Why it’s impossible to find an open squat rack at the gym

new York

Planning on hitting the gym during rush hour? You’ll have a lot better luck finding an open elliptical than bench press, squats, or 30-pound dumbbells.

Strength training — also known as strength training or resistance training — has grown in popularity fueled by new research into its health benefits, the growth of high-intensity gyms like CrossFit, and more women debunking stereotypes that bodybuilding is only for men. It’s just the latest in a series of radical changes in the way Americans train.

The pandemic has prompted more people to take up strength training, gym owners and industry experts say. After gyms reopened in late 2020 and early 2021 due to Covid-19 safety restrictions, more people rushed to lift weights and use equipment they didn’t have access to at home.

Post-pandemic, the rise in strength training popularity has helped the gym industry recover. Gym memberships in the United States increased 3.6% in 2021 from pre-pandemic levels, according to the latest data from IHRSA, a fitness industry trade association.

According to ClassPass, a subscription-based fitness app, strength training was the most popular exercise class booked in the past two years. In 2022, there was a 94% increase in strength training classes over the previous year.

“Strength training has become so much more widely embraced and accepted for all kinds of outcomes — aesthetics, weight loss, bone health, and balance,” said Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, associate professor of history at the New School and author of Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s obsession with exercise.”

At the same time, the use of stationary cardio equipment such as elliptical trainers and treadmills in gyms has declined.

“There is [fewer] minutes spent doing cardio [compared] until pre-Covid,” Planet Fitness CEO Chris Rondeau said on a conference call Thursday. Planet Fitness members are doing more strength training and functional exercises like push-ups and squats, he said.

Planet Fitness (PLNT) is reducing the space available in some gyms for cardio and making more space for functional training and kettlebell workouts. (Planet Fitness (PLNT) stock has fully recovered from a Covid-related decline to hit an all-time high over the past year, while Life Time is up 17%.)

Changes in the way people train have forced gyms to adapt, with new gym designs featuring more barbell and squat racks and open areas for lunges, deadlifts and other weight exercises.

Planet Fitness and other gyms have seen a decline in cardio equipment usage.

“In the past, it’s been ‘let’s cram as much equipment into these spaces as we can,'” said Daniel Allen, an architect who has designed residential and commercial gyms across the country. “Now it’s ‘How much free space can we add?'”

“There’s always people doing kettlebells,” he said. “We base a lot of our initial layouts on making sure we maintain an open zone for these drills.”

The growth of weight training is a change from the way Americans exercised for much of the last century.

In the early decades of the 20th century, gyms were considered “sweaty dungeons” and the men who lifted weights there were considered “dumb or feeble,” writes Petrzela in Fit Nation.

“People thought I was a charlatan and a nutcase,” recalled Jack LaLanne, founder of the modern fitness movement, who first opened a club in Oakland, California, in 1938. “The doctors were against me — they said that lifting weights would give people everything from heart attacks to hemorrhoids.”

There was also a suspicion that women played sports and feared that it would affect fertility.

Women typically went to separate “reduction salons” or “slimming parlors,” often located next to beauty salons, to lose weight, Petrzela said.

A mid-century slimming machine advertisement told women they could engage in minimal physical activity to lose weight: “Relax in luxurious comfort… No switching from one machine to another.”

In 1968 Dr. Kenneth Cooper “Aerobics,” a bestseller that encouraged walking, jogging and swimming to improve health and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Cooper’s book started a cardio revolution and was made popular by Jane Fonda’s VHS workout videos.

A Nautilus bodybuilding gym shown in 1983.

The introduction of Nautilus and Universal strength training machines in the 1970s and 1980s made weightlifting more appealing to a wider range of people. These machines were accessible and had adjustable weight plates that were easy to use.

Nautilus equipment helped integrate strength training into the broader exercise mix. Clubs with Nautilus in their name and the company’s gear inside began popping up across the country.

But today, free weights have become the more popular form of strength training. And weightlifting has increased in recent years in part because of new research into its benefits.

The latest federal health guidelines recommend at least two sessions per week of muscle-strengthening activity that is of moderate to vigorous intensity and involves all major muscle groups.

The rise of CrossFit has also seen high-intensity squat rack workouts become more popular with the general public, especially women.

“Before CrossFit, this type of equipment was associated with bodybuilding,” Petrzela said. “Seeing a lot of people doing this for functional fitness demystified it.”

Weightlifting has become increasingly popular among women, fitness experts say.

Gale Landers, CEO of Fitness Formula Clubs in Chicago, said his clubs have removed 10% to 15% of cardio equipment to make room for more free weights and benches. Fitness Formula has also added lawns for people to do functional training.

At Genesis Health Clubs, a chain of 61 gyms mostly in the Midwest, “you’re going to walk in and see every squat rack is full,” said CEO Rodney Steven.

Genesis clubs have added more squat and weight racks to keep up with demand for strength training and reduced cardio zones.

“Free weights are the biggest increase we’ve seen at all of our clubs,” Steven said. “Everyone uses dumbbells.”

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