A Brief History & the Future of Gyms

I spent some time recently researching the history of gyms. What intrigued me was how we arrived to the era of Bally Total Fitness and the 50,000 square foot health club. I had my suspicions, but here’s what I found:

I’m paraphrasing, of course, but health clubs as we know it began popping up around the mid-19th century in Europe as a rebuttle to the Industrial Revolution. Desk job work needed a polar opposite. In 1847, it’s understood that Hippolyte Triat opened the first gym (as we know it). His mini-movement caught some traction when the good people at YMCA began including exercise in the 1860s to build a body so that the faithful had a strong body to “house the holy spirit.”

Gyms have come a long way.

The YMCA movement westward to the United States was met with another mini-movement lead by George Barker Windship. Windship was a bright young man, that was the little guy in class when he started Harvard at age 16. So, he lifted weights and did gymnastics to ward off bigger smart punks.

Meanwhile, further west still, one could argue the birthplace of gym training began right here in Santa Monica. In the 1930’s, the  growing popularity of acrobatics and displays of strength found a centralized home on a small strip of the coast known as Muscle Beach. It’s here that key movers and shakers in the fitness industry immerged. Victor Tanny and Joe Gold would build a small empire of gyms as a result.

These gyms were the first of their kind in that they were presentable enough to avoid the semblance of a dungeon with barbells. With their improved aesthetics, gym memberships began being sold to the mass consumer for the first time in history. Though there early gyms played host to barbells and “free weights,” their sky lights and clean floors are what got people in the doors.

Here is the key, though. Financial troubles were pretty common among gyms, both Tanny and Gold’s included. These troubles resulted in the closing of hundreds of their gyms. It was in 1990 that Bally Manufacturing purchased a struggling gym of Tanny’s in Chicago and created Bally Total Fitness. And, with that a new era was born.

With Bally’s came a new business model that we see today, which is often referred to as the Globo Gym. These corporate gyms provide fitness in a fashion that allowed them to drive revenue with less cost. They ran with Vic Tanny’s concept of aesthetics, bright colors, and clean carpets. With added size and their addition of easy-to-use-machines, each gym can service thousands of clients without the cost and time that comes with coaches and the space requirements of free movement. Machines in Globo Gyms are so effective that they take no coaching. They are so safe that they make it difficult to get hurt… or fit.

It’s no doubt that sacrificing performance for revenue and aesthetics is what allowed corporate gyms to balloon with financial success. In my opinion, though, time is running out for this business model. As we continue to see many of these monolith, soulless, ineffective health clubs close around the country, I wonder if Americans are demanding more from their gym. I think the cat is out of the bag with Globo Gyms. Their amenities got America in the door, but I think America are walking out of these places looking for something more.

I believe there is a better way to do it and I think we are doing just that. Given enough time, quality will always win out. 

Logan Gelbrich


Monday’s Workout:

6 rounds:

In one minute, complete:

5 Heavy KB Swings
40 Yard Suicide Run
-Rest 1 minute-

**20 burpee penalty for missing time target

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