Group exercise has gotten more sophisticated in recent years. Machines typically used for solo activity — from cycles and treadmills, selectorized equipment to ellipticals — have found their way into group settings. Subsequently, members who normally work out on their own are now tempted into joining exercise classes, getting better results (and thus staying with the club longer) in the process.

While not replacing traditional classes, equipment-based group exercise adds variety to many a club's programming schedule. “[Group exercise] has gone from its infancy,” says Fred Kronk, regional director of health and fitness for the Gold Coast Multiplex in Chicago. “The industry has kind of developed in its programming where we can use anything in the programming…. It's the creative process.”

Gold Coast offers group cycling, circuit training and treading classes, as well as triathlon training programs incorporating treadmills, bikes and a pool. But it wasn't always that way.

“We used to think we could not use these large pieces [for group exercise] because of their size, but now we're saying, ‘Why not?’” Kronk says.

Other clubs are asking themselves that very same question — especially as the population ages. With older adults making up an increasingly large percentage of the membership base, clubs may turn to machine-based programming as a friendlier exercise option.

“I think…Step aerobics and a lot of the big '80s type of classes are not as big because they've been found to promote injury, and machines are very safe,” explains Jeff Garber of Pennsylvania's Hatfield Athletic Club.

Not only are equipment-based classes safe, they are effective. Exercising on machines in a group setting may have advantages over using the same machines during a solitary workout.

“People are finding that they aren't working as hard on their own,” says Annette Lang, Reebok University master trainer, and national consulting director for the Esquerre Fitness Group International (EFGI), a fitness consulting company out of Deerfield Beach, Fla. “If you have an instructor, they're going to make you try something different…. It's great for those days that you don't feel motivated.”

But what's the motivation for the move to machines? After all, group exercise can be effective without equipment. “From an industry standpoint, equipment manufacturers obviously want to tap into group fitness because that's a market they've never had before…,” explains Garber. “It's another niche. From a club standpoint, it's variety, it's something new.” Which equals a win-win-win situation for all parties involved — equipment manufacturers, clubs and members.

Still, investing in equipment for group exercise can be expensive. Fortunately, clubs with a limited budget can use existing equipment for group fitness. They can also re-examine how they look at group fitness, suggests Nike contract athlete Jay Blahnik, owner of the Californian consulting firm Body Dynamics.

“A usual group exercise class is 60 minutes long,” he explains. “What about 15 minutes?”

In other words, instead of buying a dozen machines for an hour-long program, purchase four pieces (a smaller investment), and then run four, 15-minute classes back-to-back during prime-time hours. The shorter program not only saves you money, it opens group exercise up to people who may not have the time for a 60-minute class (or who feel too intimidated).

“If you rethink how to program [the class], then they may consider it,” Blahnik says.

In addition to thinking about programming, clubs should think about the machine itself. Newer pieces that serve only one function may turn out to be fads, and you don't want to dedicate a fleet of machines to an exercise program with the shelf life of a Chia pet.

If you're uncertain of the investment, consider how instructors will be able to interact with the equipment and members. It helps if the machines permit instructors to show off their creativity and charisma, keys to any successful exercise class.

“You can have everything, but if you don't have the creativity, then it's not a good investment,” says Garber.

Versatile Investment

It also helps if the machines are versatile. “It's important to have a machine that does more than one thing,” advises Betty Schindler, co-owner of the Body Rock in Houston.

Schindler's club recently invested in equipment for a strength-training class. To get the most from the machines, she put them in a group exercise room where personal trainers use the equipment to take a small class through the program. Since the machines allow for a variety of exercises, members can get a complete workout in a quick session.

By combining the strength machines with personal trainers, Schindler has been able to charge additional fees for the class, thus offsetting the cost of the program investment. Generally speaking, clubs can charge fees for equipment-based programs if the classes require specialized training or are part of a specialized curriculum.

“If it's just an initial investment and the equipment can be used throughout the club…, I would not charge for that,” Kronk says.

“I've seen clubs experience both success and failure” by charging fees for equipment-based classes, adds Blahnik. “If a club traditionally doesn't charge, then you shouldn't charge.”

If you do want to charge for a class, then launch it as a program with a beginning, end, and a set of goals, Blahnik advises. For example, use the equipment in an eight-week program designed for members who want to lose weight.

Charging for the class may justify the expense of the equipment, but even free machine-based programs can be worth the cost. Specifically, machines may help to introduce more timid members to group exercise precisely because of their simplicity.

