Fitness Forever

Fitness Facility Design to Meet Changing Demands


Fitness facilities of all sizes are being designed to keep up with the demands of a rapidly growing industry, the requirements of corporate ownership, and the needs, both physical and social, of multigenerational clients.

"The fitness club industry is still very young," said Jeff Nagel, of Nagel Sports, Edmonds, Wash., "but it is very successful, and huge. Everyone wants a piece of that success."

The numbers prove it. According to a 2016 report released by the International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), "… global health club industry revenue in 2015 totaled $81 billion, as 151.5 million members visited nearly 187,000 clubs." In the United States alone, according to IHRSA, 36,180 clubs served an estimated 55 million members.

Staying one step ahead of the latest trends and meeting the needs of all those stakeholders keeps designers on their toes. "I see owners moving toward medium-sized facilities, not what I call a big-box gym," noted Jacob Guajardo, Perform Better, West Warwick, R.I. "If you look at IHRSA's numbers, it says that the participants at large gyms are diminishing. That's because of the latest trends, which are the semi-private, group training or camp-ish type training. Those can be done in a medium-sized facility. These are spaces that I call 'cash cows,' anywhere from 1,500 square feet to 3,500 square feet. These cash cows have sprung up as multiple franchises across the country."

One of the boutiques Guajardo works with provides space for a Fit Body Boot Camp. "They can take a 1,500-square-foot space and have tons of people doing functional training, boot camp type workouts and still service their client base."

He added, "These boutiques save the owner a lot of money because their overhead is down. Your mortgage on that property is much smaller than a big-box gym. You save money on employees. You won't need 50 employees to run a gym. You can have one head coach, maybe a program designer."

Fitness Big & Small

"Two things are happening in our business," explained Rudy Fabiano, of Fabiano Designs International. "One is boutiques are trending, no doubt. That is happening. But I'm also seeing large fitness clubs being built as well."

The boutiques will have one, two or three specific offerings, Fabiano said. For example, "You might have a yoga studio. There may be a functional training studio. Or boxing, which is making a big comeback. Maybe a combination of three studios. Or perhaps some kind of aerobics. That is gaining in popularity. They tell the consumer, 'We do one thing and we do it well. We're a CrossFit studio, that's all we do. We're branded for it and we designed for it both from an aesthetic and a programming point of view. So come to us.'"

Fitness facilities of all sizes are being designed to keep up with the demands of a rapidly growing industry, the requirements of corporate ownership, and the needs, both physical and social, of multigenerational clients.

These boutiques in some cases can charge as much for a class as mainstream clubs charge for a month of membership, Fabiano said. "The pressure boutiques are putting on those mainstream clubs is enormous."

The growth of regional players is driving the design and construction of some larger fitness facilities, Fabiano added. "What I mean by that is you might have gym chains that have 10, 12, 15 units, and all of a sudden they get purchased by equity firms or venture capitalists, and they get the financial wherewithal to grow," he said. Most of Fabiano's current projects are big clubs, averaging about 40,000 square feet, with multi-programming.

In some ways, Fabiano explained, gyms are either getting smaller or they are getting bigger. "It's the middle

I'm not seeing much of—the 20,000-to-30,000-square-foot facility," he said. "That traditionally was the middle size. We are doing none of those right now. We are either doing 5,000 to 6,000 square feet or 40-50-60,000-square-foot clubs."

But those large clubs, Fabiano said, are starting to incorporate some concepts used by boutiques within their huge space.

Owners want a little bit of everything, Nagel agreed, creating a gym within a gym, or a boutique gym, at larger facilities. "There is a call for the boutique-size facility and the big boxes," he said. "And now our clients want the boutiques within the big boxes."

One of the reasons for this is that boutiques help create a sense of community—a difficult thing for a gym with thousands of members to achieve.

"When you have a community of a few hundred," he said, "even though those people are paying more, there is a sense of community and that community builds retention, encouragement and a connection."

It is amazing what our handheld devices have created, Nagel said as an explanation. "I'll go to a large facility and see people on their phones in between sets. There is no connection, no social atmosphere. Small group training forces a connection, and I believe that is partly why boutiques are fairly successful. The larger companies … they want a piece of that action."

Fitness With Flexibility

Trends in the fitness business don't come and go every few years; it's really more of a 10-year cycle, Fabiano said. Functional training has been on the horizon for five straight years. It's now a given that most large facilities have a specialized studio just for functional training.

"Are we accommodating for whatever may come along next in our designs?" Nagel asked. "Yes, we are. We are accommodating it by watching all the new, up-and-coming and veteran strength coaches and personnel trainers and physical therapists around the world. And what they are currently studying is movement-based activity. Everyone in the know understands that the newest gyms are going to be movement-based gyms, and we've accommodated that through our designs and our spacings."


Guajardo discussed retrofitting older facilities to meet new client demands. Back in the 1980s, he said, "… clubs had racquetball courts, and that was all the 'thing.' Now, we are taking those old racquet ball courts and converting them into functional training facilities, making them small group or bootcamp-esque types of facilities with appropriate equipment. We are doing that now at a YMCA—taking two racquetball courts and converting them into a spinning room, and a functional training room with pull-up bars, ropes and medicine balls."

Taking existing structures and transforming them into something totally new is an easy fix for facility designers because the rooms are already built and the walls are up.

In bigger, open fitness spaces, it's almost impossible to create areas that can serve as private spaces for yoga and other group fitness classes. "What the big boxes are doing," Fabiano said, "is to have that open space, but also to have a great studio that can accommodate Zumba or a yoga studio that feels soft. It's getting interesting, because now I have clients, larger clubs, saying to me, 'Hey, let's do this as a studio within our club.'"

