Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 06/09/2011

The Future of the Fitness Industry

I spent last weekend at the Perform Better Summit in Providence, Rhode Island, where I was exposed to more information than I could possibly absorb. There was all the great stuff I expected from Stu McGill, Thomas Myers, and Gray Cook. My coauthor, Alwyn Cosgrove, spoke about fat loss in what I thought was the best presentation of the weekend. (And that’s really saying something.)

I missed a bunch of speakers whose talks would’ve been at the top of my list at any other conference: Dan John, Mark Verstegen, Charles Staley, Chris Mohr, Mike Boyle.

Even with all that talent and experience on the lineup, I thought the most provocative presentation came from Thom Plummer, who spoke about the future of the fitness industry. As I told a couple of friends afterwards, almost everything he said about fitness was equally true of the publishing industry. Maybe it applies to every business today, but those are the only two I’m part of.

His main point was that the gym business peaked in the ’90s and got stuck there. Health clubs occupied massive, warehouse-size spaces, filled them with machines and free weights, and, as I noted in NROL for Abs, arranged all that equipment in neat rows of rectangular plots. The idea, Plummer said, is that clients would use cardio machines for steady-state endurance exercise, which we all assumed was best for weight loss, and that they’d do bodybuilding-style strength training for muscle development.

Bodybuilding, as we know, fits perfectly into those rectangular spaces. You might take one step forward or back for a lunge, but otherwise you plant your butt on a bench or your feet on the floor, and that’s all the space you need, aside from whatever clearance your barbell might demand. The rectangles on the floor are for crunches and static stretching.

Plummer’s goal was to exhort the trainers in the audience to move beyond 1990s-style big-box facilities and ’90s-style training methods. To prove his point, I went to Google Images and typed in “fitness center.” Up came still what a gym or health club should be: a place where your monthly fee rents you time on a treadmill or guarantees a space in the Zumba class.

By contrast, check out Elemental Fitness Lab, my friend Chris Bathke’s new gym. The picture at the top of this post is his main workout floor. That’s the future, Plummer says: small, specialized training studios.

Meanwhile, most of us still work out in old, warehouse-style gyms. And you can certainly get good workouts in big places. I love my current gym, the Human Performance Center in Allentown. I ignore the half of the gym with all the machines, except for a small open space set aside for mobility and core training. It’s easy to get frustrated over there, with people walking into you or cutting your space in half to do their crunches three feet in front of you. But I probably frustrate some of them as well when I do mobility drills that take me in between their machines.

The other half of the gym is perfectly configured, with a row of five squat racks against one wall and the dumbbell racks against the opposite wall. In between you might find someone doing Turkish get-ups next to someone skipping rope and someone else jumping up onto plyo boxes. On any given day you’ll see people swinging kettlebells or Indian clubs, powerlifting with chains, or doing advanced core training with the rotational trainer.

You have to pay attention, but I consider that a feature. I’ve never thought it’s a good idea to zone out during a training session. The more I focus, the more I get out of it.

So where are you on the fitness-industry continuum? Do you work out in a private studio, a big box, at home, or in some other type of facility? Do you think the big boxes can adjust to NROL-style training, or are they stuck with the rectangles? Or, if you work out in a studio, do you sometimes wish you were back in a big box with all that equipment?


  • I agree that this is the future of the industry and I thank you for pointing it out. Currently our facility i 10 000sqft. Half of the floor is machines and the other half is open space to ‘play’ around in. Since our trainers are all Kinesiologists we do a lot of post-rehab training so the machines do come in handy from time to time. That having been said more and more clients point out in tours how much they hate equipment and how they’re excited to see the empty space.

    As a club we initially decided to include the machines as a selling factor. We thought that having shiny new equipment made the club more marketable. Now we’re trying to get rid of some of the expensive / useless pieces (Smith machine / lateral raise machine) and can’t find a buyer.

    I’d love to hear your opinion on this Lou but I hope this trend keeps up. The only problem is that machines are easy to use for personal trainers who are developing and learning the ropes. It’s much more difficult for a new trainer, or a not very good trainer, to use a big open space and perform effective post-rehab or conditioning. Therefore educational systems also need to change / become more readily available and industry guidelines must become more rigid or we’re all in for trouble.

    What are you thoughts?

  • Rob Siders

    You had me at “five squat racks.”

  • Jonathan, my big thought is about this:

    “The only problem is that machines are easy to use for personal trainers who are developing and learning the ropes. It’s much more difficult for a new trainer, or a not very good trainer, to use a big open space and perform effective post-rehab or conditioning.”

    If a trainer can’t teach good technique with free-weight and body-weight exercises, I honestly can’t think of any reason why he should make a living as a trainer.

    That goes double for someone specializing in post-rehab. If your idea of post-rehab conditioning is a circuit of machine exercises, go back to school and learn another trade.

