Problems in Gyms Today
This blog post was supposed to be short and sweet, highlighting the problems of the commercial fitness industry today. However, the more I wrote, the more I saw wrong with the fitness industry. Below are six flaws I have seen in my experience so far while working with 10 professional gyms. I have been involved in everything from corporate owned gyms with 5,000 members per club to private studios with 50 members. All of these places have shown me the good, the bad, and the ugly in the fitness industry from different angles.
When I say “corporate owned gym” I am talking about Spectrum, Equinox, 24 Hour Fitness, LA Fitness, Gold’s Gym, and the other franchised based gyms, health clubs, and fitness centers. When I say sports performance, I am talking about places like MJP, EXOS, Velocity, STACK, and professional athletic weight rooms. Studios and private gyms are smaller places, privately owned and operated.
In general, the three types of gyms are operated in different forms:
The corporate gyms are based on a sales-driven model. Members come in anytime during open hours, do their own workouts and then leave. Some might talk to fitness staff, some might not. There are a few classes offered throughout the day such as “Tabata,"“Move and grove,” “Step and Sculpt,” etc., and personal trainers can be booked at the front desk. These classes have no end goal; they are simply workouts designed around an interval, a step up, or an aerobic room.
Sports Performance gyms are operated on a goal oriented method. The clients and coaches sit down at the beginning and determine clients’ goals. From there, a client can be recommended to personal training, group training, or be given a program to be done on their own in the facility - again, all based on goals. This program is often included in membership fees.
Studios and private gyms are often based on a class model. Everyone in the gym does the class as directed by the coach. When classes are not going on, there can be personal training or small group training. Often the “open gym” concept does not exist in these places - you either are completing the class workout or you sign up for personal training as the spaces are too small to accommodate the open gym model.
Here are six issues I have noticed:
1. Programming (or lack of)
2. Coach vs. Trainer vs. Sales
4. Machine Usage
5. The Uniform
1. Programming (or lack of)
For corporate gyms, there is essentially no programming for general members. The group class programming is woefully bad. Group classes typically have no long-term goals, they are just workouts- workouts with little guidance, little rhyme, and no reason. I have seen a Group X class instructor telling people to do Tabata lunges to bicep curl with a 2lb weight before. This defeats the original purpose of Tabata, has little training stimulus. The instructors in this class are often doing the workout with the class, rather than correcting form and giving guidance. Because of this, it is simply a workout. They are designed to make you sweat a little, not necessarily get better. Other corporate gyms I have seen lay out a circuit on the gym floor and instruct the class to follow the cards in the circuit. This circuit generally consist of machine based exercises with no ligament, tendon, balance, or equalization work involved. It doesn’t get better with personal training either. I have seen, in multiple locations, personal trainers give different clients, with different goals, the exact same training plan. Rather than come up with a true personal training plan, they come up with one or two and pass it off to clients. The net result is less time spent programming for a client’s goals and more time selling. We will re-address this in the next point.
In sports performance gyms, the programming is top of the line. Each client comes in with a goal and follows a track to reach that goal via different training methods. Members working out on their own on the gym floor have a program written by a coach to help achieve certain goals, group classes are formatted around specific periodization charts, and personal training is truly personal training; coaches spend time programming a custom workout plan for the client to allow them to reach goals quickly and efficiently.
In privately owned gyms, the programming is often good. However, the gym is usually small enough that the programs are what they are and the client doesn’t have a choice if they want to do something different. The best example is a CrossFit gym. The workouts have been set in a periodization schedule months before, the client cannot decide they want to work on strength endurance in the middle of a power endurance block. The personal training at these facilities though, is often just as good as the personal training at a dedicated sports performance facility and is often cheaper.
2. Coach vs. Trainer. Vs. Sales
First and foremost, a trainer works for a paycheck. A coach works for passion. That is why most coaches are at performance training gyms and most trainers are at a franchise. Most of the coaches at a high-performance place have worked hard and made sacrifices to be there. A college strength and conditioning coach routinely works a 60-hour week, sometimes more.
A huge problem is pressure on the trainers and coaches to get sales. I don’t care what the NCSA says, it is NOT a trainer’s job to generate sales. It is a trainer’s job to train and a salesmen’s job to sell. I have worked for one chain where over half of expected income was to come from sales. Needless to say, I left quickly. I flirted with taking another job like this and turned it down when I learned of the pay structure. If the product you’re delivering is so bad, you have to continually sell to new people, it’s time to change the product to make it better. There is a reason the retention rate at commercial gyms is just around 50%. The retention rate at sports performance and smaller scale studios is around 90%. The reason? The product speaks for itself.
Oh boy, where do I start? It is an alphabet soup with certifications. Just to start – ACSM-PT, NCCA, NSCA-CPT, ACE-PT, NSCA-CSCS, DPT, AT, TRX, ISSA, Strong First, CrossFit, NASM, NCSF, NESTA, USAW… Alphabet soup.
