Personalized Fitness: The New Frontier Or A Waste of Money?

Personalized Fitness: The New Frontier Or A Waste of Money?

A few years ago, the idea of anyone but elite lifters and CrossFit athletes working with a nutrition coach seemed ridiculous. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to walk into any gym and not find someone utilizing the likes of RP Strength, Working Against Gravity, IN3 or other individual nutrition coaching services. 

So, why are people with 9-to-5 jobs —and no grand ambitions of being a nationally ranked lifter or CrossFit competitor — shelling out good money to get their nutrition in check? Because they want to look good and feel good. They want to perform better. And they’re OK investing in themselves and their long-term health. 

That same line of thinking is behind the boon in individual design, a costly but highly effective endeavor slowly making its way to the masses. 

“It’s an unspoken barrier that a lot of people have [saying], ‘Oh I’m not good enough for a coach’ or ‘I’m not ready for it yet,”” said Misbah Haque, founder of The Airborne Mind Show and a Revival Strength coach.  “But if people thought about it like this: you have a lawyer who does your legal stuff. You have an accountant or financial planner who does your finances, and you have a coach who takes care of all your fitness and health needs. Basic lifestyle, nutrition, fitness goals all from a zoomed out perspective. 

“It’s not just the program. When your coach has control over the other [lifestyle] pieces, you can toy with the variables a little more, versus just being a mixed influence from a bunch of other places. People are starting to come around to it…it’s just going to take some time. Just like CrossFit initially took some time, people were like, ‘Do I really need this?’” 

Personalized Fitness: The New Frontier Or A Waste of Money?

Ironically, it is CrossFit that is giving individual design a growing market. Whether it’s competitors itching to get an edge, busy people looking for more effective workouts or people dealing with chronic injury, a lot of individual clients are coming from the traditional group class setting. 

“The nutrition [coach] thing came about when people realized it wasn’t just the food pyramid anymore. And I think the same thing will happen with individual design, where people are like ‘What I’m doing isn’t working for me, or I need to do something else.” said Sean McCullagh, who was running a successful CrossFit box in downtown Baltimore when he made the switch to become a one-on-one gym 2 1/2 years ago. 

“The need is there, the market is there. CrossFit is creating a lot our clients right now and CrossFit is doing really well.”

When McCullagh made the switch he was one of the first five OPEX Fitness-licensed gyms. Today, there are around 75 as individual design —or hiring a personal coach— is catching on beyond the top one percent. And it just may be the future of fitness. 

What does individual design look like? 

I’m prepared for the three-day assessment, where you get an body scan and go through various tests —including a lot of single arm and leg work— with a coach one-on-one on the floor.  

What I’m not prepared for, after three sessions at OPEX Baltimore, is how complex this phase really is.  It’s not just that I can pull much more than I can push or that my single leg hip stability is lacking. 

I’m being watched for body control in every eccentric portion, notes on my previous injury history compared against my current compensations. Why does my thoracic spine go first in a Sorenson? Are my arches the real culprit in faulty poor dorsiflexion? The list goes on. And perhaps the most important observations have nothing to do with the three workouts. 

Personalized Fitness: The New Frontier Or A Waste of Money?

“The gym stuff is ultimately not the shit that matters,” OPEX coach Tierra Duncan said. “You got to sleep, you have to eat right, you have to manage your stress, have good gut health. If you don’t have that on lock, I can make you the sexiest program in the world and it doesn’t matter.” 

To that end, I’m given small lifestyle goals: make my bedroom darker, do five minutes of box breathing to decompress after work. To sit down and actually think about chewing each bite of lunch (this sounds ridiculous but you wouldn’t believe how many of us are barely chewing and missing out on the actual nutrient absorption process).

“The program is what you get week-to-week but the other pieces —having someone there for support when you have a baby a new job, things need to shift. You have somebody there to bounce things off of and work with you to get through some of those times,” Haque said.

“Once you start to get your feet wet the value starts to speak for itself. It’s not just you getting a program each week. You develop a relationship with them and the idea of coaching someone comes into play. It’s no longer, ‘Let’s start the clock and get your times on the board’. It’s one-on-one conversations about things that help us relate to you as a person better, and using that information to help you with nutrition and fitness.”

Personalized Fitness: The New Frontier Or A Waste of Money?

Can you get better in a group setting? 

A marathon runner and a former collegiate running back both walk into a gym for your typical CrossFit class. Assuming we know nothing else about them, we can deduce this: the runner is likely to be very good at medium to long WODs and the running back will discover he’s already got a power and strength foundation that catapults him to the top of most regular group-class settings. 

Let’s say they both do the same exact workouts at around the same frequency each week. What will happen? The runner’s body —already well-adapted to aerobic events — will want to stay in that dominant system. He’ll make some strength gains, sure, but he’ll get really, really good at most light-weight, aerobic WODs. 

The running back may gain a slight aerobic base but his body, after spending much of his life developing speed and power, will gravitate toward that system. He will get stronger much faster. Why? Because dominance in one state leads to an inability to use the other effectively. We always want to go back to what we know. 

Let’s say both of these athletes ultimate goal is to do better in the CrossFit Open. What would allow them to properly attack their weaknesses and get them to improve faster ? Individual programming. 

“I believe that everyone should have an appropriate dose of fitness in their life. And what is appropriate for everyone is very dependent on the person,” McCullagh said. “Everything in life works better when it’s individualized. I don’t feel like I have to do a lot of convincing [to get people on board.] Once you explain what [individual design] is, it makes sense.”

Even for those who don’t want to compete, individual design has merit. You’re wasting less of your time 

“It’s about, ‘Let’s maximize your recovery and maximize your time’,” Duncan said.  “Everyone comes in here thinking, More is better. Everything we do is fully comprehensive so you aren’t wasting time on things you don’t need.” 

Personalized Fitness: The New Frontier Or A Waste of Money?

What about the cost?

Having a one-on-one coach is expensive, there is no getting around it. It’s the biggest barrier of entry when considering individual design. Another potential drawback is the length of the contract, which can be vary from gym-to-gym but can require anywhere from three months to a one-year commitment. 

“The principles have always been around for it, strength training, getting up in the morning and taking a walk, eating well. Those are all principles of things that people need,” McCullagh said. “People are starting to put value into their health and that it’s OK to put $300 into a coach.”

The high cost also enables a better business model for coaches, who are able to be be paid like full-time professionals and not risk burn out or having to add side jobs to stay afloat. 

“Once you try it, you see the value in it. The difference in a group program, whether it’s a CrossFit class or an online program, to doing individual design is not a 1x it’s a 10x,” Haque said. “You get such a dosage of things built around you that, there’s no real fast track, but if there was it’s that process.”

The investment is substantial and, potentially out of reach, for a lot of people. But the idea behind individual design is to have an all-encompassing model of beautiful programming, that take into account your nutrition, lifestyle and goals.

“The definition of the word coach to me is someone who does all those things and collaborates on all those things,” McCullagh said. “I needed to do more for people [when I owned a CrossFit gym]. So, I made the decision to and I’ve never looked back.”