For decades, rows of cardio and weight machines have filled U.S. gyms like platoons of a robot army. But their ranks are thinning.
Traditional health clubs are removing some machines to open floor space for more personal and small-group training, often popular high-intensity or strength-focused workouts. Some gyms also are increasing the number of fitness classes, as experienced gym-goers seek more engaging workouts and less time staring ahead on an elliptical or push-pulling on weight machines.
“No question there’s been a movement away from those pieces,” says
vice president of facilities for 24 Hour Fitness. In recent years the 420-location chain has scaled back cardio and weight machines to 50% of floor space from about 66%, Mr. Huff says. The gym devotes the other half of floor space to free weights and functional training, which includes things like kettlebell swings and body-weight exercises with TRX suspension straps. It has also expanded its studio group-exercise classes.
The company isn’t alone. Ecofit of Victoria, British Columbia, tracks equipment use at about 1,000 gym locations across the U.S., from low-price chains to luxury clubs. Among the firm’s most common recommendations to the gyms it advises is to remove underused cardio and specialized weight machines, says
co-founder and vice president of business development.
Stair-steppers in particular are waning—but not stepmills—along with some elliptical machines, Mr. Johnson says. While some machines like leg and shoulder presses remain popular, he adds, narrow-focus ones like inner/outer thigh machines gather dust.
“Gyms used to be full of those things, just the weirdest strength-training pieces,” Mr. Johnson says.
Several trends are driving the shift away from machines. Boutique fitness is booming, and many of those studios focus on guided workouts with few or no machines. Some members of CrossFit gyms, meanwhile, are migrating to less expensive health clubs with newly added or expanded barbell weightlifting facilities.
Even beyond competition, traditional clubs have motivation to push the trend: Trainer-led sessions generate extra revenue where a treadmill or weight-machine can’t.
joined a YMCA in Winter Park, Fla., about six years ago, she would churn out workouts on an elliptical machine or a treadmill, in part because she wasn’t sure what else to do. But when the 41-year-old nurse tried her first exercise class at the Y, she was hooked.
Eventually, she joined a nearby 24 Hour Fitness and now mainly takes classes like kickboxing, ballet-style barre and a weightlifting class called Bodypump.
“I prefer to do classes, because the teacher pushes me farther than I would push myself,” she says. “I get bored on cardio machines or on the weight machines.”
As part of a major renovation in the past year, the Back Bay location of Boston-based Healthworks Fitness Centers for Women got rid of most of its weight machines and nearly doubled the square footage for functional training and free weights, company president
Mark Harrington Jr.
says. He’s seen a sharp rise in demand for squat racks and bench presses—“equipment that was considered men’s equipment, but that women are coming in droves for.”
works out twice a week with a personal trainer on a new artificial-turf area in the club. The 45-year-old, who works in finance at an insurance company, says she used to be a “treadmill person” but now uses cardio machines mainly for short sprints as part of workouts loaded with body-weight exercises and lunges with weights.
“The strength workouts here are really interesting,” she says. “You’re really pushing yourself to muscle fatigue.”
The shift away from machines is even more pronounced overseas. In 54 gyms of varying price levels in the U.K., members’ time spent on cardio machines dropped 7% between 2013 and this year, even as the total number of gym visits increased, according to an analysis from Edinburgh-based tracking firm GYMetrix.
Commercial cardio machines still outsell weightlifting equipment, but the pace is slowing. The ratio of cardio machines to weightlifting equipment sold internationally dropped to 64-to-36 last year, from 71-to-29 in 2008, according to the Fitness Industry Suppliers Association.
The ratio has been steadier in the U.S. over the same span, but dropped 3 percentage points last year to 74-26. Weightlifting equipment includes machines and free weights.
For its part, industry giant
is sticking to its focus on machines. Its bargain-priced, 20,000-square-foot gyms bristle with cardio and strength equipment and leave out what a spokeswoman calls “nonessential amenities” like day-care facilities and juice bars.
Despite 24 Hour Fitness’s move away from cardio and weight machines, at least a few of the familiar rows of equipment are here to stay, Mr. Huff says.
“A ton of people join our club and have never been to a club before,” he says. “The resistance machines and the cardio equipment is almost designed for someone to walk up to that doesn’t necessarily know that they’re doing.”
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