Planning to hit the gym during rush hour? You’ll have much better luck finding an open elliptical machine than a bench press, squat rack, or 30-pound dumbbells.
Strength training — also called weight training or resistance training — has grown in popularity, thanks to new research into its health benefits, the growth of high-intensity gyms like CrossFit, and more women pushing back against stereotypes that bodybuilding is only for men. It’s just the latest in a series of radical changes over decades in the way Americans exercise.
The pandemic has led more people to take up weight training, gym owners and industry experts say. After gyms reopened in late 2020 and early 2021 due to Covid-19 safety restrictions, more people rushed to lift weights and use equipment they didn’t have access to at home.
After the pandemic, the rise in popularity of weight training has helped the gym industry recover. The number of gym memberships in the United States rose 3.6% in 2021 from pre-pandemic levels, according to the latest data from IHRSA, a trade association for the fitness industry.
Strength training was the most popular exercise class booked in the past two years, according to ClassPass, a subscription-based fitness app. In 2022, there was a 94% increase in strength training classes from the previous year.
“Strength training has become much more widely accepted and accepted for all kinds of outcomes — aesthetics, weight loss, bone health and balance,” said Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, associate professor of history at the New School and author of “Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession.”
At the same time, stationary cardio equipment such as elliptical machines and treadmills have seen a decline in gym use.
“Exists [fewer] minutes spent on cardio [compared] before Covid,” Planet Fitness CEO Chris Rondeau said in an earnings call Thursday. Planet Fitness members do more weight training and functional exercises like push-ups and squats, he said.
Planet Fitness ( PLNT ) is reducing the space available in some gyms for cardio and adding more space for functional training and kettlebell workouts. (Planet Fitness stock ( PLNT ) has fully recovered from a Covid-related slide, hitting an all-time high last year, while Life Time is up 17%).
Changes in the way people exercise have forced gyms to adapt, with new gym designs featuring more racks for dumbbells and squats and open spaces for lunges, deadlifts and other heavy exercises.
“In the past it was ‘let’s cram as much equipment as possible into these rooms,'” said Daniel Allen, an architect who has designed residential and commercial gyms around the country. “Now it’s ‘how much free space can we add?’
“There are always people doing kettlebells,” he said. “We base a lot of our original provisions on making sure we keep an open zone for these exercises.”
The development of weight training is a change from how Americans exercised for much of the last century.
In the early decades of the 20th century, gyms were considered “sweaty dungeons” and men who went there to lift weights were considered “fools or effetes,” Petrzella writes in Fit Nation.
“People thought I was a charlatan and a softie,” recalls Jack LaLanne, founder of the modern fitness movement, who first opened a club in Oakland, California, in 1938. “The doctors were against me—they said gymnastics with weights it would give people everything from heart attacks to hemorrhoids.”
There were also concerns about women who exercised and worried it would affect fertility.
Women typically went to separate “reduction salons” or “treatment salons,” often located next to beauty salons, to lose weight, Petrzela said.
A mid-century ad for a slimming machine told women they could do minimal physical activity to lose weight: “Relax in luxurious comfort… No moving from one machine to another.”
In 1968, Dr. Kenneth Cooper published “Aerobics,” a bestseller that encouraged running, jogging, and swimming to improve health and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Cooper’s book started a revolution in heart disease and was popularized by Jane Fonda’s VHS workout videos.
The arrival of Nautilus and Universal strength training equipment in the 1970s and 1980s made weightlifting more appealing to a wider range of people. These machines were affordable and had adjustable weight plates that were easy to use.
Nautilus machines have helped integrate strength training into the wider mix of exercises. Clubs with Nautilus in their name and the company’s gear inside began popping up all over the country.
But today, free weights have become the most popular form of strength training. And weightlifting has grown in recent years in part because of new research on the benefits.
The most recent federal health guidelines recommend at least two sessions per week of muscle-strengthening activities that are moderate to vigorous intensity and involve all major muscle groups.
The rise of CrossFit has also led to high-intensity squat rack workouts becoming more popular with the general public, especially among women.
“Before CrossFit, this type of equipment was associated with body building,” Petrzela said. “Seeing a lot of people doing this for functional fitness has debunked it.”
Gale Landers, CEO of Fitness Formula Clubs in Chicago, said his clubs have removed 10 percent to 15 percent of their cardio equipment to make room for more free weights and benches. Fitness Formula has also added turf areas where people can do functional training.
At Genesis Health Clubs, a chain of 61 gyms mostly in the Midwest, “you’ll walk in and see all the squat racks full,” said CEO Rodney Steven.
Genesis clubs have added more squat and dumbbell racks to meet the demand for strength training and reduced cardio areas.
“Free weights are the biggest increase we’ve seen across all our clubs,” Stephen said. “Everyone uses dumbbells.”