I want to understand if a certain workout quality or structure determine success in the fitness industry.
I'll be researching and comparing the following fitness brands in our industry. To preface this post— I highly respect each of these companies, and each of them is successful in its own right.
EXOS, CrossFit, Peloton, Barry's, Mile High Run Club & Stride.
I'll discuss each company at length, but first— let's briefly discuss mental models and workout philosophies.
Mental Models & Workout Philosophies
Based on Wikipedia,
A mental model is an explanation of someone's thought process about how something works in the real world.
On days that I remember having signed up for my 3rd half marathon this March, I step out for a run with a simple game plan: run faster and longer than last week.
Hear me out, I have levels to it: if I'm on a roll and routinely running 2-3x a week, I’m in “challenge mode”. That is, push myself to run faster, or at least equal to the pace I ran with last workout. The other mode: “break inertia mode”, focuses on one thing: break out of a workout slump, get out and run— just run.
Beyond "challenge" and "break inertia" mode, that's pretty much my mental model for improving my run time. Pretty simple. Of course, there are more research-based strategies out there, but mine works for now.
Running is running.
Absent of poor running form, it may be easiest exercise to do on your own. Yet, running is a massive market, arguably the biggest by sport. For such a first-natured skill like running, there is a company for any goods and service that can possibly improve run performance.
All the Strength Training Philosophies
What about the mental models of a broader activity — like strength training? Fundamentally, the key to gaining strength is one and the same with my mental model for running: run, then try and run farther and faster than before, then taper on off days. Just swap ‘run’ with ‘lift’, and 'fast' with 'more weight'.
I'm exaggerating — it's not that simple. Like "challenge" and "break inertia" mode, there are many levels in the worlds of running and lifting. I am great at neither.
Optics matter though, and strength training is visibly more daunting for beginners. Because while there is only one general way of running, there are a ton of permutations within strength training. A great squat does not equal a great deadlift, a stable Turkish-getup, or an efficient sprint— the list goes on.
For any two different boutique fitness studios, you’ll notice their running or strength workouts come in different flavors. Gyms and studios have to distinguish themselves from one another— especially high-end options — so facilities often trademark workout structures with unique terminology and novel concepts.
Again, the question I seek to answer in this post is:
Is there a certain workout quality or structure that determines success in the fitness industry?
Before evaluating each company's workout novelty and structure, I should define how I will assess each parameter. By the way, each company I mentioned above has some component of running, strength training or both.
Workout Novelty: The What
I determined workout novelty of a workout by how traditional or novel it is compared to a typical run or lift you'd do on your own. For example, I would consider an outdoor run as traditional.
Questions I asked myself were: how differentiated is the workout compared to pure running and strength training? How strong an influence does brand elements have on the workout. Are there exercises and elements of the workout original to the brand?
Workout System: The Why
With workout systems, I compared each workout on a scale from freeform to structured. Think of freeform workouts like my unplanned runs where I just get out and move, whereas following a workout plan from my personal trainer is structured.
Questions I asked myself to determine workout system scale were: is the workout performed under a brand-specific format? Are the training concepts opinionated?
Workout Novelty-Systems Map
TL;DR — My Conclusion
Based on this map, I found no trends within workout novelty or structure that indicated company success. There is at least one company in each quadrant of the map, with good reason for each label.
For example, the training concepts by EXOS and CrossFit have shaped the fitness landscape for two decades now, yet their novelty scores fall on opposite sides of the spectrum. Needless to say, both EXOS and CrossFit withstood the test of time.
Yet, a brand-defining workout structure may not be necessary to survive in fitness.
Traditional running classes like Stride and Mile High Run Club (MHRC) are doing more than okay. Stride plans to expand into other cities in the years to come, while MHRC and — even Peloton — dominate New York's indoor running scene.
#1. Mile High Run Club (MHRC) + Stride
Aside: Except for Stride, which is based in Pasadena, California, I've done workouts from each company I analyzed. Fortunately, Mile High Run Club (MHRC) felt like an East Coast facsimile of Stride— and I've taken many MHRC's classes.
