A business workout

This is where Rocky would train if he was from Richmond instead of Philly.

No fancy, Drago-style Nautilus machines. No ab-flex roller bought from a TV special. No bikes for spinning class, no bench press, no mirrors.

CrossFit RVA just opened in a 1,200-square-foot warehouse off Seventh Avenue just east of downtown (near the jail). Even on cool days, the garage bay is open, giving passersby a glimpse into what American Gladiators’ garages might look like. A thick rope hangs from the ceiling next to a set of rings. Medicine balls and dumbbells sit against the wall.

Jake Rowell, one of the co-founders and owners, said most people haven’t heard of the exercises found here: cuttle bells, sled drags, tire flips. Indeed, some of the activities seem like the sort of thing you’d see a guy named Mangus doing during ESPN broadcasts of the World’s Strongest Man contests.

But if Rowell and his partner, Brandon Underwood, aren’t exactly running a traditional gym, it’s probably because they didn’t intend to get into business to begin with. In fact, neither founder has any business background to his name. Instead, the twosome, 22 and 24, respectively, spend much of their time studying liberal arts at VCU, opting to run the gym in the afternoons.

They pay $1,200 a month in rent and say they’re already breaking even. The idea for the business fell in their laps like a 45-pound weight.

“We were training people [friends, mostly] in parks around Richmond, and people said, ‘Hey, we’ll pay you to do this,” said Rowell.

They invested $10,000 in the business and were able to secure all the necessary equipment, as well as navigate the City of Richmond’s notoriously fickle permitting system. The business was also made possible thanks to low startup costs.

“I talked to one guy who spent as much on one elliptical machine as we spent on all our equipment,” Rowell said. Even insurance was an affordable $1,500 a year.

The business model is simple: Give people a specialized workout designed to increase their ability to carry out normal life tasks, all while providing a more social and better workout. Of course, it helps to be able to find customers willing to pay more than the competition. Without discounts, memberships cost around $80 per month. That’s about twice the price at Gold’s.

For those that can afford it, the laid-back atmosphere and simplicity is the major draw. A typical workout involves lifting dumbbells, doing pushups and executing dead lifts. Powell instructs the members on their form and yells encouragement when needed.

CrossFit’s style of workout is called “functional fitness.” Judging by some of the jacked-up patrons there, it works. But in addition to making you look better, Rowell said, the workouts can help you improve motor functions and endurance. For example, if you’re a firefighter, the workouts are intended to make sure you can walk up a flight of stairs while carrying a person.

The goal is to offer more personalized training in an old-school regiment. To their credit, it appears to be working – even the gym feels less intimidating than Gold’s. But the fitness industry is as competitive as the weight lifters who participate in bench press contests. According to one trade publication, membership throughout the industry is flat.

Scott Powell, owner and president of the climbing gym Peak Experiences, said attrition at gyms can approach 50 percent in the health club industry. (He said it’s not that high at specialty gyms such as Peak Experiences).

“It’s an ongoing battle. You constantly have to generate new members,” he said. “People get jacked up about it, sign up, and it’s not uncommon that six months later their eyes start drifting to the next thing to try.”

“You’re constantly trying to reinforce membership base,” Powell said.

Major players in the industry combat membership losses via heavy advertising. Gold’s is notorious for their specials and discounts, which often drop the price to around $30 a month. American Family, meanwhile, is putting on an advertising blitz of its own in anticipation of a new Short Pump center opening in June.

Big advertising isn’t an option for smaller operators like CrossFit RVA. Instead, the gym relies on word-of mouth. All of the current 30 members heard about the gym through friends, Rowell said. “Every day people ask, ‘hey, can I come and try it out.’”

CrossFit RVA has turned to the web to help reduce the kind of high turnover and wavering loyalty you might find at Gold’s. Utilizing a blog, one of CrossFit’s trainers posts daily regiments and usually a photo. That’s helped promote the gym, Rowell said, adding that it elicits comments from the members.

Rachel Pustilnik, owner of a new-mother fitness program called Stroller Strides, said the struggle in the physical training industry is two-fold. “You have to find a way to get them into the place, and then you have to get them to come back.”

For the first-part, Pustilnik recruited new members by targeting businesses that catered to her demographic. For the second, she said, “People don’t want to get lost in the numbers. They want specialized attention.”

Like Stroller Strides, members at CrossFit work in groups. That adds camaraderie and makes lifting weights more social. To further that goal, he’s trying to get the VCU rugby team in the gym, and he offers discounts to police and firefighters.

Now, if only Rocky could somehow stop by.

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