CrossFit affiliates are going out of business and being sold for cheap. Gym owners are unable to even pay themselves and forced to sleep at their gym.

CrossFit’s explosive growth has yielded nearly 15,000 affiliates in the past 10 years.  CrossFit’s explosion as a fitness methodology that produces a high level of fitness and care for the laymen was almost Cinderella-like in how quickly it rose to the top.

Now for the first time, we are hearing more and more of the business struggles, trials and tribulations of box owners who have tried to jump on the CrossFit bandwagon can are barely able to stay afloat.

Why are these gyms struggling so much when the popularity of CrossFit is higher than ever?

With CrossFit’s worldwide popularity it may be easy to think that a motivated individual could just invest some money, pop up a box and run a successful business, but we’re afraid it is not that simple anymore. To understand why, you must first understand where CrossFit came from, and what makes it so different.

The owner and founder of CrossFit, Greg Glassman, was a trainer in the club fitness industry for years, working at an assortment of Gold’s Gym chains. After being kicked out of numerous gyms for being too disruptive with his constantly varied, functional movements executed at a high intensity, one of his clients suggested that he get his own place to train. This observation was made when she noticed a suitcase of Greg’s, put two and two together and realized Greg was actually living at the gym.

You see, in the previous more common club fitness model, the trainer is merely an underpaid employee, making roughly $40/hour training private clients with no real prospect of growth or a long term career. When Greg opened up the first CrossFit gym in Santa Cruz fueled by a handful of loyal clients, he unknowingly was going to flip the entire fitness industry on its head.

Now, instead of being an underpaid employee, the trainer was the owner and able the helm his or her own financial destiny based on the quality of their service. Now, instead of trying to sign up as many memberships as possible without regard for care, guidance, or progress, or attendance; the success of the gym was based on creating enduring clients and would rave about their results to their friends and family. Now, instead of being alone in a gym, doing ineffective movements at a low intensity without results, clients were becoming part of a community that was bonded by shared suffering, accountability, and care.

The first CrossFit gym was based upon delivering personal training in a group setting. It was the endearing element of care that separated CrossFit from what everyone else had known. Greg cared about the way that his clients moved, he got them more fit than they had ever been, he taught them how to eat better, and made them his friends…and in turn they loved him for it.

In 2006 with only handful of CrossFit affiliates worldwide, Greg published the article “Scaling Professional Training” CrossFit Journal. He stated what he believed made his fitness model so successful:

“Unyielding commitment to client and efficacy—have guided everything that Lauren and I have done. More than just the backbone of CrossFit’s strength and successes, it has been, we believe, the primary reason for our success.”

In this article, Greg recommends starting to train people on a one on one basis; build their skill set, experience and quality of service by coaching just one person and slowly expand the group. This means having the confidence to start growth organically… not starting in a 6,000 square foot box with 200 members and 20 people in every class, but in a garage or small space. Attracting people with the quality of the training experience and not a fancy gym with fancy bumper plates and Olympic barbells.

As the trainer grows, their affiliate grows but the underlying values, standards and foundation of the gym’s humble beginning remain. Greg’s first gym was 1500 square feet. Starting here he was able to carve out a decent living for himself, live by his own rules and be the master of his own destiny.

“Using this template, we built a practice that kept us both busy from roughly 5:00 to 10:00 a.m., Monday through Saturday. That schedule produced a low-six figure income, which is really amazing given that we got to work together, with our friends, having a positive impact on people’s lives, and keep afternoons free for family, recreation, and study.”

Starting too big, too soon, or not having enough experience under your belt is a recipe for disaster. Moving into a big space, usually means a bigger rent, the pressure to make money, and to sign up and retain clients. Right there you are compromising a core value of CrossFit’s success.

We don’t measure dollars, we measure fitness.

Prioritize excellence in service and care, and you will be rewarded.

“Lauren and I, and CrossFit, are in pursuit not of money but of excellence. The difference, we believe, is the difference between success and failure. The pursuit of excellence is the heart of our business plan. It becomes obvious that the most effective business plan comes from achieving excellence and letting the market bring the money to you. The efficiency and effectiveness of this paradigm is breathtaking.”

Another major issue with starting too big, too soon is the inability to manage class size. A common theme that we’ve have seen when visiting CrossFit gyms that are struggling is a coach attempting to coach a group of people when they realistically cannot coach one athlete, let alone 15. The coach inevitably just becomes a cheerleader, time-keeper, and crowd herder, with no real coaching being done.

“The second drawback is that the reduced trainer to trainee ratio can dilute the professional training standards that we’ve embraced. This natural dilution can, however, be compensated for by the trainer’s development of a skill set that is only very rarely found. To run group classes without compromising our hallmark laser focus and commitment to the athlete, the trainer has to learn to give each member of the group the impression that he is getting all the attention that he could get in one-on-one training, and that requires tremendous training skill. We’ve seen this skill fully and adequately developed by only one path—gradually migrating from one-on one to group sessions. The trainers who are running group classes without growing into them are typically not working to the professional training standards that we’ve described. They also seem to have an inordinate difficulty filling their classes.”

So where does this leave us?

With a few hard lessons, not everyone is meant to own or run a CrossFit gym, and frankly, there are probably people out there who are completely over their head wondering why. Having a big gym and paying coaches $25/hour to coach a large group of athletes will lead to a shit product, that any decent coach will eventually leave (to start their own affiliate).

It is unethical to charge members $200/month for mediocrity. Smaller boutique style CrossFit affiliates are probably more in line with what most people should start with. The CrossFit model was designed to provide a descent living for one owner, head coach/operator.

There is a very Darwinian approach to how CrossFit Inc. manages it’s affiliates. Crossfit will not tell you how to run your gym or where you can open up, they will not tell owners how they have to program or coach athletes, because the “cream will always rise to the top.”

The gyms that care about the right things, provide service with excellence and invest in clients will survive and thrive. The gyms that do not will struggle and then slowly fall away. There will be a return in training to the underlying theme of CrossFit: virtuosity.

Not just virtuosity in athletic pursuits, but virtuosity in training and care. The natural competition of 15,000 gyms will push owners to look back to the roots of why CrossFit felt so special and different when it was new, and how to preserve and elevate that in the future.