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Illustration of a “house” made out of fitness trainers and people lifting weights and stretching
Community was a huge part of fitness. Then we were all forced to stay home.
Efi Chalikopoulou for Vox

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How we work out together now

Group fitness was popular before the pandemic. Here’s how we work out together from home.

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Every Tuesday morning for 45 minutes, I work out with my favorite Barry’s (formerly known as Barry’s Bootcamp) trainer, Mike Pugs. He puts on a playlist and makes me deadlift, squat, and lunge till my knees shake, alongside about 20 other people. Sometimes when said knees buckle, he corrects my form and jokes about my sheer lack of flexibility.

And when it’s over and my legs feel like gummy worms, we say goodbye, turn off our cameras, and sign out of Zoom. This is what it’s like to work out during the Covid-19 pandemic, but it might be a glimpse into the future of fitness.

“Our community has always valued the in-person experience,” Barry’s instructor and chief curriculum lead Chris Hudson told me, explaining how classes such as Mike’s are now fully online. “But at the same time, we knew there was a growing market for virtual classes even before the pandemic hit, and we had been developing a digital product for some time. Once Covid took hold, we expedited the creation of Barry’s At-Home since there was such an urgent need.”

As Hudson implies, the idea of working out from home isn’t new. Growing up, my parents had a stack of virtually untouched Jane Fonda exercise videos right next to the VCR. Newer companies (such as Peloton and Mirror) and veterans (such as NordicTrack and Bowflex) were built around the idea of exercising at home.

But for the past few years, the fitness industry has been dominated by in-person experiences. Fitness — gyms, Barry’s “Red Rooms,” CrossFit boxes, cycling and yoga studios, and everything in between — was a destination, and a profitable one at that. Community was the big draw.

Then the coronavirus hit.

The pandemic wrapped itself around the fitness industry like a fist. Companies such as Solidcore and Flywheel laid off as much as 90 percent of their staffs. Those who didn’t lose their job were, like the trainers at SoulCycle, put on furlough. There’s no guarantee those jobs will be there even if the businesses recover.

The lockdowns created a sink-or-swim scenario for trainers, fitness studios, and gyms all around the country. The ultimatum: Adapt to the new reality of online fitness or you won’t survive.

Trainers had to start over and learn how to teach with no one in a room. Their clients had to adapt, too, mimicking moves on a screen and battling through technical difficulties. Fitness with other people may not return to what it was. And even if it does, it’ll look completely different than it did before the coronavirus shut it down. But although the industry has been growing for years, introducing newer and ever-fancier technology, the coronavirus has shown that the most important part of connected or online fitness is the connection.

This is how the pandemic brought fitness back home again.

The difference between teaching in person and online

Although the gym shutdowns were a shock to the fitness industry, some people, including trainer and Le Sweat founder Charlee Atkins, were better prepared than others. Atkins, who also worked as a master instructor at SoulCycle until 2019, has been teaching classes online for the past four years.

“It was interesting to watch the learning curve of trainers and businesses who were used to IRL experiences,” she told me, explaining what goes into the workouts she posts online and on her app. “The primary difference is that, as a trainer, you need to remember you are teaching to a ‘you’ and not ‘you guys.’ It is a one-on-one experience, in my opinion, and as a viewer or participant, it’s nice to feel like the trainer is speaking to you.”

She explained that without the hype of 50-plus people in a room, the teaching experience changes. It’s still about connecting to someone and having them follow your instructions, but the way you go about it is completely different online.

“A great coach has to learn to speak many different sweat languages,” Atkins told me. “You need to teach your strongest athlete and push them, while also giving your newest athlete the attention and guidance to go through a routine safely.”

For others, getting online at all was a new challenge.

AARMY’s Akin Akman crushes some shoulder presses.
Courtesy of AARMY

Launched in September 2019, AARMY is a fitness program from former SoulCycle master instructors Akin Akman and Angela Manuel-Davis. Before the pandemic, Akman taught around 45 sold-out, in-person practices per week.

But as Manuel-Davis told me, when Covid-19 hit, “We weren’t going to sit around and talk about it.” AARMY went live on Instagram for 150 days straight, collecting an average of 18,000 viewers per day and a cumulative 2.4 million views. The pivot kept their business going and their clients working out with AARMY until the official app launched in mid-August.

But teaching online isn’t the same as teaching in person, and doing it via a digital platform wasn’t seamless. Sometimes they ran into technical glitches; sometimes what they did just didn’t work out.

“The experience really made us more intentional,” Akman said, explaining that the app also includes a newfound focus on mindfulness. “The obstacles were a learning experience, and it was a chance for us to really be more specific in the way that we did everything.”

At Barry’s, classes are being taught over Zoom, the software offices around the country have been leaning on to conduct video conference calls. This real-life experience is different from a workout that’s been prerecorded for an app.

It is a little weird to be prompted to use Zoom and not see your boss or coworkers on the other end. But whatever your feelings on the software, it allows Barry’s instructors to see who’s working out on the other side of their broadcasts in real time.

“We’ve found ways to spotlight clients to keep a feeling of connection,” Hudson said. “Instructors correct form and connect with clients in real time, similar to the in-studio experience. Clients still have that interaction with instructors and peers, and we truly believe it’s the next best thing.”

“Spotlighting,” for the dwindling number of people who have never had to use Zoom before, means switching the view so that a client (instead of the instructor) is largest on the screen. Hudson is also referring to instructors giving clients shoutouts, which mimic what you might hear at an in-person studio.

