Reengage Your Returning Health Club Members with HIIT

Returning members seeking more demanding training need to be safely brought back up to previous levels of conditioning.

Having members come back during the pandemic is tricky. While we know that clubs have been proven to be safe, clean environments, there is still some trepidation regarding returning. As important as that perception may be, the physical condition of your members matters just as much.

Prior to the pandemic, federal data reveal that only about 25% of American adults got the government-recommended amount of weekly exercise. A recent study from the research publication platform Cambridge Open Engage shows that the pandemic has further lowered that number. In a sample of approximately 3,000 U.S. adults, people who were meeting exercise guidelines before the pandemic reported an average 32% reduction in physical activity once social-distancing measures went into effect.

Fortunately for operators whose members favor high-intensity interval training (HIIT), this is a population in which the motivation to come back and gear back up generally already exists. Regardless of the desire, it’s likely that you’ll still need to guide them as they ramp back up to previous routines.

Building the Intensity Back Up

Fitness programming catalyst fitness jacobs ladder limited use column

Just because members are back doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ready to dive back into HIIT at previous levels.

“As a rule, the vast majority of our members have gained body fat and lost overall fitness since returning from quarantine,” notes Chris Salisbury, chief success officer at Catalyst Fitness, which operates seven clubs in the Buffalo, N.Y. area. “The ‘COVID-19’ hangover is a very real thing and has resulted in stress, lack of routine, no access to exercise equipment, hunkering down at home, and accessibility to snacks all day, every day.”

Among the positives for Catalyst is that pre-pandemic demand for HIIT remains high among its members; it’s fitLAB proprietary HIIT classes continue to be among the chain’s most popular offerings.

But, Salisbury adds, modifications had to take place before members could begin exercising at previous levels, the most critical of which was addressing conditioning.

“Being ‘in shape’ is not the same as being fit or being conditioned,” he says. “In shape relates to simply looking good in your clothes. Having fitness or conditioning is about your body being able to take on high levels of strain repeatedly over an extended period of time and remaining able to perform at a high level. It takes time to get there.”

To help members adjust to these conditioning needs, Catalyst made some key programming changes.

“By now, we’re all aware that even if you’re fit, wearing a mask while exercising will get you winded more easily. As a result, our training team now coaches to a ‘masked-up’ perceived exertion chart,” relates Salisbury. “In addition, increasing rest periods and decreasing interval intensity has been key. We have reduced the intensity, time, and frequency of zone 4 intervals and regressed the exercises programmed in an effort to decrease the demand of the movement. It is not uncommon now for a circuit to include some mobility work to allow members to catch their breath while still remaining active.”

Through these changes, Catalyst has found that it takes members about four to six weeks to adapt to mask-related breathing restrictions and bring their conditioning back up.

And “the modifications described above have been successful in providing the challenging, fun, and sweaty experience that our members desire,” he adds.

A Versatile HIIT Tool

Fitness programming man using jacobs ladder limited use column

Among the training equipment mainstays for HIIT has been the Jacobs Ladder cardio machine.

“Jacobs Ladder is an amazing tool for both HIIT and endurance training, and it’s been especially helpful in a socially distanced environment,” says Salisbury. “Its compact size is excellent for optimizing space when designing the facility layout but more importantly, it has the ability to provide users with a high level of perceived exertion within seconds with low impact.”

Recently, Jacobs Ladder introduced the JLX, which features its first major redesign in 20 years.

“The JLX includes two major changes,” says Jacobs Ladder Founder and CEO Bob Palka. “First is the addition of two additional climbing modes that offer a different level of intensity. This gives the users four different climbing modes with different levels of intensity based on their workout goal. Second, the display has been re-designed to give it more of a car dashboard look and be more instructional to the user, resulting in less need for personal trainers to introduce workouts to members.”

The redesign offers improved training for HIIT while offering other users an entrée they may not have had before.

“The new design features and multiple hand positions allow our trainers to offer necessary regressions to clients,” says Salisbury. “They can do intervals combining both and feet climbing with just stepping. In the past the only regression possible was slowing down.”

The multiple hand position options he references also work to help introduce the machine to newer exercisers. They can now break the movement down, first utilizing the stepping motion and then adding the rung climbing.

“Previous to these modifications,” he says, “many novice exercisers struggled with the previous model and would get discouraged.”

Other changes, adds Palka, include an improved drive train, featuring smoother speed transitions and greater durability over time; cup and towel holders; and an entirely new look

For more on the new Jacobs Ladder JLX, visit their website.

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Jon Feld

Jon Feld is a contributor to