Friday, July 27, 2007

The Recess Gym

If you can look into the seeds of time
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favors nor your hate.

Macbeth, I.iii.59-62

I'm not in the business of prognostication, and I don't exactly want to imply that I'm one of Shakespeare's witches, but I think I know what the next big thing in fitness is going to be: playgrounds for adults.

Here's what I mean.

I enjoy going to gyms, but, with few exceptions, most of them give me a nagging feeling of claustrophobia. Gym owners seem to feel that unless their gyms are stuffed stem to stern with equipment, they're wasting opportunities to appeal to still another demographic. 'We better have Hammer Strength, we'll lose out on the unilateral-machine training crowd. And we better have a half-dozen slide boards so that Rollerbladers will be able to get their off-season workout in. And Nautilus equipment, because there's still some of those guys around..." Pretty soon there's barely enough room to move between these clanking, rusting hulks called 'exercise machines' and you feel like you're working out in a sardine can on the space shuttle.

What gym owners seem to be going for is a shotgun effect: shoot as many options as possible onto your membership and hope that something hits them. But my experience with new clients suggests that they don't want a million options. They want clarity. Faced with a seated leg curl machine, a standing leg curl machine, two different types of lying leg curl machines, a blub in SELF on the Swiss-ball leg curl, and a convenient "workout card" that says "Leg Curl, 3 X 10," is it any wonder how few gym members actually go to the gym, much less follow the workout plans outlined for them in their handy free hour with a trainer that they get when they sign up?

Half the reason that 'Curves' has lasted as long as it has MUST be that the workout programs are so simple. I'm not allowed there (because it's all women--not because I picketed the place), but I understand it's a one-size fits all kind of place: everyone does the same circuit every time they come in. Hardcore types may scoff, but simplicity SELLS. It's APPEALING. Ever heard of a little device called the iPod? One button.

Let's face it, so few people achieve real results in a gym: real weight loss, real strength gain, real body reshaping, even significant improvements in how they feel, that clearly those criteria are NOT how we judge our gyms. We judge them on whether it's convenient, relatively inexpensive, and FUN. That's why we go.

The ubiquitousness of the current crop of gyms means they've got the first two things down pat. But aside from the occasional fitness freakzoidal triangle like me, your average Joe hates going to the gym. And I don't have to squint too hard to figure out why. They're too complicated. They're stuffed with imposing-looking equipment that's hard to figure out. It's hard to move around. They're not welcoming places.

So what's the remedy? Adult playgrounds. No, not the kind where paunchy middle-aged stockbrokers buy Mai Tais for girls in sarongs. I'm talking about gyms with a LOT of open space for things like sprinting, agility drills, sled pulling, medicine-ball throwing, tire flipping, sledgehammering. There'd be gymnastic-style equipment: maybe not a pommel horse or uneven bars, but perhaps a vaulting horse, a balance beam, some still rings, a high bar, maybe a trampoline? Sure, you'd have some machines around the edges for rehabbing injuries and working some hard-to-reach places. And there would be scads of Olympic bars, lifting platforms, and dumbells, along with the appropriate benches and racks to use with them. But the vast majority of the place would be empty space. So people could move their bodies around. Like they've been doing, quite enjoyably, since the dawn of time.

For a period of time I took my daughter to a place called Gymboree, which is the toddler equivalent of what I'm describing above. I don't have to tell you what happened whenever she set foot in that place: she took one look at the wide-open room filled with padded climbing, jumping, and swinging equipment, and all but sprinted around the room at full tilt, laughing hysterically before she attacked the first piece of equipment that called out to her. And nearly every other kid had the same reaction. Okay, I had the same reaction, only I wasn't allowed on the stuff; I had to stand around spotting my daughter while she did a whole bunch of really cool things.

Now again, I'm weird, but I'd still wager that most adults would love this kind of gym, too. Sure, a client would need help creating a holistic, beneficial program out of all this new equipment, but new members at regular gyms need that right now anyway. Even without a program in hand, though, something like a trampoline is so self-explanatory that someone new to the place could just sidle up and start jumping. It seems painfully obvious that if gym members are doing something challenging and fun, they're more likely to stick to it, and therefore more likely get the results they want.

