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Interview with Clifton Harski - Part 2

Clifton Harski
If you missed part 1 you can read it here.

Matt: What do you think has helped FitWall separate itself from other group training studios out there?

Clifton: I think there’s a couple of things. First, the branding itself came from our initial CEO. He had a great eye for branding and set us up from a digital standpoint to be a techy, modern looking brand. Everything from our colors to how we set up the studio is different than the more family-style, casual Box or studio people are used to. From a training standpoint, not that other places don’t, we really take a lot of pride in delivering well-thought out programs for a group training environment. We don’t just do random workout of the days for the sake of switching things up. We have a schedule we follow every week with a progression from week to week. We have the same workout for one month periods so people can get better from week to week. We make sure the exercises are balanced to include push, pull, hinge, and squat movements. We practice movements for two weeks to make sure they feel good before we assign clients for the next month. A lot of group fitness options, if we’re being honest, are focused on just making it hard and getting your heart rate up. The problem with that mentality is that it trains the consumer to not be able to distinguish a well thought out program and a program that feels hard. Intuitively and emotionally consumers often liken hard to good. That’s not the case, but it makes sense. You and I know that sore does not equate to a good workout. It can be the result of a good workout, but more soreness does not equal more results. If there’s no soreness it does not mean that the workout was a waste of time. Even my natural human instinct when I feel sore after a workout is to think “yeah, that was a good workout bro.” Moral of the story is that soreness isn’t the goal for FitWall workouts. The final differentiator is that we’re forward thinking and innovative with how we integrate technology into our workouts. It’s not just to be cute, but it’s meant to improve the experience for the client. It allows us to coach better and to monitor people’s effort better. It allows our members to check in on how they did and learn quicker.

Matt: Did FitWall offer Private and Semi-Private training in addition to group training from the start or was that an evolution of the business?

Clifton: That was an evolution. When I came aboard the brand said that we would not have free weights in the group fitness structure. That made sense to me because FitWall was offering 40 minute classes and in order to make the class structure work you have to be very efficient with your coaching and exercises. It can absolutely be done, but it didn’t match the experience we wanted for group training. It would take extra time to coach and monitor the new movements within that time frame and we knew we could get the performance and physique goals we wanted without the free weights. We get so many people in our doors that are exercise novices and have never been with a higher end training staff. Our demographic don’t necessarily pick up things quickly movement-wise. So, the main things with the weights was that we knew that we weren’t going to use them during our group fitness classes because of the extra time involved and we wanted as high a return of interest in that 40 minutes as possible. Lifting heavier weights takes time to learn and is nuanced. Someone who came to our group class and had to take time away from that 40 minutes to learn might feel like they are missing out on something. However, I am a big fan of picking up heavy things and being able to manipulate external loads is extremely important for people’s physique and performance. I wanted a way for us to be able to offer this as well and the semi-private training model was a good fit for us. It was just another revenue stream with a high level of service so we added it in.

Matt: What does the onboarding flow look like for FitWall? What’s the breakdown between group and semi-private training?

Clifton: Typically everyone starts with a free group class. They see an Instagram ad, a Facebook Ad, or hear about the gym from a friend. That’s where people start. 90% of them say that was significantly harder than they anticipated (laughing). That’s not our intention, it’s just that most people haven’t done a very well thought out bodyweight workout with bands. They are used to just doing push-ups and burpees over and over. So, they get a little shock. From there most people will come into group training mentality. I would say that roughly 90% of the people that sign up after their first class go directly into an unlimited membership for group classes. They are usually coming in 3-5 times a week. The other 10% may have found that they weren’t quite ready to jump directly into the group fitness training. At that point we suggest 1 on 1 or semi-private with FitWall to prepare them for the group fitness model. Going back to the 90% in group training, they typically train with us for 4-12 weeks and see results. It still surprises me to be honest, but they will see really good results in physique and performance. When I write the programs I think 1+1=2, so this should be good. But more often the results are more like 1+1=3, which is pretty cool. So, the clients get stronger. They hit their first pull-up, they hit their first pistol squat without ever having been exposed to it before, and they start to get caught up in the acquisition of ninja skills. Then they start looking at the tools like the kettlebells, barbells, and all the other equipment in the corner and want to jump into that. They want to keep the train rolling.

Matt: As the FitWall Director of Training what do you focus on teaching other FitWall coaches to build community in their classes?

Clifton: There’s a couple of things. The first is that most people have failed when it comes to fitness. What I mean is that they’ve ever not seen results or they’ve felt embarrassed when trying something new. A lot of people simply don’t have confidence in their ability to move, exercise, or feel good about doing it. The number one thing I preach, and that is written in our coaching manual, is that people need to feel successful. What that means in exercise is that if you teach someone a exercise if it’s not done perfectly you don’t spend 10 minutes continually  bringing up how to make that exercise better. Get it to where it’s safe and good enough and let them be successful. Tell them good job. We don’t have it perfect the first day. We don’t even have to have that movement perfect the first month, but we know that over time they will get better. The number one thing when it comes to community is being a safe and supportive place. After that it’s trying to get people to meet each other who come to the same class. You encourage high fives after hard sets. We do a group high five after every class. After every class our assistant coach comes in with coconut water shots and a nice, cool, wet, and refreshing lavender towel. I know it sounds very foofy, but people really like that nice touch. When we do that communal shot it’s almost like you’re at the bar with your friends. We try to facilitate those types of experiences. Typically people come to the same class over and over so we really try to introduce them to each other. In my opinion, group fitness is less about physical results than it is about being someone’s extracurricular activity. People don’t necessarily play games or sports as adults. They don’t necessarily go dancing. Group fitness isn’t fitness, it’s social. It’s a place to go and connect with other people doing the same thing. Adults want fun fitness classes as a way to play.

