She came into the gym crying, and told me she had to cancel her membership.
“Why?!” I asked, immediately panicking. She was one of my best clients!
“My husband bought me a treadmill. It’s really expensive. I don’t like it. But I feel like I have to use it.”
I never saw her again.
I used to hate it when a client bought a treadmill. When FitBits showed up after Christmas, I could barely stop myself from ranting about wasted money. And when Orange Theory started touting heart rate as the primary metric of fitness, I probably wrote and deleted 50 blog posts. I saw these things as a replacement for true fitness. They were all taking up time, energy and money that my clients could have spent on better stuff, like CrossFit.
Then I grew up a little, and started realizing that the tech wasn’t my competition. In fact, it could be part of my program. If you’re running a prescriptive model in your gym, all of the stuff I’m about to share can fit under your coaching umbrella.
(If you’re not using the Prescriptive Model, this is the best time to learn it. Book a free call with a mentor to talk about it here.)
What follows is a long post about the tech most likely to touch your gym in 2019. I get into neurochemistry, wattage measurement and even microfibers. It might be too long. But I want you to know what you’re up against–or, if you’re in the TwoBrain family, what your new position of leverage might be.
The Delivery of Fitness is Changing. But our brains aren’t.
Dopamine is the “happy” chemical. It’s triggered by feelings of success, but only when combined with novelty. Running the same 5k time over and over doesn’t trigger dopamine. Doing the same bench press workout more than three times doesn’t trigger dopamine. That’s why CrossFit is so good at getting people hooked…at first.
Basically, dopamine is the ‘happy’ chemical. It gets secreted when you feel loved or safe or strong. But not forever: according to Lieberman and Long, novelty must be present to secrete dopamine. This is why you have to take bigger risks to feel happy, and you get addicted to risk-taking. Same as cocaine or coffee. Same as spending money on purses. And because we now have unlimited access to novelty, we can actually get addicted to novelty itself.
This is how Instagram works: little hits of dopamine as you see pictures of people having fun or kittens frolicking. Instagram sucks you in, because it’s all visual: there’s no processing time between stimulus and dopamine hit. It’s main-lining a drug, literally.
It’s also how video games work: the first few levels are very simple, you’re earning stars or smashing candy and earning gold coins. But I’m using the Instagram example because it’s the nexus of this dopamine/joy and marketing. Strava is the Instagram for athletes, except you’re in the picture.
is a tracking app and community for endurance athletes. It’s developed/owned by Chris Carmichael (Lance Armstrong’s former coach) and was basically just a way for them to track their athletes’ rides and runs. But it’s exploding. And coaches are now allowed to advertise on there. Groups are forming. You can write “posts”. It’s one of many workout tracking apps (probably the best) but I think it’s going to change fitness. I’ll use it as an example, but there are hundreds of other options.
When you put Strava on your phone, you turn the world into a game. I can ride my bike up a random hill near my home, and my phone tells me who’s ridden up the hill before me; how fast they did it; where I rank against others on this particular hill; and how my current ride compares to my previous rides. Nothing makes me climb faster than seeing “John Franklin -0:02” on my computer screen, because it means my friend John rode this hill before, and at that point on the hill he was two seconds ahead of me. And then I get badges for riding faster, or farther, or for riding new routes…almost any excuse you can dream up.
Until very recent times, businesses grew because of marketing. But Instagram and Facebook don’t market. They’re the new platform for marketing. They’re the meta-marketers: so good at marketing that they don’t need to market. Other people pay THEM for marketing. But they’re so powerful because they’ve actually mastered dopamine release: constant novelty, delivered through easy-to-digest messages, mostly visual. Radio was a platform of convenience. Instagram is a platform of addiction.
Strava wants to be the meta for exercise tracking…and that creates a huge opportunity to be the platform for marketing to athletes. Strava actually just hired the former VP of sales for Instagram. They’re definitely about to weaponize (monetize) the platform through ad sales. But not the same way IG and Facebook did, because Strava also uses another addictive bit of tech: badging.
