Features, interviews and opinion from Sports Management magazine: The functional trend

Functional training is the buzzword among operators, but what do the end users think? HCM teams up with GYMetrix to get the real story, and see how clubs can get the most out of their zones. Kath Hudson reports

by Kath Hudson | Published in Health Club Management 2014 issue 3

With colourful mats and equipment, music and lights, functional training areas can provide a striking addition to a gym. They provide an effective workout in half an hour, in a more varied way than the same time spent on a bike or treadmill. But according to the findings of GYMetrix, not many gym-goers know this.

GYMetrix measures usage of gym equipment by detecting movement using load sensors and accelerometers. These findings are backed up by interviews on the gym floor.

“I thought there was something wrong with the sensors when I saw the initial data, because the readings were so low,” says Rory McGown, founder of GYMetrix. “The media portrays functional training as a growing trend that must be tapped into, like an oil well that will explode, but we’re seeing the opposite. When gyms first install a functional zone, the demand is zero. It’s a push trend, not a pull trend, and it won’t grow without staff intervention.”

McGown has even seen some clubs lose members as a result of taking out popular equipment to install functional training areas. “The problem is people don’t know what functional training is,” says McGown. “Members are creatures of habit: they need to be given a reason to get out of their comfort zone.”

He continues: “Usage 20 per cent of the time – or 65 hours a week – is considered a success story for an entire functional rig, but one piece of busy resistance equipment can routinely get this much use.” Twenty per cent is also some way off the GYMetrix benchmark of 40–60 per cent usage – a point at which investment is generally paying off but members aren’t frustrated about not being able to get onto equipment.

 Does this mean that clubs should stop investing in functional training? Not at all. However, there are some essential points to bear in mind. Functional training has to be actively sold to gym-goers. Instructors need to be able to impart this enthusiasm to the customer through inductions, programmes, demos and workshops. Because while inductions are quick on most CV and resistance equipment, functional training equipment can be used in many different ways and this takes time to learn. It’s less intuitive than fixed equipment and people are scared of looking stupid while they try to work it out. So while functional training areas can be a centrepiece, a discreet corner may actually be the best position for it.

We speak to a selection of health club operators who’ve used GYMetrix’s findings to learn some lessons and implement changes.

Ainslie Park Leisure Centre – Edinburgh Leisure

“The results showed that the functional training equipment was vacant 98 per cent of the time,” says David McLean, fitness manager, Edinburgh Leisure. “This might suggest that we should get rid of it, but I don’t see it like that.” The results were used to inform changes. Firstly, Edinburgh Leisure invested in staff training on the functional equipment, to encourage them to incorporate it into programmes and inductions. Then a 4.5m x 7m designated space was created, as previously members had to take the equipment and find somewhere on the gym floor to use it.

Classes were introduced, but rather than being named after the equipment – TRX or kettlebells classes, for example – they have been given names like ‘Fat Blast’ to engage people.

Six months later, usage up to 18 per cent, heading in the right direction for McLean’s target of 40–60 per cent. “There’s a big future for functional training, but operators must support staff, giving them the training and space to deliver what we expect,” he says.

Sportspace, Hemel Hempstead – Dacorum Sports Trust

Out of 170 gyms surveyed, this is the only site where McGown has advised buying more functional equipment, as the site is hitting 60 per cent usage on suspension training straps and 46 per cent use on the punchbags.

Dave Cove, CEO at Dacorum Sports Trust, says staff and layout is the secret to success. “We put the functional training area at the back of the gym rather than making it a centrepiece, as that can be intimidating if you don’t know what you’re doing,” he says. “But it’s the enthusiasm of the staff that’s selling it. The training Matrix delivered on the Absolute Performance kit was excellent, so our staff all buy into it and use it.”

 Around 10 programmed sessions are run each week – called HIIT sessions, or toning sessions, rather than functional training sessions. PT is also at an all-time high.

 Cove concludes: “It’s easy to get bored on a treadmill, but with functional training there’s so much to do – it offers a varied workout. However, I absolutely agree with Rory that it’s a push trend. The industry got excited, but the customers didn’t know what it was.

To make functional training work, you do have to work hard and get instructors enthused. Also get the key members on board, so that they become advocates on your behalf.”

The Lagoon leisure centre, Paisley – Renfrewshire Leisure

“The GYMetrix study confirmed our thinking that the functional training area at The Lagoon isn’t as popular as we would like,” says Mark Tokeley, leisure operations and development manager for Renfrewshire Leisure. “Members said they weren’t comfortable with the equipment, didn’t know what they should be doing and wanted some guidance and structure.”

Interestingly, the functional zone had enjoyed higher usage when it was first installed: when GYMetrix measured it in August 2012, equipment was used for 84 hours a week, but this had fallen to 51 hours a week in August 2013. So what happened in those 12 months?

 “Several functional, CrossFit and conditioning gyms opened in the vicinity of The Lagoon in that time, which may have attracted some of our members who previously used our zone. We also opened our own £25m new-build site – OnX Linwood – six miles away in March 2013, including a functional zone. There was a huge migration of members, which has now tailed off, but the profile of The Lagoon is now a little older, and perhaps less confident in this style of training.”