    I confess I’m not sorry to hear you’re having trouble selling a lateral raise machine. I mean, I feel bad that you spent your hard-earned money on it, but I’m heartened by the fact you can’t unload it.

    WTF was the fitness industry thinking when they made a machine for one of the simplest exercises we have? Stand up straight, lift your arms to the sides. That’s it. A good pushup is many times more complex.

    I really like Plummer’s line about how gyms became an equipment-rental business. Eventually, all your competitors would have the same equipment. If there’s nothing else to distinguish one gym from another, everyone has to compete on price. It’s a race to the bottom from there.

  • “If a trainer can’t teach good technique with free-weight and body-weight exercises, I honestly can’t think of any reason why he should make a living as a trainer.”

    Agreed and many times they can’t. There is no skill involved in using machines. They were specifically designed to avoid needing a trainer. Machines prevent trainers from getting skilled and earning a living. I’m happy to watch them go.

  • I agree with you on every level Lou. That’s why it pains me when I walk into almost every single gym. I’m ecstatic to watch machines go because it will force trainers to learn the trade. The fact though is that MANY of these crappy trainers exist so, while it’s nice to say that they shouldn’t earn a living and I agree with you that they shouldn’t, the fact is that they are.

    My main point is that the industry needs better certification procedures that ensure these trainers either don’t exist or become more knowledgeable.

    The future does seem to be promising in that clientele is getting smarter and popular publications (like Men’s Health) are printing fantastic articles now written by individuals who live in the trenches and understand the body inside and out.

  • I agree, Lou–the fact is that not only are machines used by poor trainers, they also yield poor results. Our industry is results-driven and my clients get amazing changes with bodyweight and free weights–eventually the big box gyms are going to die just because people are catching on. It’s slow, but it’s coming.

  • Thomas Plummer

    Thank you for the kind words. I am very disappointed I didn’t realize you were in the room and didn’t get a chance to meet you. I greatly admire your writing and am honored you attended the keynote.
    I have been in the business for 30 years and the industry has changed more in the last three years than the previous three decades. The big box concept is dying and training clubs such as Alwyn’s and Rachel’s are setting the new standards.
    Keep writing about these changes because this is the future.
    Thank you again for the comments

  • Thanks Thom! I should’ve introduced myself. I really enjoyed the talk and, as I said, I think your points apply to a lot of businesses today.

  • Shon Grosse

    Lou, I have 2 questions. First, do you see more people at your gym utilizing a more NORL or “functional” aproach now vs. 2-3 years ago? Second, do you notice a decrease in the number of members at your facility over the past 2-3 years as it is a larger “warehouse” type gym?

    I have noted the numbers significantly decrease at the commercial gym I train at; as such, they have moved to a smaller space and have started a “discount” drive for membership, much like the larger chains. I have also not seen a more functional approach taken by most members in there training at this particular facility.

  • Shon, good questions.

    1. Yes. The trainers at the gym are all CSCS, with undergrad degrees in exercise science. We talk all the time about what we’re reading, or what we’ve seen at conferences.

    There’s also a lot of rehab going on at the gym — it’s owned by an orthopedic practice — so a lot of clients are learning or relearning basic movements.

    2. No, if anything, the gym has gotten busier in recent years. I don’t think the price has gone up recently, but it hasn’t gone down.

    I think it’s the only gym in the area that has everything it offers — there’s also a pool, and everything is clean and well-maintained. The only local gym I can compare it to is a Gold’s, and the last time I trained there, which I believe was 7 years ago, it was very dirty and shabby. (It’s probably been cleaned up. I may have just caught it in some kind of transition moment.)

    The other big gyms in the area is L.A. Fitness. But I’ve never been there so I don’t know how much they charge or how they’re doing.

  • Rob, I miscounted. It’s only 4 squat racks. I don’t know why I thought it was 5.

  • Thomas Plummer

    Hi Shon,
    I would like to comment on your question. First of all, the mainstream fitness facilities are starting to use more functional tools but overall as a group they are very late to the dance. Most keep just a small amount of equipment for the trainers leaving the rest of the members to do the endless circuit dance or keep on doing the free weight thing.
    The vast majority of mainstream clubs, such as Gold’s and their new $9 clubs, have dropped their prices. This means that many might appear to have more members but the return per member has dropped significantly. They will continue to drop as the low priced guys cannibalize each other fighting for market share that isn’t there anymore. These guys will continue to have a tough year as more low priced clubs enter the market.
    New generation functional based training clubs, such as those in the 6000 ft class, are doing the numbers now that a typical Gold’s used to consider a good year. Many in this class or doing a million a year or better. Several good examples are Alywn and Rachel Cosgrove’s club, Rick Mayo’s in Atlanta and Frank Nash in western MA. All do great numbers and all are 6000 square feet or less.

