The fastest-growing gym in America has $10 memberships and gives out free pizza, bagels, and candy

In a world dominated by SoulCycle and barre workouts, it seems easy to forget about the traditional, membership-based model. 

There’s luxury gym chain Equinox with its diehard gym rats and the mid-level Town Sports Clubs.

Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there’s Planet Fitness, which went public this summer — just when SoulCycle announced it would file for an IPO. 

Yet these two fitness setups couldn’t be structured more differently.

Planet Fitness is the antithesis of the boutique fitness model — a basic membership costs $10 (a “black” membership, which entitles you to visit other franchises and use the tanning stations and massage chairs, is $19.99), plus a $20 initiation fee. There are no classes. There are no frills. There are no free weights above eighty pounds. But there is free pizza.

The gym prides itself on its philosophy of “no judgment” and “no gymtimidation” — there are signs plastered across the gym stating it’s a “judgment free zone,” and signs on the equipment reminds members that they “belong.” A “lunk alarm” goes off if people exert themselves with too much machismo — that is to say, there’s no grunting permitted whatsoever.

The gym famously serves free pizza on the first Monday of the month and bagels on the second Tuesday of the month. There are also tootsie rolls available at the front desk.

This has made Planet Fitness the butt of many jokes. Look no further than a Buzzfeed listicle celebrating things you only see at Planet Fitness, including this:

But despite the mockery, the model obviously works. The majority of Americans, after all, are not in SoulCycle’s elite bracket.

In fact, the the crux of Planet Fitness’s business model is its ability to zero in on its target demographic: people who are just getting used to work out — or people who really, really hate exercising.

“We’re going after the first time exercises or casual user,” CEO Chris Rondeau told Business Insider in a phone interview. “Gym intimidation is real.”

Hence no classes. The gym prides itself on its two circuits, one 30-minute full body circuit and one 12-minute ab circuit. The gyms, where are generally over 20,000 square feet, are rows and rows of cardio machines with some strength training machines and free weights. (For what it’s worth, Rondeau said the cardio equipment is what you’ll find at any $100/month health club.)

Ultimately, the company is trying to prep people who may not feel they’re fit enough to work out at a more upscale gym. It’s for the people who say “I’ve got to work out and get in shape before I join a gym,” as Rondeau put it. “I think it’s really cool who we’re going after.”

So it’s not that Planet Fitness is trying to inhibit success, it’s that it’s trying to help people who know that they aren’t fitness fanatics. It’s a starting point — and many Americans need a place to begin. Simply showing up to a gym is a success for these people.

And there’s a lot of these people, and they’re all over the country. Planet Fitness celebrated the opening of its 1,000th gym in June; there were 1,040 locations in the United States, Canada, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico when Planet Fitness’s third fiscal quarter ended on September 30th. There are plans for continual expansion, too.

Rondeau explained that 80% of Americans are without gym memberships.  “The 20% that are, we have 7.1 million of them,” Rondeau said. “Naturally, there’s a vast majority of casual exercisers.”

“Other brands look at working out as a hobby, and I think personally that working out is a chore, and I believe most of America thinks of it the same way, they know they have to [but] they’d rather go to to Chilli’s and have a beer and have some chips and salsa, but you know, you have to, you don’t want to, so you kind of wince your way throughout. And I think most of Americans think this way.”

Burning some calories a few times a month, he said, is “better than nothing.”

Rondeau would know. Rondeau’s relationship to fitness is a realistic one; he says he’s “come and gone over the years.” Right now, he’s working out more frequently, but “I think now honestly, it’s more stress-relief.”  

Rondeau also has an explanation for the seemingly out-of-place pizza, bagels, and tootsie rolls:

“Planet Fitness first started offering pizza to our members back in 1999 at our third club in Concord, NH. After a day-long shortage of hot water, we provided free pizza as an appreciation gesture for members’ understanding. They loved it and the popularity of the giveaway led to the creation of the once-a-month pizza nights in all our locations, which helps build camaraderie among members and staff. We also giveaway free bagels and coffee once a month for our members who frequent the gym in the morning versus the evening. 

The tootsie rolls are a unique, small treat and also serve as another opportunity for our members to come up to the front desk, and interact and build relationships with staff.

Ultimately we believe that working out should be fun and it’s ok to treat yourself every once in a while in moderation.”

Planet Fitness seems counterintuitive to the aspirational wellness industry   — which is known for Lululemon pants, juice cleanses, and fancy exercise classes —  but it serves a reminder that not everyone is a part of that demographic.

And as for the Twitter photos that deride the Planet Fitness’s members? Rondeau says “it kind of goes against everything we stand for.” The beauty of Planet Fitness, he says, is that “it allows you to come and go as you please and not feel intimidated.” 

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