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Goodbye to the Gym. Hello to the Dumbbell Library.

If you can’t go to the gym safely or afford your own home equipment, don’t worry — many gyms and fitness studios are loaning out their stuff, sometimes for free

When gyms and fitness studios first closed at the start of the pandemic, Alessandra Hashemi, the founder of Good Sweat, a small spin studio in Arlington, Virginia, went immediately into survival mode. In particular, she remembers thinking, I don’t know how long we’re going to be closed for. How can I stay financially afloat?

That’s when, she says, “I looked at the bikes and realized they were our only moveable asset.”

Specifically, they had 30 “moveable assets,” or Stages exercise bikes, that Hashemi decided to rent out for either $44 a week for three months, $50 a week for two months or $59 a week for one month — along with a security deposit of $500 that’s returned when the bike is — as she made the transition to Zoom classes for the foreseeable future. Within weeks, all the bikes were rented, and she had a waitlist of more than 100 people who’d rotate in as soon as bikes were returned, serviced and sanitized.

“As a small business that had been open less than a year, the decision was immediate, and we were the first in the D.C. area to do so,” Hashemi says. Word quickly got out and many other spin studios, barre studios, CrossFit gyms and other fitness facilities followed her lead. For people who don’t want to risk their lives going to the gym, but cannot afford the cost of equipment to recreate a comparable workout at home, equipment rentals have emerged as the ideal middle ground to keep them physically (and mentally) healthy in quarantine. Likewise, as outdoor classes have allowed group workouts to return, a newer hybrid model of equipment rental, combined with digital and in-person classes, has given new life to businesses that were worried about surviving.

Hashemi recognized the importance of preserving the fitness industry as a whole and was happy to share notes with competitors. “We had studios locally and across the country reach out to us about how we were running the program and to get advice on rentals,” she says. Over the summer they had all the bikes returned for outdoor classes at a lower capacity with masks, but relaunched the rental program in November due to winter weather. Her plan going forward is more of a hybrid model, renting out around 10 bikes at a time, in addition to outdoor classes in line with public health guidelines.

“Our model has always been in-person connections, and we pivoted because the pandemic forced us to for everyone’s safety,” Hashemi explains. “We will continue riding outside as long as it is safest.”

Instead of renting equipment, some fitness facilities, like CrossFit Inferno in San Luis Obispo, Californis, are loaning it out free of charge — like a library, only with less shushing. The gym’s owner, Bill Grundler, made this decision for several reasons. “Our product isn’t rental, it’s coaching,” he tells me. He also saw other gyms hemorrhaging members, since many people were losing their jobs and unable to afford the membership dues, while others were more comfortable working out from home. The idea was to focus on the latter group, given that in his 30-plus years of experience as a CrossFit coach, he’s found that the reason most people go to the gym is because they can’t do it on their own, or don’t want to. “So if the plan is to just give everyone equipment, then what are they going to do with it?”

Likewise, if his existing members were likely struggling to keep up with the $160 monthly fee, why would they spend money on renting out equipment? Not to mention, dumbbells are fucking expensive. In an effort to solve multiple problems and incentivize continued membership, he loaned out dumbbells and kettlebells (typically a 25-pound “light weight” and a 50-pound “heavy weight), as well as PVC pipes, jump ropes and ab mats to any of his customers who needed them, then rewrote the Zoom classes exclusively tailored for this equipment. For instance, because they couldn’t lift very heavy weights like they could in the gym, workouts included different rep schemes and movements to help members build muscle with less weight. He also instructed people who couldn’t make it in to pick up equipment on how to make weights at home, using common items like sand and kitty litter.

“The goal with that was, instead of trying to make people rent equipment, we want them to continue paying for the membership, and make that as seamless as possible,” Grundler tells me. He admits that long before the pandemic, he had been thinking of different ways to expand his business without losing the sense of community he’s built, or risking becoming more like larger chain gyms, and the best way to do that always seemed to be on a digital platform. Like Hashemi, Grundler now holds outdoor group classes in the parking lot, but he continues to Zoom every class and loans out about 10 to 20 percent of his equipment. He also posts one workout a day for curious non-members on the gym’s Facebook page and has no intention of stopping anytime soon.

“For me, there was never any question if we were going to continue,” Grundler says. “I’m shocked more gyms aren’t doing this, because it doesn’t add to your plate.”

As much as Grundler has, as anticipated, lost members due to the current economic circumstances, he’s been able to supplement that with new members outside of the gym’s zip code, all while maintaining members he would’ve lost if they didn’t have the right equipment to workout from home. “The COVID experience has really allowed us to expand our service and what we can offer our members, and that’s been really cool,” Grundler says.

Just try not to get your libraries mixed up, or you might get banned for ripping all their books in half to get jacked.

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