By: Rob Bratcher
Warehouse gyms, dive gyms, minimalist gyms, meta-modern fitness... whatever you want to call it. There has been a growing revolution of entrepreneurial-minded trainers and bored gym members peacing out of the corporate gyms, re-claiming warehouse spaces, (or in our case, a historic urban building), churning out ever-changing, ultra-effective, community-based training programs, taking full artistic liberty to create, innovate, and personalize their business, and (as our passion) making it a point to embrace surrounding neighborhoods toward positive community change. As the leaders of BAREfit, Curtis, myself, and our team think this lo-fi fitness movement is a damn beautiful thing. The best part is real people, many of whom wouldn't step foot in a traditional gym (because they hated it when they went, or knew they'd hate it so they never bothered) are seeing real life-changing results every single day.
Before starting BAREfit I spent 10 years working in and on traditional health clubs. During that time I managed/consulted somewhere between 25-30 clubs (I've lost count at this point). These gyms came in all shapes and sizes, some rural, some suburban, one on the beach (that was fun), some in the cornfields of Iowa, and everything in between. I have mostly great things to say about the people I met along the way, from members to co-workers, to gym owners. Many are still good friends of mine today.
With that said, there was a giant elephant sitting in the middle of most fitness centers that I worked in. That elephant's name is NON-USAGE. Here's the true story: Fully 80-90% of human beings who google "gyms in XYZ city," call and ask for rates, make an appointment for a "tour," get excited and impressed by the rows of treadmills with TVs and granite counters in the locker rooms, and eventually sign up for a "today only" special will CEASE TO ENTER THE BUILDING WITHIN THE FIRST 60 DAYS OF THEIR MEMBERSHIP! Pretty cray cray when you think about it. For me, someone who sold 1,200+ membership in 2007 alone (shameless self plug), that is a SAD FREAKING STATISTIC! So why is that? Why do so many people join, but so few go, and even fewer succeed? The answer is too multifaceted to answer in this blog post, but maybe we'll write one in the future that fully unpacks it. For now let's just say: (1) no accountability (2) committing to a new fitness lifestyle can be as tough as quitting smoking (3) little to no knowledge of resistance training. It's complicated stuff that requires years of study to master (4) vague goals render vague results (5) no relationship/boredom of doing it alone (5) A general sense of disconnection and feeling like a unit of production. Again there are many other factors, but those are a few. The biggest bummer is the physical and emotional elements that most prospective gym members are yearning for just aren't provided. I know because I was a "provider" of that business model for a long time.
When I in my early to mid 20's as a sales manager in the fitness industry, I would meet people in their 30's - 70's and feel what I thought was pragmatic empathy for their health-related reasons for joining a gym. When in reality I was working out solely to look good at that time of my life, and knew nothing about what it really feels like to be 35 years old, marching toward 40 at warp speed, house full of rug rats, working spouse, weekend overtime and/or work commitments, PTA meetings, church commitments, family commitments, dance recitals, and good God can I maybe go get a beer with a buddies every 4 months?!?!?
Now I'm 32 and guess what... I get it. I get it because I'm a husband, a dad, a small business owner, I'm not in the best shape of my life, I am prone to weekends involving too much dopamine releasing food/drink, and my old definition of busy is about as useless as an ashtray on a motorcycle. I'm confident that I will get it even more in the years ahead.
For you and I... the folks who have moved beyond the epic "pretend adult years" between 18 'til mid-20's into the real adult years of 28ish 'til casket drops... we are the big beneficiaries of the warehouse/minimalist gym movement. Here is why I say that:
I cannot speak for all indie gyms, though I have great respect for many. I can speak for BAREfit, so here are are 4 (of the many) elements we strive to provide, that I know with absolute certainty all of us over-worked, under-adventured (I just made that word up) grown ass people desperately want/need from a fitness lifestyle:
- Community: More than anything else BAREfit aims to foster community. From our monthly WORKout tracker that spawns fun competition, to our Earn Your Beer Challenges, to our popular Facebook forum, to our emphasis on class sizes that allow you to actually get to know people, to the many things we've envisioned but have yet to put into practice... we want BAREfit to be the Cheers Bar & Grill of the Louisville fitness world. Less of a gym and more of a before/after work hangout. An escape from your life with friends who encourage you to be your best every time you walk in. Never forced, but hopefully naturally, people become friends, and get to enjoy a few hours per week together making the world their playground @ BAREfit. That's why we call it the #BAREfitLIFE
- A Complete, Holistic Program: So many personal training models I ran in commercial gyms left a lot out of the equation. There are 5 primary elements to healthy fitness living. (1) Resistance Training (2) Cardiovascular Training (3) Nutrition (4) Supplementation (5) Non-Toxic/Balanced Lifestyle. For the purposes of this blog post I won't unpack each of those, but BAREfit, in our current format, and in the additional services we are working toward, aims to educate, motivate, encourage, and hold accountable, each BAREfitter to each of these areas. Simply meeting a trainer for 30 minutes every 2 weeks won't cut it, and that's what most corporate gyms are selling as their training offering for $150+ per month. My experience in seeing corporate clubs charge $400+ per month for the amount of training attention that will actually help clients, led our team to create a format that includes unlimited access to your coach in a small-group format 6 days per week @ a price you can afford. Our hope is to continue to enhance that availability even more as we move forward.