Candy Crush is addictive for two reasons: instant feedback and new levels. You get dopamine hits from positive feedback, and long-term novelty addiction from new levels. But Candy Crush doesn’t give you actual prizes or badges to display to others.
Strava does. Their first forays into marketing (an event, and a bike) combine badging with leveling up.
First example: a gravel race. It flashed in front of me in my Strava feed. My brain went from reading my “kudos” (Kudos on Strava = Likes on Facebook) to an ad for a gravel race. Dopamine hit, dopamine hit, advertisement, dopamine hit. Just like Instagram. But the ad wasn’t just an ad: it was a chance to win a new badge that I could ONLY get by entering the race, and a discount on entry fee.
Note that I get the badge for signing up, not for completing the race. Genius. Addictive.
But Strava is just the beginning. Strava is a leaderboard. Zwift is the game. But I’ll address Zwift later.
Our Brains Also Like Community
The benefit of workout apps for delivering programming and videos is obvious. But for the first time, they can also deliver a “community” feel. And this is what’s really scaring gym owners.
Community is a really popular selling feature of our service. We all talk about ‘community’ as one of our key benefits. The problem is, no one ever comes in looking for a friend. No one buys community. No one even knows they want it until they’ve experienced it.
Community works by triggering feelings of belonging in our brains. We want to feel like we’re part of a tribe. Scheduled group classes provide that feeling. But so, arguably, does “open gym”: when I worked out a downmarket powerlifting and bodybuilding gym, I knew exactly who would be there at 8pm when I trained. I had about as much interaction with them as I do with the people in my CrossFit classes: a nice hello, 2 minutes of small talk at the water fountain, a spot when I needed it. There wasn’t as much high-fiving, but if I had one or two training partners, I’d get as much knuckle-bumping as I needed.
These feelings of tribal belonging and support are chemically hardwired into our brains. But a stronger chemical—and more immediate—is dopamine. Dopamine overrides almost every other chemical in our brain.
And I can get together with my friends without actually being in a gym now: we can meet up for a group class on Peloton, and chat while we’re pedaling. We can meet up on Zwift for a group run, no matter the weather, and chat or text while our treadmills adjust to the changing terrain. I can actually enjoy a half-marathon row on my Concept2, because I can row on the Thames instead of on a chalky gym floor with no distractions. All of these options exist NOW. And I can do any of them with friends anywhere.
Our Brains Also Love Feedback
With Strava becoming the meta, and obviously turning toward ads, where is the money going to flow from tech companies? Into fitness wearables.
Look at big Pharma and health research: where does the money go? Toward sellable drugs. Where’s the money going in fitness? Sellable tech. And med balls don’t give you much of a novelty hit for long…
We were all drawn to CrossFit by the promise of a new workout every day, with a few certain workouts repeated to track progress. That constant novelty was a dopamine hit…until it wasn’t. Adherence rates in many gyms are low not because the workouts are ineffective, but because they are predictable. When we do old-school, different-every-day CrossFit, people show up more often. Do my members openly acknowledge this? Nope. But our PR board is jammed and so are our classes when our programming has a novelty bias.
The thing is, CrossFit has a tiny little bit of novelty every day. It’s still the same gym, same coaches, same barbells. Same feedback from the same people. The only novelty comes with posted times, new movements and maybe heavier weights. CrossFit is like football: the field doesn’t change, but the plays sometimes do, and that’s just interesting enough for a lot of people.
But endurance sports are like baseball: boring as hell, until you introduce statistics. And tech companies can produce LOTS of statistics. Garmin shows me heart rate, wattage, distance, RPM, and all kinds of cool stuff that keeps me engaged on a long ride. Instant feedback. Dopamine. With GPS, Garmin can say “You’ve never gone this far before” or “you’ve never gone this fast before” in real time. CrossFit coaches can’t do that. Not every second for every athlete.
And if we’ve learned anything from Orange Theory, it’s that ANY immediate feedback, meaningful or not, accurate or not, is attractive. Most Orange Theory locations open with over 100 members in the first week. It’s not the programming. It’s not the coaching. They don’t advertise “the community”. It’s the flashing lights. It’s the fucking dopamine!