Most certifications tell you nothing about how a trainer is as a coach. Also, most certifications do not prepare people to be coaches. Most places require a NCCA certification. This certification sounds great to corporate front office sales people and a corporate board, however, these certifications typically do not provide any instruction on program design, psychology, or compound exercise movement patterns. They do touch on hormonal interaction, muscle theory, and some basic nutritional guidelines. My Bachelor's degree covered everything in a NCCA course. However, what I did not learn about is program design and theory and movement patterns. I learned this from interning under coaches, attending seminars, and other certifications outside of the NCCA realm. The NCCA needs to be expanded and re-written to force NCCA compliant certs to include coaching technique and seminars, as right now they force a baseline scientific understanding but do nothing for coaching, technique, psychology, or gym management.
4. Machine Usage
Walk into any corporate gym and you will likely see over half of the gym floor is taken by cardio equipment. For the corporate gyms I have worked for, the largest one only had three squat racks. Three. Let that sink in, the largest one had 4,000 members. Three squat racks. They had close to 150 cardio machines, every type of cable machine and every pulley/plate loaded machine you could think of, yet they only had three squat racks and 8 total barbells, with no room to deadlift or do any Olympic lifts. At another corporate gym, they only had two medicine balls, no slam balls, and four plyo boxes total for over 10,000 members. The net result is, these pieces of equipment didn’t get used because fitness staff and trainers were encouraged to direct people to weight machines. I've only worked for one corporate gym which had Olympic bumper plates and barbells good enough for Olympic movements.
A major sports performance gym might have a layout similar to this: 40 squat racks, Olympic bars, specialty lifting bars, an agility section, sleds, and just a few machines. They also have plyo boxes for every station, slam balls, medicine balls, and other accessory work. The machines they did have were specially designed machines such as a reverse hyper or a belt squat machine. I have never seen either of those in a corporate gym.
The studios and other private gyms were similar to the sports performance places, just on a smaller scale. They had anywhere from 2-16 squat racks, maybe a cable crossover machine and a lat pulldown. They also had a full array of accessory equipment including boxes, slam balls, medicine balls, and Swiss balls. The primary goal was to make people better, not generate revenue. Studios, privately owned gyms, and sports performance places have the equipment to do this.
The problem is, many corporate owned gyms do not take the time to properly educate members on how to do a squat, a deadlift, or overhead press. Because of this, they let members read the pictures off a machine on how to do exercises. The result is members get bored in three months, quit the gym and move on, leading to the sales cycle mentioned above. The fitness staff's goal should be to train clients, not babysit people watching poor form on the fitness floor.
5. The Uniform
This "uniform" was taught in one of my undergrad classes: Khakis with a company polo. Every corporate gym I have been a part of has this same uniform to various extents. The sports performance gyms have all had their own variations and the private gyms do not have a uniform, but more of a dress code.
Several issues occur with using “the uniform:”
For a personal trainer, it hard to squat, deadlift, and move correctly in a pair of khakis and a polo. The professional look has its place - the gym floor is not one of them. When everyone is wearing the same polo, it is hard to tell front desk, member services, personal trainers, and group instructors apart. Most of the corporate places have this uniform. There has been one corporate gym exception to this, where every section had their own version of a uniform. Fitness staff and personal trainers were allowed to wear approved shorts with a company custom Nike performance t-shirt or V-neck. This allowed trainers to move freely and effectively and be easily identified from front office personnel. Front office was in typical business attire and member services had on khakis and a polo.
The sport performance industry and studios have a much more relaxed version, similar to the last corporate gym outlined with coaches in performance attire and front desk in business attire.
Studios often use an even more relaxed form, as long as the coach is in an athletic looking shirt and athletic shorts/sweats. Sometimes this can lead to confusion for new members on who is a coach and who is a client.
Definition of Irony “Don’t sit behind the desk on the computer during your shift, but log in to (x, y or z software) and document every conversation you have with a high risk drop out member.” So, I was supposed to talk to people then log that I had contact with them by burying my head in a computer.... and not having contact, appearing to be waiting time behind a screen. There’s only corporate gym where I have not had this happen (it’s the same corporate gym that had the uniform figured out).
Private gyms and studios typically only use one or two software systems. This helps reduce overhead as software subscription licenses are not cheap. A lot of software can be replaced by excel if a little time is spent upfront configuring excel to behave as expected.
The goal of Maverick Training is to have none of the problems as outlined above. I want to have a sports performance facility with top of the line barbells, racks, weights, and machines which allow you to develop, rather than a machine designed to halfway mimic a barbell. I want to give clients programs centered around their goals, rather than what is easiest to do. If you have seen any of the problems at your gym, comment below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The goal with Maverick Training is to be better than the rest and to reset the bar.