Your mileage may vary depending on how well you perform for a crowd. It’s natural to not want the “spotlight.” But I find that turning my camera on makes it difficult for me to take breaks or cheat the workout.

It turns out Zoom workouts are a two-way street.

Instructors have to continually and thoroughly demonstrate the moves. At a studio, we could usually copy the best boot-campers in the room. That isn’t happening online, where the instructor is front and center.

“Online requires an instructor to physically execute more of the workout than we did in the Red Room [the physical Barry’s studio],” Hudson said, explaining how trainers have to be more thoughtful and creative in how they structure workouts — similar to what Atkins was getting at.

“With Barry’s At-Home, we realize that it’s not quite the same as being in the Red Room, but we’ve done our best to produce a product that truly mimics the connection and experience people get from a traditional Barry’s studio,” Hudson told me.

All these experts admit that they’re still in the process of solving how to translate the community aspect of fitness into their digital presences. That’s the key that unlocks this whole puzzle, and it’s a big reason these companies and trainers were so successful. That might mean more DMs and shoutouts on social media, or maybe some live interactions via Zoom, but it’s still a work in progress.

“You know, all of us were created to be in community; none of us was created to be alone,” Manuel-Davis said. “And I think what we’ve done is we’ve established the importance of that, and we’ve redefined what community can look like.”

Working out from home may be the new normal, but that doesn’t mean we all have to like it

AARMY’s Angela Manuel-Davis leads a cycling practice.
Courtesy of AARMY

While it’s the instructors that power these companies, none of the companies exist without dedicated clients. In a way, these trainers and brands have to win them over again with an online experience. There’s been a learning curve for clients, too, as they’ve had to not only find equipment with which to ride, boot-camp, or dance at home, but also figure out what works for them and what doesn’t.

“It’s working in the sense that eating vegan meat does the trick, provided it’s seasoned enough,” New York-based editor Emily Gaudette told me. She’s a disciple of the dance cardio workout known as 305 Fitness, specifically a trainer named HD. “HD is so electrifying in person, and although I understand that he has no idea who I am, I always felt in IRL studio sessions that he saw me and was amused and happy for me when I figured out the choreography,” she said.

What sets HD apart, Gaudette said, is that he’s really invested with his students’ progress — or at least really good at making it seem like he’s invested.

“He does this thing that no other trainers at 305 do in their video workouts,” she told me. “He comes close to the camera and looks at the Zoom windows of all these people dancing, and just has this compelling expression, like, ‘Damn, you guys are really doing it!’ I guess he could be reading his email, but it’s very believable.”

I spoke to fitness zealots of all levels who seemed to agree having a personality that breaks through the monotony of the screen is crucial to making workouts feel like something you want to do over and over. Nailing down what that personality is, exactly, is more difficult.

“This is kind of, you know, not the nicest to say, but there are some teachers who are really terrible” at online teaching, said Sarah Luetto, an LA-based attorney and fitness enthusiast. “I think they just don’t have, like, a big enough personality or presence to kind of do well in the streaming, virtual-workout format.”

Luetto, who takes multiple fitness classes but gravitates toward Barry’s (she cited Tommy Luke’s class as one of her favorites) and LEKfit, told me the experience has gotten better over time as trainers adapted to the new normal of teaching online. It isn’t the same as an in-studio experience, but Luetto says she’s not rushing to work out in a room full of people as long as coronavirus infection numbers remain high.

She’s not alone, either.

“I think at some point I’ll go back, when it doesn’t feel like an unnecessary risk — it’s not that different from riding the subway right now,” Sean Doherty, a singer, actor, songwriter, and Beachbody apostle, told me. Doherty speculated that in some ways, the revamped gym might be even safer with cleaning supplies, masks, and new filtered air conditioners, but also said that “it just seems easier to keep working out in my living room.”

Since April, the pollsters at Morning Consult have been asking gym-goers for their views on the safety of returning to gyms and fitness studios. As of September 14, only 13 percent of respondents said they would feel comfortable enough going back to gyms in the next month.

At the same time, equipment sales keep going up, indicating that people may be investing in home workouts for the long haul. A spokesperson at Icon Fitness, which owns NordicTrack, told me its app-connected equipment sales are up 500 to 600 percent since lockdowns began in mid-March. Peloton reported third-quarter revenue of $524.6 million, an increase of 66 percent over the same period last year. The company announced two new products this week: the upgraded (and more expensive) Peloton Bike+, and the more affordable Peloton Tread.

Earlier this summer, the athleisure juggernaut Lululemon purchased Mirror — an at-home fitness startup that lets people work out live with a trainer who appears in a reflective screen — for $500 million.

These companies were built on the central idea of working out at home, first and foremost. There was no hectic scramble. They weren’t created specifically for pandemic workouts. Their apps and hardware — Peloton’s screen, Mirror’s mirror — were a seamless, sensible fit to the demand at hand.

But they may not have expected in-studio classes to become an at-home competitor.

While we all figure out how to create new ways to work out within the parameters of public health officials’ advice, the ultimate goal for these exercise-based businesses is to get back into a studio safely. It’s how they make their revenues, and it’s also the style their clients respond to best. The question, then, is whether it’s ever going to go back to the way it was.

AARMY co-founder Manuel-Davis doesn’t think so, and she doesn’t want it to be.

“We shouldn’t leave this moment the same, and we should look at how we can all be different and better,” she told me. “I want to be better. I want to have grown, I want to have learned something. You know, it should look different on the other side of that.”

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