduled to be completed in 2015. The gym, which offers memberships for as little at $15 a month, signed on to be a retailer at the terminal two years ago.
Representatives from Blink Fitness did not return calls for comment.
Hirschhorn said he isn't surprised that the gym giants are coming to bulk up near his 625 W. 181st St. workout spot.
"It's location theory," said Hischhorn, 59. "If you go out to an empty beach and decide to open a soda stand, you'll put it in the middle. But if I come along and see you're making good money, where will I open my stand? Right next to yours."
But Hirschhorn said he isn't worried about the competition, noting that his gym offers lots of options to the community, from aerobics and boxing classes to free Mommy & Me events. Weights are another big factor, Hischhorn said, adding that neither gym will be able to compete with his massive free weight selection.
"I'm pretty sure we have more weights than any other gym in Manhattan," he said.
Memberships at J's Big Gym cost $449 for the first year and $329 every year after. But Hirschhorn said that his gym provides a community atmosphere that others can't touch.
"I try to cater to everyone," Hirschhorn said. "My job is to make sure everyone feels comfortable here."
His customers tend to agree. Ramon Minaya, who was working an exercise machine Thursday afternoon, said he had been coming to the gym for nine years.
"I love it here," said Minaya, 74. "You have great machines here, and there are great friends. I wouldn't go anywhere else."
"My friends and I say this is the only 'hardcore' gym," added Alexander Burgos, 38. "If you want to get big, this is where you go."