Outdoor Fitness

Stadium Fitness promises to train you “where legends have played.”

It’s 5:55 a.m. on an overcast Friday in late May and I’m standing outside the entrance of the venerable Rose Bowl stadium in the Arroyo Seco. Looking around, I notice that the crowds of recreational runners and bikers so common on the weekends are nowhere to be found. It’s still and quiet. I turn back toward the stadium and think about its history: how it has been home to 105 New Year’s Day post-season collegiate football contests; how A-list musical acts, from Journey and Depeche Mode in the ’80s to Taylor Swift and Beyoncé in recent years, have performed here. I think of all the events I’ve personally attended: AmericaFest, the Independence Day fireworks extravaganza, UCLA football games, the longstanding annual Turkey Tussle game between Pasadena and Muir high schools, end-of-year American Youth Soccer Organization presentations, Billy Graham’s last Southern California crusade, in 2004. But this morning, I’m not here as a spectator. I’m here as a participant in what can only be considered an exceptional workout opportunity: In five minutes, I will be inside the Rose Bowl, running 77 stairs to the top of the stadium alongside other early risers who have made their way here for a 6 a.m. workout.   

I like the idea of exercising outside again, especially now that the days are warmer and longer. Running on the three-mile loop that surrounds the Rose Bowl used to be part of my regular routine, but lately my workouts — primarily weights and fitness classes — have been inside the gym. As I wait for the stadium gate to be unlocked, I’m not 100 percent sure what I’ll be doing this morning besides scaling the stairs. But I’m excited; I love new athletic challenges. Who will be in this early–morning session, I wonder. Marathon runners? Elite athletes? I soon find out that it’s a lot of regular folk who are just interested in staying healthy in a very cool setting.

David Liston, the founder and co-owner of Stadium Fitness, has a unique arrangement with the Rose Bowl Operating Company that has allowed him to bring health and wellness to the community, as well as the bowl’s own employees, since 2009. He greets me warmly at the gate and tells me to head into the stadium. If you’ve never done it, I recommend walking into a completely empty Rose Bowl. It’s a bit of a cinematic moment, heading through the dark tunnel and emerging into the early morning light (even on this gray day) to be greeted by the historic green field that has seen so many contests and the nearly 91,000 seats that surround it. “You should see it when it’s clear and the sun is just coming up,” he tells me.

There are about 16 of us this morning and we come in a wide range of ages. Liston is particularly proud of Bernie, 75, the group’s senior member, who has been maintaining her fitness by working out in the stadium three times a week for years.

Before I even begin, Liston asks me what kind of physical activity I already do, gauging my fitness level. I tell him about my gym repertoire and about the triathlons and half-marathons I’ve done in the past. Confident that I can handle a lap around the perimeter of the field, he sends me off with the other folks doing the same. Liston doesn’t lead a class in the traditional sense; rather, he works out each of his clients according to their ability, giving what he calls “individual workouts in a group setting.”

When I return, warmed up and eager for the next challenge, he asks me if I’m ready for some stairs. I nod enthusiastically. My next assignment is to run — four times and row by row — up the 77 steps that lead to the top of the stadium and back down again. In a race with myself, I bound up the stairs, making great progress…until I reach the 65th step. That’s when my legs start burning from the exertion, slowing me down to a walk-run pace. It’s not enough to make me stop, though. I make it to the top, feeling triumphant, before heading down for round two. By the time I reach the bottom, my legs have recovered enough for me to begin sprinting up the next row. Each time, I slow at stair 65. But I make it, and I feel good.

It turns out that Stadium Fitness workouts aren’t just about running. For the next hour, I alternate between stair sets and other moves that target my arms, legs and core: lunges, bicep curls, triceps dips and pushups. After each exercise, Liston checks in with me: “How do you feel?” “How are the legs?” “Ready to run the stairs again?”

