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A Gym That Fits In Your Suitcase (with Albert Matheny)

Today we’re talking to Albert Matheny, co-founder of Soho Strength Lab in New York City and the COO of Arena, a fitness technology startup that’s launching in late 2020. Albert joins us to talk about the harsh realities of the gym business during COVID, including the factors that go into whether owners and operators are able to keep their facilities open. We also talk about why he’s steered his gym away from being an “Instagram gym,” and then the conversation focuses in on Arena, which is attempting to bring full-body strength training to a device that could fit in your suitcase. How do you perform 200 pound front squats with something that weighs under 40 pounds? All that and more coming up.

On this episode of The BarBend Podcast, host David Thomas Tao talks to Albert Matheny about:

  • The tough decisions to shutter gyms during COVID (4:00)
  • Were many gyms already struggling before COVID? (6:35)
  • Virtual fitness, celebrity trainers, and gyms (11:20)
  • Building Arena — and how to do belt squats anywhere (16:40)
  • Working out from home can be great, but it’s tough to get enough weight to load — how Albert is trying to fix that (20:00)
  • The glaring issue with group fitness? There are no pulling exercises (26:05)

Relevant links and further reading:

Transcription

Albert MathenyAlbert Matheny

I think most of us in the strength world feel like everyone would like strength training if they just had some success with it.

David TaoDavid Tao

Welcome to the “BarBend Podcast,” where we talk to the smartest athletes, coaches, and minds from around the world of strength. I’m your host, David Thomas Tao, and this podcast is presented by barbend.com.

 

Today I’m talking to Albert Matheny, co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab in New York City and the COO of ARENA, a fitness technology startup that’s launching in late 2020. Albert joins us to talk about the harsh realities of the gym business during COVID-19, including the factors that go into whether owners and operators are even able to keep their facilities open.

 

We also talk about why he steered his gym away from being, and I quote, “An Instagram gym.”

 

Then, the conversation focuses in on ARENA, which is attempting to bring full-body strength training to a device that could fit in your suitcase. How do you perform 200-pound front squats with something that weighs under 40 pounds? All that and more coming up.

 

Also, I want to take a second to say we’re incredibly thankful that you listen to this podcast. If you haven’t already, please be sure to leave a rating and review of the BarBend Podcast in your app of choice. Now, let’s get to it.

 

Albert, thanks so much for taking the time to join us. You’re someone who wears a lot of different hats, and I want to cover a lot of ground on this podcast.

 

The thing that I want to focus in on first is you’re a gym owner, and you own a gym in one of the most expensive parts of one of the most expensive cities in the world. You are an owner of SoHo Strength Lab in New York City. In SoHo, how have you weathered this storm?

Albert MathenyAlbert Matheny

That’s a good question, David. I appreciate being on here. I’m excited to talk to you today.

 

With the gym, it’s been interesting. Honestly, the best part has been our team of trainers. We’ve got a really good team. We’re not a big-box gym. It’s boutique, and it’s one that’s been around. We started in 2013 with Ryan Hopkins and, at that time, Andy Speer, who’s now gone on to big Peloton fame.

 

We always kept our quality high. In any kind of market, if you’re offering a premium product that’s differentiated, there’s going to be customers for it. What we’ve seen is just trainers were really [indecipherable 3:00] their business.

 

A lot of the clients left the city, but they were going places, and they wanted to keep up their fitness and go to Zoom. We’ve been able to open up even new markets. When you’re a retailer, unlike e-commerce, you’re restricted to a pretty small mall. In New York, it can be a pretty big pool.

 

We’ve been able to do better with that. We’re seeing people on the West Coast now. We had a second facility, which was group-fitness focused and semi-private training. That was harder. [laughs] There’s only so much you can do with it.

David TaoDavid Tao

That second facility that you all had, you did have to close it during COVID?

Albert MathenyAlbert Matheny

Yeah.

