The Shutdown Plan for Gym Owners

A wave crashing - the second shutdown - plan for gym owners

Dec. 22, 2021, Update: If your gym is facing a shutdown in 2022 due to Omicron, this plan can help you get through it. It’s been tested and refined over previous lockdowns. It works.

Down, but not out: That’s how most microgyms found themselves after the first wave of COVID-related closures in 2020.

Thanks to a quick pivot online, most gyms survived the shutdown. In fact, many gyms reported a surge of new clients when they reopened (read more here: The Surge Series).

But the path to re-opening isn’t a straight line. Melbourne, Australia; Dublin, Ireland; and some parts of Canada are going backward on their reopening plans already. And some gyms haven’t even fully reopened yet.

If your gym struggled during the first part of the pandemic, it’s not your fault: No one was prepared. But if you’re unprepared for a second shutdown, it will be your fault.

Two-Brain clients, and thousands of gym owners who downloaded the public versions of our guides, benefitted from an early warning: We saw the shutdown happen in China, then Italy, then Germany. And as closures worked their way around the world, we sounded the alarm. Even better, we were able to give solid advice and tell you what would actually save your gym when the shutdown came to you.

But we couldn’t foresee everything that would happen as the world tried to navigate an unprecedented crisis.

Credit-card companies withheld payments to gyms. Governments offered bailouts. And some gyms were shut down for over 100 days in many cases!

As gyms experimented, adapted and eventually reopened, we dug deep into the data so we could prepare for the future. And now we’re ready for the second shutdown—because you can’t afford to guess this time.

Our original recommendations helped thousands of gyms pivot. Those recommendations have been updated in this guide with everything we’ve learned since March as we analyzed the data we collected from hundreds of gyms.

Here’s an executive summary of this new guide:

What Won’t Change

1. Customized delivery of group workouts has the best retention. We have step-by-step instructions below. The best gyms spent two minutes per client per day on this tactic. We discovered big differences in retention numbers among gyms but also among coaches in the same gym. That’s a clear indication of a delivery issue, not a process issue. In this guide, I’m going to give you better examples of how to maximize retention through online delivery.

“Gyms and boutique studios that proactively adopt new, creative ways to retain customers and transition to a more digital fitness practice are best positioned to succeed moving forward.”
—Deloitte “Fitness Market Overview,” Sept. 2020

2. We know Zoom classes once per day aid retention—but they can’t keep the boat afloat alone. Zoom classes by themselves are simply not enough to keep your clients engaged. Gyms and fitness studios that offered online sessions had 7 percent fewer frozen memberships than businesses that didn’t offer a virtual alternative, according to a study published by Deloitte. But 7 percent isn’t much. According to Two-Brain data, gyms that pivoted to customized delivery kept, on average, 74 percent of their revenue through the COVID shutdown—that’s 10 times better than Zoom classes only. (See below for the details on customized delivery.)

3. Gyms have to anchor their online rates before they shut down to anchor the value of online coaching. And then they have to actually deliver that value.

What Will Change

1. Gyms should put revenue streams “into orbit” before closing down. That means owners should look to create revenue streams that stay active without constant attention—like satellites in space. For example, supplement sales went up when gyms were closed.

2. Gyms should rent out their equipment. Originally, I said they shouldn’t because I predicted the shutdown would be less than a month (and it just wasn’t worth it). Now we know that clients with equipment are more likely to stay engaged.

3. If a gym can’t rent out all its equipment, it should provide links for clients to buy equipment right away. Think Amazon, not the typical equipment sellers because of the waiting lists. Coaches should customize their programming to the equipment a client has.

What We’ve Added

1. How to deliver customized instructions using different avatars.

2. How to set up recurring revenue streams.

3. How to price equipment for rent and prioritize clients who need it.

A man shooting a video on the end of a dock at sunrise, how to coach without a gym

Add Online Training in 24 Hours: The Updated Step-by-Step Plan

After a worldwide wave of shutdowns in spring and graduated reopening over summer in most of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic is once again forcing changes on the fitness business.

Panic has not gone away, social distancing remains, masks are now mandatory in many public spaces, extra cleaning and disinfections are standard, and more government-mandated gym closures are a reality in some locations and likely in many others.