- A Laid Back Approach: Let's face it, sometimes we don't feel like getting yelled at by Mr. Perfect who hasn't forgotten to pre-cook and pack his 6 daily meals since he became a certified trainer at age 14. I'm kidding of course, but the idea of grace and lifelong journeying isn't bountiful in the fitness industry. It seems like places are either marketing "no commitment at all" or "became a bodybuilder." The in between is a wee bit skimpy. I'm sure some highly caffeinated bros may disagree with us, but they would also say curls are a primary movement and Buckcherry is a great band, so let's disregard them for now. We go hard every single day. I have personally vomited and nearly passed out after a BAREfit WORKout. So there is no shortage of intensity. But we are health professionals first, trainers second, and enforcers of pain a distant third. So we will kick your ass, but our primary goal is your overall health, proper scaling of exercise to match your fitness levels, and a slow, methodical, grace-driven progression toward your long-term goal of being in control of your physical well-being. We like to call it "bomb-proofing" your body. So we joke around, we have fun, we don't yell at people, and we pull you (rather than push you) toward your goals, doing our best to make sure you have a blast and look forward to coming in rather than dreading it. As always we look for your feedback to better serve you to this end.
- Real World Resistance Training: We talk about this a lot, so I'll be brief. But the bottom line is we weren't made to work out with Life Fitness equipment. Not hating on that brand, as they make quality equipment, but there is a better way. For about 199,950 of our 200,000 years on Earth, humans beings have burned calories and built muscle through labor, lifting random heavy crap for the purposes of farming, construction, and good old fashioned survival. As Captain Curtis says, "the world is not made of ergonomic gripped handles and equally balanced weights, so why would we train that way?" At BAREfit, we use equipment of all shapes and sizes, crafted by hand from re-claimed materials, and designed to be functional heavy crap for lifting, pushing, dragging, pulling, throwing, and sitting back down. Natural human movement + methodically designed, constantly varying program + heavy, variously shaped objects = the best results of your life. These WORKouts build strong, lean, conditioned athletes out of regular people, all scaled to be within your means.
At BAREfit, and many other indie training gyms to their credit, the 90% non-usage is reversed to be 90% results. Of the 200+ people who have spent time with BAREfit since we began, nearly everyone has a success story. Since we (trainers and clients alike) are all fallible humans, this number will never be 100%, but we continue to bust our butt daily to get as close as we can. Of course the corporate competitors don't like it much, because thriving local business represents death by a thousand cuts for many of them.
LA Fitness has bought out smaller big box brands such as Lifestyle Family Fitness and Urban Active. LA is becoming the Walmart of the fitness industry, and may soon stand alone as the remaining big box megagym chain. Only time will tell. We see other companies consistently dropping membership rates for open gym access due to a drop in perceived value. People want more than treadmill rentals. Some even offer free pizza and other goofy gimmicks to attract the un-gymed. While all of this is going on, BAREfit and our brethren in the local, indie training world continue to do our best to forge new ground by holding fast to timeless, bygone proven exercise foundations. Push, pull, pick up, put down, repeat. And while our hearts remain humble and gracious for everyone who gives us a chance to earn their business, we also acknowledge that we must be doing something right, because just like the extra-terrestrial pods in the 1978 cult classic, we are snatching lots of bodies out of the globo-gyms and into our modest dwellings. Thank you to everyone who reads this who supports local business. You give us a canvas to paint on, and allow us to feed our families by doing what we were born to do.