FRONTENAC — Personal trainer Kimberly Tedoni feels at home in a gym — the thumping treadmills, the smell of sweat. But, these days, she is taking fitness to her clients.
Spare rooms, garages and front yards have become her new gym, her black Hyundai Sonata her equipment closet.
“I basically have my trunk packed all the time,” said Tedoni, who has worked for a decade at Nutriformance, a gym and Pilates studio near Plaza Frontenac. “I miss my old routine, but it’s nice having a change of scenery.”
The pandemic has decimated much of the fitness industry, shuttering small studios and slowing the turnstiles at large gyms. But mobile workouts, with one-on-one guidance provided from 6 feet away, have been in high demand. The convenience, encouragement and — during waves of COVID-19 cases — peace of mind are worth the cost, clients say.
More trainers are making the switch, capitalizing on the newfound enthusiasm for driveway circuits and living-room lunges. Overhead is low, but mileage is high. Traveling trainers schlep barbells, medicine balls and balance boards to clients’ houses, charging $80 and up for one-hour sessions.
Few cases of coronavirus spread have been traced to gyms, but the idea of working out next to other sweaty, panting patrons is unappealing for many. Fitness centers have had to reduce hours and capacity, pausing amenities like towel service, saunas and even water fountains. Memberships have plummeted.
During the pandemic, self-starters have embraced app-based or tech-heavy equipment such as Peloton — subscriptions for its connected bikes and treadmills doubled in 2020 — and the ultra-chic Mirror, which streams workouts via its two-way wall mirror.
But virtual classes lack the guidance a familiar face can provide.
“When you’re working out online, you’re not getting that attention to form,” said Suzanne Johnson, one of Tedoni’s clients.
Johnson, who lives in Ladue, used to take classes and train at Nutriformance. She plans to go back, eventually.
“It’s a nice little community. I miss the socialization that goes with it,” she said.
In the meantime, she looks forward to her twice-weekly garage workouts with Tedoni. To keep it interesting, Tedoni gets innovative with the surroundings. A barrel of birdseed subs in for a kettlebell. A skateboard adds some instability to ab work. And a push broom helps with balance during one-legged squats.
Nutriformance was among the first companies to embrace in-home training, back in 1997, said owner Dale Huff.
“Personal training, in general, was in its infancy. It allowed us to create a niche,” he said. “We didn’t really have the capital to open a full-fledged gym.”
A brick-and-mortar location came along three years later, with a focus on services such as nutritional coaching and sports performance. Before the pandemic, in-home personal training accounted for about 10% of Nutriformance’s business. That has since doubled, one bright spot amid an overall revenue drop of 40%.
“People are forming new habits,” Huff said. “We’re fortunate that we’re diversified.”
Cabanne Howard has always been into fitness, hopscotching between boutique studios that offer yoga, barre and Pilates classes. She wasn’t sure what to do when everything closed down in the spring: She didn’t want to backslide but felt that group classes were too risky.
GymGuyz, a mobile personal training chain, offered the balance she was looking for. Howard set up an appointment and invited her mom to join her.
Franchise owner Katie Mackenzie took the women’s baseline measurements before their first official workout, noting body-mass index, waist circumference and performance goals.
The GymGuyz branded vehicle, red with black-and-white lettering, announces itself every Wednesday in front of Howard’s Central West End home. Each car is packed with more than 300 pieces of workout equipment.
“When I am kind of meandering through the week, living in Groundhog Day, it makes me feel more motivated,” Howard said.
GymGuyz’s business is up more than 50% over 2019. Interest spiked during the summer, when the kettlebells, free weights and bikes that folks panic-bought during the shutdown started gathering dust.
Intentions were good, said Mackenzie, but “people still need guidance, support and accountability.”
Ben Smith named his mobile training business, Fitness Friend Wellness, to highlight the connection between relationships and results.
“The individualized attention — for most of the session, we’re talking — helps with strength, balance, flexibility and also energy levels and mental health,” he said.
Smith started Fitness Friend in 2017, adding clients gradually. Two years later, he quit his restaurant job and devoted himself full time to training.
Last year, everything accelerated. During the summer, he hired another trainer. He built a small workout studio in his Kirkwood home to Zoom with clients who prefer remote sessions. For others, he expanded his routines to include spouses or kids who were also stuck at home.
“Part of the challenge is planning the experience,” said Smith, who boxes, runs football drills and swings battle ropes with his clients.
Rick Merluzzi of Webster Groves started training with Smith two years ago when he felt stranded on a fitness plateau.
When Smith learned Merluzzi was a Penn State graduate, he bought a plastic white and navy football helmet. If Merluzzi increases his reps or inches closer to his goal of completing 50 pushups, he earns a star sticker for the helmet.
The joke is paying off.
“It’s a dramatic improvement,” Merluzzi said. “I really wish I had done this years ago.”