How to Bring Functional Fitness Training to a Wider Population

Increase engagement—and revenue—in your health club by expanding your functional fitness training programming.

It may be an anecdotal observation, but some people have noticed an interesting phenomenon lately: CrossFit boxes are looking a little bit more like traditional clubs, and traditional clubs are looking a little bit more like CrossFit boxes.

As functional training (FT) spreads deeper into multipurpose clubs, the tools of functional training—kettlebells, medicine balls, Olympic bars, heavy ropes, exercise bands, etc.—are more commonplace in mainstream facilities. And functional training gyms are starting to house some machines and other accouterments you’d typically find in established health clubs. Some of the rigid practices of functional training in the CrossFit mold have been relaxed, just as traditional clubs have relinquished their reluctance to embrace FT.

“CrossFit boxes are looking a little bit more like traditional clubs, and traditional clubs are looking a little bit more like CrossFit boxes.”

This is a promising development. FT has been proven to deliver results. But more to the point, it’s outlasted the earlier stereotype of being only for the gritty gym rat. The techniques that drive the more hardcore FT workouts can be modified to apply to almost every training population that uses health clubs.

The key is in the term “functional.” The promise of FT is to use resistance training in a way that mimics everyday actions. This is an ideal system for populations like seniors who need to work on balance and mobility as they age. Through FT, members who have never tried resistance training can see the practical benefits of strength training and may be encouraged to try an entry-level program.

When it comes to FT, it’s time for club owners to think outside of the CrossFit box.

FT Is an Efficient Workout—and an Efficient Profit Center

As FT continues to have a bigger footprint in traditional clubs, it makes sense to enlist more members into FT programs. FT “zones” can accommodate more members per square feet than a cardio floor, which is limited to one member per cardio unit. According to The IHRSA Health Club Equipment Report, group exercise and functional-training areas were allotted 12.1% and 8.2% of space, respectively. It’s a better use of your floor space than cardio and other traditional training modalities.

It’s also good for the bottom line. Group X and SGT classes that utilize FT-based systems like HIIT are a growing non-dues revenue generator for clubs.

Unfortunately, many members see the unfamiliar equipment and exercises (e.g., burpees) in an FT environment and assume it’s not for them. FT coaches and enthusiasts can sometimes unintentionally intimidate members not well-versed in the discipline.

The 2018 IHRSA Health Club Consumer Report describes the situation well. “Most fitness professionals are passionate about the benefits that fitness provides. They’re the ones who are all-in with HIIT, cycling, or functional training. … Unfortunately, 80%, possibly 90%, of Americans don’t experience fitness the same way. In order to create experiences that appeal to this vast audience of skeptics, it’s important to empathize with members’ views—which may alter the way people are introduced to the benefits of fitness.”

Seniors, kids, and other member groups may not seem like good fits for FT, but diversifying FT and HIIT workouts has been proven to be a success in some markets. An article in Club Business International looked at the trend and found industry experts discovering a place for HIIT with unexpected audiences.

“Because it delivers results, [HIIT] will continue to boast a large and devoted following. … However, because it’s been popular for a long time, a number of variations of HIIT will emerge,” says the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

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Chris Gagliardi, the resource manager for ACE, says, “It’s also been steadily moving from a population of dedicated individual athletes to more group settings, being mainstreamed into other programming, and to populations with much wider age ranges.”

Bret Gibson, the fitness director of the Rollingwood Athletic Club, a multipurpose facility in Fair Oaks, CA, has introduced these workouts to a more diverse audience. Rollingwood’s membership base consists largely of families and an older cohort.

“Over the past year, we’ve had a rise in attendance of older members in our HIIT classes,” says Gibson. “We also offer them specialized HIIT classes, which emphasize balance, reaction time, and the use of low-impact exercise modalities, such as TRX.”

FT-based HIIT protocols have also been introduced to the other end of the age spectrum, according to CBI. The Australian franchise F45 recently launched a HIIT program for kids in Australia and New Zealand that focuses on children from 11 to 17.

None of these FT programs work if the training—and the equipment utilized—can’t be adjusted to match the strength and skill levels of the demographic. You need high-intensity, low-impact equipment that is easy to modify for everyone from seniors to kids.

FT & HIIT Tools That Work for Everybody

Equipment supplier Jacobs Ladder engineers some of the most innovative and versatile commercial products currently being used in FT and HIIT protocols in today’s clubs. The company’s flagship Jacobs Ladder and Jacobs Ladder 2 treadmill climbers are low-impact, self-powered machines with ladder-type rungs that are perfect for FT workouts that need to be modified for diverse groups. Jacobs Ladder equipment allows for a smooth and natural range of motion, and there are no weights that can be dropped. Exercisers burn calories at a much higher pace with a lower perceived exertion rate when compared with traditional cardio units.

More important for seniors and other FT newbies, Jacobs Ladder equipment is low impact and easy on joints and other soft tissue. It’s possible to have a high-energy workout without significant strain on the body. It can be used for gut-busting workouts for serious athletes or low-impact mobility training for older exercisers and other sensitive populations.

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These unique features are also integral to the company’s other products, including:

  • Stairway GTL. The first self-powered commercial stair-climber. It has a first step of 10 inches (most climbers are set at 18 inches), which makes it safer and easier for old and young, as well as those on rehabilitation programs. The secret behind this versatile climber is “smart” technology that learns your weight and adjusts the workout to match your body and step speed.
  • RopeFit. This self-powered rope climber features five resistance levels and a cleanable rope for easy accommodation for HIIT and FT protocols. It’s easy to use, and can adjust to any level of fitness skill.

All of the commercial equipment created by Jacobs Ladder is self-powered and sustainable. That saves on electricity. And these machines will fit into any FT areas and are easy to move to other locations in the club when necessary.

To learn more about the RopeFit, Stairway GTL, Jacobs Ladder, and Jacobs Ladder 2 machines, visit the company’s website, call them at 1-866-697-4100, or send an email.

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Jim Schmaltz

Jim Schmaltz is a contributor to IHRSA.org