Carl Miller, who I mention here, runs a gym kind of like this that's based around his love of Olympic lifting. Everyone's workout is based around Olympic lifts, from the 17-year old high school athletes he trains to the retired grandmothers. They're all doing snatches and clean-and-jerks and loving it. There's not a treadmill in the joint. Carl doesn't try to be all things to all people; he just trains people the way he thinks they should be trained. And his clients love him for it.

A gym like this would almost give the lie to the phrase "working out." I think this fantasy-gym of mine might capture some of the fun of vigorous play that we used to enjoy as kids.

Maybe we could even call it "The Recess Gym."


Brian said...

Andrew, I agree with your thoughts. Juan Carlos Santana's place, IHP is located in my town and I have been there to observe. It is more like what you describe then any other gym I have seen. Lots of space to move!

Recently the Gold's gym I belong to, expanded to a huge new facility. I couildn't wait because the old place was so small and cramped. Guess what? The new one is more crowded with loads of machinery. Then another gym went out of business and Gold's gobbled a lot of the equipment. Now you can't find enough floor space to do a push-up.

You've inspired me to rethink an idea that I've been wanting to try for the faculty at my school. I have been teaching in-service classes on exercise and nutrition but I want the next class to be active. My idea was Adult Physical Education. ( A.P.E.). I'm thinking of using stations in the gym. Some ideas were; jump rope games, hopscotch, climbing wall games, tag games, bounce house, four square, dodgeball etc. Also Frank Forenich has some interesting ideas at I envisioned it to be like open gym for adults. It would be awesome to have an adult facility like Gymboree. I think I can get close with using the gym. What do you think?

Madley said...

Don't forget tetherball -- tetherball for adults -- now THAT'S a workout! :)

Andrew said...

Hey Brian: Great ideas; I think you're right on the money. I hadn't thought about the hopscotch, foursquare (don't forget wall-ball!) possibilities, but I think you're really onto something.

I met JC Santana briefly at a seminar in Chicago and his methods were in part what made me think this might be where exercise/health clubs are going. So I'm not surprised his gym facilitates this kind of activity.

Let me know how the class goes, responses, lessons learned, etc. Good luck!

And Madley--Tetherball's a great idea!

Thanks for your comments!

Chris said...

Andrew, great piece, with much truth to it, I think. For several years now I've talked about the potential viability of an adult "Play Place" (I was taking the name/concept from McDonalds), but I'll have to visit a Gymboree sometime now. And what the heck, maybe Santana's facility, too. LOL

I'm not sure my city is big enough and has the right demographic to support such a facility, but now that you've brought it up, it might be time for a little feasibility study . . . :)

By the way, I thoroughly enjoy your blog. Thanks for your work!

Andrew said...

Chris: If you build it, they will come. Alwyn Cosgrove's gym is in Newhall--by no means a huge city. As I said, I'm no fortune-teller, but this seems like one of those ideas that WILL happen and pretty soon everyone's going to wish they'd thought of it. Let me know what you find, if you conduct a feasibility study, and/or if you decide to go further with it... Thanks for your comments and for reading!


Chris said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Andrew. I'll be thinking about this, though. The challenge is that I already operate a martial arts academy which might be expanding in the near future. Hmmm, maybe if I find a partner . . .

BTW, Alwyn is my man. I pretty much solely follow his martial arts conditioning program, and he's helped me tinker with it. Great guy and really knowledgeable. For anyone interested, that program is a GREAT program from which, I think, any athlete in an anaerobic or anaerobic/aerobic sport would benefit. Some of the best money I ever spent. Peace!

Anonymous said...

It sounds like you are describing a Crossfit gym.


Andrew said...

I think CrossFit is pretty close, from what I know of them; even closer I think would be Mark Twight's gym in Salt Lake City, "GymJones."