Julia Lerch had started to notice an unsettling trend in her classes. People would show up late, leave early or both. Lerch, an instructor who lives and works in Lemoore, California, decided she needed to do something. “It was frustrating to see people come and go without getting the full benefit of the session,” she said. “In talking to a few participants I discovered they had one thing in common: Time was a big issue for them, especially the women. Most of them said they had only 30 minutes at most to dedicate to exercise—and were asking for help. I was looking to start my own business anyway, so I decided to find something that would accommodate their requests.”
Lerch researched her options and became a Slender Lady franchisee. Based in San Antonio, Texas, Slender Lady is just one of many companies to flourish by opening small clubs that specialize in 30-minute, no-frills circuit training exclusively for women. Slender Lady’s simple business plan was exactly what Lerch was looking for, and she already understood the benefits of circuit training. Lerch knew that by combining circuits with her natural enthusiasm for working with women at all fitness levels, she could make an impact in her community and cater specifically to those who complained about time. She also knew that this 30-minute formula would work well with women too intimidated to come to her classes—she especially wanted to reach out to them. “I became excited about offering a safe, welcoming program that provided results.”
By all accounts, the 30-minute circuit training club concept is not a fad. All sources interviewed for this article reported record sales over the past 2 years and bandied about the term recession-proof with gleeful aplomb. The Curves International franchise, based in Waco, Texas, boasts 5,000 locations worldwide, all focusing on the 30-minute, utilitarian concept. Gary Heavin, Curves founder and CEO, says their uncomplicated fitness plan appeals to the large population segment that doesn’t currently belong to a health club. “It’s an affordable, comfortable, friendly and nonjudgmental environment,” says Heavin, who has a health and fitness background. He knew 20 years ago there was a missing link and once it was addressed with a solid business approach, a door would open. “From my days working at coed clubs I recognized that strength training was being overlooked as a way to lose weight. The deconditioned market—women in particular—was neglected. Circuit training seemed like a perfect program to introduce.”
Research supports Heavin’s original hunch. As early as 1981, a study confirmed that circuit weight training increases muscular strength by 7 to 32 percent while decreasing fat by 0.8 to 2.9 percent (Gettman & Pollock 1981). Women are also warming up to resistance training. From 1987 to 2001, there was an 80 percent increase in the number of women who use resistance machines (SGMA International 2002). Still, Heavin says typical resistance equipment intimidates many women. To address this concern, Curves and other franchise companies offer hydraulic resistance equipment. “The hydraulic approach works well because it is specifically built for a woman’s body and there are no weight stacks to manage,” Heavin says.
Rande LaDue, principal of Pro *Fit Enterprises in Trabuco Canyon, California, also advocates using hydraulic equipment to encourage sedentary women to exercise. LaDue markets PACE (Programmed Aerobic/Anaerobic/Accommodating Circuit Exercise), a “nonintimidating hydraulic circuit program” that combines strength and cardiovascular exercise in a 30-minute program. “Hydraulic resistance instantly accommodates the user’s effort,” LaDue says. “There is none of the negative resistance that leads to muscle soreness and might discourage a user from continuing. It’s ideal for ‘fast anaerobic’ movement, which is something you wouldn’t want to try with traditional equipment.”
PACE, which is not a franchise, offers turnkey packages that range from 12 stations (requiring 480 square feet) to 20 stations (minimum of 800 square feet). Each package combines resistance with cardiovascular stations, which are “jogging squares” and step benches. Participants spend approximately 30 seconds at a station before a live instructor cues them to move to the next one. “The instructor plays a very important role in the success of a PACE program,” LaDue says. “It’s essential to have someone present to provide supervision, motivation and inspiration.”
The Curves workout includes several components: a warm-up, three sets of strength training on all major muscle groups, a cool-down and stretching. An audiotape or staff person cues participants to move at 30-second intervals. “It’s a user-friendly design that women enjoy,” says Heavin. “It allows for small-group social interaction, which appeals to many women.”
