The New Breed of Women's Only Clubs

by Phil Kaplan

Note: This is an article based solely on the opinions I've formed as a result of limited interaction with select staff members and members of the new "women's only" fitness clubs. I welcome and encourage any feedback. As I continue to amass feedback, both positive and negative, my opinions become more valuable in helping others make wise decisions.

Curves for Women is the fastest growing franchise.  They’re popping up everywhere and they continue to receive the highest accolades from Entrepreneur magazine. Before you use those accolades to assess the reliability of their exercise routines, realize that Entrepreneur is driven by advertisements for business offerings and it is possible for a business to be profitable without delivering the promised result to customers and members. The fitness industry, unfortunately, is an example of an industry in which customer results are not always in direct correlation with business success.

A more valuable consideration than whether or not a company is fast growing or profitable might be whether an exercise regimen will win the acceptance and approval of those who sit in judgment of exercise program efficacy. To date I haven’t seen an overwhelmingly positive response among established fitness industry professionals in regard to the new "quick circuit" women's clubs.

Curves is one of several new “quick non-intimidating weight-loss exercise center” offerings, and if revenues are the sole factor upon which they’re being judged, they certainly can be considered the leader.  Financially, the business model works, and clubs can maintain upwards of 500 active members.

They use their own line of hydraulic equipment which allows for rapid movement from machine to machine. This allows them to handle significant volume of exercisers throughout the course of a day even with limited exercise equipment. The clubs are non-intimidating as they attract primarily a female deconditioned market with little education in the area of exercise, and they are quite affordable with memberships in the $25 per month range after an enrollment fee.  Usage is limited, but their “program” justifies the limitation as being aligned with optimal exercise volume.

This week alone I received over 100 questions via email related to Curves, and while many were curiosity based questions (is it good?) from those who have yet to enter their doors, others were sent because of perceived failure, injury, or disappointment.  Before I share some of my preliminary opinions related to Curves, and I’ll admit the information upon which I've formed these opinions is limited, allow me to say most commercial health clubs fail most people if customer satisfaction is measured by achievement of desired results.  Most health clubs are nothing more than “facilities” and while they may have trainers on staff, they are not logistically equipped for any level of service that would help non-exercisers find clarity.  If Curves fails to deliver results among the majority of their membership base, that doesn’t make them any worse than the major health club chains.

Facilities that employ highly qualified fitness professionals with a focus placed on educating members are a rarity in this industry.

Curves is different than mainstream health clubs for two primary reasons.  Firstly, it is a franchise, so while the underlying operating strategy may be consistent from club to club, ownership and staffing is anything but.  Secondly, while other clubs are simply facilities with the potential for upselling their in-house programs, at Curves the membership connects you with “a program.”  In fact, everyone who enrolls gets the same program.  They move quickly from machine to machine in a ‘circuit’ to stimulate both an aerobic heart rate elevation and muscle stimulation.

In my opinion, while the concept of “eating right and exercising” does apply to everyone, when we get into the specifics and consider the idea of bioindividuality, the “one routine fits all” mentality is flawed.  For many, 30 minutes of exercise three times per week may be a bare minimum in order to facilitate a measurable improvement, and many will quickly adapt to the repetitive stimulus and plateau. It's also important to note that individuals with specific limitations might find some of the movements in the circuit potentially aggravating to injured joints or pre-existing connective tissue damage.

I’ve found, based again on my limited view, that many of the franchised “women only” clubs have unqualified personnel playing the roles of fitness instructors without any credible credentials.  The 30-minute circuit idea (or 15 minutes in some newer replications of the Curves concept) can bring about physical improvement in individuals who have been sedentary, but most fitness professionals would agree, it’s not the optimal exercise routine to help people shed fat and increase metabolism as much of the promotional literature promises.

I’ve seen enough flawed information come out of these clubs to raise some red flags about the consistency and efficacy of the advice being disseminated.  The information I’m about to share is second hand, as it came to me via email, but with that in mind, here are a few of the snippets people who enrolled at the newer “women’s only” clubs told me they received from the staff:

  • “You have to gain fat first before you lose any.” 

    That’s just ignorance.

  • “If you workout more than three times a week you’re never going to lose weight.” 

    That would be an inaccuracy.

  • “Some people can’t lose weight but the exercise is good for you.” 

    Anyone can improve body composition and if someone is overweight, they can absolutely lose weight in the process.  Exercise is “good” for you as a vehicle toward achieving a goal and/or improving health and function, however, if that exercise is not matched effectively with the person and the goal, it can be detrimental or impotent.

  • “Your shoulder hurts because you’re not drinking enough water.” 

    This sounds like a diagnosis, and a ridiculous one at that.

What’s good about these new women's exercise clubs?  They help people who might be intimidated by the more conventional exercise options bring the exercise habit into their lives, and if that’s the role these clubs play, in today's society I believe they have value.

What’s questionable?  The credentials of the staff.  The supervision.  The willingness to accept “special populations” with limited screening.  The failure to match the routine with any specific goal or need.  The limited and sometimes flawed information being disseminated.

My intention is not to steer you away from Curves or a similar facility if it is in fact a valuable option for you.  My intention is simply to raise a few flags, and make sure you make an educated decision. Here are some things you might consider before making an enrollment decision in these new clubs, or any health club for that matter.

Question the credentials of the staff. 

Are they equipped to recognize risk factors?  Are they prepared to deal with emergency situations?  Are they certified through a credible certification agency with accreditation through the National Organization for Competency Assurance (you can check the NOCA approval list at

If you haven’t exercised regularly in some time set up an appointment for a complete physical with your doctor before beginning an unsupervised program.

If you have any medical condition, I’d encourage you to have the facility give you a written description of the exercise program so you can bring it to your doctor to get clearance.

Be sure to establish a reasonable gauge for measuring progress (bodyfat testing by an experienced tester with a skinfold caliper is such a gauge if fat loss is a goal), and if after 6-8 weeks you don’t see any change, consult with a qualified fitness or nutrition professional to find out what modifications are in order.

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