  • Thom,

    I remember you speaking on this at Perform Better in 2007; the wave that has affected the major clubs had not been felt here yet. It has only “hit home’ for me recently, as my commercial gym consolidated to a smaller space in the past year, Sadly, the programming has not significantly evolved for the remaining members. Training is “one on one” and most people I see using personal training still use machines, with little variation in program design.

    Thom,I am curious where you fall with regard to the Crossfit phenomon? Programming controvesies aside, these clubs appear to be fuffilling a need and “scratching an itch” for many disgruntled trainees. I see new Crossfit centers pop up with more frequency in the past year, and I see old ones moving to bigger spaces.

    I appreciate your thoughts and comments; thanks for taking time to address this!

  • Thomas Plummer

    There are a lot of good Crossfit people out there doing the right thing and a few not so good that do hurt their image. Do some research on their website and you will find that their original premise made sense and could be adapted as a business model that worked.
    Their concept is a good business model that we all should adapt in our businesses. In essence, they do nothing more than group personal training offered on a schedule. Most educated trainers, such as those that follow Alwyn, Todd Durkin or read Lou’s stuff, can put together these offerings and recapture this niche for their own clubs. They are doing nothing new that any talented trainer can’t do and they are doing nothing that we shouldn’t own in our training businesses and mainstream progressive clubs. Come see me this year at a full workshop. We are teaching our form of this business model, such as practiced by Alwyn and Rachel Cosgrove, for all fitness facilities.

  • Bob

    Nice stuff. Is there any web resources to find a better locat gym? I’m getting tired of the strange looks as I perform the exercises from NROL Abs plus Grey Cook chops/lifts at my local GlobeCo gym.

  • Thomas Plummer

    Hi Bob,
    Most good mainstream or training clubs will offer an extended trial of up to about 30 days, usually for a small amount of money. Try out a bunch and see who their members are and how they train people. Training philosophy is everything these days and clubs either have a good one or are still doing splits and bench press Mondays. A good club is one where you feel wanted, comfortable and that has some current stuff you like to use. Keep looking, they are out there.

  • I think everything will stay the same as it has been. I do not see any changes in the long-run. Perhaps in Europe Personal training will become a little stronger, but it won’t influence the market.

  • Dave

    I was at a Dan John seminar a few months back and Dan spoke about gym design and layout in a similar vein. His point was that the layout of the gym tells you in a few seconds what the owners are trying to accomplish…

    We were at Kettlebell Daily in West Haven, CT and on one wall you had a MASSIVE goal board where every member had their own square with their goal and reason for being there – whatever it was. The opposite wall was filled with kettlebells, Hundreds of them. Finally the short far wall had bands, rollers, etc.

    Dan talked about his gym at Juan Diego – one wall was racks, the other wall was platforms, and in the middle was mats for tumbling and gymnastics.

    I train at Galaxy Fitness in North Huntington and it’s also a Parissi Speed school. So the setup sounds similar to what you have at HPC Lou. Half the gym is cardio and machine equipment and half is 35 yards of turf and a platform where you’ll have folks doing dynamic warmups, get ups, swings, etc. The Zumba/Body Pump rooms are off in the back next to the tanning booths 🙂

    The funny thing is that with the NROL, CorePerformance, etc. franchise books it’s getting more and more crowded in the non-machine area and you’re frequently have a conversation with someone about KBs, Crossfit, or the latest book.

  • Leslie Spencer

    Hey, Lou! I’m about to compete in my second women’s figure competition, so I train pretty faithfully and seriously. I do most of my training in my living room and on my back porch (when the weather is nice). We have a TRX (the attachment hook is achored to our living room ceiling). Also in our living room is a chest that contains our kettle bells and exercise bands. My step bench, stability ball and power wheel (with foot straps – great for hamstrings and glutes) are in the basement. I also use furniture in the house and on the porch to come up with substitutes for things found in a gym that I don’t have at home. With two kids, a husband and a full-time job, I have to fit training into a pretty full life.

    I’m curious how many other readers also find that getting to a gym is a luxury and have found practical and creative ways to fit in their training.

  • Leslie, I admire your dedication!

    I have a lot of equipment here at home, but since I work at home, going to the gym is the only time I get out of the house some days. A home workout wouldn’t give me the mental break I need.

    But like I said, I admire anyone who can train hard right next to all the comforts and distractions of home!

  • Carl

    Hi Leslie,

    Like you I train at home these days – pretty much purely with a TRX and bodyweight exercises, plus I do kung fu training in the atrium when I have time or have a grading coming up. There are some good bodyweight training resources out there, including a video by Alwyn and a book called ‘You are your own gym’ that are really helpful and provide lots of variety (I guess it’s ok to mention these here until Lou gets around to writing a bodyweight training book 🙂 ). I always kinda wanted to do what I’m doing now, but unlike you never had the ingenuity to figure out how for myself, until I read how.

