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A few months back, I had a long talk with a close buddy about how I planned for every obstacle in business—except for the one we were facing. We were talking over video chat, of course, because it was during the lockdown. He’s a small business owner, like me, and he understood my frustration.
No business owner planned for this. My business partners and I were able to adjust and adapt to stay afloat during the quarantine period and now have opened our doors again. With that, we had to predict what the longterm social effects of COVID would be on places like gyms.
My gym, JDI Barbell, is a training facility focused on barbell movements and strength & conditioning. Even in New York City’s competitive market, we were able to grow our membership predominately through offering large classes and group training.
We’d pack out our evening group classes and the gym would be crowded for those few hours. Most gyms similar to ours followed this kind of model.
When we shut our doors in March, we went remote and started offering at-home training programs and Zoom training for our members and those who found us online looking for workouts to stay active inside. We went to work trying to find ways to offer something that you couldn’t find free from a quick internet search. There’s no lack of free at-home workout routine videos.
Our physical gym stood out because we had true experts giving hands-on coaching and we had great communities built within the group training classes. But with everyone isolated at home, we had to give something else to clients and members.
Teaching and constantly reinforcing the best practices for movement and weight training along with creating a framework for training that fit the personal needs of each member was a big part of our business model. Now with everyone in quarantine, it became the most important offer we had. So that’s what we doubled down on to give a value that people couldn’t find just anywhere.
My business partners and I noticed that while our members were in quarantine, many of them were satisfied with the new life their strength and fitness took. A lot of people realized that they could do this thing called fitness anywhere they wanted and that it could be whatever they wanted it to be.
It didn’t have to be a set number of reps and sets with some particular set of equipment. It didn’t need to be in a box, literally and figuratively.
So I started giving clients ideas on how to structure and combine whatever physical activities they were interested into a cohesive weekly and even monthly plan. It seemed that quarantine taught some that fitness didn’t have to be a box to check but that it could be done with fun hobbies and with whatever little equipment they had for some resistance based movements. As gym owners and coaches, we didn’t have to cater to one specialty of strength and fitness, and I think this will continue even now that we are opening gyms again.
We always offered a wide range of training programs, coaching, and guidance for all barbell training and strength sports. I’d have members who wanted to learn and improve in both Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting and I’d write would write detailed hybrid training cycles for them.
Now it seems this will be the core of what gyms like mine will need to provide for their members. Training programs and coaching tailored to each person’s wants and needs. We can’t fill out classes and get members interested in that anymore. The purpose of the coach and fitness professional is to be the resource to help them now that they know that they’ve learned that their fitness can be anything and done anywhere.
Because of this change, I believe more gyms like mine will grow from the social changes due to COVID and bigger, traditional gyms will fizzle out.
Big box gyms sold memberships and made money off all the different types of equipment and different classes they offered. During lockdown, many people bought whatever weights and equipment they could to workout from home. People not only dropped the mindset that fitness had to a look a certain way but also realized that they didn’t need much. With their workouts becoming more focused and creative, many people were working out more intensely without realizing and got in better shape.
When you don’t have much, you push harder with what you have instead of being distracted or overwhelmed by all of the options that fifty different types of resistance machines offer.
Some will always like to go to a place to workout and interact with others, but many, who may still work from home or who have busy and irregular schedules, may actually prefer to be able to get their workouts done at home.
Quarantine taught people how to take ownership of their physical fitness. What they need now is guidance. And that’s where those in the fitness profession need to focus their energies. The appeal of bigger gyms with all kinds of facilities is disappearing. Even after social distancing guidelines ease up, many people will still avoid overly crowded indoor areas. Suddenly joining the gym because they have basketball courts or a swimming pool won’t seem so important.
Big and small gyms alike will need to offer more options for personal guidance where members can come in on their own and follow a plan whether they meet with a trainer or not.
They will need to offer remote or hybrid remote and in-person coaching or program development that gives freedom and flexibility to each individual client .
There still may be some group classes but I think most should be replaced by semi-private coaching where members will have their own training plan with an option to come to coaching hours where a trainer walks the floor and helps anyone who’s there.
This massive shift frees fitness from four walls. This change was already taking form with obstacle races and other similar activities but the quarantine accelerated the movement.
It frees gyms, gym owners, trainers and coaches from being confined to give one kind of service. And it frees them from the gym walls as well. This can give anyone working in health and fitness an opportunity to advance their careers and make money in a more creative way. It can provide more options on where to work from and opportunity for greater mobility in their lives. They won’t need to be tied down to living or working in one place.
There’s some serious struggle still to come for the fitness industry to adapt to all this change but I think this is an opportunity for anyone in this trade to pivot and create new and better categories of physical fitness and better ideas on how to spread the word.
Jesse Irizarry, CSCS, is a strength coach and writer. He has close to 15 years of professional experience. He began as a college strength and conditioning coach and moved on to found JDI Barbell, NYC’s leading dedicated strength and conditioning gym specializing in foundational principle-based strength training, Olympic Weightlifting, powerlifting, and combat sports. Jesse has competed in strength sports like powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting but also enjoys and practices everything from Muay Thai, to different Yoga practices, to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, to trail runs and hiking. You can check out more of his writing on his website JDIStrength.com.