The Human Touch
What is the secret to coaxing women to exercise when they have either never been active in their lives or taken years off from exercise with negative consequences? James Ryan, vice president of operations for Expressfit for Women, based in Fort Erie, Ontario, boils it down to one primary driver: impeccable, genuine customer service. “Everything we do revolves around our members,” Ryan says. “We preach a high level of attentiveness and make potential franchisees jump through hoops before we select them. Training is intense, and we evaluate each owner on a regular basis. We want to make sure everyone who owns an Expressfit prioritizes the needs of every woman who walks through the door.”
Expressfit has opened 23 clubs in 2 years, a slow and comfortable growth that Ryan says reinforces the idea that members come first. “We have no intention of just letting anyone open a club if [his or her] goal is not in line with our philosophy. We want to portray an image that is very real and hands-on, with a tremendous amount of support. Once we have the deconditioned market’s trust, we don’t want to jeopardize it.”
Curves has a similar approach. When Heavin was only 13, his mother died, depressed, from hypertension caused by poor diet and lack of exercise. This experience profoundly affected his vocation decisions in life and came to bear when he created a mission statement for the company. “We are 100 percent dedicated to offering a product that motivates and helps women attain a healthier lifestyle,” Heavin says. “If the motivation comes from money, the customer will recognize that and not be positively influenced.”
Results Beget Results
Even though Curves is second only to Subway in Entrepreneur Magazine’s list of Top 10 Global Franchises for 2003, and a slew of competitors span the nation, the market doesn’t appear to be saturated. It just goes to show that “women respond well to this type of format,” says Scott Breault, public relations director for Lady of America Corporation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Lady of America franchise offers two different models: large, full-scale clubs (Lady of America) and small, scaled-down 30-minute circuit clubs (Ladies Workout Express). There are currently 350 Ladies Workout Express clubs, with 150 set to open within the next few months. “We do not have any plans to slow down,” Breault says. “Our initial success has been so positive that we are adding profit centers. We simply don’t see an end in sight, and the best part is it seems to be 98 percent based on word of mouth.”
The word-of-mouth success Breault alludes to applies across the board. Because members of the 30-minute circuit clubs are seeing results, they spread the news and spread it fast. Heavin attributes his success to this same phenomenon. “I just saw the numbers for last year and we spent a tiny fraction on advertising in 2002. That proves we do what we say and our members are happy.”
Heavin predicts that in the future, one out of every 10 health clubs will be a Curves. The company is introducing a weight management component that educates members about the basics of proper nutrition. Heavin also wants to reach out to new markets, as he has already done successfully with the Hispanic population.
Since PACE isn’t a franchise, LaDue sees innumerable opportunities for growth. “Since we started years ago as a group exercise program you can implement in a club, we feel that we have quite a bit of flexibility,” he says. “These small circuit training clubs are the wave of the future, and may work in tandem with the coed world. We have larger clubs who currently use the hydraulic circuit package opening up small satellite clubs that focus purely on the women-only, no-extras concept. This is turning out to be a perfect way to transition people to the full-service clubs once they have gained some confidence and trust your motives.”
“The concept is working, in part because we take away the time excuse,” says Expressfit’s Ryan. “All it takes are a little encouragement, a dedicated staff and a proven exercise method. Once the ball is set in motion and the women start seeing results, the momentum takes on a life of its own and everyone wins.”
Do you want to open your doors to the deconditioned market? Use these tips from companies that have set the standard:
- Offer an effective workout in a condensed time.
- Use simple, user-friendly equipment.
- Be supportive and genuinely interested in members’ progress.
- Train staff to be knowledgeable, friendly and approachable.
- Take courses on how to motivate people.
- Follow up personally with people who are consistently absent.
- Create a small, safe, social microcosm that members can call their own.
Curves, (800) 848-1096, www.curvesinternational.com
Expressfit, (905) 871-8400, www.expressfit.com
Lady of America, (800) 833-5239, www.ladyofamerica.com
Pro*Fit Enterprises, (888) 604-2244, www.pacegroupexercise.com
Slender Lady, (888) 227-8187, www.slenderlady.com
Gettman, L.R., & Pollock, M.L. 1981. Circuit weight training: A critical review of its physiological benefits. Physician and Sportsmedicine, 9, 44-60.
SGMA International. 2002. Tracking the Fitness Movement. North Palm Beach, Florida.
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