The indoor running scene is interesting because studios like Mile High Run Club and Stride appear very successful — hard to truly tell as both are privately-held entities (Stride's parent company looks to go public soon).
Aside from color LED-paneled walls and up-tempo music, MHRC and Stride offer coached treadmill classes with no frills.
Unlike SoulCycle, where music and dance is as strong a selling point as the indoor cycling itself, MHRC stays close to the culture of running. It's not surprising that its' running philosophy speaks the same:
MHRC press article with hbfit.com
Our philosophy is to stay true to the sport. Running is a sport first and foremost. We honor proven training strategies that have existed since the benefits of intervals were identified in the early part of the 20th Century.
Stride and MHRC make a strong case for studios not having to look innovative in order so succeed at relative scale. Granted, MHRC only has serves three locations (all in NYC) while Stride is only on the West Coast— but not for long.
Xponential Fitness — the umbrella company of other major boutique fitness brands like Club Pilates, Pure Barre and Row House — acquired Stride in January 2019 to ramp up national growth in the US, based on their website.
There's no question Stride could have remained independent; it was a proven concept in Pasadena with plans to branch out into San Diego and Jacksonville. Now it aims bigger with plans to franchise the brand, projecting to open 200 more locations nationwide.
At first glance, it's surprising how indoor tread studios can succeed on their own.
But considering the fast-growing runner's market around the world, it makes perfect sense.
The allure of indoor running
Indoor running eliminates weather as a barrier to entry for runners, effectively making it an all-season activity. As a result, Stride and MHRC dominate three customer segments that are present all year-round:
1. hesitant newcomers to running
2. friends that wouldn't typically run together outdoors because of varied running paces
3. seasoned racers substituting their outdoor training runs on rainy cold evenings.
Treadmills are here to stay. And Equinox knows it too.
Workout System: Freeform
Instructors have autonomy of the workouts they coach, as long as it fits within the general theme of the class. For example, MHRC's 'The Distance' is a 60 minute run class incorporating "longer intervals including speedplay and hillwork". The intensity and training interval ultimately depend on your instructor, not on any overarching brand philosophy.
As an aside, I also find that freeform-type fitness studios need its instructors closer to the front of their brand marketing, especially the traditional types. Classes with a strong workout structure depend less on a given instructor than freeform options like MHRC and Peloton. Instructors with freeform workout studios have a big influence on participants' class selections, because their studios' experience does not rely on a unified training structure.
Workout Novelty: Novel
I would consider Peloton a pioneer in the age of connected fitness. Its signature Peloton Bike connected customers to a live-instructed cycling class in the comfort of their homes. While the streamed workout itself isn't quite novel, the experience of working out live with others from around the world is kind of extraordinary.
Like MHRC and Stride, Peloton's workout structure is freeform and dependent on your instructor. Though, one thing you'll always hear a Peloton instructor say is: adjust your bike resistance to your level of fitness. It's not about competition; it's about challenging yourself and enjoying the experience. As John Foley, CEO of Peloton, said in a letter to investors:
"On the most basic level, Peloton sells happiness"
Despite Foley's idealism, Peloton has competition built in its DNA through its live leaderboard feature. Signed in participants see a list of everyone else taking the class with them, ranked by total output. Yet, in all the cycling and tread classes I've taken in Peloton's NYC studios, the emphasis was never on competition, rather the experience.
Competition is the glue binding Peloton's concept of connected fitness together. This feature alone is why I put Peloton to the right of the novelty-structure map.
Like CrossFit, competition transformed 'Peloton', the brand — into 'Peloton', the verb. Besides that one friend who also owns a $2000 Peloton bike, friendly competition through its leaderboard is what keeps you coming back and in love with the brand.
If you don't believe that, Peloton even filed a lawsuit against FlyWheel in 2018 for infringing its leaderboard patents, for the way it displays workout metrics, and how those metrics is utilized to compete against other live riders. That just feels crazy to me.
