THE WEEKLY HOWL IS SELLING CARS

Be Better: F45 is a popular Australian gym that has started to expand into the U.S. It’s group training in the functional fitness/HIIT mold. Vox published an article on the company this week and once again, the fitness industry did not receive a good analysis:

A 45-minute, high-speed series of punishing, “functional” exercises that engage multiple muscle groups — hence F45 — the Down Under export currently has 1,300-plus outlets across the globe, with 570 gyms active or planning to open in the US. For comparison, Pure Barre has roughly 460 US locations, and SoulCycle has 88 studios. I’ve attended F45 classes in the Venice studio and saw George’s face and form onscreen, modeling perfect burpees, effortless squats, and nonchalant hammer swings, before I met him in person.

Also:

It’s no accident the Aussie chain, which has recently made big inroads in Canada and the UK, chose red, white, and blue for its logo and gym decor (“We actually made it look Americanized because we always wanted to take it to the US,” Deutsch said in an interview). The company, and franchises, seeks to grab a larger portion of the US gym market. Gyms, fitness clubs, and fitness franchises comprise a $37.1 billion chunk of the United States health and wellness industry, according to IBISWorld research, with nearly 61 million Americans paying for membership.

Pete McCall, host of the All About Fitness podcast, compares the growth of these franchises to Howard Schultz’s strategy with Starbucks; spend on new locations, instead of advertising, and explosive growth becomes the story.

One of my pet peeves is when people compare the growth of gyms without accounting for the business models that each organization uses. There is huge difference between franchises and corporate owned gyms. Companies using the corporate-owned model use their own money to open new locations, own 100% of them, and are fully responsible for operating them. Companies using the franchise model license their name to someone else who puts up their own money to and then pays various fees and shares revenue to the franchisor. It’s not hard to figure out which model promotes rapid growth in the number of locations. It also makes comparing the growth of a franchisor to a non-franchisor meaningless. Also, Starbucks is not a franchisor. They spend their own money on new locations, F45 does not. That’s a terrible comparison.

A big part of the growth in boutiques is based on the business model. Think about trying to open a big box gym versus a studio. Big box gyms are usually in excess of 20,000 square feet. Studios are usually well under 5,000 square feet. Big boxes were founded on the philosophy of body building. That meant purchasing large, expensive strength machines that were designed to isolate the muscle. The advantage of these machines from a business POV is that they don’t require much instruction or supervision. You could fill a box with these machines and your members would be able to figure out how to use them. This meant that operating a big box gym would not require hiring a whole lot of employees. The startup costs associated with opening a big box are enormous and out of the reach of most people. The growing popularity of studios created an opening for thousands of fitness entrepreneurs to start their own gyms because they could afford to do so. Most studios don’t have a lot of equipment either but they do require a lot of instruction. Fitness entrepreneurs typically address this issue by serving as instructors in addition to owner/operator, at least at first.

Business models matter. They can magnify trends in the industry and determine which company grows the fastest as well as which company makes the most money. CrossFit has had enormous success by eschewing both the corporate-owned and franchise models. The affiliate model that CrossFit employs has radically low licensing fees, no revenue sharing, very few rules, little support, and no exclusivity. It’s also why CrossFit is the fastest growing fitness company in the world over the last 10 years. It was designed to do so. They made it easy and cheap to open a CrossFit box so thousands of people did. Just don’t compare CrossFit to F45 to SoulCycle without acknowledging that those 3 companies have very different ways of managing their own growth.

Sex isn’t the only thing that sells: Have you been seeing ads that look like they’re for a gym but it turns out that they’re selling beer or cars? It’s a new subdivision of marketing that I call fitness marketing. It is the promotion of other products/services through fitness. This can take the form of traditional advertising like those Michelob Ultra commercials or it can be experiential marketing like stores holding workout classes. Acura is getting in on with their latest ad campaign, in which they’re partnering with SB Nation:

For decades, the most advanced piece of technology in a neighborhood gym was the treadmill. Workout routines were woefully analog as well. Want to lose weight? Go for a run. Want to gain muscle? Lift heavy things.

Those barebones gyms are no more — tech upgrades have leveled up our workouts and performance. State-of-the-art composition scales can break down your body by its fat, water, and muscle mass, and the ubiquity of connected equipment and wearable tech has given athletes more feedback on their performance than ever before. There are even gyms that will tailor workout plans to your genetic and physical makeup, using 3D body scanners and breath analysis to create a routine that is uniquely yours. Say goodbye to your treadmill and hello to the skate-mill.

Exercise fiends looking to upgrade their workouts have a whole new slew of data-connected equipment and metrics to help them get to the next level. Watch Jacques Slade take back control of his gym routine with the help of Peter Vodden, trainer and owner of the Los Angeles gym Pharos, with the power of the Acura ILX to inspire him.

