For a minute, step out of the shoes of a fitness professional and into the shoes of a health club newcomer walking into a fitness facility for the first time. Maybe your doctor has sent you here, or perhaps you've read yet another newspaper article telling you how important it is to build your muscles, and you've decided it's finally time to heed the advice.

This time you vow to follow through with your intentions and get into shape. As you look out into the expanse of shiny, weight-training equipment on the gym floor, you realize you have no idea what the heck to do with any of it. You see the fit people using it, and you wonder what ever gave you the idea to try working out again.

Because many people can be fearful of the weight room, clubs have to do something to make them feel special without making them feel like a spectacle, says Wayne Westcott, research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA. With mounting evidence that strength training benefits everyone from pre-adolescents to centenarians, the challenge facing fitness club owners and managers is finding a way to increase participation in their weight rooms. A study released earlier this year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that only about 20 percent of Americans engage in resistance training twice a week. The national goal is to increase that to 30 percent by the end of the decade, says CDC epidemiologist Judy Kruger.

“There isn't a study that hasn't been able to document the beneficial effects of strength training for all aspects of the population,” says Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise.

Resistance training helps build muscles to power people through their activities of daily living. It helps both young and old prevent injuries, women and seniors build bones, revs up everyone's metabolism to boost weight loss, and replaces muscle lost due to aging, he says.

So why aren't more people interested in strength training? The problem, in part, is one of intimidation. It's also because for many people, weight training isn't all that enjoyable, says Kruger.

Owners and managers must shift their mindset and try to think like their members, say experts. The key is to understand what motivates people, says Michele Guerra, director of active seniors for fitness education publisher Human Kinetics and principal of a consulting group that helps facilities develop fitness programs for seniors.

“People, especially seniors, don't just want bigger muscles or a leaner body. What they want is to live the life they want to live for as long as they can,” she says. “You've got to hit them where they live.”

To draw members to strength training, clubs and manufacturers are using a variety of approaches: personal training, supervised small group circuit workouts, more user-friendly machines, classes aimed at specific populations, equipment designed with fun in mind, and special areas of the gym set up for those with special needs and concerns.

A Room of Their Own

Management at the South Shore YMCA is trying to entice more people to strength training by segregating two strength areas from the main fitness floor. The first area is a glassed-in room filled with kid-sized weight-training equipment for children under the age of 12 who participate in supervised resistance training classes. The kids can see their parents working out on the other side of the glass, and their parents can keep an eye on them, says Westcott. The youth program has a 95 percent attendance rate. Once participants turn 12, they can use the main fitness room.

The second area is a room devoted to helping special populations — seniors, overweight people or time-stressed professionals — get into shape. Groups of six to eight members participate in hour-long circuit training classes overseen by an instructor. Classes run for 10-week sessions, and include 20 minutes of strength training on 10 machines, stretching and 20 minutes of cardiovascular exercise, says Westcott.

Graduates of the class can take their stronger bodies and newfound skills to the main fitness floor to work out on their own, or they can sign up for another round of classes if they prefer the instructional atmosphere, says Westcott.

Technology to the Rescue

At the sprawling 450,000-square-foot East Bank Club in Chicago, all the strength equipment can seem intimidating to members. To move them past the intimidation, Tony Swain, fitness director, says he would like to set them up with a personal trainer who could teach them how to use the equipment, but it can be difficult to give personalized attention to all 10,000 members.

“Personal training is the best way of getting people to try weight training as a safe and effective activity,” Swain says. “There is so much information out there. Sometimes it is hard to know what to believe. When you get involved with a professional, they can help you demystify a lot of it.”

However, it's not always possible for new members to hire a trainer, so the club offers alternatives including a computer-based training program that is connected to the club's entire inventory of equipment. The system sets up an individualized program based on members' goals and fitness levels. Each time they come to the club, members can print a new workout to ensure they're getting a balanced routine. By using a variety of equipment, members gain expertise and confidence, says Swain.

The East Bank Club also offers express lunch-time workouts for small groups of members several times a month. A trainer leads the group through a 30-minute, upper- or lower-body workout. Not only do members learn new exercises, but they also meet the fitness staff, he says.

“We just have to keep encouraging people that if you have only 20 minutes, it's better to lift than to do cardio,” Swain says.

Back to Basics

Town Sports International (TSI) also uses a circuit to familiarize members with strength training. The company's XpressLine strength circuit promises members a total-body workout in 22 minutes. During peak hours in the morning, lunch time and after work, fitness trainers run a weight-circuit program that lets members quickly move through the eight to 12 machines.

“I can take a senior, an adolescent, somebody that is obese or inactive, or an athlete, and put them through a program on the XpressLine that is individual to their needs,” says Ed Trainor, vice president of fitness services and product development for TSI, which has 135 health and fitness facilities in New York, Boston, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia, with membership totaling more than 350,000. “And they'll get a great workout.”

