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How One Club Built A Successful Small Group Training Program From The Ground Up

About the author: Ryan Oswald (MS, CSCS) is the general manager at Fitness Formula Clubs (FFC) Old Town. FFC has 11 premium fitness centers in the Chicagoland area.

At our core, we are social animals. We need human-to-human interaction, and in today’s world, it is increasingly being supplanted by technology. Social interaction is so important that without it our brains dull, our memory diminishes, and how our genes interact with inflammation can be compromised. Combining this with an unhealthy lifestyle puts individuals are at risk for a litany of health problems. Lucky for us as club operators, we have the remedy.

Small group training has vaulted itself to the top of the list for club operators. It’s a win-win for both members and clubs, but too often, I see critical components being left out. At FFC Old Town, when we made the decision to add small group training, we started fresh and built the program from the ground up. Most important to us was our definition of what successful small group training program is: A group training class built on achieving optimal fitness results through progressive lifting, metabolic conditioning, and social interaction. Armed with this simplistic vision, we started to look at the components that would determine our path.

Providing Results Through Progression

We knew that the science behind results was rooted in progressively lifting a heavier weight over time. This became crucial in the design and structure of our program. Too often, small group training programs rely on scaling body weight or small apparatus exercises to diverse groups of people, and when that member fails to see results, retention drops.

On the other end of the spectrum, we knew if we relied solely on heavy lifting, we risked alienating all but a certain sub-group of members. This is why we knew we needed a metabolic component that together was all based on the psychology of motivation and achievement. This all had to be packaged in a way that made sense for both the participant and the instructor.

Using Space Efficiently

As these components came together, we investigated how we were going to optimize our 800-square-foot space. By incorporating both strength and functional equipment, our design maximized our use of the space by creating flow for the participants. This flow was crucial when looking at some of the more dynamic exercises that we wanted to include. For instance, we can have a group doing squats with barbells, while another group is running sprints. The experience for the participant is linked to the design of the space, especially in a small group training area. Creating flow for those dynamic movements has really helped in class management and participant experience.

Instructor and Exercisers Interaction

The “build it and they will come” mentality doesn’t work anymore. We knew we had to go deeper than superficial aesthetics. State-of-the-art equipment certainly helps, but successful group training is built on good program design for both the member and the instructor. Often, the latter is overlooked, and unfortunately, when not taking into account the instructor’s ability to customize a program (without losing the original vision), member perceptions of the program become diluted and instructor “groupies” are created. This hurts operators when that instructor moves on. For this reason, we looked at how we could operate the classes in a framework that benefitted all parties, which is why our program focuses on managing change versus predictability.

Community Through Predictability

Predictability for us was an important aspect, as we wanted our instructors to have some say in what they did in each class, but in a way that each participant knew what to expect from a program perspective.  For instance, we spent days designing an effective warmup for our participants that includes dynamic flexibility and enough movement to get their heart rate up to an appropriate level. But once we committed, this warmup has remained for every class, and this predictability has fostered exactly what we wanted—the interaction of participants with each other and the instructor at the beginning of each class. Now, because they do not have to concentrate on warmups, conversation amongst participants revolves around meaningful social interaction and has created the community feel that we aimed for.

Challenges to Success

Even the best plans come with challenges. Initially, we failed to see how the resistance component brought an inherent intimidation factor. Our marketing needed to be focused on the critical aspect that progressive resistance exercise plays in achieving results. By shifting our focus, and incentivizing our membership reps along with our new members, our message and value proposition have started to come to fruition.

Along with eliminating intimidation, finding the right price point became critical in early adoption and participation. By conducting analysis of small boutiques along with similar programs at other chain clubs, we were able to settle on a price that prompted our members to see value, our instructors to make enough to incentivize them to teach, and to remain profitability within the program. Adding it as an EFT option onto their membership has also helped instructors and membership representatives to avoid the dreaded “do you want to continue” conversation. We’ve been able to count the number of cancellations on one hand.  

Our goal is to create the tipping point from early adopters to becoming mainstream. Our goal is to uniquely “brand” our program design in the way that Kleenex has with tissue, or Coke has with soda. We do not anticipate that being easy, and we know that is the standard many companies aim to achieve, but combining all our hard work and resources, this is how we will attract the right participant.  Our goal of tripling participation in Q1 of 2018 is well within reach, and we feel confident that the community we have created will help propel us to new financial heights.  

When looking at small group training, there are three components operators need to focus on:

  • Create a sense of community via social interaction fostered through program predictability
  • Remember that the best results are achieved through progressive resistance exercise, and that this should be a main focus
  • Layout and design plays a critical role in participant flow and instructor management

As you move forward in your own programs, I wish you the best of luck, and am curious how these three foundations will be used to create world-class group training experiences.

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