Meet Fitwall, where tech and elite fitness get off the ground

Already popular with professional athletes, this quirky vertical training modality is making its consumer debut in a sunny beach town where appearances are everything.

The Fitwall frog position. On the wall, pictured from left to right: CEO Josh Weinstein, CNET reporter Jennifer Van Grove, co-founder Ethan Penner, and coach Amy Heidbreder. Coach Clif Harski acts as choreographer. Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

Beautiful, active people with overflowing pocketbooks make La Jolla, Calif., a San Diego beach town, the perfect place for an upscale fitness craze to take hold.

At least that's the gamble Josh Weinstein and his three business partners are making with Fitwall, a branded fitness studio where members strap on heart rate monitors, find their assigned Fitwall, and monitor their workout exertion with an attached iPad.

The Fitwall studio in La Jolla, which opened to the public this week, is the first of 100 technology-driven fitness studios that founders Weinstein, Doug Brendle, Ethan Penner, and Anthony Westreich plan to launch in the U.S. over the next few years.

From the outside, the 2,600-square-foot studio looks more like a pristine store for posh shopping than a gym where you're supposed to work up a sweat. A lounge area stands in for the typical check-in desk because members check themselves in using an iPad at the entrance. And there's no stereotypical fitness equipment here. No weights. No treadmills. Just walls. Fitwalls.

Meet Fitwall
At first glance, the Fitwall could easily be confused for an empty server rack or the inside of a barren cupboard. It's a bizarre apparatus, even if you're up on fitness trends. I would know. As a CrossFit enthusiast who loves a combination of Olympic lifts, double-unders, and body weight exercises, I was simultaneously intrigued and put off by the idea of spending a majority of my workout on a weird-looking wall.

"The first time you went to an Apple store, you thought, 'Wow. I'm going to buy a computer in an environment that looks like this?' When you walk in here, we want you to have the same feeling and think, 'Interesting. I'm going to workout here?'" Weinstein said.

The 14 fundamental exercises of Fitwall. Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

The wall itself, a "vertical training modality," towers at 7 feet high and is 30 inches wide. It has four stationary rungs for feet placement and four permanent tiers to grip. An attached iPad lets you monitor your heart rate and work level while on (or off) the wall.

And yes, you're supposed to stand on it -- as well as squat, step, hop, row, balance, and perform a variety of movements designed to activate your muscles and burn more calories than your typical big-box-gym workout. In total, the wall accommodates for more than 900 different exercises, though most people will stick to a program of 14 movements choreographed by Fitwall coaches to make for an optimum workout.

Fitwall was developed over a 7-year period by Brendle, a scientist and martial arts champion who is now one of the founding partners of Fitwall Ventures. Brendle's theory was that by getting people off the ground, he could establish an environment where the body thinks it's in a fight or flight situation. In that type of scenario, everything in the body tightens, which allows for a more efficient exercise program, so the theory goes.

The wall Brendle developed is not for sale, but if it were, it would retail for between $2,500 and $5,000, depending on the grade of steel used. Outside of the La Jolla studio, the only place you'll find Fitwall is in private gyms run by select partners such as the National Football League's Pittsburgh Steelers, the U.S. Military and Special Forces, and Olympic Training Centers.

In January of this year, Weinstein and his partners acquired the intellectual property to makeover Fitwall into a consumer-facing brand that borrows from companies such as Apple and Disney in the design department and uses technology to help people track their results. Less than six months later, the partners, who have already invested several million dollars of their own money, are launching their first studio and are planning for rapid expansion in the San Diego and Boulder, Colo., areas, with studios in New York, Austin, Portland, and Northern California to follow suit.

An upscale fitness craze in the making
"This is not a gym. This is not a class ... This is a revolution in the way fitness is presented," Weinstein told me during an interview after we completed a Fitwall session together.

With prices starting at $120 per month, Fitwall doesn't come cheap. Members buy their sessions online or from their smartphones -- the studio is a cashless environment -- and can choose from three monthly options. For $120 month, you get just four sessions -- or one per week. Spend $220 for eight sessions in a month, or go the unlimited route, which will set you back $320 each month.

The affluent residents of La Jolla may not flinch at the steep prices, but everyone else sure will. What all that money gets you, said Weinstein, is an exclusive experience that ensures that you're never in a studio with more than 15 other athletes, as gym-goers are called here, and are always surrounded by expert coaches.

"Our pricing is very simple," Weinstein said. "It's more expensive than a typical group class ... it's cheaper than personal training, and it yields results that are better than either one."

CrossFitters, Yoga and Pilates lovers, and other athletes can turn to Fitwall to supplement their workouts, he said. But the average person, young or old, will get more value by choosing a Fitwall studio over their generic neighborhood LA Fitness or 24 Hour Fitness.

"If you're on a fixed budget, I think you will get better results here even coming once a week or twice a week," he said.