              There is a video as well that is not nearly as awkward as the write-up. Acura seems to want to draw a line through the idea of high performance. I think that they want to go after the type of person that demands the highest level of performance from themselves and the products that they use (i.e. their car). I don’t think that they do a very good job though. His car inspires him to “take control of his gym routine”? What?

              It is interesting to see a company stretching so hard to do fitness marketing. I don’t think that the people behind this know much about fitness but they know that they can use it to reach the consumers they’re going after. This ad campaign is clumsy and awkward but it serves as a reminder that fitness marketing is in the very early days. Companies are starting to realize that fitness is a way to connect with their consumers but they’re not all that good at it yet.

Shoe Wars: It’s no surprise that activity levels are up. The fitness and outdoor industry are growing fast. People are prioritizing fitness and experiences over just accumulating material goods. What is surprising is that the brands in those industries might not be reaping the rewards that you would expect. From Footwear News:

But according to Matt Powell, senior sports industry analyst for The NPD Group Inc., brands aren’t capitalizing off of the increased participation. The insider believes it’s because brands are too focused on making top-tier product.

“Making more affordable product, not focusing on the pinnacle product, is really key,” Powell said. “Athletic brands are far too focused on making expensive products that are meant for pinnacle athletes only. In many cases the people who are doing sports today are not looking for pinnacle products, they’re looking for good enough products. I think the same story applies to the outdoor world as well.”

However, if past trends discovered at Outdoor Retailer events is an indication of what’s to come, Powell may see the good products at palatable price points that he believes the industry needs. In July during the Summer Market presentation in Denver, top brands in the industry showed styles boasting performance features at a lower retail price, as well as multisport footwear styles ready for multiple activities, eliminating the need for multiple pairs of shoes.

              If this is true, then I have to wonder why this is. There was a hard shift to minimalist footwear in the late 00’s. The pendulum has swung back from Vibrams but hasn’t gone back to overbuilt shoes. Functional fitness (and some of the disciplines that influence it) has always been about “less is more” when it comes to footwear. Chuck Taylors have always been popular amongst powerlifters and I see more of those in the gym today than I ever used to. The functional fitness shoes produced by Nike and Reebok are tiny compared to the cross-trainers of the 80’s and 90’s, even though they were ostensibly designed for similar function. It is difficult for Nike to work a lot of its design & marketing magic when the demand is for stripped down footwear. The price point for Nike Metcons and Reebok Nanos is much lower than those companies might like to charge for their premier training shoes. It will be interesting to see how this dynamic will affect the negotiations for the CrossFit apparel deal. CrossFit is keeping Reebok in the black right now. If they lose it, they’re screwed but Nike might be feeling even more pressure to become the official CrossFit shoe and apparel provider.  

Military Fitness: U.S. Military fitness tests have traditionally followed a formula. One upper-body exercise utilizing bodyweight (pull-ups for the Marines, push-ups for everyone else), some variation of sit-ups or crunches, and then a short run. The advantage of this format is that it is easy to test. Very little equipment is needed and you can test large numbers of people at once. The disadvantage is that it is not the best way to test service members’ combat readiness. The U.S. Army is introducing a new test that is slated to debut in 2020 and involves deadlifts and kettlebells. The U.S. Marine Corps is also considering making some changes to its fitness test as well. From the Marine Corps Times:

 Over the past several years the Corps has been sending Marines to partake in or observe Royal Marine commando fitness training routines to better gauge changes to the Corps’ own fitness regimen and Force Fitness Instructor, or FFI, program.

Marine Corps Times has obtained several ­after-action reports spanning 2016–2018 that detail an internal debate among the Corps’ fitness gurus on the best way to build a Corps that can better ­withstand the physical rigors of combat.

Some of the after-action reports have made their way to the assistant commandant’s office, the sergeant major of the Marine Corps and the Force Fitness Division, highlighting the level of importance the Corps has placed on feedback and knowledge coming from lessons learned at the Royal Marine Commando course.

Staff Sgt. Richie Salinas and Staff Sgt Ray Anatoly, two American Marine FFIs, were among the first wave of U.S. Marines to fully attend the commando’s elite 17-week Physical Training Instructor program, or PTI.

Their advice to the Corps: It’s time to overhaul its fitness program. They say it would be better to move the Corps’ culture, which is overly focused on strength training and college athletics, to a regimen focused on sustainable fitness that involves body weight exercises, routine assessments and builds muscular endurance and functional combat fitness.

Salinas and Anatoly, in their after-action report to the Corps, also called for an overhaul of the Marines’ two annual fitness tests, the combat fitness test, or CFT, and the physical fitness test, or PFT.