One other quick note: accuracy doesn’t matter. People won’t actually care if the Wattage output Nexus reports is precise. They’ll only care if it’s consistent. I’ll tell you more about Polar later, but they’re the #1 brand in heart rate monitors not because they’re the most accurate. Cardiosport used to sell against them. Polar measures heartbeat; CardioSport actually measured the electrical impulse on the SA node, which is technically a more accurate reporting of what your heart is doing. But Polar has nice colors. Guess which company is the #1 in the world, and which is bankrupt?
CrossFit creates dopamine. But not fast. And most of the “coaching” isn’t immediate or intense or REAL enough to create dopamine release in clients for long.
Personal training is far better: immediate feedback, and good programming creates a feeling of “leveling up”.
But what happens when the Nexus wearable integrates with a platform like Strava, a meta-marketer?
Would people choose their old photo albums over Instagram? Because that’s what comparing CrossFit classes to wearables plus Strava will be like. It’s not just a case of conscious choice: it’s literal chemical addiction.
What People Want vs What People Need
Guess what? People hate doing most of the stuff they really should do.
So people do what they like.
I prefer to keep clients around for 10 years and make life-altering changes slowly, instead of trying to ram big changes down their throat in the first three months of their membership.
The key to making changes slowly is to measure progress, and then show the client.
In CrossFit, we test performance. And coaches should take the results of those tests, carefully consider them, and change their programming based on that feedback. BUT NONE DO. Personal trainers do a better job, because they can track individual clients’ progress and write individual programs. BUT FEW DO. That’s why it’s a bit funny to see CrossFit coaches try to get into Strength and Conditioning for athletes: they know lots of exercises, but they’ve never developed the skill of reviewing progress and writing new programs based on progress. They have a novelty bias. They write hard for the sake of hard and produce a fitter athlete that’s probably worse at their sport, unless general fitness was their largest handicap.
But even these rare trainers who test, measure and upgrade programming for their clients only do it every month or so. Even the conjugate method, which has its own levels and badging and constant novelty to addict us, only rotates exercises every 8 weeks or so.
Online training software, like TrainerRoad, Training Peaks, SufferFest and Zwift upgrade your training plan EVERY SECOND you use them.
For example, I can take a Functional Threshold Power test on Zwift. Zwift makes it interesting, by building a course around the test (during periods of high output, Zwift has me riding hills.) Then I can sign up for a six-week program to boost my FTP score—for FREE—and Zwift will let me choose which course to train on. I can use a different course every day, if I want, and still follow their program. I can have my erg adjust to hills, or to the programmed level of intensity and speed. If I’m doing well, I get immediate feedback. My brain loves it. And I’m getting better.
Four weeks after testing my FTP at 187 watts, I set my teenaged daughter up on her bike trainer beside mine.
Yeah, my kids actually ask me to ride bikes in the basement after dinner now. That’s big.
Anyway, I gave her a 5k head start on a 13k course, and then tried to catch her. I knew it was hopeless, but wanted her to have an early win, and did my best to catch her. Of course, I didn’t: she finished the course a full five minutes before I did.
But after the ride, a notification popped up that I’d held 236 watts for over 20 minutes for the first time. That’s almost a 40-watt improvement in output in a month. If you’re not a cyclist, that might not mean much (and if you ARE a cyclist, you’re probably chuckling at my output.) But what’s important is what happened next: all of my training rides were immediately adjusted for my new fitness level. I had a “congratulations!” on my phone before I unclipped my shoes. My friends started hitting “like” before I even made it to the shower. I unlocked a new course (the Mayan jungle). Then, because I’d lost the race, I had to go roll around in the snow in my bike shorts while my kid laughed at me.
Do you think there’s any way I’m going to quit Zwift and Strava anytime soon?
I think, as coaches, we all know that the best program should theoretically adapt to every single workout an athlete does. But as humans, we can’t do it—even coaches of Olympians don’t change the programming based on daily biofeedback and performance. Even the Bulgarians looked ONLY at a daily max to determine daily loads. Software does this in ten different ways every second.
And some software, like Zwift, makes you WANT to work out.