Nevertheless, small group exercise sessions have been introduced in the functional zone at The Lagoon to meet members’ expressed need for guidance and structure. These sessions have proved popular, with weekly hours’ usage rising once more.

“The success of these classes has highlighted how functional training zones need to be dynamic and instructor-led to meet members’ desire to learn how to use the kit correctly and which kit to use to reach their goals,” says Tokeley.

The Lagoon has introduced small group training classes in the functional zone

The Lagoon has introduced small group training classes in the functional zone

St Peter’s Leisure Centre – Burnley Leisure

Burnley Leisure invested heavily in functional training in 2013, with a 8.2m x 8.2m functional training area, complete with vibrant music and lights, installed at St Peter’s Leisure Centre. The 12 programmed sessions each week – which can accommodate 35 people – have proved popular, and last November the centre won Functional Gym of the Year at the UK National Fitness Awards.

According to Neil Hutchinson, leisure facilities general manager at Burnley Leisure, the subsequent GYMetrix study confirmed what they had thought: that the investment has paid off, but that – for some of the more advanced equipment – extra education and demos are still needed to drive independent usage outside of classes.

“Functional training is certainly working well for us, with the classes being a huge success. We’re now working hard to educate and demonstrate the benefits of functional training to further drive up usage outside of the programmed sessions,” says Hutchinson. This includes incorporating more functional exercises in inductions, ad hoc instructor demonstrations when they have five or 10 minutes free, and filmed demonstrations running on TVs in-club and on social media sites. Educational courses for members on TRX use may also be launched.

Additional sessions are also being introduced to bring in new markets to functional training. Rehab sessions, for example – devised by Burnley Leisure’s in-house physios – are now being run as part of a GP referral programme, and there are also plans to introduce sports-specific programmes such as skiing, rugby and cycling training.

The zone at Burnley Leisure Centre includes vibrant lights and music

The zone at Burnley Leisure Centre includes vibrant lights and music

Westminster Lodge – Everyone Active

The GYMetrix study at Everyone Active’s Westminster Lodge showed the functional training area is well used during peak hours, when usage almost hits 40 per cent on some of the equipment. “We offer initial training, have small group introductions on the timetable each week, and have workout cards in the gym and online,” says Michelle Bletso, fitness development manager at Everyone Active.

Bletso believes that functional training areas are sound investments for clubs providing they have the staff to show members how to use them. She says: “They provide a fun way for members to train and are great for PT, but there’s no point sticking them into the gym without offering training or resources.”

And this is what the suppliers say about driving usage…

Jordan Fitness:
Training academy manager

The main barrier for functional training is simply getting people to change their way of thinking and their habits. However, with a skilled and well-educated trainer, it’s possible to change even the most stubborn of clients, which in turn will change their results for the better.

But if you’re going to change someone’s 25-year routine of walking on a treadmill for 30 minutes followed by 500 crunches, you need to explain how it will benefit them. This only comes through education, so it’s crucial for staff to attend as many workshops, seminars and certifications as possible.

In order to make functional fitness successful, you need to make it as easy as possible for people to take part, make it fun and get their attention. While you have their attention, use your skills to explain why and how it will work.

You need to really sell the benefits to get people to change their routine

You need to really sell the benefits to get people to change their routine

Grant Powles
Technogym UK:
Senior master trainer

To run functional training successfully, clubs need to educate staff who must then educate and engage end-users. Dedicate time and resources to training staff for at least a day on any new functional training solution. It’s surprising how often this is overlooked.

Training allows your team to fully understand the equipment’s potential, to explore the tools, create programmes together, think about how to adapt them to different member groups, and explore how to sell functional training in to members.

Nominate a team member to champion a programme or group of programmes. This gives them an opportunity to lead sessions, train other trainers, lead outreach efforts to prospective clients and become the go-to expert within the facility.

Drive member engagement through interaction with trainers, talking them through the benefits of functional training and showing them how it will help them reach their goals. Functional training is understood best by being experienced personally, so free taster sessions or short classes are great ways to demonstrate its benefits and get members engaged.

Explore as many formats as possible, from one-to-one training to small or large groups, boot camp and more. In the first few weeks of your launch, explore all these options to encourage participation. Harness the power of creativity and collaboration by building a sharing environment with staff trying new ideas, programmes and engagement techniques. For example, the group-ex team could use the functional area as an add-on to their classes.

Free taster sessions are a good way to spark interest

Free taster sessions are a good way to spark interest

Physical Company: Education co-ordinator

Functional training is versatile, but it doesn’t offer a ‘one size fits all’ approach. There’s a vast range of equipment, and some of it works well for some people but not at all for others. It’s therefore important for clubs to offer an individual programme for each member based on an assessment of their needs and their goals. To do this effectively, staff education is key, ensuring the right tools are used and the right programme put together for each individual. Meanwhile, offering a beginners’ class is a good way to introduce a select amount of kit and give individuals a foundation knowledge.


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