If you have a large facility, he said, think of it as you might a department store that has a section of Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein. "Larger clubs are becoming more flexible and able to accommodate change. They are becoming an assembly of boutiques," Fabiano said. "Client users can go to one of these larger clubs and get the kind of experiences they'd have to get by going to four different boutiques. Because the level of the product is just as high."

That's fueling growth for these larger facilities, Fabiano said, because they are elevating their product, and it is having a powerful economic impact on the industry. "So I think the pressure on the boutiques isn't going to go away. They will be strong, and people are going to like it, but I think the dominance of these 40,000-square-foot players will continue as they start coming into your town."

Fitness Must-Haves

The most important part of any facility is the floor, Guajardo said. "Make sure your flooring is correct," he added. "The majority of my day I spend doing diagrams, consulting with architects and customers on how we do the flooring correctly. Nowadays there are manufacturers that have gone from all black flooring with no color at all, no pop or sexiness, and we've moved to higher density colors. You can have black flooring, but you can also have higher density colored flooring, lighter colored flooring. Use it in different walkway patterns, use it in drop zones for Olympic lifting. Right now the must is to get the flooring correct."

Short of the lights, the flooring is the most used product in your facility. You are going to spend the most money on your flooring, Guajardo said. "If you don't, your gym is not going to be world-class. If you spend a reasonable amount of money on your flooring, the moment someone walks into your facility, they will want to sign up with you. They will want to be part of something that invested correctly. Remember, your athlete, your patient, everyone is standing on your floor, so make it good, make it motivating, make it bright, light, and the gym owner or municipality will see a greater return on use and greater return on their investment."

As for equipment, Nagel does not think anything is an absolute when opening a fitness center. "But you have to know your market," he cautioned. "You have to identify what your core group of income is going to be and what their needs are and provide for that. You need to cover your basic revenue stream. And then all the other things are add-on."

Fitness Gets Personal(ized)

The wellness aspect of healthcare merging with fitness centers is absolutely huge, Fabiano said.

"That is the tiger lurking behind the bushes," he noted. "It has always been here, but the ability to deliver strategic wellness and preventive wellness is really going to make its mark in clubs. And in the context of our current national dialogue right now about healthcare, wellness is going to become even more relevant."

Fabiano believes hospitals will start to borrow mainstream health club programming sales mechanisms, while mainstream health clubs are going to start borrowing wellness ideas, and preventive wellness.

As the population gets older, "… as we are trying to stay fit and not get hurt I think there is going to be a big move for mixing wellness and fitness. There seems to be this movement as we get older to stay active. Not having to be CrossFit trained, but to incorporate fitness into our daily lives."

That's one aspect of the wellness-fitness movement in clubs, Fabiano said. "The second aspect is recovery. This is something that mainstream clubs are starting to look at, how to offer a recovery space. There is a relaxation aspect of fitness that has been ignored by clubs in the past. No more. Clubs are recognizing that there is a recovery element of getting healthy. As designers, we are starting to experiment. Everyone is putting in quiet rooms. That is where lighting plays a role. It can be calming after a heavy workout."

Clubs are hiring fitness program designers whose job is not to work hands-on with a client, but to personalize workout programs, all with the intention of providing a healthy workout regimen.


This marriage of wellness and fitness is illustrated through the work of former Texas Rangers, Pittsburgh Pirates' strength and fitness trainer Frank Velasquez Jr., director of sports performance, Allegheny Health Network, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Contacted in Los Angeles, where he had been hired to work with the World Baseball Classic's USA team, Velasquez said, "The whole industry of medical insurance, health insurance is changing. Less and less is being covered, fewer visits for physical therapy and the industry of strength training has evolved to where it is not so much just pushing and pulling iron anymore. It is very functional. There is more science behind it and the art of approaching people has changed."

Velasquez started out in the medical field before venturing into the strength and conditioning. Strength fixes a lot of things, although not everything, he believes. But if you can correct muscular imbalance, you can get stronger. "Certain areas are more flexible," he said. "Fitness programs can sometimes contribute to repairing a physical problem. And do it faster."

Velasquez works for a company owned by an insurance company "… and I work for a network of hospitals. The company I started after getting out of baseball was a multi-disciplinary facility with strength and conditioning, physical therapy, therapeutic massage and nutrition. We found that we were getting people better faster and what insurance company doesn't like that? And that leads to client satisfaction, word of mouth and a nice little business model."

The company started by Velasquez was bought out by the Allegheny Health Network, where he built their sports performance department and helped integrate physical therapy.

It is a growing trend in fitness facilities, he said. "I am aware of facilities that cater to the high-end athlete—someone preparing for a professional sports career. These facilities are partnering up with the Mayo Clinic, for example, with different hospitals throughout the country. That's where we're going. To integrate strength training and conditions along with the medical side of things. Meshed together for an awesome product that is helping people get better faster."

It's also a money maker, Velasquez said, "a cash-based business. Insurance is reimbursing less and less for different services. Now we have a service where people may start out in physical therapy, and they'll stay on with us as strength training clients and pay cash. Or get therapeutic massage. Or cryotherapy. These clients will pay $30 to $50 a session for the services, cash. It is another avenue of revenue for health care facilities."

It's a win-win situation for the client as well. "What you can offer clients is a high level of service, the same that elite athletes get. Active adults, who physically are starting to break down, will need a high level of care to get them back to what they want to do. Those are the people who need these kinds of meshed services, even more than the elites. And for a business perspective, there are a lot more of them."