Why Hybrids are the Future of Local Fitness


Like almost everyone else, I’m really looking forward to Covid-19 vaccinations being complete, and hoping we can stop feeling like we’re living in a movie.  But 2020 has accelerated a trend that was already happening - the digitization of fitness.

This all boils down to motivation and accountability - using new digital mechanisms to replicate aspects of traditional group fitness boutiques in new and more flexible settings, particularly at home:

  • Peloton:  Combining connected hardware (the bike) with inspiring coaches and a sense of competition (the leaderboards).  All of this had been done in boutique studios already - the amazing coaches at SoulCycle, the big range of ANT+ connected spin bikes (measuring cadence, power expended, etc) in spin studios, software like Spivi to create leaderboards.  But Peloton packaged it into a “whole solution” for at home workouts that blew past traditional at home exercise bikes like the ones from NordicTrack and Bowflex, and left them scrambling to catch up.
  • Mirror:  Movement based classes in front of a two way shiny (highly reflective) TV.  It operates like a self-overlay on top of video chat, delivered in a beautiful form factor, and it reminds me a bit of the Dance Dance Revolution games I saw kids sweating on back in the day.
  • Tempo:  Computer vision to analyze workout form during exercise, allowing a coach to teach a larger class remotely and give personalized feedback than would be possible in a Zoom video gallery with no automated sorting.  Even in on demand workouts, the system can still tell you if you’re doing the exercise badly.  Of course, in a physical studio it’s much easier for a coach to see everyone as he or she walks around and make suggestions on form.  But computer-based form analysis isn’t new.  In digital, Microsoft Kinect popularized the idea of skeletal and form analysis for video games, and it was released back in 2010!  Massive jumps in the power of artificial intelligence chips as well as the investment in sensors for self-driving cars have seen computer vision improve dramatically.  The latest iPhones actually have 3D depth and movement sensors (LIDAR) on them, and it’s widely expected that this will inspire a lot more virtual reality and augmented reality apps over the coming years.
  • Tonal:  Very similar to Mirror and Tempo, but its magic is dynamically variable electromagnetic resistance - a cable gym with a TV screen where you don’t have to pull a pin in and out of a weight stack (and to be fair, it will change the resistance dynamically during a set of reps or even a single rep to optimize resistance for the person working out).  Electromagnetic resistance is old school - I had a Precor 855e reclined bike as a kid in the 90s that’s still actually getting some use in my parent’s garage.  Tonal has added gamification and milestones similar to Peloton, letting users compare themselves to everyone else for bragging rights.

The main innovations have been the subscription business model and internet connectivity.  Adding a TV screen to the fitness equipment, centralized content and coaching over the internet, then allowing competition with others so working out at home is less lonely and has some degree of community like in a boutique studio.

But here’s the thing.  If I buy a Tonal, it’s likely that at most one of my real world friends has one.  Peloton - OK a few friends - but finding them and riding against them isn’t as immediately obvious and easy as you might expect (actually, it’s widely known in tech circles that their social implementation kind of sucks).  If I don’t show up on my Tonal or Peloton, no-one’s going to really miss me the same way that I might be missed at a Crossfit gym I’ve been going to for a few years.  Apple Fitness+ has a leg up on me knowing friends who also have Apple Watches (because so many people have them), but today the experience is still impersonal and centralized content - that may change as Apple learns and adapts the offering.

I think Zwift has the most engaging community fitness experience of the new digital services, and ironically they haven’t (up to this point) even made their own hardware.  Zwift just focused on replicating the experience of online massive multi-player video games, like Warcraft, in the context of competitive cycling.  They have different kinds of power ups, you can unlock new bikes and clothes for your in-game rider, you can ride a virtual “Tour de France” - all that gamification is motivating (I see it in the Facebook Zwift riders group).  Also competitive cyclists and triathletes tended to have real world clubs so would know each other already.  Again Spivi started back in 2011 but Zwift has bypassed them, BKool dates back to 2009.

One of the more interesting stats that several investors in Mirror, Tempo and other home fitness 2.0 startups have told me is that they see 10X the number of on demand workouts as live.  This would mean that these home fitness customers significantly prioritize the flexibility of working out whenever they want over any additional experience benefit they get from live versus recorded.  It reflects a significant weakness of systems like Peloton - there’s no 2 way interaction with the coach, it’s like watching Netflix with a leaderboard of strangers.

So what does this all mean for local fitness?

Here’s the good news.  In this new world, home fitness 2.0 is MySpace to boutique fitness being Facebook.  What do I mean?  Boutique fitness has existing relationships and natural geographical user clustering - “everyone knows everyone at Crossfit” or “my Soulcycle girls are my tribe”.  Home fitness 2.0 doesn’t - it’s still pretty much an impersonal and lonely experience with little accountability or genuine human connection.  Facebook is more tied to people’s physical lives and friends, whereas MySpace (famously) wasn’t.  I may write a whole new blog in the future expounding on this.

But how have people’s expectations changed?

  1. Flexibility:  Whether that means coming into the studio in the afternoon to do a class that happened at 7AM that morning, or dong the 7AM class from home versus going into the studio.  This is good for studios - it can average out utilization, reduce scarcity and allow more members for the same physical space.  Frustration at class slot scarcity was actually one of the inspirations for John Foley, the founder of Peloton.
  2. Simple is Free:  Simple video streaming (whether near real-time or on demand) should be free, because there’s so much free content on YouTube, PopSugar, Instagram … in fact boutique coaches have driven the growth of free video streaming content during covid-19 in an attempt to keep some presence while everyone has been sat at home.
  3. Biometrics:  Apple Watches, Samsung watches, Whoop, so many other sensors - people expect to be able to use the fancy watch or band they bought, not be forced into using some specific heart rate strap or not having their exercise integrate with or count towards their fitness trackers and goals (“you close those circles girlfriend!”).
  4. Competition: Peloton and others have popularized the idea of remote leaderboards, the same way that Orange Theory Fitness popularized doing it in studio.  For a majority of people in fitness, competition is motivating - whether that’s competition with strangers (less interesting), competition with friends (more interesting) or competition with myself (also more interesting).
  5. Gamification:  Milestone workouts, streaks, badges, awards - people have got used to these now, and they are motivating.  Just look at the photos in Facebook of people hitting their 100th Peloton ride.

Why hybrids are the future

Traditional boutique studios lack the flexibility of doing workouts time shifted or from home - having a video library does not come close to comparing to the in-studio experience.

Home fitness 2.0 is bright and shiny right now, but it’s missing the community and accountability that have let boutique studios disrupt big box gyms.

Hybrids combine the actual in-studio boutique fitness experience with as similar experience as possible when time shifted or doing a workout from home.  That means things like:

  1. Competing against my friends on metrics - live and on demand.
  2. Seeing my friends do the workout with me - live and on demand.
  3. Chat, emoticons and selfies - live and on demand.
  4. Individual and group based gamification - live and on demand.
  5. Getting shoutouts and tips from my coach - live and on demand (after the workout).
  6. A feeling of assured production quality (like Peloton and Apple Fitness+) - live and on demand.

There is no platform that does this today.  At Tribe, we’re building it, so local fitness can continue to thrive in a hybrid world.

Justin Marston

Thinker, writer, innovator, runner, Star Wars fan

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