But we’re prepared. What follows are the data-backed best practices for operating a fitness business during the COVID Crisis. These recommendations were battle-tested in the first wave of shutdowns, and they’ll serve you well as the pandemic continues.

You can use the info below to move online fast if you were unprepared for new government restrictions. But we recommend you use the info in this guide to plan ahead: Prepare standard operating procedures and fallback plans before governments act. If you have everything ready ahead of time and educate clients and staff, you’ll inspire everyone with your leadership. You’ll also give your business the best chance to thrive. And you’ll show clients you’re a true professional who will help them stay fit and healthy no matter what.

If you’ve been caught off guard, move swiftly. If you’re reading this in advance of government restrictions on operations, set everything up now so you can push a button if and when the time comes.

Red sign hanging at the glass door of a shop saying "Closed due to coronavirus."

What Is Two-Brain Recommending?

Pivot your clients to online training.                   

Set up three levels of service.

Level 1

Price this level to be slightly more expensive than your most popular group rate. (During COVID: Offer it at the same rate they’re paying but make sure they know it’s a more expensive service.)

Delivery: Group programming tailored to each client individually. Text twice per day, before and after the workout.

Tools: Text or email—or step up with a software platform like TrueCoach. But that’s optional. No video.

Level 2

Price this service about 33 percent more than the base package.

Delivery: Group programming tailored to each client individually, plus nutrition plans and tracking.

Tools: MyFitnessPal (here’s an article on how to use MyFitnessPal as a coach: Two-Brain Coaching). Text and email. No video other than that used to conduct nutrition meetings.

Level 3

Price this level of service to be about twice as costly as the base package.

Delivery: Personalized programming and a personalized nutrition package, with regular online video goal reviews and nutrition plan updates.

Tools: MyFitnessPal, text, email, video for 1:1 calls.

Delivering Value

With each of these levels of service, the value is entirely in the 1:1 messaging with the client. The client must clearly understand how the program will move him or her toward goals.

General programming will not maintain its value for long. It’s a commodity for the online trainer.

The online training Two-Brain recommends is based on 1:1 contact with clients on a regular basis. The personal contact is recommended to maintain engagement in the programming and with the gym. 

These are the tactics used by successful online trainers—people who made a living coaching online before gyms were shut down. And they’re the same tactics used by the best bricks-and-mortar owners during the first wave of COVID.

If you use any of these methods, you should consult with your insurance provider to determine if additional coverage is required.

Explaining the “Why”

Use your regular programming but make sure your coaches can explain its value (the “why”) to every client depending on his or her goals.

Here’s how to do it:

Explaining the Why: Part 1

Explaining the Why: Part 2

Here’s an example of Two-Brain Coaching co-founder Josh Martin explaining a sample workout: Two-Brain Coaching Whiteboard Brief.

Here’s an example of Two-Brain Coaching mentor Mike Watson delivering a short “why” brief to clients: Click here.

Where to Get Programming

Anywhere—make up your own or follow our example here: 31 At-Home Workouts.

Two-Brain clients also get a full list of in-home equipment programming and possible variations.

How to Pivot to Online Programming

If you’re in Growth Phase at Two-Brain Business, open your Growth ToolKit and go to the Online Training Highway. You’ll find a full course on adding online training to your gym and getting your clients to use it.

If you’re in the RampUp Stage, you’ll learn how to take quick action that won’t undermine your future online coaching program. But for now: If your gym is in danger of being shut down, you can offer to coach people online. This could even create a huge opportunity for you after this crisis ends!

First, keep taking your No-Sweat Intros. Offer people an option to do them over Skype or Zoom. The phone is also an option if clients prefer, but it’s better to see faces.

Second, if people are nervous about attending group classes, offer to deliver their workouts online. Tell them that this is a new premium service, but you’ll provide it at the same price as their monthly membership for now.

For example, the three tiers of online coaching at my gym, Catalyst, are:

  • $149 Base
  • $225 Core
  • $399 Max

For now, show these rates to your clients and say:

“We don’t want you to lose the buffer of health and immunity we’ve built together. These programs are more expensive than your current membership, but we’re going to give them to you for the rate you’re currently paying for as long as this crisis lasts.”