Fitwall CEO Josh Weinstein invited me to join an intense group session with co-founder Ethan Penner and coach Amy Heidbreder. Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

I did two Fitwall sessions, which run 40 minutes long and are a finished off by spine decompression exercises, a shot of coconut water, and a chilled lavender and mint-infused towel.

The first session was a basic introduction to Fitwall. I worked in intervals, spending one minute on the wall followed by one minute of rest. I went through each of the 14 foundational movements, which range from Fitwall versions of the "perfect pull-up" to the "in & out ab hop," where I jumped from rung to rung, alternating the position of my feet in the process. Some of the movements came easy while others were a bit awkward and required some coaching to get just right. Though this session wasn't all that taxing, I was struck by how uncomfortable it is to grip the wall, a circumstance that supposedly becomes a non-issue once you're more familiar with the wall.

In my second session, Weinstein, aware of my penchant for CrossFit workout-of-the-days (WODs), conspired to put me through a far more rigorous workout. The two of us were joined by co-founder Penner and coach Amy Heidbreder. Coach Clif Harski choreographed the workout, which featured a combination of core exercises and off-the-wall band work.

This time around, I used the iPad monitor and specialized screen to keep tabs on my heart rate and workload, and found myself challenged, sweaty, and basking in a wonderful adrenaline rush.

I can't prove that I got a better or more efficient workout than a run or a WOD, but I did feel accomplished and my muscles certainly felt activated. I can see how someone, with the right programming and coaching, could find themselves addicted to Fitwall.

Fitness with a tech bent
"Great technology exists in the background," Weinstein. "You don't bother the consumer with bells and whistles."

Such is the mantra of Fitwall, a fitness company that thinks more like a technology business.

Led by CTO Joe Bergeron, the organization has constructed a myriad of proprietary systems to manage and monitor the customer experience from start to finish and at every point in between. Fitwall, he said, uses tech as a means to allow people to live more of a Fitbit-style, data-driven life even when they're in an exercise studio doing group classes.

The company's systems also collect and analyze a variety of data points to evaluate coaches and improve classes, which means Fitwall is using technology behind the scenes to operate efficiently and scale.

"It's a rarity in studio fitness that you find a company that is building all of it's own technology for keeping track of everything, whether it's the point-of-sale systems, subscriptions, or, more importantly for us, all of the metrics that define how the studios and athletes are performing," Bergeron told me.

The Fitwall monitoring screen. Fitwall

In the studio, athletes see just an alluring smidgen of Fitwall's tech bent: iPads on each wall and heart rate peanuts that attach to a band worn around the midsection. The peanut is paired via Bluetooth to a specific iPad on a Fitwall station and transmits the athlete's heart rate to the screen. The screen, also a custom Fitwall creation, is a dynamic entity that features colors and numbers meant to provide immediate insight into your workout.

Most prominent is the workload number, which is an algorithmic calculation of how much work you've accomplished over the course of the workout. The number is individual to each person and reflects a combination of factors including sex, height, weight, age, heart rate, and overall fitness level. The harder you work, the higher your workload number. It's a progression you can watch as the screen transitions through seven colors, from green all the way to red, an indication that you're working as hard as possible.

"The actual number that we're calculating is how much oxygen your body consumed over the course of a workout, per kilogram of body weight, adjusted for how tall you are ... and also adjusted for how quickly that number grew from the start of the workout to the end of the workout," Bergeron said.

The accuracy of the workload number hinges around an input called the VO2 max, or a number that reflects the maximum capacity of the athlete's body to transport and use oxygen. Fitwall coaches will approximate this number for most customers. The more serious athlete can, however, request an accurate measure, a process that involves wearing a mask and being strapped up to a metabolic cart for 10 to 15 minutes. The machine measures how much oxygen is going into your body and how much carbon dioxide is coming out to calculate a person's VO2 max.

"One of the problems when you look at technology for fitness, is that it's one-size-fits-all. In other words, there are very simple rudimentary calculations that are done to say how many calories you're burning on a treadmill," Weinstein said. That's not the case with Fitwall, he insisted.

The company, which maintains a research lab in New Mexico, developed its own proprietary algorithms to match this activity and present customers, novices, and professional athletes alike, with data as actionable information.

Also visible on the iPad screen is a matrix that includes the workload numbers and colors of your 15 classmates, a comparison feature designed to motivate you as you work on the wall.

When you leave, your workload and heart rate numbers are accessible from a Web app, and soon iPhone and iPad applications, so you can view a chart of the progression of your levels during each workout, or share your session with friends. Eventually, the app will overlay all of your workouts so you can track your performance over time.

Admittedly, Fitwall's companion apps and services have plenty of room for improvement, Bergeron said. Even the systems inside the studio are still works in progress. But it's a fresh take on sports science for a mainstream audience, packaged in a modern but easy-to-digest fashion.

In my estimation, Fitwall isn't the future of fitness, but it's just different enough to appeal to people in health-conscious, affluent communities where beauty is a necessary indulgence.

 

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