Class Wars: the fight for exclusivity in modern gym culture.

How the gym industry is fighting for exclusivity.
How the gym industry is fighting for exclusivity.

How the gym industry is fighting for exclusivity.

A lay-person ¬†waltzing into a gym class, ¬†has no idea of the back room ¬†wars being waged to earn their attendance.¬†Think the world of fitness is only about making people feel better? ¬†think again! There is a bucket of money being¬†made from each euphoric¬†sweat session and some of the industry’s¬†biggest players are getting ferocious¬†in making sure their golden buckets stay full.¬†But is it worth if the end result is that fitness becomes less inclusive for both staff and member? Let’s see what is at stake. History Joseph Pilates (1883- 1967) :¬†Joe Pilates was first in line to popularize a specific method of fitness in NYC during the early 1900s through the 1960s. ¬†After Pilates and his wife opened their studio, the Contrology method became beloved by dancers¬†and therefore exclusive in its limited access. Once wealthy NYC socialites learned about its benefits, the exclusivity factor rose and they flocked to Pilates for help. The current recognition of the Pilates name is based not just on the effectiveness of his¬†core-centric¬†method but also on his efforts to ¬†preserve his method via instructor training many years ago. Jack Lalanne (1914-2011)A fitness story cannot be told without first mentioning the “GodFather of Fitness” . Back in his heyday, Jack was one of the first proponents of good nutrition and exercise as well as one of the 1st gym owners in the mid 1930s. Although his target market was female, he was also well-respected by men in the body building sphere and so his gyms were egalitarian. It would seem that¬†Jack was more interested in educating and helping the masses to turn their lives around through healthy lifestyle choices as he did. Lotte Berk (1913-2003):¬†Lotte Berk was a contemporary of Lalanne’s and like Joe Pilates, developed her own dance based, core focused method of exercise that shared her name.¬†Berk licensed her method and a Lotte Berk studio opened¬†in NY’s Upper East Side in 1970. The studio closed its doors in 2005 after competition increased namely by¬†CoreFusion, Berk based method and studio opened after an epic “falling out” between Berk and former Lotte Berk students, Fred DeVito and Elizabeth Halfpapp. Fast forward to present day, 11 years in the future since CoreFusion & Exhale Spas began their sprawl, and we now have over 400 different types of boutique gyms in the NY area alone.


Specific methodologies abound among cycling, interval training, dance based classes, and body/sports¬†conditioning just to name a few! To some, this is the simple nature of fitness: an ever evolving beast built upon the imperfections of all who came before it. To others, especially those with the most dollars invested, this rise in competition is a call to batten down the hatches and protect what is theirs. This begs the question: what is “theirs” really? Doesn’t fitness belong to everyone and is it possible to harness its inherently volatile nature of change? That question becomes even more interesting when you consider that all modern fitness styles are derivative of the ones that preceded them or other modes of movement (dance). The human body does have a finite ability for movement and improvement, after all. So if you can’t control the public’s rampant need for change in fitness,¬†their obvious need for a sense of ¬†community or make them bionic through their workouts then what can you change? Well, you can (try to) control ¬†access and your “people” ¬†meaning your public and your staff…maybe. At the time of this post, SoulCycle, Equinox Gyms (SoulCycle’s owner), FlyWheel, and Barry’s Boot Camp¬†have¬†been the leaders in exclusivity¬†marketing. Each cater to the same class of clients: ¬†mostly white,¬†well-heeled, well-connected, energetic and affluent – in short, the type that can afford and have come to expect access. ¬†Since each offers complementary¬†approaches to similar modalities, ¬†it would seem that¬†there would be room for all in the current market. Not all would agree, as the fight to retain the client and mystique of “specialness” ¬†has heated up with this recent exchange¬†proves. It has also become normal practice to expect reciprocal¬†devotion from the instructors that these members are devoted to¬†via non compete clauses.

So, is the answer to keep creating extremely specific workouts that target the fit and affluent few or to¬†become¬†more accessible¬†to everyone else? Well, it depends on the end marketing goal. Community marketing by definition allows expansion and inclusion for all who see themselves reflected in said community. Built on a sense of belonging, it encourages loyalty from all included even through changes. Cults, however, are hyper-focused communities built on the premise that no one is special outside of that community and so emphasize exclusion of the “unspecial”. The danger in cult marketing is not that it happens, this is business after all and it does yield dollars. No, the real danger in cult marketing is its limitations for growth because, well, ¬†if you continue to tell others they aren’t worthy and that you have all of the answers they will resent you.

Lastly, although client retention is the gold standard¬†in the fitness club business so is client conversion, staff satisfaction and the rarely mentioned: word of mouth referral marketing.¬†As such and¬†in¬†a predominantly service based industry like exercise delivery, public perception trumps current client perception. Why? because fitness is both aspirational and inspirational. The potential client becomes the real client based on¬†their current socio-economic identity AND who they want to become;¬†they want a tribe they are¬†proud of and ¬†can refer their loved ones to. In short: they want to belong and feel good about it. Change is inevitable especially¬†now that pristine environments, skilled and beautiful staff, and the buzz of specialness are par for the course in¬†fitness. Since the rate of change is becoming faster and more unpredictable it might be smarter for gyms to go back to the root of the thing, the effectiveness and feeling¬†that fitness inspires. Aren’t those the 2 things that¬†every member and ¬†potential member chases?

Making people feel capable can be far more valuable in the long term than fleeting exclusivity. Love it or hate it, one brand that has done this well is CrossFit whose credo seems to be “yeah, but can you do it?”. CrossFit itself is a perfect example of an amalgamation of training with an open door policy AND cult marketing genius. There is a groundswell coming and I think it will be back to the basics of the overall fitness¬†consumer very soon. “People will forget what you¬†said, people will forget what you did but people will never¬†forget how you made them feel” ` Maya Angelou


  1. ¬†“Lotte Berk in last stretch;¬†; 2005
  2. ” SoulCycle bans fitness instructors from its classes”;; 2014