Big Box Gyms are Dead

by Neil Anderson

It is my opinion that the Big Box Gym is dead.  Or at least it is broken and is soon to die.  Is anybody still into it?  Maybe I can talk you out of it. 


Why Most People Can’t Get Healthy at a Big Box Gym  


Big box gyms are a lie.  They are built on a lie.  Their intention is a lie and their whole purpose is to relieve you of your money without providing ANY services in return.  If you happen to get fit at one of those places, you have done them a disservice and they dislike you. Yes, I've been in the meetings where they said so - IN WORDS.

Think about it.  Who is a “good” customer to the big box gym?  Isn’t it the guy or gal who shows up ONE time and purchases a year long contract (two years with a discount), pays the upfront costs (which are made up and silly), springs for some options they’ll never use (3 visits with a personal trainer & a couple of tubs of protein - on special), then goes the hell AWAY never EVER to return? 

If you do return it costs them money.  In lots of ways.

1). If you ever show back up, they have to staff for you.  Someone has to shoot you an interested look when you walk in and swipe your card, right?

2). They have to clean up after you.  Can’t have those gorgeous and (mostly) useless machines look anything less than immaculate.  It negatively impacts sales.

3). You cause wear and tear on their machines.  Eventually they’ll have to repair and/or replace them.  If they can keep you from coming, it’s one less worry/expense.

4). If you show up AND bring a friend, they are less likely to get sales.  Studies have shown that crowded gyms intimidate potential buyers.

5). If you keep showing up and others like you do too, the fire marshal will have to shut them down.  The local gym I used to work for had over 14,000 members.  Can you imagine what might happen if their entire membership showed up for a workout one day?  What about everyday?

Can you see it yet?  They DON’T want you there.  Not only that, they CAN’T really accommodate you in the first place.

Where is the programming?

Ever wonder why there is no fitness method or philosophy connected to a big box gym?  Why is this?  What is the (Gold’s Gym, 24 hr fitness, Bally’s, etc.) method and/or philosophy for helping you achieve your healthy goals and objectives?  Do they even have a working definition of the words fitness or health? What's their method?

You’d think that fitness companies who have been in business as long as some of these mentioned would know a thing or two about helping a person change their lifestyle.  Maybe even lose weight or gain muscle.  I mean, if they REALLY had intentions of helping you get healthy and fit, where are the best selling books, DVDs and seminars?  Where are the thousands (millions, really) of people singing the praises of their methods, techniques and philosophies?   Do you find it as incredible as I do that these don’t exist?  Anywhere?   

This is not by accident.  Remember - They DON'T WANT YOU THERE!  Just your money please.  Then go away!  You are bad for business (once you've paid).  

Besides the fact that these places exist only to relieve you of your money (which is enough of a reason for them to die, right?), It is probably best if we realize that the entire concept of a Big Box Gym never really worked anyway.  CRIPES!  Who came up with the thought that you could throw a bunch of different people from all different walks of life with different needs and different expectations of their own unique workout experience into the SAME room and expect a good outcome?  Ever do this with a bottle full of different types of ants and termites as a kid?  Trust me.  Throwing different types of ants and termites into a bottle and shaking them up gets messy - FAST. 

As evolved as you think you are, believe me, there is a primal nature in each of us that rejects the notion of sharing space with those who are VERY different from ourselves.  Especially if we are invested in that space in some way ($).  And where YOU may be so refined as to not act out on this basic human nature, it is foolishness to think others will share your values and act accordingly.  By sad experience I have learned that, in reality, it generally is no less messy than the bottle of ants and termites.  I have seen numerous acts of selfishness, unkindness, rudeness and even violence in these places over the years.  My experiences are not unique.  

"Let's put these ants in a jar, shake them up & see what happens!"

In a bone-headed move, Big Box Gyms have forced bodybuilders into the same spaces that executives are expected to workout.  Do you know even ONE executive type of person?  How different is he/she from the typical 20 something muscle head? 

In general (there are exceptions to every rule), executive types are refined.  Seems like being in charge of hundreds of people and managing millions of dollars has a way of focusing someone differently than your typical 5 pm Globo Gym muscle head.  While your typical muscle head would like to grunt, hollar, listen to very loud (really disturbing) music, flex in mirrors and bang weights around, most execs are looking for nearly opposite of all that.  They instead would like more refinement, amenities and comfort.  Yet the big box gym throws these two guys into the same space together and expects them to get along and be happy about it. 

Couple of points to make here.  First, these two types DON’T get along in nature.  They kinda hate each other.  Bodybuilders don’t respect the fact that the old silverbacks are in their space.  They haven’t EARNED their way in.  They resent them for tieing up machines and forcing them to keep their shirts on.  Silverbacks are the first to report such infringements.  Meanwhile, the execs despise BBs for different reasons.  They HATE their music.  They HATE their attitudes (if a BB treated our old silverback with such disdain at work - he’d be fired).  Execs, not unlike the rest of us, also have a little thing called PRIDE.  Unfortunately, years of working up the corporate ladder have taken their toll on the health and strength of our corporate titan.  There is NO WAY a 50 something year old millionaire wants to pull up next to a 20 something y/o “pee-on” on the opposite bench press and be simply out classed by over a hundred pounds - for reps!      

