You don't need us to tell you that strength training is hot. In fact, the growing number of hydraulic and circuit clubs (starting with Curves, which now has the most fitness clubs nationwide) have helped push strength training to the top of America's fitness agenda.

The growth of express-type clubs is positive for all types of clubs when it comes to strength training, says Annette Lang, owner of Annette Lang Education Systems in Brooklyn, NY.

“If only in the sense that every single person who starts exercising at one of these facilities has a great chance of continuing with other types of strength-training principles,” Lang says.

The industry, along with some strong scientific research, has finally started to convince the public that lifting weights is a crucial part of overall fitness, health and weight loss.

It's estimated that about 26 million people lifted weights in 2003 — that's about a three percent increase from 2002 (to put it into perspective, about 29 million work out in a club and about 49 million exercise with some form of equipment), according to sports participation research from the National Sporting Goods Association. That's a pretty good chunk of people, but with 282 million people in America, a lot of people still haven't gotten the message or been motivated to tone-up.

Fitness facilities across the country are grabbing a piece of this competitive, strength-training pie by offering circuits, new equipment, discounted rates and special training. Some of these attempts are pulling new members in the door and retaining old ones, but other efforts aren't panning out as well as they could be. Other clubs are discovering rewards in training special populations. The options are endless and the monetary rewards are limitless. The only question is, is your facility doing enough?

New Ideas for Old Tricks

Circuits have become an increasingly popular option for clubs. Besides pleasing time-starved members, this approach also stakes a club's territory against the oh-so popular express workout clubs.

Circuits are particularly popular for new members, says Lang.

“This is done [in hopes of] preventing initial dropout, enhancing retention, which would then contribute to usage and purchases of other services in the facility,” she says.

Xpress Zone is 24 Hour Fitness' 30-minute circuit program. Rolled out nationally a little over a year ago, the circuit was developed to break down fitness barriers with a quick workout designed for busier members who have limited time.

“Our test market research showed both members and non-members really liked having access to the new Xpress Zone along with the additional amenities and services we offer,” Mark Mastrov, chairman and CEO of 24 Hour Fitness Worldwide, says in a release about the zone. “The results indicated that our members had a real need for this program — and so we delivered with a nationwide roll-out.”

Clubs are also enhancing their programs with functional strength training, but gearing it to enhance a person's ability to do everyday things, such as carrying groceries in from the car, going up stairs and picking up children. The training is also being used to enhance sports performance by incorporating multiple muscles and joints into exercises.

While this type of training doesn't require much equipment, functional training is so popular in group personal training and one-on-one training that much of the new equipment being introduced today is geared toward it (light dumbbells, resistance bands, exercise balls and medicine balls). By offering functional training in group and individual personal training sessions, this method of strength training adds to personal training revenue.

Casey Conrad, industry consultant, says functional fitness is a marketable term, although clubs shouldn't expect instant success from a newly launched program.

“Even though it's a sexy term, first of all you have to ask, who is the target member here?” she says. “A lot of clubs don't realize that it may take 12 months of a club running this for it to be successful.”

Orange Shoe Gym in Madison, WI, has taken the idea of functional fitness and built an entire club on it. By removing mirrors, headphones and machines, and adding individual attention from certified personal instructors, this club caters to traditional health club phobics.

“It has been very successful,” Joshua Martin, owner of Orange Shoe Gym, says. “People are looking for something new and fast. We offer an opportunity to get an excellent workout in one hour and have fun doing it.”

While some clubs are focused on offering various forms of strength training, other clubs have instead focused on marketing strength training to different demographics.

Perhaps taking their cue from Curves' success, many clubs are targeting each sex separately. It's common that clubs offer women-only programs and rooms, and with the introduction of clubs such as Cuts Fitness for Men, males have also been specifically targeted.

With more research showing the benefits of lifting weights to those over the age of 55, seniors have been another area of growth in strength training.

