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Strength for Life

Strength for Life

More clubs are pushing strength training as a vital part of health and wellness for all members.

The strength area of a club has evolved over the years, and so, too, has its target audience. Sure, at many clubs, bodybuilders still lift and clang weights in a sweaty, intense atmosphere. However, today's clubs are stressing the importance of strength training to a wider segment of members, particularly Baby Boomers and novice club members. These new markets have caused a change in the type of strength training promoted at clubs and in the type of equipment that facilities house.

Most Baby Boomers and new members don't join a gym to prepare for a bodybuilding contest. They're there to increase their strength, range of motion and overall physical well-being.

“Boomers are now returning to strength training with a greater commitment because they recognize what strength training does to keep them more capable in their daily activities,” says Ed Trainor, vice president of fitness services and product development for Town Sports International (TSI), New York. “And it really is important to their health and wellness. What the Baby Boomers are realizing is you don't strength train to build big muscles on the vanity side; you build strength training to make you more functionally capable in life.”

Unfortunately, strength training and the accompanying equipment often can seem intimidating for people new to this type of exercise. To overcome this intimidation factor, some club owners are working with architects and designers to change the look and feel of their strength areas, making them more open and airy, much like their cardio area counterparts. Taking another cue from the cardio area, some operators are installing flat-screen TVs in strength areas.

The equipment itself also is changing to become more user friendly. Most newer models of strength equipment no longer come in just the white or black colors of the past but in a platinum look that manufacturers say makes the equipment look more inviting. Some manufacturers are making equipment shorter, too, so that members and staff can see each other better during workouts. The manufacturers also are making the machines easier to use and are using placards with exercise instructions so that members can use the equipment with little or no assistance.

“Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't need a placard,” says one manufacturer executive.

No, he didn't, but today's exercisers do, especially the ones who clubs are trying to attract the most.


24 Hour Fitness, San Ramon, CA, is following the recent industry trend of taking a more holistic approach to strength training, says Jim McPhail, senior vice president of real estate and development for 24 Hour. The company is adding more strength equipment — going from 60 to 70 pieces to about 100 pieces per club, McPhail says. In its strength areas in particular, 24 Hour is adding more TVs — just as it has in its cardio areas — and is creating more space for non-traditional exercises that involve balls and bands.

“We're seeing a much greater move to range of motion being important, a much bigger move to core and functional work, as opposed to just the old-fashioned and hardcore heavy dumbbell, heavy lift, plate-loaded movement,” McPhail says. “We dedicate a much greater space to that than we ever have to allow these functional training motions that occur in our club. In addition, as we look at gyms catering to a broader and wider audience than they ever have, [we are] making sure that equipment that we're using on the strength side really is as enjoyable and engaging as possible.”

With this trend, the average 24 Hour club has increased in size to between 42,000 and 46,000 square feet. Before, only a few clubs were more than 40,000 square feet, McPhail says, with a majority of the clubs ranging under 30,000 square feet.

“As fitness has changed, we realized that our members were requesting amenities that these lower-square-footage clubs could not accommodate,” McPhail says.

Lance Sapera, 24 Hour's director of equipment standards, says some members don't feel as intimidated in the strength areas, adding that there is a wide selection of equipment from which to choose.

“If you look across our equipment, you'll see selectorized, plate-loaded,the dumbbells, the barbells, plenty of cable, plenty of core,” Sapera says. “Whatever [members are] trying to do to achieve their fitness goals, it's there in this club for them, and it's accessible. You don't have somebody who is intimidated and afraid to use dumbbells because they're going to be using 20-pounders, and they don't want to stand next to somebody who is using 120 [pounds]. They can coexist in the club, and both get a terrific workout.”

With all the equipment updates comes the need to train staff on the new equipment so they can then show members how to use it. Last month, 24 Hour opened a new club in Pearl City, HI, its first new club in Hawaii in about nine years. For the first few days of its operation, vendors were on hand to help members get familiar with the new equipment, something that happens at all new 24 Hour clubs.

“The entire staff is trained at some level on all the equipment so that they understand the benefits,” Sapera says. “The service rep at the front desk gets it all the way up to the club manager. We can really help everybody achieve fitness done right.”

McPhail adds: “Our whole brand is about engaging your lifestyle, not being your lifestyle. Our thought process is people actually come indoors to work out because they can't go outdoors to work out.”

