The Fitness Zone

Your clients don’t care about your program as much as you do

May 15, 2023 | by Jack Thomas

PTs, coaches and instructors may crave endless new exercise and class variations, but do members? Jack Thomas dug deeper to uncover what your lifeblood really cares about.

It was 2013 and I was fitness manager of The Lab, one of the first boutique group class fitness studios in Bangkok. After a high-flying first few years, we were seeing a dip in class numbers for our circuit training cardio and strength concept.

The problem

The coaching team was getting a little tired of our class structure and one of our members had mentioned they were getting bored. As fitness manager, it was my job to do something about it, so we got together as a team and agreed that something had to change. We brainstormed what could be our new special ingredient or spark of magic.

The ‘solution’

Pumped to deliver something special, we started dreaming up new and creative structures and formats. One coach suggested mixing up the work and rest times. Another said we should go counter clockwise for the last round. “We’re doing the same exercises again and again” screamed another passionate coach.

After much debate we had our solution: a whole new range of workout formats and exercises, coupled with sexy class names, such as ‘Beach Body’. Excited to launch our fresh workout creations, we released our revamped schedule. The team was excited to deliver class formats so original and so innovative that our members wouldn’t know what hit them.

The reaction

We were confident our ‘new and improved’ sessions would be a big hit and our clients were in a heightened state of anticipation after we’d hyped up our plans. Launch day came along and, during our first busy session, we were met with… a mix of indifference and confusion.

Half of our time was spent explaining how the class flowed and where they had to be next. The other half was taken up with talking clients through how to do all the intricate and challenging exercises that we’d spent hours creating. We were so busy running around the studio that our regular clients didn’t get the usual care and attention they’d become accustomed to.

Launch day came along and, during our first busy session, we were met with… a mix of indifference and confusion.

Looking for immediate verbal and visual feedback, we spoke to members and tried to gauge their reactions. Some were grumbling that it was confusing and hard to follow. A few quite liked it and appreciated that we were trying something new. However, most had the same reaction – complete indifference.

Unearthing the actual problem

I’ll be honest – there was no lightbulb moment where I suddenly realised what members wanted and needed, or what the solution was to keep our concept interesting and fresh. It took me some time, and numerous other experiments and research, to reach a solid conclusion on why we got the subdued reaction we did.

At this time, the early to mid-2010s, Crossfit was exploding in popularity worldwide, and was providing a real eye-opener for me into what people wanted from their club, or ‘box’, as it was known in the Crossfit space. So many people were flocking to the brand that, for a time, just opening one was almost guaranteed to offer a solid member base and a profitable business. What was interesting to me was that there were only a limited number of exercises offered in their program, such as deadlifts, squats, presses and cardio movements such as burpees, running or rowing.

What they lacked in variety of exercises, they made up for in measured progressive overload, supportive coaching (of course, the standard of coaching famously varied from box to box) and, the ingredient that they went all in on, community. Members could focus on improving their technique and strength in a select few staple, fundamental movements. Over time, they could see marked improvement and this progress became addictive. Crossfit changed the industry by offering a ‘third place’ after home and work where people felt comfortable, supported and part of something special. What they did not do is offer new exercises and formats every day.

What they did not do is offer new exercises and formats every day.

Coaching, connection, community

I tried another famous and successful concept during a trip to New York, Barry’s Bootcamp. On the program side they offered just two things – running and dumbbell strength – but despite this lack of variety it was hugely popular and remains so until this day. This is because they know they offer so much more than a running and dumbbell workout; they offer a workout experience guided by attentive ‘rockstar’ coaches, an escape from city life and an environment where their members can push hard and feel great.

Witnessing the world’s most successful concepts gave me some insight, but what really helped me understand what members wanted was working with so many coaches. I managed multiple locations and was responsible for hiring, training and managing a large team. I also had a lot of conversations with members on which coaches they liked, which they didn’t like and why.

Very rarely did I hear a member say the thing they loved most about a coach was their exercise selection. In the rare moments when the program was mentioned, it usually wasn’t praise for all the new and unique movements they’d never tried before; it was more an appreciation for the well-structured program, or something like the nicely weighted balance of upper and lower body exercises.

Very rarely did I hear a member say the thing they loved most about a coach was their exercise selection.

Genuine care and attentiveness

What they did rave about was the connection and vibe they got from their favourite coach. If the coach arrived early, chatted to them before the class and really looked like they were having a great time and wanted to be there, the member would warm to them and want to spend more time with them.

But, really, there was one thing above all others that our top, leading coaches did that really helped them reach superstar status among our member base – they would give them a high level of genuine care and attentiveness during the class, ensuring that the workout was at the right level for them on that day. Not just the usual cursory and routine ‘well done team’ or ‘keep going’, but really giving them the personalised attention that makes them a real coach, not just a cheerleader.

Time and again I saw that the coaches that put effort and care into their sessions developed the strongest followings. The coaches that were unenthusiastic, or worse still moody, were less popular and had class numbers that reflected this. After observing many coaches and classes and receiving tons of feedback from members, it was clear that a variety of exercises and class formats was not a significant factor in determining which coaches were loved and sought out.

Variety of exercises and class formats were not significant factors in determining which coaches were loved and sought out.

Variety is good, but care is great

It’s important to make a few points to avoid confusion. Firstly, some variety is important. I’ve seen lazy coaches repeat the same movements on consecutive days or have too many ‘go to’ exercises or programs they trot out, time and again. This usually doesn’t go down well with members, but I still maintain that the main problem in this situation, and the area of focus for any fitness manager, is the lack of care and effort from the coach rather than the repeated exercises.

Also, this isn’t to say that programming is not important – far from it. It does matter, but nowhere near as much as you think. When it comes to the program, most members are just looking for a structured and well designed program that’s part of a process, rather than endless ‘creative’ exercises and class formats that have never been seen or tried before.

Interestingly, the coaches that seem most drawn to endlessly changing up programs and exercises follow very regimented programs in their own training, focusing on getting better and stronger at a small number of exercises such as squats and deadlifts. If it’s good enough for you, why not your members?

Coaches and gym owners the world over learn their craft inside and out and deeply understand the human body and exercise selection. This is important, but the reality is that most members don’t really care about these things. Go a layer deeper and you’ll have your members training regularly and long-term, building a profitable and sustainable business along the way.

Jack Thomas

Jack Thomas

Jack is co-founder of The Fit Guide, the only global, independent rating system for premium fitness clubs and studios. He is also CEO of BASE, awarded 'Asia's Gym of the Year' and ClassPass's 'Bangkok's Best Studio'. Jack hosts the Fitness Business Asia podcast and is a regular speaker at the fitness industry's biggest conferences such as FIT Summit, Asia Fitness Conference, FIBO and ExPro.

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