Liston began his career as a seventh-grade social studies teacher in his native Massachusetts before arriving in Pasadena in 1996 to work with his brother, who was already involved in fitness. It’s easy to see that he still loves teaching. During the course of the hour, Liston connects with all his clients, not just me. He remembers each one’s workout goals, ailments and what’s going on in their lives. “I try to ‘touch’ everyone three times an hour. I can have multiple conversations going on at the same time. My wife says I would be a good air-traffic controller,” he says with a laugh.

Although we’re not down on the field today — the South Korean boy band BTS recently performed and, as a result, new sod has been laid  — Liston says that about 75 percent of the time his groups are down there running sprints and “doing a lot of fun group exercise stuff” such as partner and running exercises, relay races and agility training. Stadium Fitness participants work out in the locker room on occasion, particularly in the winter. “If it’s 39 degrees [outside] everyone is like, ‘Can we please start inside?’” he says. They also stay inside when it rains.

Kids as young as 11 have worked out with Stadium Fitness — Liston accepts youth based on their maturity level — but the youngest average about 12 or 13, he says. Particularly in the summer, “we encourage people to bring their kids to the 8:30 a.m. class,” he says. The 6 a.m. class I am sampling is for people, like me, who have to go to work.

The hour goes by quickly and, when it’s over, I ask Liston what makes his workouts so popular. “For most people, exercise has to be fun for them to do it on a regular basis,” he says. “Eighty percent of exercise is getting to the place to do the exercise. It’s easier to let someone tell you what to do.”

Stadium Fitness
(626) 232-6900 • stadiumfitness.com
Classes are ongoing and meet Mondays at 6 a.m., 8:30 a.m. and 6 p.m.;
Tuesdays and Thursdays, 6 and 6:30 p.m.; Wednesdays and Fridays, 6
and 8:30 a.m.;

Single class $25/Student $18
10-Class Pack ($22/class): $220
24-Class Pack ($16.63/class): $399
1-month unlimited: $150
Other pricing available

Boot Camp Pasadena

A couple of days before I ran the stairs with Stadium Fitness, I sampled a 5:45 a.m. class with Boot Camp Pasadena, another early-morning group-exercise business that has been putting people through their paces for a decade.

Founder Stephen Cooper, a personal trainer with nearly 30 years of experience, leads all the early-morning and early-evening (6 p.m.) classes, which take place Monday, Wednesday and Friday or Tuesday and Thursday near the Pasadena-Altadena border. (Contact him for details.) Despite what the name implies, there’s no military-style training at Boot Camp Pasadena. You won’t find Cooper wearing camouflage or barking instructions. His approach is decidedly low-key and he considers his clients friends, not soldiers. “I don’t think instructors have to yell to be effective,” he says.

Cooper touts BCP as a toning and fat-burning program. There’s no running of stairs, just some sprints, along with targeted muscle work using TRX suspension training, medicine balls, kettle bells and boxing, among other things. “People love the stress release of boxing,” Cooper says, “and some people have a lot of stress!”

His clients, who are primarily in their 30s to 50s, come to Boot Camp Pasadena not only because they want accountability in their workouts and wouldn’t necessarily exercise on their own but because it’s a friendly environment where people of different fitness levels can work out together. There’s no competition among the participants; in fact, they encourage one another. “They like being in the group because there’s camaraderie,” he says.

Cooper wants his clients to make their workouts a regular part of their lives, and a number of them have been with him almost from the beginning. “I can tell when it clicks with people; for a while they’re hoping that some kind of fad diet is going to help them lose the weight or change them dramatically,” he says. “It takes them a while to realize, ‘Okay, this is a serious commitment, it’s a habit; once they realize that, they’re calmer and they see the payoff.”

Like Stadium Fitness’ Liston, Cooper prides himself on knowing his clients’ needs. It’s that personal touch, he says, that keeps bringing people back.


Boot Camp Pasadena
(626) 509-9958 • bootcamppasadena.com
Classes are ongoing and meet Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays or Tuesdays and Thursdays:
Mornings: 5:45 to 6:30
Evenings: 6 to 6:45
One-time rate: $18–$20 per class
Monthly rates: $135–$175