I have been deeply involved in the industry and business of fitness for over 20 years. Within those two decades I have seen many changes in how fitness is being sold, utilized and marketed. Most of these changes turned out to simply be short lived fads, a few were influential enough to become trends that slightly changed the direction of the industry, while an even smaller amount became actual real movements.
An example of a trend I have seen come and go is the “instability everything training” that happened in the early 2000’s. During this time trainers in gyms went from training clients with traditional resistance type machines to having clients stand on all kinds of weird balance tools like inflatable disks, balls, wobble boards and balance foam rollers. The idea was to “activate” a client’s stabilizer muscles through balance thus making the exercises “more functional” and more effective. As silly as it may sound now this fad literally took over as the most common way to train clients. I thought it was ridiculous. Those of us with some experience knew the claims were false and that it was just another weird and cool looking trend that would go away. We were right. By the 2010 their use was being questioned regularly and soon trainers mostly abandoned their use. To be fair instability training did seem to slightly change how trainers train clients, but now it’s just a small tool in a trainer’s arsenal.
One of the most fascinating trends I have ever witnessed was the explosive growth and crash of the small and basic group setting “women’s only” gyms. The leader of this trend was the fitness franchise Curves. Curves was a business model where you had a small gym of around 1000- 3000 square feet (sometimes smaller) that had very little equipment. The equipment wasn’t like traditional resistance training equipment either, they employed pneumatic air pressure- controlled machines that gave you resistance based on how hard you applied force. It sounds sophisticated but in reality this type of equipment is basic and inexpensive. The big draw for Curves was that they were typically women’s only and they were marketed as small, inclusive (except for men), judgment free gyms where overweight, beginner or self-conscious people could workout. The combination of low start up cost (average 50-150k), small square footage and low overhead cost, and their appeal to a completely ignored segment of the fitness market was perfect for business success.
Curves started in 1992 and by 2006 it became the largest and fastest growing gym chain of all time with over 10,000 locations. It literally exploded onto the scene. I even considered investing in one, however once I started researching them I quickly changed my mind. Due to my experience of actually getting people more fit and healthy I saw a major flaw. Their approach to fitness simply did not work. The workouts were basic, which was fine for beginners but lacked they lacked the ability to progress clients past that point. It was also extremely repetitive and boring. Although they were a massive business, I knew they would fail because they missed one key important factor, they didn’t provide real fitness and health value. By 2017 the Curves franchise is left with just under 600 locations.
Although Curves declined almost as fast as they grew, they did leave a mark on the fitness industry, albeit a small one. The industry did pay attention and the fitness concept of group training gained more capital. Although group training had been around since day one, it was usually relegated as an afterthought. Big gyms offered group classes as an extra but group training wasn’t ever really considered to be a massive revenue draw. Curves proved that people (especially people new to fitness) not only enjoy group style training, but they actually prefer it. The group style of Curves was able to penetrate a segment of the population that the big box gyms were completely unable to. After the rise and fall of Curves, we saw an unprecedented explosion of small group style workout facilities ranging from yoga to Pilates to bootcamp classes. This eventually led to one of the more recent trends in the fitness industry.
Crossfit exploded into the fitness scene with a vengeance. Started in 2000 by Greg Glassman as an answer to the failed attempts of the fitness industry to imbed real and effective resistance training, Crossfit took the winning formula of Curves and put it on steroids. Group classes encouraged everyday people to lift weights as a counter to the impersonal solitude of gym workouts. The group setting served as motivation and people worked out much more consistently in Crossfit vs the average gym goer. The big difference however was the workout itself. Crossfit workouts were genuinely HARD and they utilized what are widely believed to be the most effective exercises known to man. People squatted, deadlifted, cleaned, pressed and did challenging body weight exercises. The biggest fail of Curves was its lack of intensity and effectiveness and Crossfit literally was the opposite.
Like Curves a Crossfit box required minimal start up capitol when compared to the cost of starting a traditional gym. If you had 70-150k you could have your own Crossfit box whereas it would easily cost 5-10 times as much to start a small traditional gym. The group setting plus the low startup cost plus the intense workouts was a recipe for success. In 2005 Crossfit had only 17 locations but by 2017 they had over 7000 in the US alone.
From the outside they looked invincible, but those of us who had decades of training experience knew the party would soon be over. Crossfit’s biggest strength was also its biggest weakness. The super intense workouts became legendary and people pushed themselves harder and harder and harder. The programming of the workouts included complex Olympic lifts to fatigue. I knew that this was not a long-term successful approach for most people. Too much intensity plus complex exercises done in a fatigue fashion was the recipe for overtraining, burnout and even injury. When I first started my podcast Mind Pump, my co hosts and I speculated that Crosfit would eventually lose steam and decline in popularity because of those factors and, although its still a bit premature to tell, it seems this may be the case. Compound that with the low rate of investment return that Crossfit box owners regularly see and it's not hard to predict an increasing rate of failure. Growth in the US has slowed down dramatically and is now flat. In my opinion I think we will see a slow and then rapid decline of Crossfit.
