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Creating a Dedicated Small-Group Training Space

In 2011, longtime industry veterans George Schaffer and Todd Levine were the owners of a 5-year-old, 25,000-square-foot, full-service Gold’s Gym in Webster, New York. It was packed full of weight machines. It had a booming membership base. The business was a success.

Yet in 2012, they decided to reinvent the wheel.

With ultra-low-priced box gyms and boutique-style training clubs on the rise, Schaffer had what he calls “an epiphany.” He concluded that small-group training—a business model that allows three to 10 clients to work with one trainer at the same time—would be the future of fitness.

And his massive facility wasn’t even close to being in the game.

Schaffer’s solution? He rearranged the entire floor area, ditching 25 pieces of fixed equipment and adding 30 yards of turf and a new racking system to create a specific place for small-group. Today, his business delivers over 60 SGT sessions per week, with four clients sharing one trainer during workouts . . . at premium prices.

For independent trainers and facility owners alike, the idea of replacing old-school equipment setups with a dedicated SGT space can seem daunting. But with the right information about finances, equipment and square footage, you can construct a small-group area that feels comfortable for members yet is efficient and functional for exercise coaches.

This article—the latest entry in our ongoing SGT series for fitness professionals—describes how.

The Space

Depending on your setup, you should allow 50–80 square feet of floor space per small-group participant, says Dale Huff, owner of NutriFormance in St. Louis, Missouri, a 14,000-square-foot fitness facility that operates a booming small-group program.

A very large location should allow about 8,000–10,000 square feet total for an SGT space, says Schaffer. He recommends rubber flooring and, “in a perfect world, a nice run of turf, perhaps 30–50 feet long.”

However, smaller businesses can fare well with much less, says Jayme Durand, cofounder (along with business partner Gayle Schafer) of Ultimate Ride & Fitness in Martinez, Georgia, which has over 100 SGT clients. The facility is 4,000 square feet in size; 980 square feet of it is devoted to indoor cycling, 980 square feet is for team training (boot camp–style large groups) and 1,100 square feet is reserved for small groups.

Even less space is required for independent trainers running a one-man show, adds Julie Stubblefield, owner of SparkFit in Mechanicsville, Virginia. SparkFit is an SGT-only, 925-square-foot enterprise that runs on what she calls a “lean” business philosophy: There’s no receptionist, the doors are open only during training sessions, and Stubblefield leads almost all of the sessions for her 40 small-group clients herself. So if you want to create an SGT space independently, she says, it can be done.

Finally, if your liability insurance policy permits, don’t hesitate to use “nonstudio” areas such as an outdoor balcony or a safe paved area outside your facility. “We have 200-meter, 400-meter and 800-meter run routes marked out for interval training outside of our gym,” notes Colin McGarty, owner of Seacoast Kettlebell in Dover, New Hampshire, which delivers SGT to 100 clients and large-group training to 400 more.

The Equipment

Ideally, a dedicated small-group space will have equipment that is function-focused, versatile and portable. Further, it should be organized in a way that allows clients to transfer easily from one exercise to another.

For example, to maintain a logical workout flow, McGarty contains his SGT equipment within several 600- to 800-square-foot SGT “pods.”

Each pod is designed to accommodate four clients and one trainer at a time, and each one consists of a multipurpose/power rack, dumbbells, kettlebells and multiple TRX® systems. (Separate space is reserved for larger, boot camp–style classes.)

McGarty’s selections are representative of the equipment preferred by most of the experts interviewed for this series. Durand concurs: “The most useful equipment pieces we have are TRX Suspension Trainers™, ship [battle] ropes and kettlebells.” She notes that many prospective customers have seen these items on TV fitness shows, which gives her studio a cutting-edge feel.

(What was our experts’ least favorite functional tool? Sandbags, which they say were awkward and leaked more sand than expected.)

Schaffer adds this: If finances allow, consider including in your SGT space cable columns and some type of multistation training rack created specifically for small groups. All-in-one, function-oriented SGT cages are now available from such major manufacturers as Life Fitness® (the SYNRGY360), PurMotion™ and MoveStrong™.

“From my experience, less is more,” Schaffer says of these racks. “You can get into a nice [cage system] for $5,000 and get a lot of function out of it.”

The Cost

For a large location, says Schaffer, “you can make over around 10,000 square feet of space for somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000. . . . Twenty thousand dollars will be for flooring with turf, and another $10,000 or so on cool training tools and a functional racking system.”

However, declares McGarty, small businesses can implement SGT on the cheap. “I opened the initial location of my gym in 1,000 square feet with just a few kettlebells, a couple of TRX setups and a barbell. My whole facility cost just a few thousand dollars!”

Note that the preceding cost estimates are for equipment and flooring only; they do not include the capital required for an initial buildout and general business expenses. These can quickly add up to around $40–$60 per square foot or more in an urban area, and that’s not including rent, cautions Durand.

Because of these additional expenses, neophyte trainers who don’t have a clear vision of their brand and niche and/or who lack business experience should be conservative with their SGT space expectations, cautions Stubblefield. Her initial business location covered only 400 square feet.

“Abandon the idea of tradition or status quo,” she says. “The only perfect plan is the one that works for your schedule, your income and your stress level. No one says it has to be done overnight.”

But . . . It’s Not About the Space

It’s ironic to conclude an article about creating an SGT area by saying the space and equipment don’t really matter. However, our experts all conclude that those really are not the most important factors in your future success.

“It’s about the coaching and the client experience,” says Schaffer. “Keep people smiling while they’re sweating and you will have clients for life. I always say: It’s never the building; it’s the people!”

“It’s all about creating an environment and delivering results,” agrees Durand. “Our clients don’t care what kind of equipment we have or who our trainers are. They care about why we exist and what the experience has to offer them. They want to be greeted by name, and they want us to be the best part of their day!” And that’s perhaps the most important ingredient for success in SGT.

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