The Pendulum Effect

Do you remember Bill Phillips?

How about Kenneth Cooper?

Andrew Weil?


At one time, these were each the most popular fitness figureheads on the planet.


Our industry doesn’t pivot on data. It pivots on fashion. What’s popular now will NOT be popular soon. And that creates a “pendulum effect” for exercise and diet.


A “pendulum” is a weight that hangs from a fixed point and swings back and forth. Think of a grandfather clock, with its big hanging arm swinging from left to right and back again.



This is Roper’s Gymnasium, circa 1833. What do you see?



Men climbing rope. Men doing pull-ups and basic gymnastics. Balancing. Fencing. I’m sure, if you looked with a magnifying glass, you’d see some Indian Clubs or other resistance devices, but not barbells or kettlebells…yet.


Not women, either…yet.


Next, a resistance machine by Gustav Zander, taken sixty years later. Zander was from Stockholm, and the originator of “mechanotherapy”.


When we think of “technology”, we think of iPhones and electronic devices. But technology simply means innovation that improves or replaces a previous idea. Fire replaced freezing. Wheels replaced hooves. Rails improved wheels. So did tires.

The pendulum of methodology swings mostly on fashion: Zander’s training machines might not have been better than Roper’s–uh, ropes–but novelty demanded attention. For the tiny sliver of people interested in physical culture in the 1890s, machine training was an attractive innovation.

And we’ve gone back and forth ever since. In the fitness industry, the only constant is change. But even change follows a predictable pattern back and forth between weights and cardio, and moving your body vs moving a machine.

1934: Muscle beach. Gymnastics and weightlifting.

1970: Nautilus machines, by Arthur Jones.

2001: CrossFit.

2020: HIIT plus Peloton…and the pendulum swings back.

The trend in fitness, viewed from a global perspective, swings more on fashion than on science. Bodyweight to machines to free weight to machines. Utility to innovation to utility, and back again. Minimalism to pulleys and levers and barbells to screens.

Every stage of innovation is driven primarily by consumerism: what do clients want? Novelty, mostly: we want to believe in the next big thing more than we want to keep doing what works. But every stage has also brought an improvement in method: small pieces of Roper’s gym can still be seen in many gyms today. My gym still has a lat pulldown, even though we’re CrossFit practitioners, because I think the best scale for a pull-up might be a pull-down.

So where’s it going? Well, let’s orient ourselves:

CrossFit was a huge swing away from the machine-dominated gym culture of the 1990s. Almost no one did squats in the 1990s, and if they did, it was on a Smith machine. If CrossFit brought you to fitness, you might have to google “Smith machine.”

“Curls in the squat rack” wasn’t a joke in 2004. People at my old gym–a “hardcore” one–often called the squat rack the “shrug rack”, because people just did heavy shrugs in it. When I started powerlifting in 2003, I couldn’t adjust the J-hooks in that squat rack because they were rusted in place. That’s how few people squatted in the only squat rack in the only “hardcore” gym in a city of 80,000.

CrossFit changed all of that. While visiting St. Jude Hospital with CrossFit OG Greg Amundson, I was complaining about the lack of workout options at our hotel. The gym had a bunch of machines, but no free weights. Greg said, “Well, can you find us a wall?” And we did an entire workout of air squats and handstand holds. The pendulum had swung back toward minimalism.

Ten years later, gymnastics aides, like pulley systems, help CrossFitters get their first muscle-up. I recently saw a new “invention” by a CrossFitter: a cable that ran over a pulley and terminated in a handle, on which the CrossFitter could push down to strengthen their triceps. Old guys like me can picture a triceps pushdown machine, but athletes born and bred in CrossFit would find this novel. I’m sure the inventor sold a few before he received a cease-and-desist. But the point is that everything old becomes new again. The newest machines have screens and “virtual coaches” in them now.

How far will it go? Wearing a VR headset to participate in an online class is already here. I think Peloton’s  at-home fitness “classes” are an easy segue for a nervous audience. Camera technology is cheap, and at-home Personal Training is already growing in popularity. Peloton already has a treadmill that’s wired to online fitness boot camps, so runners can add squats, lunges and burpees into their daily workout.


Gamification will make exercise an adventure; and not just the “Nintendo Olympics”-quality stuff we’ve seen so far. Everyone knows that Wii bowling won’t make you fit. But the governing body for worldwide cycling–the folks who govern the Tour de France and Olympic cycling events–have new race categories for online racing and races with motorized bikes.


The new audience for your coaching is a huge one. A huge portion of that audience would prefer to do their burpees and cleans in their basement. Barbells simply won’t appeal to a huge part of the population, but jousting on a unicorn might.


So what will we do about it?


Coach them to fitness using the tools they want to use.


Whether we like it or not, you don’t need a barbell to get really fit (gasp! Heresy!)


People at both ends of the pendulum–and everyone in the middle–can get really healthy. Kenneth Cooper’s jogging made people fit in the 1970s. Bill Phillips’ “body for life” project made people leaner in the 1990s. They all work.


The key, as a coach, is not to follow the pendulum: it’s to be the hand holding the pendulum.


You can coach people using Peloton and yoga as your tools.


Or you can be scared of them.


You can partner with local running clubs and swim teams.


Or you can “compete” with them.


You can collaborate with therapists and dietitians.


Or you can try to be a “one-stop shop” and do everyone else’s job.


When the pendulum of consumer behavior in fitness swings, it doesn’t go from left to right immediately. It slowly changes with the implementation of “new” ideas into the current normal. Adding lat pulldowns into CrossFit is the beginning of the pendulum’s swing back toward machine adoption. Some of your clients are probably already wearing a FitBit to class. More and more CrossFit gyms have an individual design option that includes home workouts (our new intake process at Catalyst includes videos of workouts to do at home.)

Instead of “how do I get people into TwoBrain gyms?” we’re already asking “How can TwoBrain coaches train more people at home?”

The common denominator between all of these trends, and the line along which the pendulum swings, is coaching. You and I are the filters, the prescribers, the home base: we can tell clients to do bench presses, or to do CrossFit, or to run on their treadmill at home. We can prescribe 3 days of unicorn jousting per week, or marathon training, or a powerlifting cycle. We can say “count your macros!” or “switch to Keto!”

Or, of course, someone else can.

Our job isn’t to recreate Roper’s Gym. It’s to guide our clients toward the best option out of all the options available. CrossFit is good exercise; a global consideration of trends and technology is good business. 20 years from now, you’ll still have clients. But will you still have a wall?



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