The most boring exercise in the world—running on a treadmill—is now as fun as a video game. And addictive. I’m seriously considering a treadmill ($4000) so I can run on Zwift ($12 per month.) CrossFit never made me want to buy a treadmill.
Already, some rowers are advertising online integration and games through their own app: HoloFit works with the Concept II, and it’s basically Zwift on a rower: http://www.holodia.com
. How long until rowers appear on Zwift? MMMMM….probably seconds.
How long until Muscle Beach appears next to the bike trail on Zwift? A year? Lucas Parker, wearing his Nexus, shows up on the beach. His lifts get tracked. He gets immediate awards. His training plan updates before his next workout starts, based on data that no coach could ever generate or translate.
But Wait, Folks…There’s More
Most CrossFit fans are probably still saying, “Yeah, but who wants to work out alone in your basement all the time?” The answer is: most people. Most people would rather walk downstairs before breakfast, put in their time, and be done. Most people don’t build their day around their workout. Most people don’t wear t-shirts with exercise slogans or think about which shoes are best for which exercise.
The biggest barrier to fitness for most people isn’t the price of your 3x per week membership. Their biggest barrier is “I hate that.”
Or maybe it’s “The weather sucks. I don’t want to drive to the gym.”
Trust me: I sold hundreds of treadmills to people who didn’t want to go to the gym. Most of those treadmills are drying wet laundry now. But not for long.
Consider two wearable innovations that will make people want to exercise:
First, virtual reality workouts are already here. But in 2019, you can do VR stuff without looking like a dork. North
makes good-looking Smart Glasses. Imagine wearing these while working out, and getting immediate feedback on your times and outputs. And there’s a CrossFit connection: the director of communications worked for me at the 2012 and 2013 Regionals events.
Second, exoskeleton technology didn’t really work out for the military, but it has commercial value. Skinsuits with the ability to harden or tense are already here. Imagine a shirt that looks like regular UnderArmor, but has the ability to resist your movement. Maybe the back of the sleeves tighten up, creating resistance when you bend your elbow. You could easily add 1,000 curls per day, and have the shirt automatically increase resistance as you got stronger. Or maybe the suit says, “Time to do a brisk walk for 20 minutes!” and it measures your heart rate as you do so. Those are the simplest examples. But fitness-measuring equipment isn’t where tech will end. Resistance equipment is about to become wearable.
We’ve come a long way from wearing garbage bags in the sauna, baby.
How To Leverage Cyber
Now let’s talk about how you can embrace this tech instead of battling it. Because as Elon Musk says, we’re never going to beat the machine. Our only chance for survival is to become one with the machine.
Orange Theory originally partnered with Polar, the largest name in early wearable tech (heart rate monitors.) But then they decided they wanted to own their own tech, so they booted Polar—and their workout score boarding technology—out into the cold. I spoke with Polar right after it happened (they were looking for a way into CrossFit.) Instead, they took their MyZone scoreboard and integrated with MindBody. Now anyone using Mindbody can have heart rate monitoring in classes, and their own white-labeled workout app showing heart rate, anthropomorphic progress, and other stuff: https://www.mindbodyonline.com/fitmetrix-fitness-tracking-software
I think that’s a huge move by MindBody. Wodify is also doing a great job with their Pulse system. While other WOD tracking software tries really hard to be incrementally better at showing scores, Mindbody and Wodify are setting themselves up to be part of the coaching package. That’s a big piece for coaches.
Here’s how this plays out in a gym using the Prescriptive Model we teach at TwoBrain:
A client comes in for a goal review. They want to lose 12lbs over the next 3 months. Coach takes their measure on an InBody or something similar.
Coach says, “You need 3 days of X and 2 days of Y per week, and a nutrition plan. WHAT EQUIPMENT DO YOU HAVE?”
Athlete says, “I got a FitBit for Christmas, and I have a bicycle.”
Coach: “Great. Here’s your plan:
2 days/week – lifting weights and maintaining high intensity for short periods. You need a coach for this part. Since you don’t have high-definition 3-d video at home, you’ll come to the gym on those days. We’ll start one on one, but if I think you can do it with supervision instead of coaching, I might give you an option to do it in a group.