If they’re doing workouts at home, you have to have 1:1 conversations with them. Don’t just post “today’s workout.” Actually take the time to email each client and say, “Here’s how this will help you.”

You can use the same rationale with multiple clients or the same workout with different rationale. Two-Brain Coaching Mentor Mike Watson’s advice is to create five client “avatars” and think about how the daily group programming would benefit each of them.

His sample avatars? Weight loss, strength gain, mobility, endurance, and general fitness. Each day, he looks at the workout and asks himself, “How does this workout help someone lose weight?” Then he makes some notes and moves on to the next avatar. Mike repeats the process until he’s created notes for all five (see “Delivery: Group or Class Clients” below for more details and a specific example).

At that point, he starts texting videos to each client on his list. If they fit the “weight loss” avatar, he starts his video by saying, “Hey Jim! This is a great workout for you, because … ,” and then he proceeds to tell them how it will help with weight-loss goals. Mike invites the client to text back with questions, and he works through his list of 40 clients in less than 90 minutes a day.

For example, you could send a 4-round workout of 400-m runs and 50 squats to a competitive sprinter and someone who wants to lose 30 lb.

To the sprinter: “I picked this workout to improve your ability to buffer lactic acid when your heart rate exceeds 165 BPM. Think about your final 100 m while you’re doing it.”

To the weight-loss client: “Today, we’re going to alternate periods of localized fatigue with a more aerobic recovery phase. I want you to be able to metabolize fat during the workout. So do the first run at a jog and note your time at the end. Try to keep that jog time within 20 percent of the first one if you can, but your priority is to do the squats unbroken.”

More variations are possible.

To the new person: “Our goal today is to keep moving. It’s OK to slow down, but try not to stop. I’d like you to record your split times each round and send them to me so we can analyze your performance. We’ll pick the next few workouts based on those results.”

To the veteran: “My goal for you today is to see how localized fatigue affects your general performance. Instead of being limited by hitting a high HR, I want to see what happens when lactic acid builds up. So there’s a small mental component here, too. To help, please try to do all the squats unbroken, hit the first run hard, and keep all your other run times within 20 percent of your fastest time.”

This approach adds value and relevance, and, in my experience, actually improves client performance, too.

We put 31 at-home workouts for you to copy, modify and use on the Two-Brain Coaching blog. You can start there if it helps.

Simple Online Training Methodology

In its simplest form, online coaching can be provided via email and text. It is not done in group form but is personalized and unique based on the client—just as if he or she were in your gym. 

Here is an example of a simple process one of our mentors, Ana Bennett, is using in her gym:

The training is based on one-on-one emails with a standard workout:

1. The members are assigned to or divided among coaches.

2. Each coach emails each assigned client daily.

3. The coach reaches out based on the profile of each client and follows progress.

Example: “Based on your goals and your available equipment at home, here is your workout for today.”

3A. The coach uses the programming daily and can modify or change it for specific clients via text or email. Example:

“Based on your goal of improving your endurance with upper-body gymnastics movements, try to do the push-ups unbroken in each round.”

4. For personal training clients, the coach provides personalized programming.

Delivery: Group or Class Clients

Your coaches should divide up your client lists and plan to spend two minutes per day per client customizing your general program.

Streaming online classes won’t keep your clients around during the crisis. While the novelty factor is high, our data showed that attendance in online classes during the first COVID lockdown began to drop as early as the third day. Some gyms were able to keep clients fully engaged for up to five days, but the rent is going to come due sooner or later and the crisis will probably go on for weeks if not months. You can’t rely on “days” of engagement.

There’s a “good-better-best” approach to online training.

Online Video Classes

Fact: 7 percent is better than nothing. But you can’t compete with the free services out there. This approach won’t set you up for long-term retention or new client recruitment. If you’re determined to stick with online video classes, you’d better be as good as Peloton: They’re your competition now.

Personal Coaching Online

This is the real long-term play. Clients pay for accountability and workouts fully tailored to their goals.

