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Up the street from Vilebrequin's storefront, loudly touting $280, neon-hued swim trunks, blocks from $23 cocktails at the Carlyle Hotel's Bemelmans bar, there’s a unmarked basement where the Upper East Side’s upper crust goes to take a beating.

The Monday morning I showed up at Punch Fitness Center, an unfussy, no-frills gym installed one story below the glint of one of New York’s swankiest Avenues, a gaggle of fit, Lululemon-clad females were already sweating it out. (Their male counterparts show up later in the day, once the markets close.)

Founded in 2006 by Adelino Da Costa, a former Kickboxing champion born in Guina-Bissau and raised in Portugal, it’s an odd site for this crowd of New Yorkers to congregate. But look past the well-worn red pads and the hard-earned patina and you’ll spot a tight-knit community run by elite trainers equal parts chiseled and charming.

The location is no accident for Da Costa, who’s known to pick his venues carefully and wisely. (The same year he got started, SoulCycle launched across the park.) Since then, he’s expanded his enterprise to other well-heeled neighborhoods, opening in The Mark Hotel; Greenwich, Connecticut; the Upper West Side, across from Central Park; and for the summer, the Hamptons, in a pop-up venue. Indeed, Da Costa might tell you he magically appears wherever his clients need him most.

Mixing martial arts and Thai boxing with a touch of yogic pedagogy, Punch is far more than a tough workout. “You can go to another gym for that,” he explained after putting me through one of his ferocious private sessions. “People come here because they’re looking for something else—to fill something missing.”

The self-help philosophy is palpable without feeling saccharine, and the physically and mentally challenging training is geared as much toward getting fit as it is toward instilling confidence, self-awareness, and mindfulness—lessons Da Costa learned as a kid, both in and out of the ring, while pulling himself out of poverty.

But exercise it is, and it’s some of the most exhausting and dynamic I’ve experienced. (Even the leanest, most veteran members sweat through their windbreakers within no time.) Every day is different at Punch, since members work out with a different trainer each visit—it reinforces the sense of community, Da Costa explains. A typical hour-long session might include a mixture of planks, squats, resistance bands, shadow boxing, pad work, sprinting, sparring (with bags or a trainer), and a go on the Jacobs Ladder or Curve treadmill—all, more or less, at breakneck speeds.

An ass-kicking guru dolling out tough-love, Da Costa—and every one of his handpicked trainers from West Africa, Portugal, and Brazil—offer clients constant feedback both tender (he stretches you out to start and gives a brief corrective massage to close) and brutal (the nonstop directives to jump rope quicker, push up stronger, and kick higher add up fast). But no matter how hard you drive your knee into his pads, somehow Da Costa never stops smiling.

After a little while in this subterranean temple, the feeling is contagious—if you can manage to catch your breath.

Punch Fitness Center is located at 1015 Madison Ave. in New York. Their summer pop-up is located at Studio 89 - 89 Clay Pit Rd. in Sag Harbor from Memorial Day through Labor Day. One-on-one tailored training sessions, from $145; semi-private classes for up to four people, from $100; group classes for up to eight people, from $45; call 212-288-2375 or email to schedule.

Image Credit: © Rob Bennett


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