2 days/week – I want you to go outside, because it’s summer. Wear your FitBit. Here’s the program for the first week. We’ll change the program next week, based on your performance this week. When you’re halfway through, text me your heart rate.
1 day/ week – I want you to ride your bike from your house to the gym, then turn around and go home. I’ll take a look at your speed and stuff. Does your bike need a tuneup? Here’s a coupon from our partner bike shop.”
The coach’s app collects all the data and builds a progressive plan for the athlete. The coach delivers the plan at their next meeting.
The coach says, “Now let’s talk about your nutrition plan.”
He outlines their goals for the first three months, and sets them up on the gym’s custom app for workout and nutrition tracking. (If you don’t already have a custom app, you can set one up on Trainerize or the other alternatives. There are a dozen of them now.)
Three months later, the coach and athlete meet again. The coach uses the Inbody again, and then pulls up the athlete’s workout results, heart rate graph and nutrition logs.
The coach says, “Here’s your progress.” He shows the athlete how their body has changed, how their performance has improved, and how their habits have shifted.
Then the coach says, “Are you totally satisfied with your progress?” before writing the next stage of their workout plan.
CrossFit gyms need to position themselves to adopt changing technology. Most gyms are pushing people toward novelty (8 weeks of CrossFit, 8 weeks of Barre) and/or trying to sell a horse to people who want an automobile. Even most CrossFit gyms are going to sell an outdated service to the Laggard market within 3 years. The early adopters are already gone.
Of course, this same thing is happening to financial planners, real estate brokers, lawyers, insurance agents…fitness is late to the tech party, but we’re not immune.
Emerging fields, like cognitive training and relaxation, are starting with tech, not with bricks-and-mortar. We could easily integrate those; we’re already figuring out how to integrate nutrition.
Your opportunity would be to take your small, clean, private space, and become the new-era coach: the prescriber, the living nexus of programming. You connect the dots for people. You explain and answer and filter. You run a class or PT session maybe twice per day for people who really do want “community”. But your real job goes back to coaching. And cyber gives you far more tools.
How Do You Make Money With This?
By being a real coach, instead of a group fitness instructor.
Your clients want your guidance, mentorship and oversight more than they want your barbells and chalk. That’s why they came to you in the first place. Your GHD didn’t bring them in; they use the GHD because you said “this will get you a butt.”
The value you deliver is in the prescription you make, not the Barbell Cycling Level II Cert.
Gym owners who understand the above will thrive with more tech. Gym owners who don’t will always see tech as competition to their bricks-and-mortar location.
Here’s my last Rx from my coach:
Goals: manage stress, optimize focus and creativity, don’t get fat or weak
Tests: Inbody, InsideTracker (blood tests), Functional Threshold Power
Training: 4-5 days/week building FTP on Zwift, Zone diet with high-quality fats and carbs
Measurables: bodyfat percentage, FTP test, carb and fat quality
The coach checks in on me at least once per week. She gets notifications of my progress and updates of my food log. She’ll see the results of my blood tests when I take them.
Then she’ll change my prescription.
On Saturday night, I took my FTP test again, and scored 240W. That’s a huge jump, so I’m eager to take the next step. But I don’t want to spend the next six weeks ONLY on my bike; I want to get back to CrossFit classes to see my friends. So the new prescription will probably look like this:
Goals: manage stress, maximize focus and creativity. Lean out a bit more. Recover some upper-body strength without adding more than 5lbs to my skeleton.
Tests: Inbody, InsideTracker, Push/Pull tests
Training: 3-4 days per week on a higher-level (but longer) program on Zwift, including group rides with some local friends. Replace 1-2 days with skiing if possible.
1-2 days per week on strength-focused CrossFit workouts. Choose 2 of M, W or F, depending on the skill that shows up on SugarWOD. If this doesn’t work, switch to personal training.
Overlap strength and cycling once per week; take 2 days fully off.
Measurables: Inbody, push and pull tests, FTP test (to make sure I’m not losing ground there.)