The circuit was installed about four years ago after discussion about how best to serve members' needs, says Trainor. Although functional training is trendy, Trainor and other management at TSI thought circuit training was a better starting point for sedentary individuals. Because a trainer leads members through the circuit each time, they feel more comfortable and learn good exercise habits. Then they can venture out on their own, he says.

The XpressLine has been a good sales tool, Trainor says.

“It is the right thing to do for people, and because it is right, it sells itself,” he says. It also lets staff and members interact more with each other, which allows members to ask questions about other machines and exercises and can potentially lead to personal training sales.

Machines for the Masses

Although new fitness products continually hit the market, sometimes the “toys” are too advanced for newcomers to use, says Westcott. He is a proponent of starting newcomers to strength training on strength machines rather than free- weights because they offer a supportive structure and work the muscle through a predetermined range of motion.

“The muscles don't know the difference between free-weights and machines,” he says.

Sometimes people new to exercise might not know what muscle to focus on when they're using free-weights, he says. Also, when using a weight machine, it's possible to use more weight, and therefore do only one set of each exercise rather than the three usually used with free-weights, Westcott says. That means less time working out, which is a plus.

“We start with machines because it is simple, and it is easy,” he says.

Bryant agrees that exercise machines are becoming more user friendly, but he says it's time to look beyond traditional exercise regimens for those new to strength training. Too many people associate muscle training with the grunt-and-groan bodybuilder and power-lifter mentality.

“We have to figure out a way to make exercise more fun and more enjoyable for everyone,” Bryant says.

While Guerra is impressed with the new equipment offerings for unconditioned or special needs populations, she says the expense to change out equipment would be too great for many club owners. To make strength training more appealing to everyone, clubs can offer free equipment orientations or small group training. Studies show that older adults like to work out with older adults, and people over the age of 35 prefer exercising around people of their same fitness level.

Group exercise classes such as boot camps also are a popular option for introducing newcomers to strength training, Bryant says. Classes that use bands, balls and traditional body-weight resistance calisthenics also have value. These approaches might be good for people who look to exercise as a social outlet.

“The method of motivation is different because it relies not on technology but instead on the personality and techniques of the exercise instructor,” said Bryant.

In other words, strength training isn't necessarily all about the equipment in the weight room. For populations new to strength training, the best way to reduce the intimidation of the machines may be to inject social interaction and a staff member's personal touch through non-traditional strength-training programs. That just might be enough to get them to take that first step into the weight room and perhaps even stick around long enough to see results.

Strength Manufacturers

For a more complete listing of strength manufacturers, please visit our online Buyers' Guide at www.fitnessbusinessprobuyersguide.com.

▪ Atlantic Fitness Products www.atlantic-fitness.com
▪ Atlantis, Inc. www.atlantis-fit.com
▪ Body Masters www.body-masters.com
▪ Body-Solid www.bodysolid.com
▪ BodyGuard Fitness www.bodyguard-fitness.com
▪ Cybex www.ecybex.com
▪ DIESEL Fitness Equipment, Inc. www.dieselfitnessequipment.com
▪ FreeMotion Fitness www.freemotionfitness.com
▪ Gym Source www.gymsource.com
▪ GymCor.com www.gymcor.com
▪ Hampton Fitness Products www.hamptonfit.com
▪ HOIST Fitness Systems, Inc www.hoistfitness.com
▪ Impact2 Fitness Systems www.ifs2.com
▪ Intek Strength www.intekstrength.com
▪ Iron Grip www.irongrip.com
▪ Keiser Corp. www.keiser.com
▪ Life Fitness www.lifefitness.com
▪ Magnum Fitness Systems www.magnumfitness.com
▪ Matrix Fitness Equipment www.matrix-fitness.com
▪ Maximus Fitness Products www.maximusfitness.com
▪ MedX www.medxonline.com
▪ Muscle Dynamics www.muscledynamics.com
▪ Nautilus, Inc. www.nautilus.com
▪ Nebula Fitness www.nebula-fitness.com
▪ Paramount Fitness Corp. www.paramountfitness.com
▪ Precor, Inc. www.precor.com
▪ Pro Elite Strength Systems www.pro-elite.com
▪ Pro Star Sports www.prostarsports.com
▪ ProMaxima Fitness Manufacturing www.promaximamfg.com
▪ Power Bodies www.PowerBodiesETS.com
▪ Pulse Fitness Systems www.pulsefit.com
▪ Quantum Fitness www.quantumfitness.com
▪ Southern Xercise Inc. www.southernxercise.com
▪ SportsArt Fitness www.sportsartfitness.com
▪ Star Trac www.startrac.com
▪ Strive Smart Strength www.strivefit.com
▪ Troy Barbell www.troybarbell.com
▪ Technogym USA www.technogymusa.com
▪ TruForm Fitness www.truformfitness.com
▪ Tuff Stuff Fitness Equipment www.tuffstuff.net
Universal Gym Equipment www.universalgym.com
▪ Workout Advantage www.workoutadvantage.com