That being said, Crossfit has had one of the biggest positive contributions to the fitness industry that I have ever seen. Before Crossfit it was RARE to see women lifting heavy free weights. Gyms had tried for years to attract women but they did so in condescending ways with pink machines, small dumbbells and by promoting completely false myths like “heavy weights bulks women so they need to lift light for really high reps.” Crossfit showed women that lifting hard and heavy gave them the bodies they wanted faster than any other form of exercise. I had also almost NEVER seen anyone in regular gyms do full and proper barbell squats or deadlifts. In the massive 30-40 thousand square foot boxes I managed we would typically have one squat rack. Today the squat rack is one of the most popular places in gyms with people using barbells at rates we could have only dreamed of before. In my opinion Crossfit is a trend with long lasting effects and these effects have become a real movement.
As we may be beginning to see the decline of the Crossfit trend another player has taken center stage and is growing at rates that are unheard of. Enter Orange Theory. Orange Theory takes the best of the Curves model with relatively low start up costs (much higher than Curves or Crossfit but much less than a traditional gym) and combines it with group resistance training. The difference is that they took all of the complex and relatively dangerous exercises (dangerous for beginners at least) out of the foray and replaced them with exercises that require less coaching. Their gyms are modern, clean and exciting. Classes are led by a group instructor and members wear heart rate monitors to monitor their intensity. People are flocking to Orange Theory in DROVES.
Started in 2010, Orange Theory now boasts close to 1,000 locations and they are growing fast. The workouts are hard but the perception of injury and the complexity of the workouts is much lower than that with Crossift. The biggest plus is the profitability. Compared to Curves or Crossfit, Orange Theory locations seem to be far more successful with a larger mainstream draw and with systems and a business model that is designed for profit. I personally know several Orange Theory gym owners who make a lot of money especially when you compare them to other gyms of similar size.
That being said, I can see massive cracks in their armor. Although Orange Theory taps into the winning group training approach and has relatively low start up costs with high potential for profitability, their workout programming will be (in my opinion) their undoing. The workouts are intensity based and leave little room for modifications. Although intensity is an important factor when it comes to working out, if its over-applied it leads to progress plateaus and burnout. Since Orange Theory has blown up I am seeing more and more clients who’s bodies stopped responding and needed a total reversal of approach. The people I have seen are typically women who initially lose some weight but then find themselves taking more and more classes only to see their body not change at all. This is a common problem that the fitness industry still hasn’t come up with a solution for. The workouts are also extremely similar from workout to workout which can lead to motivation fatigue. It gets boring doing the same thing over and over again.
The last component that will eventually lead to the Orange Theory bubble pop is the influx of non fitness professionals investing in locations. Fitness is a business of passion and of love. Countless times I have seen business people from other industries come into fitness thinking they can just plug in the numbers fail miserably time and time again.
My favorite example happened in the company I made my bones in, 24 Hour Fitness. At one point it was the most profitable fitness gym franchise in the world valued at over 1 billion dollars with many locations profiting millions of dollars a year on their own. Then the founder Mark Mastrov sold his shares and stepped down and the business “bean counters” came in and took over. The company eventually declared bankruptcy and, although they are back on the rise, they still lack the power and ingenuity they once were known for.
At the moment Orange Theory is still exploding and adding clubs at faster and faster rates. If they can avoid the lure of allowing non fitness professionals from buying franchise locations I think the brand will have a much longer run. Running a gym is not like other businesses. Perhaps more than any other business, you need to be able to paint the dream to your members and you need to display the passion and love of fitness and health that is contagious. Only true fitness professionals know what this is and how to foster it.
Based on what I am seeing now and what I have seen in the past with other fitness brand, I can confidently say that Orange Theory has all the makings of another temporary trend. It will continue to grow for another decade before they start to pay the price for their poor long term exercise programming. Then non fitness investors will buy locations, build up their member base and then sell them off. Won’t take long for this to bring the business value way down as more and more locations come up for sale. If you are considering investing in an Orange Theory, I think you have between 3-6 years build a profitable location and be able to get out before the bubble pops.
My dream is that, at some point the fitness industry start selling fitness with integrity, passion and for health rather than for appearance. If we can get people to lift weights properly and in individualized ways and learn to enjoy all aspects of exercise including the relaxing and replenishing benefits and not just for super intense sweat sessions, I think we will see a real cultural shift. It's time and I believe people are ready for it.