You need to think of this as “personal training” first. Consider the delivery vehicle (the internet) second. While it’s possible to automate some of the delivery, you will need to hold your clients accountable every day.

Most software platforms understand that the value of online personal coaching isn’t really the programming; it’s the accountability. And they’re set up for it. Trainerize, TrainHeroic and TrueCoach all offer 1:1 messaging through their apps.

Your packages for personal coaching online should have three tiers:

  1. An accountability tier with customized workouts.
  2. A personalized tier with both workouts and nutrition coaching specific to the client.
  3. A personalized tier that includes 1:1 live video meetings every two to four weeks. 

Personal Customization

Customization means tailoring your regular group programming to each client by explaining how it will help them achieve their personal goals.

Here’s how to do it:

1. Take your daily group workout and paste it into a text.

2. Add custom instructions for each client.

3. Send it to the client in a recorded video or call and talk about it. This should take two minutes per client per day.

4. Move to the next client.

“Customization” means taking something general and altering it slightly for a specific case. You don’t have to create a separate workout for each member; you just have to show each client the same workout through a different lens—a lens that helps him or her see the workout as another step toward a personal goal.

How long does customization take? At first, it will take six to seven minutes per client per day. But industry experts say their average is two to three minutes per client per day. So as your clients get used to the customization option, you can expect delivery time to go down.

Watch Two-Brain Coaching Mentor Mike Watson do it again: Click here.

Remember the five avatars described above: weight loss, strength, performance, movement, and general fitness. The “general” category is for people who don’t have a clear goal. If you use the same avatars, don’t put everyone in the “general” category. Fewer than 10 percent of your clients fit there. If you don’t know their goals, ask—they definitely have some.

As mentioned earlier, a coach can take the daily group programming and write out the benefits it would provide to each avatar. Here’s a sample brief for three different avatars when presenting a workout with snatches and cycling:

3 text boxes show how a workout can be presented to 3 avatars: weight loss, general fitness and strength.

We teach you how to personalize workouts in the Two-Brain Coaching Second Degree Course, and co-founder Josh Martin gives daily examples in the Two-Brain Coaches Facebook Group

Maybe your clients love “the community.” But you can’t open your gym. Add daily video sessions or even a daily video class or two, but you must have 1:1 delivery—customization or personalization—to keep them long term!

Sure, you can add video classes and demos and social time. But don’t bank on them to save your gym.

A tight roll of money is held by a bow with a red and white label that says "for you."

Recurring Revenue Streams Through the Second Stage


As Cameron Herold eloquently put it at the 2020 Two-Brain Summit, “You need to put things into orbit that will pay you when you’re not thinking about them.”

For example, when gyms close, supplement sales go up.

Jason Rule at Driven Nutrition built a supplement preorder program that gave gyms a few hundred dollars in commissions every month.

When Driven kicked off Gym Drive on April 14, it began providing training to show gyms how to take advantage of Driven’s drop-ship service using direct affiliate links unique to each gym. At the same time, Driven created a way to post product education directly on the social media accounts of the gyms it serves, making sure to include the gym’s name and unique link to the product. If gyms elected to have Driven post content for them, the commissions increased from 30 to 40 percent.  

Overall, 154 affiliates took advantage of this opportunity, and between April 1 and June 30, 2020, a total of $56,204.77 was paid out to affiliates. Of the original 154, 128 are still seeing the value and taking advantage of Driven’s product education content on a weekly basis.

Any gym that would like to join can sign up here: Driven Nutrition

Renting out Equipment

In the first round of COVID shutdowns, we didn’t advise owners to rent out equipment because no one knew how long lockdown would last. In a two- or three-week shutdown, the revenue would not have been worth the effort, and owners ran the risk of not having their tools in the box when governments eased restrictions.

Now, we’re recommending owners rent gear because lockdowns are likely to be a month or more. With a properly structured program owners will make a few dollars in rent, but, more importantly, they’ll have better retention for their coaching service—which is a higher-value offering and the real key to survival.

Simply put: Clients who have your equipment will be less likely to leave. Think about Peloton: people hold onto memberships because they have the bike. The reverse isn’t true.