But Peloton knows what its doing. It understands the network effect its leaderboard feature has on its hardware, and that is why Peloton's connected workout experience is one of a kind.
We're now leaving freeform fitness genres behind. It's time to enter the bubble of branded workouts and training concepts.
#3. Barry's Bootcamp
(company renamed to Barry's in 2019)*
Workout Novelty: Somewhat Novel
Workout System: Structured
It's not hard to distinguish a grassroots bootcamp HIIT class to a Barry's class. Not only did Barry's make red tinted studios synonymous with its brand, it even branded its workouts.
Novelty: Somewhat Novel
It feels unfair to place Barry's Bootcamp anywhere besides the right of the novelty spectrum. Barry's is one of the first, if not the, studio that popularized HIIT strength and cardio with treadmills. If you go to one of Barry's classes today, its 'Original HIIT Workout' follows this structure: 4 sections total, alternating between your assigned treadmill and strength training station.
HIIT wasn't exclusive to Barry's Bootcamp. In the 2000s, HIIT was trending as the fat-loss fitness program. Nonetheless, Barry's was the first of its kind to offer bootcamp style workouts, starting in its West Hollywood studio.
It's hard not to associate Barry's with its star-studded celebrities endorsements. I must mention that Barry's success as a novel training concept pales in comparison to its early celebrity following, including Kim Kardashian and Jessica Biel.
Workout System: Somewhat Structured
Barry's strength and cardio workouts claim to "burn up to a 1000 calories". (I wouldn't be surprised if Barry's initial marketing stated, "burn over a thousand calories", before its legal team softened that reach). That's as structured as a Barry's class will be.
Make no mistake, Barry's strength training and HIIT cardio combination is a tried-and-true formula for studios. If the goal is to reach 1000 calories, sprint intervals on the treadmill and reps-to-failure layered with more reps-to failure will do that.
It goes without saying that any class by Barry's will aim kick your ass, in part to live up against the bootcamp intensity.
From wellandgood.com piece on the early days of Barry's:
Once they settled on bootcamp, they embraced it. Early customers were issued dog tags. If you threw up during class, you got a T‐shirt.
It's a common story now that grassroots gyms built an initial cult following through brutal, over-the-top workouts. Greg Glassman, founder of CrossFit, created the infamous 'Fran' workout that way and so did Barry Jay of Barry's.
I'm not sure when Barry's made the half-tread-half-strength workout its staple offering. I am certain, though, that Barry's is a pioneer in the fitness space and its workout novelty deserves credit. In terms of structure— while participants know what to expect in a Barry's class, the workouts are still created by the individual instructors (based on the day's muscle target), so instructors still have autonomy over exercise selection and workout structure.
Workout Novelty: Very Novel
Workout System: Very Structured
Amongst all the companies in the novelty-systems map, CrossFit smacks the top right quadrant of my map. And because CrossFit is such a polarizing entity in health, fitness and sport, I feel inclined to state my personal experience with CrossFit before providing my opinions towards its workouts.
I don't CrossFit. I've taken 4 classes from three different boxes in New York, and I didn't hate or love any one of them. I wanted to add variety and try out gyms nearby my previous office, so I gave CrossFit a try. And if I'm being honest with you, I also tried CrossFit because I do not want to be that trainer who slanders CrossFit without ever completing a WOD (acronym for workout of the day, originated by CrossFit).
One more thing. It's impossible to ignore CrossFit if you work in the fitness or sports performance space. Like I mentioned, the connotation towards the brand and method of training is negative in my experience, and I am aware that sentiment is still the case from many fitness professionals outside CrossFit.
Workout Novelty: Very Novel
I don't agree with CrossFit as the Sport of Fitness, but CrossFit draws its training routines from more domains in fitness than any other fitness brand, studio or concept. Greg Glassman, founder of CrossFit, was a teenage gymnast. But unlike other athletes who eventually identify under one sport, Glassman did more than gymnastics; he was good in weightlifting and cycling too. It's no surprise why CrossFit workouts encourage general physical preparedness and constant variation.