David TaoDavid Tao

What was that decision process like? Obviously, New York went into lockdown in early March. When was the writing on the wall when you were like, “Hey, this second facility that’s more group-fitness oriented, we’ve got to shutter it?” How long did that take to come to that realization?

Albert MathenyAlbert Matheny

I don’t know how familiar everyone is with it, but there were the PPP loans and things like that. We applied for what we were able to. That was one of those bridges to see, “Would that get you back to normal business?” We saw that run out. [laughs] We were able to keep up with our trainers, and our rent, and everything like that.

 

Basically, we made that decision looking at what the city was allowing, which is still certainly not, just like restaurants, not full functioning of a group fitness space. Just the way the regulations are, you probably understand the business model. Just like a restaurant, you got to be 80-plus percent full to be making profit.

 

Being restrained, still, to where that’s not a reality made that decision for us. There’s still, on the customers’ side, even if that was available, I don’t think you would see that 80 percent. Say that the city said tomorrow you can open up 100 percent group fitness, I don’t think you would see 80 percent of your previous clientele return.

David TaoDavid Tao

There’s a level of some people have left the city, but there’s also a level of personal comfort with that. People just want to be at a distance. How can you blame them? That’s everyone’s decision right now.

 

I will ask you’ve got both sides of the coin here. You were able to keep one facility open and keep that brand strong, which is absolutely fantastic. At the same time, you had to experience shuttering a separate facility, which no one ever wants to do, which no gym owner, no business owner ever wants to do.

 

Call it middle of the road, and that you’ve actually outperformed a lot of gyms I know in New York City who have just had to shut down completely. They might’ve had multiple facilities, multiple occasions or just one. They don’t exist anymore or at least are clearly on the path having to completely shutter.

 

Do you have any idea what percentage of independent gym — if you just had to guess; I’m not going to hold you to this — we might see shutter permanently in a city like New York after all this is said and done?

Albert MathenyAlbert Matheny

[laughs] I would tend to make what would seem like an outrageous really high percentage. You know the industry well enough that it wasn’t just a factor of COVID. It was a factor of the boutique boom that has been happening over the past…I don’t know. Since we started in 2013, it’s been ramping up, and ramping up, and new studios and new concepts.

 

Everyone’s still eating off the same pie, even though the consumer group’s growing. There is a lot of businesses that were doing OK pre-COVID. Then you had a lot that were on I’ll say a death spiral with ClassPass. ClassPass obviously went to literally zero. I’ve heard their CEOs talk about their bookings went from this to near zero and they’ve pivoted.

 

Everyone said they accelerated trends that were in place, but 75 percent honestly is not a unreasonable…Maybe even higher because, without COVID, 40 percent of those should’ve closed. They weren’t profitable. Then put COVID on top of that, so big percentage.

David TaoDavid Tao

You bring up a good point. The fitness market, while it’s growing, while we like to think the number of people who care about their health and wellness and are investing in their fitness, we like to think that’s growing. Signs point to the fact that it is.

 

It certainly wasn’t growing at the rate that new boutique fitness concepts were opening, nationally and certainly not New York City. It felt like in Midtown, I’d walk down a block and I’d see three new boutique fitness studios, each specializing in one different thing, opening up within a few months of each other on the same block.

 

They’re fighting over the same customer base that’s not tripling in size every year. You bring up a good point that we were probably due for a bubble burst at some point or at least some reckoning in that experience.

 

What are some fitness concepts that you think are more likely to weather the storm and survive long term right now?

Albert MathenyAlbert Matheny

One, that I was actually talking to a guy the know this stage really well the other day. He said — and I think you’ll appreciate this — one thing you can’t get over Zoom is when you do actually need or want someone psychically helping you in training, so more the higher performance training.

 

If you’re going for heavy squat or you’re doing something very technical, you’re not getting that over Zoom. It’s just not the same. You need someone physically there that can 360 walk around you, help with setup, really be engaged in a high-touch way.