The key is to lay out an agreement so everyone is on the same page and gray areas are eliminated. You don’t want to reopen without your gear or have clients return broken or dirty equipment.

On the next page, you’ll find a sample equipment rental form from Kevin Wood, owner of CrossFit Moncton.

You should, of course, check with your insurer and consult a lawyer to create your own document to limit liability.

CrossFit Moncton Equipment Rental Program

Our goal is to help you achieve your full fitness potential regardless of where you’re training.

I __________________________________(FULL NAME), wish to participate in the CrossFit Moncton Equipment Rental Program. 

________ (INITIAL) I hereby certify that I have no medical problems that would increase my risk of illness and injury as a result of participation in the CrossFit Moncton Equipment Rental Program.

________ (INITIAL) I agree to assume any and all risks of participation and hereby waive, release, and discharge CrossFit Moncton and its owners, trainers and staff of any and all claims, demands, actions, or damages of any kind resulting from participation in the CrossFit Moncton Equipment Rental Program. This release shall be binding upon my heirs, executors, administrators and assigns. 

________ (INITIAL) I agree to return any and all equipment in its original condition within two days of the re-opening of CrossFit Moncton. If the equipment is damaged or defective, I agree to replace it at my expense. 


__________________________________________ __________________________________________

Date: ____________________

Name (please print): ____________________________   

Signature: ____________________________

A kettlebell sits on the floor of a functional training gym lit by sunlight.

What to Charge for Equipment Rental

Certified Two-Brain Mentor Jay Rhodes charged these monthly rates:

  • $0 for single dumbbells or kettlebells (used as a retention tool).
  • $150 for one barbell and a pair of 45s, 25s and 10s.
  • $25 for a box.

Jay loaned out a few rowing machines to PT clients, and for one client valued at $1,600 a month, he allowed her to take whatever she wanted (a rower, a box, a slam ball and a kettlebell).

Certified Two-Brain Mentor Kenny Markwardt supported this move and did something similar for high-value clients: “We basically built them a home gym and did sessions over Zoom. We have 15-20 PT clients. We didn’t lose one of them during the shutdown.”

Average Vs. Extraordinary

Not every gym is going to do these things. As hard as it is for me to accept, not every gym is going to make it through a second shutdown.

The key? You really have to hang your hat on proven strategies instead of looking at what “most” gyms are doing.

If you talk with other gym owners a lot, you might feel as if you have to do everything instead of work really hard on the right things. It’s just how we’re wired.

Average gym owners aren’t going to have this plan. They’re going to get overwhelmed, and it’s a bad time to be average.

The bottom line: You need to act. And I’d rely on data instead of guesses.

The tactics in this ebook have been tested, and they’ll give you the best chance to get through this. We’ll keep testing tactics as we move through the crisis, and when we find new things that work, we’ll tell you about them. If you aren’t in the private Facebook Group Gym Owners United, join now so you don’t miss any updates. I post tactics and directives in there every day.

You also know I’m going to say, “Get a mentor.” You can do that here. You don’t have to figure everything out on your own.

But if you can’t get a mentor, ask for proof before you act. The fake gurus are peddling snake oil again, and you can’t afford a mistake right now.

Picture of Chris Cooper.

A Final Word

The greatest differentiator between gyms that thrived in the first shutdown and gyms that faltered?

It was leadership.

Gym owners who communicated early and often with their teams and their members had higher adherence, especially among their top staff and core clients.

While every gym owner had the best of intentions—survival is a big motivator—many failed to explain their intent or plan to everyone around them. That left staff to guess and confused clients without a vision for the future.

The top lesson I learned in the first part of the COVID Crisis came from my mentor, Todd Herman, who taught me the CALM model of leadership. Read about it here.

When I wasn’t sure what to say or didn’t feel like saying anything, I leaned hard on this model. And it helped me, my team and my clients. Showing a light at the end of the tunnel kept people moving through the darkness.

I’ll take the same approach here.

Don’t give up. The only way out is through.

You can do it!

Click here to see if working with a mentor is right for you.


One more thing!

Did you know gym owners can earn $100,000 a year with no more than 150 clients? We wrote a guide showing you exactly how.