Matt: FitWall received some recognition for integrating heart rate monitoring tools when it first started. Can you tell me a bit about the technology your classes use and how it improves your clients experience?

Clifton: So yeah, we use heart rate monitoring, but we do it very differently than anyone else that I’m aware of. Everyone else I’ve seen uses kind of a 1980’s thing where it identifies a fat-burning zone, anaerobic zone, aerobic zone, etc. They used a generalized equation and tell you how long you are in each zone. It doesn’t really mean much. They might give you an estimate of how many calories you’ve burned, but we know that all of these things are estimates. So, what we do instead is that we aren’t doing steady-state cardio which is what all the old formulas are based off of. We’re doing calisthenics. We’re doing intervals. Those formulas don’t apply to these forms of exercise. What we can do is tell people effectively how hard we want them to work at each given exercise. Each given exercise should have a different intensity.  So if we’re doing a set of reverse lunges followed by a front plank followed by jump squats all three of these things should elicit a different heart rate response. We apply the appropriate heart rate zone, usually with a 20% range, for each exercise. Lower for the front plank, moderate for the reverse lunges, and sky-high for the jump squats. We also set what people’s max heart rate should be because heart rate is exercise dependent. You’ll get a different heart rate response on a bike compared to rowing and also compared to FitWall. We’re interested in seeing how high you can get your heart rate at FitWall and then we will base your percentages on that top-end number. So, every moment of the workout there is a target zone and your goal is to be within that zone. That’s how we lead classes to make sure you don’t work too hard. We don’t want you to be in the red the whole time. That’s a good way to kill yourself. But, I also don’t want you sandbagging. Then for our actual high-intensity sets I want you to work as hard as possible, but we keep that restricted to only 30 seconds. We all know that very hard exercise probably shouldn’t be done for long periods of time. The final thing we do that I think is pretty unique (because it’s a great way to test members cardiovascular) is tracking whether our members can drop their heart rates after hard exercise. Every workout has at least six one-minute recovery periods built in where we measure how much each member can drop their heart rate. Let’s say you worked really and got your heart rate up to 200. At the end of the one minute recovery it’s at 150, so the delta is 50 which is a great heart rate recovery. So, over time we see that number go up which is what we aim to do.

Matt: What are you excited about for you own career and Fitwall moving forward?

Clifton: I’m excited because FitWall is going to a franchise expo next week because we have a few new locations opening up across the country. I think that we’re uniquely suited in our packaging to be a popular place for people to workout and receive high-quality coaching with well thought out coaching programs. I’m really excited for us to reach more people.

For FitWall, there are a few things we’re working on improving. One is freeing up our coaches in the group format experience to coach our clients. Most group fitness you have one instructor who’s handling 10-20+ people and the instructor will often by performing that exercise while they’re coaching. That doesn’t let them really coach the class. I’m a pretty good instructor, but even I can’t do a good job at that. Another thing is that if I had microphone on for the class I’m not going to be able to give 1on1 feedback very effectively. Yeah I can cover it up with my hand, but it’s just not easy to manage. The final thing is that you simply can’t watch 15+ people at one time. So, I wanted to solve these challenges. Now, in our big classes, if there’s over nine people we really have three coaches. What I mean is that we have the tech who tells you how hard you should be working with big screens. This shows you the visual cues you need during the workout. Ipads are showing videos of what needs to happen at that moment. Clients don’t need to look at each other, they can quickly check the video. That tech is a coach. To add to that, we have two coaches in the room if there’s more than 9 people to provide the hands-on coaching and instruction. It feels like we’re really delivering a private training experience with the excitement of group fitness. In the future I will be able to have different videos play for different people based on their experience level and injury background. So if I flag you as a knee injury all jumping exercises are immediately replaced with appropriate movement exercises for you. This way when we have 80 studios across the country and I don’t necessarily get to work with every coach every day we can still ensure members get appropriate progressions and regressions across the board. New trainers who might be lacking in experience will give a client in New Jersey who I’ve never met the appropriate exercise for them. I’m pretty sure that no one else is doing that at scale.

Matt: What are you excited about for the fitness industry is headed over the next few years?

Clifton: So my twitter bio says that I’m a movement strength and conditioning coach. I think that one of the trends that’s happened over the last 5 years is that there is a focus on the movement component of our programs. It’s not just “how much you bench bro?” or “how long does it take you to run your 5k?” There’s an important piece to being able to move well. I do not know how to quantify that. The FMS does a good job. Is it perfect? Well, it’s as good as anything else we have out there right now. I’m certainly a fan. I know it’s got a few haters (laughing), but it’s trying to tackle a huge challenge. I like the trend of there being more emphasis on teaching better movement. We can use the term functional if you want. We want to create humans that move more efficiently. The other trend is that there is a great focus on the psychology behind creating lasting change with our clients. The Habitry team is doing a great job of this with their Motivate Summits. Environments that help clients show up become successful are incredibly important. If we can’t get the clients to show up then they aren’t going to get results. It’s as simple as that.

Matt: Big thank you to Clifton for sharing his story with us. If you’d like to connect or follow his work check out the links below:

FitWall Website
Clifton’s Personal Website
Twitter @cliftonharski
Instagram @cliftonharski

Matt McGunagle

Matt McGunagle

CEO & Founder of StrengthPortal. Working hard to help you in between deadlifts and jiu-jitsu!

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