Bruce Carter was standing on the basketball court of the Gold's Gym in Bloomington, IL, a couple of months ago when a woman came over to the unused half of the court and started doing lunges.
Then another woman walked over to the court to do her workout. Then another woman. Then another.
Because the Gold's Gym did not have the space for the exercises these women wanted to do, the women created their own workout space on the empty basketball court.
That was more than enough proof for Carter, a health club design consultant, that clubs need to create space for the growing number of members who want a type of strength training different from pumping iron.
Functional training — as opposed to traditional strength training on machines — has become a growing trend in clubs around the country. And the need for space for functional training has grown with it.
Is functional training here to stay?
“Unequivocally. There's no doubt about that,” Carter says.
John Morgan, who co-owns the Bloomington Gold's Gym, says he first noticed a trend toward functional training a few years ago when a lot of the smaller dumbbells and plates seemed to disappear. But they weren't missing. They were just “hiding” in the cubbyholes, corners and the other far reaches of his 57,000-square-foot gym. Several clients were taking the dumbbells and the plates to quieter areas of the gym to do functional training exercises on their own.
“We've got a million dollars worth of equipment, yet people were taking simple items like rubber bands and balls and light weights,” Morgan says. “At first, we were rebelling and a little frustrated because we would have to pick up all these items and return them to their original location. Then I thought, ‘Why fight it? Let's give them what they're asking for.’”
Craig LePage, the president of FitnessProgramsPlus.com based in Huntersville, NC, and the fitness director at two Precision Fitness clubs in North Carolina, says functional training is simply more fun for people who are intimidated by machines.
“There's a lot more creativeness in functional training, and that's where a lot of the trainers come in,” LePage says. “They can get extremely creative and do a tremendous amount of variation to every exercise that they're trying to perform. They're trying to individualize it to the person and what their background is. In the olden days, you would just get on a free weight machine and do what the machine does.”
Rudy Fabiano, president and design director of Fabiano Designs, says about three out of every four new clubs he designs has space dedicated solely for functional training.
“I think everybody agrees that non-membership dues is an important component of a successful club,” Fabiano says. “Functional training, which is really an extension of personal training, is one of the key points that a lot of the clubs are now focusing on.”
Fabiano is designing one club in New York that will have its functional training area more out in the open and another club in South Carolina that will have its functional training area more out of the way.
“No one will buy it if they don't see it (functional training),” says Carter, the owner of Optimal Fitness Design Systems International in Weston, FL. “But at the same time, you can't put it out in the center of your floor where everyone sees it. Then the people doing it are feeling uncomfortable and a little intimidated, especially the women.”
The average square footage of clubs has risen from 25,000 square feet to 35,000 square feet in the last five years, says Fabiano. Some of that area has gone to functional training areas, but little has gone to the machine areas.
In fact, Carter encouraged a client to remove 10 machines to make room for functional training space. Morgan says there's almost not enough room in his Gold's Gym for functional training.
“We wish we could get rid of some of our equipment to make room for this,” Morgan says. “It seems to be the most popular thing going on in the gym right now.”
So what about those “old-fashioned” strength machines? Will future fitness facilities be filled with empty space and no machines?
That's unlikely. Experts in the manufacturing industry say that you can't substitute resistance training with medicine ball training. One manufacturer was more blunt, saying that the rise of functional training (enhanced by more emphasis on personal training) comes down to dollars and cents.
“I think there's a lot of hype to it,” the manufacturer says. “It's a tool that private trainers use extensively to market what they do and try to bolster their economic capabilities.
“When you get into the core work and you have specific balance requirements and position requirements, it shows a need for a private trainer. Whether there's validity to that kind of training, that's debatable. That kind of training is exactly what a physical therapist does to rehab a post-surgery individual, but it's not necessarily a component to strength training.”
Carter says that the functional training trend can be profitable to club owners.
“If a good personal training staff is there, this core functional training area ends up becoming the highest revenue per square foot in the club,” Carter says. “We constantly have to be thinking about, ‘What's that deconditioned person thinking?’”
Clubs are converting some unusual spaces into functional training areas. Court House Plus in Vernon, CT, converted what used to be a member social area into a functional training area. Jamie Fairly, general manager of Court House Plus, had a bar that had been part of a bar and restaurant years ago taken out to make room for a personal fitness area.
Although the change has had little impact on the club's revenues as a personal training operation, it has taken trainers off of the exercise floor where they were competing for space with members and has given them a private area, Fairly says.
