// Train to retain: keep members longer and keep them strength training for life

Complicated and time-consuming training regimens can cause member attrition, believes Jamie Hayes. By getting members to practice an achievable strength training routine, we can ensure ongoing results and increase retention.

As fitness professionals we are often asked 'Which strength training program works best?' Depending on the outcomes required, there are numerous answers. As club and studio owners and operators, and as an industry, it is perhaps more pertinent to consider the question 'What program gets the most people strength training – and continuing to do so?'

By this criteria, Les Mills' BODYPUMP™ program must be considered the 'best' weight-training program in the world today. But what about a program for those who 'don't do group ex' classes? There is a way to get these people participating in a training routine that has lasting effects, but firstly it is important to understand the obstacles that prevent people continuing with strength training programs – and consequently, with their memberships.


For many people, the routine and feel-good factor derived from attending their club several times a week is a draw rather than an obstacle, and for these members more complex training programs may be ideal, but many others struggle with both motivation and time constraints. Australian statistics suggest the percentage of adults that attend a commercial fitness facility is around eight to 12 per cent. In other words, around 90 per cent choose not to join a fitness club. Research published by IHRSA lists the reasons cited by people for not joining a club as:

  1. Physique anxiety
  2. Embarrassment about not knowing what to do
  3. Feeling stupid
  4. Not knowing anybody
  5. Fear of getting a hard sell.

There may also be other obstacles, such as fear of not fitting in, not getting the help they might need, expectations of failure, and, of course, cost. So, if we know some of the reasons why people don't join a club and we want a gym program that is judged by the question 'What program gets the most people strength training – and continuing to do so?', then what should we offer them?

Let me keep you guessing as I describe another industry problem associated with the same question – attrition. I believe there are three 'touch points' in the life of a new member that can have the unintended consequence of causing them to drop out:

Marketing – The gym's marketing message (words or pictures) creates an unrealistic expectation. The industry advertises, 'Get fit, tone up and lose weight – Call now!' The optimistic consumer responds.

Sales – The sales person says, 'We can get you fitter, toned and weighing less with just three sessions a week – which makes our membership great value'. The optimistic consumer joins.

Trainer – The trainer says, 'You'll get best results from this three-set split routine that only takes 60 to 90 minutes four times a week'. In their optimism, the new member complies, at least in the short-term.

Then reality sets in. Prior to joining, they had a full life and now they have to reorganise everything to get to the gym at least three times a week. For many, this is doomed to fail. An expectation is created by the marketing messages, sales process and programming that will actually lead to drop out among the time poor and those who struggle with dedicating a large portion of theirn life to the gym.

What if the message was different:

Marketing – 'You can get a stronger body in 20 minutes, training once a week'.

Sales – 'Our program gets you stronger and takes 20 minutes once a week. Anything you do beyond that is a bonus'.

Trainer – 'This program gets you stronger and takes 20 minutes once a week. Anything you do beyond that, like a second session, is a bonus. Every time you train, you'll be aiming for a Personal Best, so you get better each week.'

So, what's the program? First, let's remind ourselves of some strength training basics.

  1. Muscles don't get stronger while you are lifting weights in the gym. They get stronger in the recovery-adaptation phase that follows your weights workout after you have left the gym. Your muscles respond to the overload given from the effort you make on each exercise, especially the effort required on the last rep.
  2. Muscles can't count reps. They only respond to the amount of weight lifted, the length of time that the muscles are kept under load and the degree of overload that the member can tolerate to ask of them.
  3. Compound exercises, like pull downs that work a group of muscles (over two joints), are more effective and more time-efficient than isolation (single joint) exercises, like bicep curls.

Let's make another couple of observations:

  1. If you use a stopwatch to time the duration of the average set performed by long-term members in your gym, the muscles will only be under load for around 20 seconds (past the time limit for the initial ATP energy system, but only beginning to access the lactic acid energy system).
  2. If you watch a BODYPUMP™ class, the same muscles may be under load for three minutes or longer – that's 180 seconds.
    Both programs seem to yield results even though they are remarkably different. Remember that the result we really want is a program that gets the most people into your club and strength training – and continuing to do so.

Back to the gym floor…

Why do so many clubs make their enthusiastic new members wait for up to six weeks for a 'program review'? This critical initial stage of their membership has been shown to affect their retention in the long term. In the highly regarded management book The One Minute Manager, author Ken Blanchard states 'The number one motivator of people is feedback on results.'

With this in mind, answer these six questions quickly with a 'yes' or 'no'.

  1. Do you believe that almost all adults could benefit from strength training for life?
  2. When a new member joins your club or studio, do you offer to map out a program for them?
  3. Does that program typically include a strength program component?
  4. Do you map the strength program out on a program card?
  5. Do you encourage the member to use their program card?
  6. Do you have your own program card that you use every time you have a weights session?

I predict that you answered: 1. Yes; 2. Yes; 3. Yes; 4. Yes; 5. Yes; and 6. NO! You need to practice what you preach – as well as benefiting your own training, using a program card yourself helps instil the importance of this simple, but very effective training tool. Try to find a golf enthusiast or golf pro that trains without their handicap card. They aim for a 'PB' on each hole, and it helps make the game addictive.