    I think training at home is fantastic, mostly because it is so much quicker and more efficient, and I am constantly struggling to find time to fit in all the things I need/want to do. Also because no-one gets in my way and I don’t have to fight for equipment (just have to negotiate the music on the stereo with my wife).

    My younger brother is a convert to bodyweight training, mostly because of the $ it saves. My wife and my sister go to the gym and do routines from Lou’s books and/or or Rachel Cosgrove’s books. When I first started bodyweight training, about eight months ago, I was inclined to think that paying for a gym membership was just a scam… But having tried to convince a few people about how great training at home is, I’ve come to the conclusion that it actually takes a specific kind of person to successfully do it (i.e. quite focused & independent). Most people want to train around other people who are training.


  • Carl,

    Thanks so much for replying to my comment! It’s nice to “meet” you via Lou’s blog. I agree with all you’ve said! With young children, it’s just too complicated to try to get to a gym. Sometimes I even put laundry in the dryer or make someone a bagel in between sets! I have also been seen with a kettlebell in one hand and stirring oatmeal with the other. You do what you have to do to make it all work.

    I agree that training at home takes focus, but I find that I just need to make myself get started. If I can do that much, then I’ll finish the training session without a problem. Once I created the habit, it’s been easier to stick with it.

  • Excellent post Lou. I’ve found many a fitness professional in my area that thinks the market here (Canada) is saturated as we are surrounded by many big-box gyms. I’ve argued that if you look for the smaller gyms that take a results-oriented, service based approach, you’d see that the market is wide open around the country. Some view the two styles as competing markets, but in my mind they are apples and oranges.

  • Kerrie Reed

    Hi Lou,

    I’m a physical rehab physician, and share your take on the future direction, at least the reccommended futer direction, of the fitness world.

    I belong to the largest health clubin the nation (by membership as well as sq footage too I think…) . Given its size, it offers the whole spectrum of fitness options, but at its center–true to form–is a massive room I affectionately refer to as the “cardio-factory”…. with one sagital-plane cardio machine after another as far as you can see. And come after-work rush hour, it is nothing short of striking to see almost every one of those machines occupied. It looks like a lab experiment!
    The point is that gyms, like all successful businesses, adapt to consumer demand. As long as their customers are demanding cardio-factories, that is what gym’s will focus on. The key, in my mind, is to change what the public demands. That has become my personal mission–one patient at a time and via social media. The rub is that it will take convincing people to abandon their automatic and mindless cardio habit for something that clearly offers more practical benefits but which admittedly requires just that extra bit of thinking on their part. Always a tall order, but one blog post at a time…..:-)
    Appreciate your contributions!

  • Great thread. I saw Thom mention it on his FB page which brought me back full circle to Lou’s post with a picture of my gym!

    Oh how it has changed in only 3 months since that picture was taken! We’ve doubled membership and so have doubled the amount of KBs, sandbags, and chin/monkey bars.

    But still only ONE “machine” – a Freemotion functional trainer. And it’s going to stay that way.

    It’s great to see so many people actively discussing and reassessing fitness facilities on the criteria of effectiveness rather than price.

  • @ Dave

    That might be true .. but isn’t it the same with everything. Media speaks about great something is and everyone is running over it. At the end of the day it will be balanced and kettleballs just a small margin of the population who will be using it.

    Just my two cents

    Best regards from Germany


  • I think we can all agree that it’s not where you workout, but that you just get it done. I have and will always be a home gym buff.

  • I used to train in gyms back in the eighties and the queuing up for apparatus was a real PIA. I have not trained for a number of years, however I would not like to train in confined spaces.

  • @Dan Ogborn

    I could not agree more with you about the results oreinted, serviced based kind of gym. When I first had a gym membership it was at one of the really big ones and I enjoyed it but then I went with one of my friends to a smaller gym and my experience was much better. Haven’t switched back since

  • Dave Gay

    Elemental Fitness Lab reminds me of a more find tuned “Garage Gym” that you see on a CrossFit YouTube! I love the monkey bars and swinging bars. Functional exercises that work everything and make you strong enough to save your life if need be. I’m wondering if Elemental Fitness Lab is using composite plates in their free weight area?

  • The new way’s to workout are simply amazing. Programs like Crossfit, MMA, and these tips of indoor studios is where things are headed. I workout in a fancy gym with saunas, pools and machines with TV’s in them. Not to say I don’t get great workouts, they have a punching bag and equipment that is for intense crossfit-style workouts. I think simple is better, but I like the variety that big gyms offer or crossfit style gyms offer. Definitely do not feel like I am stuck in a box ahah! If I am, I don’t mind…lots of cute women stuck in there with me too :). Cheers!