Gina Berta is the principal and managing partner of Breathe Fitness Studio in Mountainside, NJ, a one-year-old, 5,200-square-foot health club that focuses almost entirely on functional training. She has increased her staff of personal trainers from four to eight in a year's time and plans to add two more in the near future. The number of personal training sessions has increased, too, from almost 300 sessions in November to more than 500 in February.
Both of LePage's Precision Fitness clubs have added functional training equipment. For LePage, functional training hasn't been a big factor in ushering in a lot of new members as much as it has been in retaining current members.
Morgan says his Gold's Gym is spending thousands of dollars on equipment strictly for functional training, such as footballs, ropes and elastics. The gym is undergoing a $1 million renovation that is scheduled for completion in September. The remodeling includes a new functional training area carved out of what had been the other half of a basketball court.
“We're listening, basically, to the market,” Morgan says. “We didn't invent this (functional training). It's kind of coming whether we like it or not. We want to give our members what they're asking for. That's why we're pretty confident in spending the money. It's a no-brainer to give up half of the basketball floor.”
Creating a Functional Training Area in Your Club
Bruce Carter, owner of Optimal Designs Systems International in Weston, FL, offers three topics to consider before adding a functional training area in your club:
To offer functional training, clubs need to create space for the functional training equipment — medicine balls and racks, exercise balls and racks, floor mats, bands, etc. The key is to allow for freedom of movement for a minimum of three to four people and adequate storage for selected items. Carter recommends a minimum of 300 square feet and a maximum of 1,000 square feet for larger clubs.
Location Within Your Club
The functional training area should be off to the side and not out in the center of the exercise equipment areas. Deconditioned people will feel uncomfortable doing certain movements in the open. However, the area should not be behind closed doors. It should be visible so members can see the movements that help promote the area and exercises.
Organization and Cleanliness
A functional training area should include a wide variety of items for exercises. However, as a result, these areas often end up being disorganized, messy and hard to keep clean. Therefore, extra attention needs to be placed on proper storage units to keep the area organized. Also, the area needs to be attended to more often, including putting items back in their proper place.
Functional Training Is All the Buzz
Although it has been around a long time, the term “functional training” has become the new buzzword, especially as it relates to core training and helping people with their everyday chores such as lifting a small child and carrying a bag of groceries.
Some of the functional training clients at Breathe Fitness Studio in Mountainside, NJ, are athletes who use functional training to improve their athletic skills. Although standard resistance training machines aren't used in functional training, cable machines are sometimes used, along with medicine balls, bands and balance disks.
“A strong, stable core is necessary to help prevent injuries,” says Gina Berta, the principal and managing partner at Breathe Fitness Studio. She compares functional training methods to those in Pilates and yoga. “The most effective means of training the core,” she adds, “is in standing and moving postures that incorporate extending, bending, twisting and rotating, something not done on fixed machines.”
Dr. Leonard Kaminsky, a professor of exercise science at Ball State University in Muncie, IN, runs an adult physical fitness program on campus, mostly for middle-aged and older adults. Kaminsky considers himself a strong advocate for functional training.
“It amazes me that we're back to medicine balls,” Kaminsky says. “But they work. The bottom line is the functional training aspect of these things work.”
Opinions vary about how long the functional training trend will continue. Although Rob Bishop of Elevations Health Club in eastern Pennsylvania keeps close tabs on fitness trends and some of his well-traveled clients tell him about the latest trends in other states, he says functional training hasn't been in demand at his club.
“Right now, we definitely would classify it as a trend,” Bishop says. “Whether or not it will become a permanent part of fitness, I think it's a little early to tell. I think certain aspects of it are going to be a permanent part of the fitness program. At the same time, I think a lot of those things already were a part of the fitness program. I just think now we're giving it a name.”
Bruce Carter of Optimal Fitness Design Systems International in Weston, FL, says that the trend away from strictly muscle building is significant. He points out that fewer bodybuilding shows are on ESPN these days. He also points out that Gold's Gym replaced the cartoon bodybuilder in its logo with more of a statuesque bodybuilder and that the new owners of World Gym got rid of the gorilla in its logo.
“It shows that the interest in building muscle isn't the same as it used to be,” Carter says. “You still have guys who want to bodybuild, who want to get big. But the demand for that…is not the same.”
John Morgan, co-owner of Gold's Gym in Bloomington, IL, agrees with Carter.
“(Functional training) does seem to be drawing away from what used to be represented in gyms with the bodybuilding and the powerlifting and the grunting and the chalk and the huge muscles,” Morgan says. “Now we're seeing 45- to 50-year-old women and men coming in that just want to get in shape. Nobody cares if you can move a truck.”