Specifically, the two Marine staff noncommissioned officers recommended the Marine Corps replace the PFT with the Royal Marine Commando Fitness Assessment, which commonly is referred to as the bleep or beep test.

Their after-action report also called for the Corps to replace the CFT with a standardized timed obstacle course, and for the Marines to ­incorporate a Corps-wide practice of speed marches with 32-pound kits at a 10-minute mile pace.

What is the beep test?

Each repetition is conducted at the sound of a beep, making it an intense test of muscular endurance and stamina. One after-action report reviewed by Marine Corps Times claimed this test is difficult to cheat on and “removes human error,” unlike the Marine Corps PFT, which involves “personal ­interpretation” of the movement.

The beeps are key to the test and set the pace of the exercise. For pullups, when a beep is sounded, the candidate pulls up, then after the next beep they come back down. This causes the pullups portion to slow down, and causes a person to pause slightly at the top of the bar that they must hold until the next beep.

The beeps also make the test easy to judge and administer. If a candidate isn’t keeping pace with the beeps and press-ups, it becomes fairly obvious to an instructor or observer.

“If they miss the beep it’s pretty much stand up, you’re done,” Salinas explained, regarding the press-ups.

              This is a great idea for any bodyweight exercise in a fitness test. Policing everyone’s form in a military fitness test is very difficult, especially when you’re dealing with a large group of people. Lying about the number of repetitions is also rampant. This is a simple solution to those problems. The obstacle course could be a good test of fitness but that is going to be very difficult to standardize. Speed marches are extremely functional and relevant for the Marines but would be a challenge to test on deployed forces. What other changes are they considering?

The Corps is also in the process of studying planks as an alternative to crunches on the PFT. Marines for ages have complained that the crunches portion of the PFT is too easy and susceptible to cheating.

              Yes, get rid of crunches. They are a terrible way to test core strength and also very hard to police. Planks would be a better test and much easier for the administrators to police.

Too much of a good thing: It’s all about the data. Every company is data-driven. Everyone is a data nerd. If you want answers, you go to the data. The thing about data though is if you don’t know how to analyze it, then it’s worthless. This data culture is present in the fitness industry. Fitness trackers promise to deliver reams of data on the human body which will allow people to maximize their potential. But how many of us are prepared to analyze that data? From The Atlantic:

Wearable medical technology promises a new, and better, way to manage personal health. Whether it’s Fitbits counting steps and calories burned, continuous blood glucose monitors aiding insulin dosing for diabetic patients, or Bluetooth earpieces offering round-the-clock heart rate and body temperature tracking, wearable devices sell the promise of the coldly clinical made portably intimate. Continuous EKG monitoring, like that available in the latest Apple Watch, might seem like a small technological leap, putting what was once the sole purview of hospitals and doctor’s offices neatly around a consumer’s wrist.

But continuous EKG monitoring is a little different from other, more discrete medical information. Unlike devices that measure more cleanly numerical metrics—step counts or target heart rates or blood glucose levels—a wearable EKG display doesn’t give the user an easy sense of hitting targets or falling short. Reading an EKG tracing is nuanced and interpretive, more art than math. A Fitbit gives you a number. An EKG paints a picture.

Also:

Shrinking and wearing an EKG is a symptom of technology’s drive to subsume health and wellness, and it renews a belief in humanity’s mastery of the heart, that most important muscle. EKGs might start to seem capable of producing meaning on their own, instead of producing pictures that can be interpreted by medical professionals.

That aligns the continuous, single-lead, wearable EKG with the set designer’s intentions for the symbol. The EKG—especially the 12-lead device—offers real diagnostics, but not nearly as often as its traces convey the symbology of health. As it shrinks, that secondary meaning could become more primary. The wearable EKG offers the comforting weight of medicine itself, worn on the wrist like an amulet warding off evil, whether it ever gets used or not.

              Technology is advancing so rapidly that its ability to collect and deliver data is outpacing our ability to properly consume it. We’re drowning in it. Knowing what to ignore is becoming as important as being able to analyze the relevant data. It’s amazing that Apple engineers were able to build EKG capability into a smartwatch. I am in awe of that but it’s not going to replace actual doctors. The same is true of fitness trackers replacing human trainers/coaches. All that data isn’t going to replace anyone. It’s going to create a greater demand for someone who can interpret that data.

Tidbits:

-How to break up with your workout partner

-“CrossFit is like period sex”

-Now your Nikes can crash after a software update

-If your employer gave you a fitness tracker, then they might be spying on you

-Rowing classes are always on the cusp of being the next big thing

-Physique 57 is expanding into Saudi Arabia