The Future of Starting Strength Gyms

by Ray Gillenwater, SSC | May 05, 2020

strong people are harder to kill and more useful in general

The franchise company was a risky bet. All new ventures are risky, but those that also try to do things differently are at even higher risk – after all, we might be wrong about our assumptions. Since inception, we’ve been testing ideas that no other national gym chain has attempted, and most certainly not all at the same time. A $300+/month price point. Individual coaching and programming in a small group setting. A room full of only platforms, squat racks, benches, and barbells. Highly trained coaches. No exercise variety. No loud music. No “cardio.” And most importantly, actual, measurable results. We know we have the most effective program and we can prove it with the data from our digital logbook. But the question has always been: do enough people believe our claims to punch in their credit card on the website and train with us in the gym three times per week? We knew that if the answer to that question was “yes,” and we didn’t gloss over any catastrophic risks, then it was just a matter of time before we could reach the top 40 US markets and beyond. You can argue with “modalities,” but you can’t argue with results. 

Then, COVID-19 hit. And then, perhaps more devastatingly (time will tell), the government’s response to COVID-19 hit. As of April 30, 2020, our franchise gyms have been closed for six weeks. Denver, our first gym that was able to re-open, did so Monday, April 27. The remaining gyms are on schedule to re-open later this month. Within the span of only a few weeks, the fitness industry, like countless other industries, has taken an extraordinary blow. Gold’s has closed 30 of its corporate-owned locations. A reliable industry source has indicated to me that 24 Hour Fitness is planning to shutter 100 of their 420 locations. And it’s not just the big players that are hurting. Imagine having just purchased an Orange Theory franchise that relies on class sizes of ~45 with shared equipment. Or a spin concept with dozens of people situated shoulder-to-shoulder in a few hundred square feet. 

The fitness industry is now different, whether we like it or not. Many businesses will shrink, some will collapse. Jobs have been lost and if these companies suffer or shutter, the jobs may not come back. The bright side is that even though members will be displaced from gym closures and capacity limits (due to physical-distancing requirements), the demand for fitness will likely remain unchanged. Hell, if people finally make the realization that being diagnosed with Type II Diabetes is a problem worth solving (in light of how many diabetics are failing to win the battle with COVID-19), demand may even increase – good news for us and good news for them. 

This is why we remain optimistic. Our internal risk is lower than it’s ever been. We’ve made it through the precarious testing phases and have proven that our model works. We’ve also proven that Starting Strength consistently produces results that are so profound that we don’t belong in the same conversation with other fitness concepts. For example, our “gain ten pounds of lean mass in ten weeks” promise – no one else can do this. 

Our external risks, however, are higher than they’ve ever been. We now know that a government entity can force us to close on a whim. If gym owners don’t comply, they risk their ability to operate, jail time, and/or fines. Additionally, COVID-19 will change the general public’s behavior for the foreseeable future. People will travel differently, spend differently, and exercise differently. Our future has always been uncertain, and now that fact is blindingly apparent to everyone. But like any gambler knows (and entrepreneurs are simply high-stakes gamblers), whenever there is a sudden, dramatic shift in the rules of the game, new opportunities arise. 

This is why I see this situation as an opportunity. My partner and I entered the gym business for the same reason that your unwise friend from college opened a bar – we wanted a place that was our own, even if it meant that we lost money. I didn’t belong at any of the local commercial gyms, even if I was technically considered a member. The commercial gym where I had been training was an unpleasant experience: equipment stained with sweat from the previous member, bare feet on bathroom floors, gum in the urinals, trip hazards, slip hazards, aggressive members, dangerous negligence in the weight room, and music that belonged in a nightclub. I wasn’t sure if our first gym business would succeed, but as it turned out we were cash flow positive before the doors opened. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one that was tired of listening to unsolicited advice about my squat. 

I am confident that there are countless people that feel the same way that I do about their globo-gym and haven’t yet discovered Starting Strength Gyms. We are going to take advantage of this and make the contrast between us and them as obvious as possible. In other words, before the pandemic we had the once-in-a-business-lifetime opportunity to fulfill existing demand for Starting Strength in major cities all around the country. We now have the opportunity to fulfill additional demand for a clean, low-traffic training environment for those that can’t justify exposing themselves to the thousands of people they had been sharing a facility with. Our most popular training time slots had waiting lists before the gyms were forced to close, and we are excited to see what happens when they re-open.

may 2020 starting strength denver landing page

Our gyms have 7-10 platforms. Each member’s training area is at least 10 feet wide. If necessary, we can ensure that equipment is sanitized after every session so that trainees are able to use equipment that only they touch. We are one of the few fitness concepts that can thrive in a regulatory environment that requires ten or fewer people in the building – most of our gyms have fewer than 60 trainees over the course of a full day. With or without government imposition, we will be one of the cleanest, safest, and most able-to-accommodate-physical-distancing fitness brands in the country. On the other hand, if HIIT, bootcamp, spin, and yoga concepts are required to enforce physical distancing, their prices will need to increase, or they will need to shut their doors. This is not something I'm happy about – I have close friends that have invested their emotional energy and significant capital into businesses like this, and their future is in jeopardy. I respect those that have the guts to risk their income, savings, and reputation on pursuing their dream to not have a boss, an office, a commute, or daily interactions with anyone other than people they thoroughly enjoy. 

But this is not the time for us to be sad, because despair is not productive. When faced with an existential risk in business or in life, we either adapt, regress, or die. Stress/recovery/adaptation is the reason we are all here, and most of us understand that this process applies to business and psychology as much as it does to our training regimen. We are going to adapt, and fortunately for us the change to our business model will be minimal. I believe we have a unique opportunity to not only survive, but thrive, when the country opens back up. I don’t believe the demand for fitness will change – people still need to exercise, and the better-informed still need to train. 

But I do believe that the demand for a clean environment will increase, due to concerns about COVID-19. The fact that so many big box gyms are closing creates displaced members, and there will be large swaths of the populace that believe that training in a highly-trafficked commercial gym environment – even if it were available – no longer outweighs the potential health benefits of riding the treadmill. 

We are looking forward to showing more of the general public why strength training with the Starting Strength method is the best use of time in the gym, and how Starting Strength Gyms are the obvious choice if cleanliness and physical distancing are a priority. First come, first served, until we hit capacity, and then we build another one. See you at the gym. 

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