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Virtual Vitality: Gyms Shifted Online During the Pandemic, and Fitness Instructors Say It May Be the Wave of the Future 

  • Instagram / armadilloboulders
When the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of nonessential businesses, local gyms and fitness instructors were forced to ramp up their online presence to maintain memberships and make sure their bills get paid.

San Antonio fitness leaders say it’s been a challenge to quickly create online classes and keep clients on task in quarantine. But they add that the abrupt change is helping them prepare for industry changes. Plus, the past couple of months have helped them create opportunities for the local community to engage with the gym in a whole new way.

Keeping Them Engaged

When Joe Kreidel opened the indoor climbing gym Armadillo Boulders in 2018, he knew the business would face obstacles, but a global pandemic was hard to see coming. Temporarily closing its doors was a scary step.

“There was so much unknown then, and even now there’s a lot we don’t understand, like when it will be safe to open,” Kreidel told the Current.
Fortunately, the gym had already been expanding its online presence to give members a sense of community. So, when COVID-19 forced it strictly online, some of the work was already done.

“Now, we have a YouTube ab-and-core class, I hosted a route-setting informational video, we are going to be doing a Zoom book club,” Kreidel said. “We’re trying to keep people engaged with the gym so people are excited to return once we get the chance to open.”

Armadillo Boulders’ Instagram account has been active, publishing content on staff’s climbing experiences. It’s also hosted a youth photo challenge to recreate famous climbing photos at home, and members are sharing at-home workouts by climbing structures such as door frames and stairways.

“It’s a challenge trying to come up with engaging content,” Kreidel said. “But, so far, our online programs have been pretty successful.”

Beyond the virtual participation, members are also kicking in cash. So far, a quarter of members have contributed financially, including paying their April and May membership fees.

“It showed that a lot of things we are trying to do, as far as being a close community for people, have really connected with our members,” Kreidel said.

Maintaining Community

CrossFit San Antonio owner Mario Barajas has kept his business going by hosting group classes on Zoom. His biggest challenge is keeping the workouts interesting on an online platform.

He holds four classes a day, two in the morning and two in the evening, offering a weighted workout for those who have equipment, plus a variation of the workout using only body-weight exercises.

“I am doing everything that is possible to keep people engaged,” said Barajas, who’s owned the gym since 2015. “The workouts are getting pretty tough, because we’ve been going at it for so long. There are only so many squats and pushups you can do.”

Knowing most members have limited equipment at home, Barajas has been forced to come up with creative solutions.

“We’ve started incorporating odd-object bags into our workouts,” he said. “People will stuff a backpack with books, water jugs, anything they can find. It doesn’t have to be heavy, but it can add weight to some of the movements like chair dips, stairs and squats.”

Before the gym closed, Barajas had 175 paying members. Since then, the number has dwindled to 120. While most are logging in and joining the workouts, others continue to pay their fees even though they aren’t regular online participants.

Barajas said the social media presence has a value beyond helping members keep up with their workouts, though. He’s initiated challenges to stir comradery, such as a Facebook Live cooking challenge and a team-based nutritional competition.

“The CrossFit community is so much about community itself,” Barajas said. “Community-wise, I think this will make us stronger in the end.” 

Personal Training

Personal trainer Alex Lundien has worked for Gold’s Gym on Culebra and 1604 since 2015, specializing in one-on-one training and cross-functional workouts. When he was furloughed due to the pandemic, he transitioned to freelance training by offering Skype sessions.

“It’s a natural evolution for the fitness industry to offer online training,” Lundien told the Current. “This just sped the process up by a couple of decades.”

Luckily, Lundien had existing clients to call on. But other aspects of building an online business presented challenges — such as monitoring participants’ safety, effort level and tempo during workouts.

“I can’t be there to catch my client, or catch a weight if it falls, or literally support them through a movement,” he said. “And even if it’s not physical touch, it’s so much easier in person to modify someone’s technique, gauge if they are doing the movements correctly, or listen to someone’s breathing.”
When a client’s video has poor lighting, a delay or is only shot from one angle the task becomes even tougher.

Lundien's ready to get back to business at Gold’s Gym, adding that it’s hard to stay positive without knowing the timeline for his return.

“I’ve heard it said that if you go to prison, it could be the nicest prison in the world, but it still could be considered cruel and unusual punishment if you don’t have an estimated release date,” he added.

But despite the challenges, he sees the work he’s putting into online coaching as part of his professional growth.

“There is a huge market for distance clients,” Lundien said. “The cliché excuse about not having enough time to exercise, well, if there is no commute, you can get right to your workout. It makes me wonder if clients will want to stick to online workouts and not return to training in person.”

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