Free-weight areas are not going away but they are shrinking in size, says TSI's Trainor, whose company operates New York Sports Clubs, Boston Sports Clubs, Philadelphia Sports Clubs and Washington Sports Clubs. Trainor adds that while cardio training has always been a main emphasis in clubs, strength training is surging in popularity. Part of promoting strength to new markets involves making this type of training more convenient, Trainor says.

“As we train our clients, we recognize you have to meet your members wherever it's convenient for them, and that might mean at the gym, at home and at work,” Trainor says, noting that TSI trainers give members strength-training guidelines to follow so they can do routines on their own. “In order to give people opportunities to stay close, our trainers are trying to educate them. [Trainers might say,] ‘When you're not with me or when you're not at the gym, here are some things you can do to hold the line on your fitness.’ We want you at the gym first, but even when you're at the gym, we want to make it efficient for you. But we have to show members options.”

Next Page: A Strengthening Trend


Surveys from the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) and the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA) show that strength training is a growing trend among health club members.

In the recent IHRSA 2009 Profiles of Success report, 72 percent of health clubs surveyed offer strength training, and 38 percent offer group strength training. In the recent IHRSA 2009 Consumer Report, resistance machines top the list, with 27.8 percent of club members reporting that they use resistance machines. After treadmills (23.5 percent), elliptical trainers (17.7 percent) and upright stationary cycling (15.3 percent), dumbbells are fifth on the list at 15.2 percent, immediately followed by hand weights (15.1 percent), abdominal machines (14.7 percent) and barbells (14.2 percent).

This year's edition of SGMA's “Tracking the Fitness Movement” report shows that hand weights and weight/resistance machines are among the five most popular fitness activities in the United States, right alongside walking for fitness, treadmills and running/jogging. The report also shows that nearly 30 percent of core fitness participants — who exercise 50 or more days a year — are 55 years of age or older. The 2008 edition of SGMA's report showed that among core participants, more Americans over 35 (19.1 million) used resistance machines and home gyms than those under 35 (14.8 million).


Strength training for Baby Boomers and novice gym goers may not seem like a perfect fit for key-card clubs, such as Snap Fitness and Anytime Fitness, where staff is not always present to help members. However, even these clubs are promoting strength training to members. Snap Fitness, Chanhassen, MN, has a 30-minute Basic 8 Plan program on its Web site, which features the benefits of strength training.

Chad Baldwin, the director of personal training for Snap Fitness, says more equipment manufacturers are introducing all-in-one functional training machines with multiple adjustments and handle options. These machines can be used for exercises that target the major and minor muscle groups, Baldwin says.

“This trend is allowing everyone from the beginner to the advanced exerciser to get what they need from one piece of equipment,” Baldwin says. “Fitness professionals can complete their client's entire routine in one place by adjusting the machine to target the different muscle groups. Many personal training studios have a functional training machine to maximize exercise options while using the least amount of space.”

Baldwin adds that in most cases, members will need some form of guidance to navigate the all-in-one machines. Snap Fitness does have instruction available for its standard equipment package, and since the functional trainer is an “add-on” piece, it will be up to each club's franchisee to decide the method of instruction, Baldwin says.

This month, Anytime Fitness, Hastings, MN, rolled out a new Web site, that has a series of exercise videos involving machines, cables, free weights, body weights and exercise balls to strengthen all areas of the body.

Brian Zehetner, director of Anytime Health for Anytime Fitness, says manufacturers are producing equipment, such as bars, stability balls and kettlebells, that do not isolate one particular muscle group, helping members get a full workout.

“It's not all about getting big muscles, and it's not necessarily all about losing weight anymore, even though those are still two common goals,” Zehetner says. “A lot of people see strength training as a means of feeling better and moving better.”


Beginners to strength training may not know exactly how or where to begin, but it is important for them to learn a proper order of training.

Wayne Westcott, the fitness research director at Quincy College, Quincy, MA, uses a pyramid of strength training with previously untrained or older adults. The pyramid begins at the bottom with foundational training on machines, then moves up to fundamental training involving free weights. At the top is functional training involving medicine balls and other exercise balls. Beginning training at the top of the pyramid with functional exercises is not a good idea, Westcott says.

“You can do all kinds of things with functional [training], but too many people jump into it first before people have built their base of strength in their major muscles,” says Westcott, who retired earlier this year after spending 30 years with the YMCA. “I think that is a mistake in our industry. [Functional training is] more fun, maybe, but it's like the dessert. You still need your fish and your potatoes and vegetables first.”

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