Starting to see the problems?  How about this?

Consider the plight of 30 something mother of 3.  She just had her 3rd baby 8 weeks ago and would like to get her body back.  She’s not terribly comfortable in her own skin right now and would like nothing more than to come to the gym, get a workout and go home.  She would like to do this as anonymously as possible.  Invisibly even.  However, unfortunately she has been thrust into the same room to achieve these objectives as those 20 something playa’s who view the gym as more of a night club.  A place to meet chics and dudes with the hopes of an eventual hook-up.  We call these the “See and Be Seens” (CNBCNs) of the gym world.  They are the living nightmare of our new moms.  But for her to get her workout, she’s going to have to brave the constant eyeballing from CNBCN dudes and be scoffed at by CNBCN chics.  They are scoffing at her because she didn’t have time to do her hair, makeup and match her outfit.  She was lucky enough to just find a sitter and fit this workout in before making tonight's dinner.  Despite this, they wish she’d have stayed home, because our little mama is screwing with the nightclub vibe that our CNBCNs so ardently strive for and love.  Their attitude toward her makes our little mama hate them back.  And around this goes. 

See, it just doesn’t work.  We could go on and on about the plights, wants and wishes of all different populations (young/old, geek/stud, athlete/hobbyist, aerobic/lifter) who are forced to play nice together within sweat flipping distance of each other.  None of them are happy.  Because none are getting exactly what they want for their experience.  Despite paying good money for exactly that - a good experience.  

Luckily, the average fitness consumer (you) has become much more discerning over the years.  You are starting to see the rouse and are demanding more for your time and money.  Also luckily, there are a lot more choices for you now.  10 years ago there were no Yoga studios.  No Pilates studios. No GPP’s.  Back then all you had was the Big Box Gym (BBG) and you were forced to get a long. 

Things have changed. 

My prediction is that fitness will evolve into what it was to begin with.  It will evolve to what it was back in the old days.  See, way back before BBGs, there were only studios created by masters who knew a thing or two about helping people.  These masters had developed amazing techniques and philosophies (mostly lost now) for helping folks become supremely healthy and fit.   Unfortunately, these shrines of health and fitness fell apart, mainly due to mismanagement.  It turns out these amazing gurus and trainers were as bad at business as they were good at guru’ing and training.  Eventually, businessmen saw that there was potentially BIG money in health and fitness.  They bought out most of the masters and bastardized their concepts, opting for a quick buck over helping folks. 

Well, the masters are back.  And they know business.  It won’t be long before the gym experience you seek will be available to you the way you want/need it.  We are starting to see this with unprecedented growth.  In fact, in the future I believe it won’t be uncommon to see several different fitness facilities within the same strip mall location at once.  All will be just as successful as the other. 

After the death of the BBG, I believe the health club of the future will be purpose-built for specific people with specific pursuits (bodybuilders, athletes, execs, 30 something mothers of 3 and GPPeeps).  Each place will be a shrine unto itself and its loyal followers.  It will have its own individual methods, techniques and philosophies of health and fitness.  Not just some big shiny building where a person might stumble into and (hopefully) apply THEIR OWN methods and philosophies of health - IF they happen to have any. 

That you would have to apply your own methods and philosophies to get fit is EXACTLY the thing that is most broken about the BBG.  They are counting on you to farm your own techniques, methods and philosophies while relying on the fact that you don’t have the time or inclination to do so.  After all, these things take thousands of hours to discover, develop, create, test and refine.  It’s a full time job and takes decades to perfect.  They also know that you’ll have other things to do.  Like attending to YOUR full time job, YOUR hobbies, YOUR families and YOUR friends.  It is how they can bank on you never coming back.  BTW - “bank” is a good word here.  When they submit business plans to lenders they take into account you and your friends will pay and go away - otherwise they wouldn’t get the loan.

Yes, the Big Box Gym is dead, my friend.  And rightfully so.  It was a poor concept.  Flawed from its conception.  But that doesn’t mean it didn’t do some good along the way.  It did.  Millions (those who took the initiative and who braved the nonsense) were able to figure out how to find life changing health and fitness while there.  These folks have carried the torch and have, in turn, created new and better ways of helping others.  Excellent ways.  For that, maybe,  we can give the BBG some credit.  After all, the BBG set the perfect example of what NOT to do, right?  It is a bit of a stretch, but it just doesn’t seem right to take ALL the credit away from a system (flawed as it may be) which will spawn the next wave of excellence.  

And therein lies the point of this musing.  Excellence.  Unfortunately for the next wave of excellence to prevail, it must speed the old system along its way, raging into that dark night.  And rage it will, although it hasn’t earned that dignity.  Not by its works, its actions, its intentions, or deeds.  By taking your confidences, then blaming you for its failures, it continues to detract from its own legacy.  And therefore the Big Box Gym must die, if for no other reason than to save it from itself.