Because of the randomness and amalgamation of many fitness domains, a CrossFit workout is very novel. A CrossFit gym, or "box" (called a box because facilities are usually in a warehouse-type space) often contains the following: barbells, rowers, pull-up bars, gymnastic rings, climbing ropes, medicine balls, fan bikes, manual treadmills... and possibly way more. It has equipment you'd find in a strength-cardio class like Barry's, but in open space like that of a gymnasium.
CrossFit's constant variation begets novelty. It's never wrong to add something new; in fact, it's part of the plan.
Here's an example. In a CrossFit invitational last year with Rogue and Concept2 (both are popular distributers of fitness equipment, particularly for CrossFit boxes), CrossFit introduced its take on a biathlon. (A biathlon combines cross country skiing with rifle shooting— you might have seen it on TV in the Winter Olympics.) While this event was invite only, CrossFit's attempt to innovate deserves applause.
Workout System: Very Structured
I qualify CrossFit training as a very structured fitness program. It feels hypocritical to identify CrossFit as regimented because, ironically, a CrossFit constantly modifies its training stimulus.
Skeptics would call a CrossFit program madness and injury-inducing. Others would argue that there's a method to the madness, and that the variation is the structure.
"Constantly varied high intensity functional movement"
is Greg Glassman's definition of CrossFit. I'm sure Glassman can support CrossFit's definition with reputable scientific references. With that said, I personally slugged through my WODs when trying CrossFit.
In the one workout where I did feel in condition, I just felt unmotivated doing pushups and rows for 30 minutes. It may have been my box and the late-evening time I signed up for, but the class lacked energy, and the workout seemed designed to kill. Needless to say, I did not finish the WOD in the given time.
Despite my experiences with CrossFit, I respect its effort to debunk conventional health wisdom. I respect CrossFit's attempt to push and question industry science within nutrition and exercise — even if its workouts feel questionable to me. An effort for the truth in fitness is enough for me because misinformation is everywhere— even from the institution that certified me as a strength coach.
If you didn't know, the NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association) lost in a major lawsuit to CrossFit last month stemming from 2014. The US District Court of San Diego ruled that NSCA published bogus injury data on CrossFit training to protect its market share in the industry. Additionally, the judge awarded CrossFit with about $4 million in attorney fees alone; the money in damages by NSCA is not yet determined. I was certified with the NSCA along with personal trainers. It's hard to not be disappointed by these finding. NSCA's strength and conditioning certification, known as a 'CSCS', is the gold standard certification for strength coaches in our field. Not anymore.
CrossFit workouts and the variability of each one is unlike any other concept in fitness. This brings freshness and novelty to each CrossFit workout, especially in more equipped boxes. But varied high-intensity workouts alone do not make a fitness brand CrossFit.
Other reasons for CrossFit success
Many CrossFitters can attest to their local box's community. While others perceived that camaraderie as a 'cult' from the outside, it's a real selling force. Top that off with its annual 'CrossFit Games' — a culmination of the top CrossFitters from around the world in search of 'The Fittest Man and Woman on Earth' — and you have the global and polarizing brand of CrossFit.
Workout Novelty: Traditional
Workout System: Very Structured
EXOS may be the one company in this list you never heard of, yet it is the widest reaching in fitness. EXOS has its hands in corporate wellness, pro sports, military training and fitness education based on its notorious training system.
You can imagine why I set EXOS' workout system score as very structured.
Before EXOS focused on corporate wellness and opened fitness centers like a game of Monopoly, EXOS focused on athletes. EXOS is formerly known as 'Athletes' Performance' (AP). Before the name change in 2014, AP was the sports performance facility for elite and professional athletes, particularly in American Football.