“[Equipment-based classes] require a low skill to participate,” Blahnik explains. “The No. 1 reason people go to gyms is for the socialization, but traditional group exercise classes can be intimidating.”

While many complicated aerobic routines require a degree of coordination that would stump Mikhail Baryshnikov, equipment-based classes are more intuitive. After all, everyone knows how to ride a bike or walk.

“A tremendous amount of people who go to gyms gravitate towards treadmills, towards bikes,” Blahnik points out.

Why? Because a bike or treadmill is simple. “If you don't know how to use it, no one knows,” Blahnik says.

Simplicity isn't the only advantage that equipment brings to group exercise. Machines such as treadmills and bikes allow a member to go at her own pace without looking out of place.

Since equipment-based classes can appeal to people who already use the same equipment on their own, then it makes sense to market these programs to lone exercisers. Just make sure you don't alienate them first.

Due to space constrictions, equipment-based classes are often held out on the main exercise floor, which can have its drawbacks. Consider the following: Steve is a veteran club member. Every work day, he goes to the gym during his lunch break and hops on a treadmill for 30 minutes. Then, one day, he heads over to the cardio deck and a group exercise class is monopolizing the treadmills.

Steamed because he can't get in his workout, Steve complains to the manager, who informs him that the treadmills are now reserved for a new class taking place from noon to 1 p.m. weekdays. Steve must make a choice: join the class, come to the club at a less convenient time, or quit and join another club. If you own Steve's club, you're hoping he won't opt for the latter.

To take the third option off of Steve's list, get him to consider the first. The same strategy applies to all members.

To encourage members to join the class, you first need to let them know when the equipment-based classes are scheduled. Secondly, don't reserve the equipment. If a member is on a bike, treadmill, etc., don't kick her off when the class starts.

“I don't like the idea of reserving treadmills,” Kronk says. “I would never tell them to move.

“There's a way of saying it,” he adds “‘There's a class going on here; you're welcome to join in.’”

If the person declines, then politely offer to show her how to do a similar exercise on equipment that isn't required for the class. For example, if a member is using the curl machine needed for the circuit-training class, your personal trainer could show her how to target the biceps with dumbbells, thus freeing up the machine for class use, says Garber.

This, however, should be the last resort. In the end, you'll want to try to recruit members for the class.

“You don't want to displace them, you want to market to them,” says Blahnik.

“Instead of trying to create new programs for the same group exercise people, talk to the people [who exercise alone] but are using the equipment.”

Too often, clubs look at class participants and solo exercisers as two distinct populations, but they don't need to be. “Have a mission behind the class and go seek out those people,” says Blahnik.

You won't have to look far. If you are planning on offering a group circuit-training program at 12:15 on a Monday in the club's weight room, go to that area on a Monday at 12:15 and recruit members. Most people are creatures of habit and tend to fit in their workout at the same time periods every week.

“Look who's there and talk to them,” Blahnik advises.

“If you're going to use equipment that's currently being occupied, then you need to tailor those classes to those people who are currently [on the machines],” he continues.

Plug the Programs

Whatever method you choose to promote the program, make the marketing proactive. Hatfield Athletic Club pushes the programs over its loudspeakers, and personal trainers plug the classes during initial consultations with new members. In fact, the club targets all members.

“We market [the programs] by consulting our members,” Garber says. “Are they getting results every three to four weeks? If not, we invite them to the class.”

Clubs that hold the classes on the main exercise floor may find that the programs promote themselves. Having equipment-based classes out in the open can be quite positive for the club and its members. People who would never go to a group exercise class can see a program for themselves. Even if they don't join in, the class is all around them, building a feeling of camaraderie, explains Kronk.

“It's great advertising!” Blahnik says. “It creates energy and gives something for people to watch.”

Cheap and Easy

Equipment-based programming on a budget

Industry experts list these as their favorite inexpensive group exercise props:

  • Dumbbells/handweights
  • Jump ropes
  • Therabands
  • Tubing
  • Medicine, stability, Swiss and beach balls
  • Towels (to aid in stretching)
  • Stability boards
  • Slide boards
  • Mini-trampolines
  • Weighted bars (e.g., Body Bars)
  • The outdoors (use your imagination)
  • Equipped to Succeed

    What's your opinion about equipment-based group exercise? Tell us all about it! Drop us a line at: Letters to the Editor, Club Industry, One Plymouth Meeting, Suite 501, Plymouth Meeting, PA 19462. E-mail: jjanda@primediabusiness.com. Fax: (610) 238-0992.