The program

You've been patient, so here is the program. It's simple, but that's why it works.

The exercise selection
Area Exercise
Legs Leg press (squats are also fine, but require more skill)
Pushing Chest press
Pulling Back-supported seated row or pull down
Abdominal flexion Optional
Lower back extension Optional


The prescription

The following exercise information can be prescribed to members and clients.

  • Lift and lower slowly to take the momentum out of the movement – aim for four to five seconds up, and four to five seconds down.
  • Don't let the weights touch and don't lock out the joints.
  • Use a weight that you can keep lifting for at least 60 seconds before the muscles fatigue. This means that in the initial reps your strength will far exceed the load and these reps will suffice as warm up reps, so no warm up exercises or sets are required. If you don't want to train by the clock, you can always use controlled speed reps to count your time until fatigue. If each rep takes approximately eight seconds, then you should use a weight that's light enough for you to perform at least eight slow reps, resulting in at least 64 seconds under load.
  • Aim to increase the weight or the time on each exercise the next time you do it. When you can keep going for 90 seconds or longer (12 or more 8-second reps), increase the weight on that exercise by around five per cent next time you train. This applies the principle of 'progressive overload' from the very first workout.
  • As you're doing one extended duration set on each exercise, it's important to give it all you can, knowing that you won't have to do that exercise until your next workout. Keep the set going until you cannot do another rep. This is where a personal trainer or training buddy can help with motivation.
  • Record the weight and the reps (or time) you have lifted on each exercise on your card.
  • Do this routine (three to five exercises) at least once a week. If you add a mid week session, it's a bonus!

The trial workout

Follow these steps with new members and watch the light bulb go on as the realisation of a realistic and achievable strength workout sets in.

  1. Have the machines lined up in a row.
  2. Have the exercises pre-printed on the card.
  3. Take them through the workout, setting the weights and showing good form.
  4. Point out that the whole body session only took 20 minutes.
  5. Show them how to record it on the card.
  6. Ask them one question; 'If you had done this workout just once a week for the past 52 weeks, do you think you would be in better shape now?' Don't be surprised if every single new members says 'yes'.
  7. Tell them 'If you just do this once a week, you will get stronger, even if you miss a week every now and then. Any exercise that you do in addition, either in the club or outside, will be a bonus.'

Consistency is key

Let's say you're good at what you do and want to be in business for yourself. You know which customers you will be best able to serve. You borrow on your family home to set up your own gym or studio. Then you have to recruit qualified instructors and trainers to grow your business. Many of them may have come from different training institutions or have varying prior experience. Do you say:

  1. 'Because you're qualified you should know how to write programs, so just do it the way you learnt.'

  2. 'This is my club and everybody does it my way, so our customers get a doable promise, consistent program advice and a consistent experience every time they come.'

The answer is clear. In the famous business book, The E-Myth Revisited, author Michael Gerber says 'What you do in your model (business) is not as important as doing what you do the same way, each and every time.'

The Challenge
Try the program yourself for eight weeks. Use a weight that is light enough that you can keep it going for at least 60 seconds. Don't stop until you can't lift the weight anymore. Beware of stopping at 10 reps! Record your reps or time until fatigue. Do this on each of the three to five exercises. Repeat once a week for eight weeks. See if your strength increases.

A shot in the foot?

You may ask, 'If the program needn't change, won't that make instructors irrelevant?' Each Les Mills BODYPUMP™ track has the same exercises in the same order regardless of who teaches it. The instructor adds the instruction, the supervision, the hype, the motivation and the recognition. These same things are needed on the gym floor. With the advent of lower cost 24/7 gyms, the fitness professional is under threat to provide the extra value that justifies their existence on the gym floor. Having a pre-choreographed gym program lets them do just that and gives the member consistency and success.

If the five exercise machines are lined up and the program card is there to match, each member only spends about two minutes on each exercise, meaning the instructor can supervise and motivate up to 30 people per hour. This compares favourably with the typical instructor/member ratio of a group exercise class.

If this exercise program is supervised, it provides an ideal opportunity for a personal trainer wishing to form a relationship with potential clients. One weekly session by themselves and one paid session with the personal trainer can be a winning combination.

One-size training does not fit all and while the method I espouse here is suitable for those who struggle with more traditional or time-consuming training programs, it is by no means for everyone. However, I believe that if you are serious about getting more new members achieving strength gains and remaining members of your facility, you should bear in mind the question to help you decide what strength program is 'best'; 'What program gets the most people strength training – and continuing to do so?'

Jamie Hayes
A fitness industry stalwart, Jamie was named Australia's first National Fitness Leader of the Year in 1987. He is managing director of Healthy Inspirations, a national franchise of women's weight loss and exercise centres whose members have lost over 100,000 kilos through a combination of diet coaching and circuit strength training. He and his wife Ellen have also owned and run Body Express Bondi Beach since 1992.

  • A critical analysis of the claims for inert set intervals, endogenous hormonal responses, sequence of exercise for optimal strength gains in resistance training. Ralph N. Carpinelli. Med Sport 14 (3): 126-156, 2010
  • Low-Load High Volume Resistance Exercise Stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis More Than High-Load Low Volume Resistance Exercise in Young Men: 2010 Burd et al.