If you wanted to solidify your chances of playing in the NFL, you needed a solid NFL Combine performance. This athletic combine is like the SATs for successful college football athletes trying to go pro. And like the SATs, when one exam can impact your career and future wealth, there is a prep service for it.
Athletes' Performance was that prep service, and it had a track record for training the best NFL prospects year after year: J.J. Watt, Odell Beckham Jr, Andrew Luck, Adrian Peterson, and dozens more.
I interned for Athletes' Performance the summer of 2013 down in Pensacola, Florida. I've never seen a facility so dedicated towards sports performance like AP was. I learned about AP's training principles and remember signing an agreement of confidentiality.
Those were AP days. A year after my internship, AP rebranded to EXOS, and Mark Verstegen, the face of Athletes' Performance, launched a book that recapitulates what we learned during my summer under the Florida sun. And because I own the book— I can talk all about the contents.
Workout System: Very Structured
EXOS' training methods are detailed. I won't go in depth, but the training priciples are based on four general pillars: mindset, nutrition, movement, recovery.
From its partnerships with Adidas training, to all its corporate wellness and sports performance centers, those four pillars drive EXOS' fitness assessments, instruction and education.
I know what you're thinking. 'Well, you can't go wrong there.'
You're right. Similar to CrossFit's constant variance philosophy, EXOS' four verticals are a trump card to rarely being wrong. Recovery by itself is already a massive economy; ask Theragun — or Casper, the direct-to-consumer mattress company that values the global sleep market at $432 billion.
Again, there are levels to the mental model. EXOS' Training pillar has more pillars. EXOS lays out 7 training categories, performed in order, for all its athletes - elite or general population.
1. Pillar Prep
2. Movement Prep
4. Movement Skills
5. Medicine Ball
6. Relative Power / (Strength over time, under your bodyweight)
7. Energy System Development (ESD for short, aka cardio/conditioning)
I won't detail each portion — maybe another post. If you aren't familiar with EXOS' training system, check it out. Its nuances and underlying principles are worth looking into. Of course, I am biased. But if I can't stand impartial because of my association, I'll keep going.
EXOS innovated in fitness coaching with a training structure based on sound scientific literature. Despite its marketing names like 'ESD' instead of cardio (EXOS would have a lengthy rationale for that), no one can question that EXOS mainstreamed sports performance and popularized many exercises seen at your local gym.
One example is the exercise: World's Greatest Stretch— we've all done it before. I can't say for sure its from AP, but its a staple in EXOS training — and the oldest reference on the web points to AP.
Workout Novelty: Somewhat Traditional
Despite the innovations and influence EXOS had on the fitness industry, I still consider its workouts as traditional. Beyond its tech-centric fitness centers with equipment by Keiser, EXOS athletes still bench press, squat and foam roll. Athletes follow a traditional workout format; specifically — for the trainers reading — the programs follow a linear periodization structure, on A1-B1 designed workout blocks, common with what college athletes see from their strength coaches.
Similar to CrossFit, EXOS took training concepts from multiple domains and aggregated them into a unified training system. You see the elements of Track and Field in EXOS' wall drives and sprint mechanic exercises, influenced from the likes of Parisi Speed and Velocity Sports Performance (with whom I also interned for). You see rehabilitation concepts from physical therapy in EXOS' rotational strength and power blocks, like the Chop and Lift.
The training itself is not novel by any stretch, but the EXOS' experience as a whole summates to more than just traditional.
From the looks of the companies and brands analyzed, workout novelty and structure are not strong indicators of 'workout market fit'. There are successful companies in every quadrant of my map, particularly in the top-right.
If I could label each quadrant under one concept, I'd make the following assumptions to categorize other fitness brands:
Top Left: corporate wellness, personal training
Bottom Left: group fitness classes; less attention on a brand and closer to self-reliant exercising.
Bottom Right: tech-centric fitness & experiential boutique fitness: SoulCycle, [solidcore], Peloton.
Top Right: boutique fitness requiring active attention, often with higher training loads and stronger community: Orange Theory, CrossFit.