Founded by Greg Glassman in 2000, the CrossFit concept sets out to “prepare trainees for any physical contingency – not only for the unknown, but for the unknowable,” according to the website.
The programme incorporates high intensity interval training, Olympic lifting, power lifting, gymnastics, calisthenics and strongman exercises (see also HCM Jan 11, p40), with CrossFit certifying trainers and licensing gyms for an annual fee.
There’s a strong group focus to the training, which is designed to build a sense of community – but at the moment it’s a community from which many of us feel excluded. The CrossFit boxes tend to be minimal and raw, the tone is sergeant majorish, and the website features über-fit people beasting themselves – not really the sort of friendly, accessible image that might help the UK fitness sector in its bid to draw more people into physical exercise.
But does this matter? Is it reasonable to have an element of fitness that’s reserved for those who want to dedicate a lot of time to training and have attained a higher level of fitness? Should it stay as it is and not be diluted for the mass market, or are there ways to fine-tune the concept so more people might give it a go and reap the benefits?
Some don’t believe CrossFit can be translated for the mass market. Licensed CrossFit operator Rachel Young, who runs independent studio mi-gym in Chelmsford, UK, is not sure health club chains could properly deliver this concept which, she says, works better on a smaller, more personal scale.
Tom Haynes, head of commercial and sports performance at Indigo 23 and owner of The Training Shed, agrees: “CrossFit is a specialist area and I don’t think the average health club would be able to run an authentic class safely: the knowledge and expertise of their instructors tends to be quite limited, and clubs wouldn’t have adequate space or the required equipment either.
“In addition, the underground and edgy feel of CrossFit is part of its identity and I’m not sure this would work successfully in a mainstream health club. The CrossFit clubs tend to charge more, and in return there’s a small, personal feel, with excellent coaches who know every member by name.”
However Tony Buchanan, MD and founder of Absolute Performance, argues that CrossFit training methods are already in the mass market: strength and conditioning, shuttle running, Olympic lifting and functional fitness rigs are now commonplace. “It’s just about going back to basics,” he says. “Any health club looking to start offering CrossFit simply needs excellent coaches and a decent amount of space.”
Indeed, for clubs that have already invested in functional training areas, many experts agree that only a few tweaks are needed to offer CrossFit, or at least a CrossFit-style workout.
However, to take it mass market, the concept does need to be toned down somewhat, as the hardcore image is never going to pull in the deconditioned, older or nervous member – even though these groups could very much benefit from the style of training.
“For CrossFit to appeal to a broader marker, it has to be diluted,” says John Halls, sales and marketing director at Physical Company. “This isn’t a bad thing, as short, sharp, effective workouts can still take place – but in a safer environment. Members will always be attracted by workouts that offer maximum results in minimum time, so clubs need to get that message across.”
With this focus on safety in mind, clubs must consider how to properly introduce members to the concept. Experienced, knowledgeable, ideally PT-trained Level 3 staff are vital, ensuring members are correctly instructed in safe technique – otherwise there’s real potential for injury. Fitness First Middle East, which has introduced its own Xfit offering (see below), provides a ‘fundamentals’ class so members can learn the basics before progressing first to the ‘essential’ class and then the ‘daily extreme’ programme.
“There should be a great focus on the correct lifting techniques and a lot of training before novices are allowed to lift heavier weights,” says Antti Kohvakka, sales director at York Fitness. “Clubs should develop tutorial programmes to provide this service and get members lifting correctly and safely.”
Create your brand
Although going the route of getting your club licensed by CrossFit, and your trainers affiliated, allows you to benefit from the public awareness of the CrossFit brand – “the marketing has, to a degree, already been done for clubs,” says Matthew Januszek of Escape Fitness – nevertheless the hardcore brand can be off-putting for many. Creating your own, more accessible brand is a way of giving this type of training a more universal appeal. And indeed health club chains have no choice in the matter, as CrossFit won’t license chains.
Scandinavian chain SATS, which operates 110 clubs, has therefore created Prformance. Currently offered in 10 of its sites, it’s in the process of being rolled out as it’s proved successful in boosting visits, sales, retention and PT revenues, as well as attracting an even mix of males and females.
“The CrossFit brand and product is more extreme than mass market, but its principles of back to basics, functional fitness can be applied in a health club,” says Daniel Almgren, SATS Nordic product manager. “It’s straightforward to make the training techniques available and appealing to a broad market.”
The Prformance offering is delivered within a 200–300sq m arena with padded flooring and rigs, where high intensity, strength and Olympic lifting classes are offered. SATS selects its best personal trainers to run the sessions.
“We recognised that much of what scares people about CrossFit is the industrial environment, so we’ve set about making ours more appealing – for example, using more inviting lighting,” says Almgren. “However, we’ve kept some of the rawness with a prison yard-style, see-through fence.”
Fitness First Middle East has also created its own brand, Xfit – a mix of functional training, gymnastics, body movement and Olympic lifting. The Xfit boxes – which have no mirrors or TV screens – are kitted out with tyres, a functional training rig, medicine balls, Olympic bars and weights, plus boxes to jump over. MYZONE has been introduced to measure workout intensity and boost motivation.
“We’re seeing phenomenal results, with people changing their body shape and with significant increases in fitness levels and strength. Some members have even taken part in the CrossFit Open Regionals,” says Mark Botha, group operations and marketing director of Fitness First Middle East. “Xfit is popular because it’s results-driven, fun, instructor-led, and offers the benefits of PT but with a group exercise dynamic.”
Meanwhile Young has taken a two-pronged approach at mi-gym, using the CrossFit brand to attract those to whom it appeals and dropping it for those who would find it off-putting. “The name can be intimidating, so I call my evening classes CrossFit, but daytime sessions are Results classes,” she says. “It’s the same training, but 80 per cent of the membership wouldn’t have come if it had been called CrossFit. To get going, I aimed my marketing at women – I knew the men, and those into CrossFit, would come anyway.”
Sense of community
Undoubtedly one of the secrets to CrossFit’s success is the way it has built up a community, both online and within clubs. It’s this small, personal feel that leads some to doubt whether the concept can be taken mass market. However, although difficult in a large club, it’s by no means impossible – it just requires energy and effort on the part of staff, with lots of personal contact both in and out of the club, follow-ups if people miss class so they feel important, and good use of social media.
Young intentionally limits the size of classes so people feel special; as a result, they’re very sociable with each other, going out to breakfast together after class and suchlike. Fitness First Middle East has also managed to create a strong sense of community. “We set 12-week targets based on suggestions, and everyone works to the same goal – learning a new skill such as a handstand push-up, for example, or getting a beach body – which culminates in a beach swim and BBQ,” says Botha.
Although CrossFit is intended to cater for all levels and ages within one class, one quick way to create a community might be to run sessions that appeal to like-minded people. Fitness First Middle East runs a mums class, for example, scheduled after the school run, and this has proved immensely popular and generated word-of-mouth referrals.
Since CrossFit won’t license chains, and seems keen to protect its niche status, it’s unlikely that CrossFit itself will go mass market. However, the style of training certainly can – and is already starting to do so. If your club wants to replicate the concept, the key requirements are well-trained staff, a well thought-out environment, personal relationships with the members, and a concept that’s accessible but still has an edge – don’t dumb it right down.
Creating a CrossFit-style brand should result in better results for members and better retention for your club. However, it won’t come without a lot of work and effort on your part. The focus must be on selling fitness, not selling memberships.