However, one of the highest demand areas for strength training is with youth. The Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans knows this. Owned by the Ochsner Clinic Foundation, a nonprofit hospital and care facility, Elmwood offers the Y2Kids programs to both its members and nonmembers, many of which are medically referred from the Ochsner Clinic Foundation.

“For the most part we have a lot of obese children in,” Michael Heim, Y2Kids manager, says about the weight management program, I Can Do It, a part of the Y2Kids program. “Some other kids have a small pot belly, and parents want to take care of it now.”

Wayne Westcott, fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA, says that clubs, YMCAs and school systems throughout the country are putting in weight systems designed and fitted for children because research has shown that strength training can be beneficial to curbing a child's problem with obesity.

Conrad warns though that these types of programs take lots of planning and time — something a lot of clubs can't fully devote to just one program.

“Really what happens is that only those clubs with a high level of organization can do this,” she says. “[Clubs] may try it once, but because it takes so much work to get the program off, very few clubs have the persistence to do it.”

Market It

Persistence may be one key to getting these programs off the ground, but marketing is the other. A club could have the greatest program in the world, but if it isn't marketed properly, no one will know about it — especially with the large number of strength-training options out there.

Clubs often choose a myriad of advertising options — signage, brochures, word of mouth, and what Lang calls the “buzz” created by seeing other members working out in an upbeat environment. However, not all marketing techniques are created equally. Conrad suggests weighing the cost of a marketing plan versus the potential benefit. For example, taking an ad out in the local paper for a functional fitness program may seem like a good idea at first, but the price of the ad may cost more than the revenue generated by the small number of people who respond to it.

“How many people are going to see that advertisement in a day?” she asks. “And those that do probably aren't going to call.The amount of money spent on news advertisements is probably not going to be cost effective. You have to weigh a lot of things.”

For this type of situation Conrad recommends looking at more creative options — such as handing out corporate fliers, which are cheaper to produce and may attract a more captive audience.

Karen Woodard, president of Premium Performance Training in Boulder, CO, says that marketing is instrumental in reaching members to become new clients.

“Marketing does not necessarily equate to giving a discount, and clubs should beware of making the mistake of not expanding a program,” she warns of facilities that are cautious about donating more staff and resources to their strength-training programs. “I often speak with clubs whose goal it is to have trainers keep clients. Initially, this may sound good as it relates to client retention. However, if the program is to grow, it is through increased clients, programs and prices.”

To do this, internal marketing is essential, and Woodard suggests that just as your membership department has a monthly referral promotion, the personal training department also needs a monthly referral promotion to bring in new strength-training clients.

She also cautions that most facilities are not running as profit-friendly as they could — and should — be when it comes to personal training, one of the most profitable and common strength-training programs of all.

“From a management perspective, clubs generally do not operate their personal training department as profitably as they could because they do not operate the department as a service and sales department,” Woodard says. “The personal training department should be managed much the same way a professional membership sales department is managed with individual goals assigned to meet the group goal, sales training, sales meetings, tracking, reports and accountability.”

When it comes to functional fitness, Lang has also seen some problems.

“The ‘functional’ strength training areas seem to still be problematic,” she says. “Some professionals want to have more open space, but some managers don't want to take the risk and have empty space that is perceived as a waste of space.”

These are all legitimate concerns and issues that each facility must address by balancing the pros and cons with a profile of their targeted audience in mind. One thing is for certain though: the rewards of marketing your strength-training programs go much farther than the weight room.

Marketing Methods

Debi Pillarella, 2004 American Council on Exercise fitness director of the year, says that the best thing facilities can do to increase their strength-training profits is to have the best strength-training program in their community.

“Word of mouth continues to be one of the best program promotions around,” she says.

However, she suggests these other methods to help get the word out about your strength-training program.

  • Advertisements in local media
  • Fliers in local businesses
  • Bring-in-a-friend deals
  • Billboards
  • Local press/media releases
  • Local airtime on radio/television
  • Having a “strength-training expert” at local health fairs, races, etc.
  • T-shirts for existing members to wear
  • Highlight members who have had success with the program
  • Any other creative means to have a presence in the community and create awareness for program offerings