 

That’s what our gym has always been in the personal training side. We’ve been able to do that. People coming back from injury rehab and things like that, you’re just going to get a better experience in person because there’s nuances that don’t carry over on screen. You need to physically be with someone.

 

Those gyms will stick around, the ones that have the real personal touch. As far as boutique concepts, I think, man, it’s hard to say. It’s the big guys. Barry’s, and SoulCycle, and those kind of companies, they’ll probably cut some under-performing locations that they’ve got enough capital.

 

It’s mostly a capital game. The want for fitness hasn’t disappeared. It’s shifted online. People will want to go back to physical locations. It’ll be the few brands that you would probably know off the top of your head that have done a good job for a number of years, and have been able to just have a brand beyond individual instructors driving people wanting to come.

 

Those individual instructors, a lot of them are realizing, if they didn’t already know, that they can run a direct-to-instructor business where they don’t need a brand shepherding people. They’re able to connect directly. That’s been a trend that’s happening already with Instagram and everything. That was already eroding the [indecipherable 10:57] structure.

David TaoDavid Tao

I felt there was a boom about a year and a half ago when I was seeing so many people that wanted to start platforms for fitness. I kept hearing about platforms, platforms, platforms, and it was all a lot of variations…Not to say that those are bad ideas. I think some did bring a lot of unique value and some still will bring a lot of unique value.

 

I’m not a software guy so I’m not the best person to say what’s going to survive long term. I see a lot of trainers now that are just saying, “Well, maybe I’m not going to go to a fitness-specific platform. Maybe the platform I’m going to use is Instagram, and another platform I’m going to use is Zoom.”

 

They’re taking these off-the-shelf solutions that aren’t specific to fitness, and they’re using that as their direct-to-consumer platform, and their marketing is just their personal social following.

 

How do you, as a gym owner, balance working with trainers who bring that and can maybe bring feet into your location or bring eyeballs onto your brand, while also respecting that that’s their audience that they’re bringing? There’s a bit of a balance there. How do you address that when working with potential instructors or considering bringing people on?

Albert MathenyAlbert Matheny

That’s a good question. To be honest, very consciously, we’ve never wanted to be an Instagram gym. That was a big filter for us, before COVID, since day one was we want people who are interested in being trainers in the traditional sense of the word, more than…Instagram is not…It’s a whole different skill set in business…

David TaoDavid Tao

Are you telling me Instagram isn’t reality? Is that what you’re telling me?

Albert MathenyAlbert Matheny

[laughs] You don’t get your CSCS and also get your Instagram on-boarding workshop or whatever it is. That’s been a blessing for us. We saw that. We’ve gone through working with people like that, and it is always a difficult balance. Most studios, again, it plays into the hands of the big players that have a platform that eclipses whatever a personal social platform the instructors have.

 

A Barry’s or a SoulCycle, those used to be the ladder that people would get on, and they would get shoved into the spotlight, and they build their career there. Smaller brands, it’s always been tough that you are competing for that instructor’s attention.

 

We always just chose not to. We wanted people who were not Instagram leaning so much as they were like, “I want to be in an environment where I’m constantly learning and working with other good trainers.” People who are in the profession for training, not for Instagram.

David TaoDavid Tao

That goes back to why are you starting to facility? SoHo Strength Lab, you are a strength and conditioning gym. You can get a lot of things out of that facility. You walk in and it’s not a boot camp gym. You’re seeing people doing real training. You’re seeing people doing heavy back squats. You’re seeing people do prowler pushes, as miserable as that makes the average person look.

 

It seems to me like even though you all started during this wave of the boutique gym rise in 2013, that the emphasis was maybe a little more old school than your SoHo location might imply.

Albert MathenyAlbert Matheny

Totally. Now is just by-product of where we had come up training in the city. It’s a cool vibe down there. It’s a good place for gym, for, as you know, when you talk about Midtown, or FiDi, or different places, SoHo has a mix of commercial people coming there for work. Then also has a lot of residents.

 

You go other locations, and you’re separated between what are the peak hours? Is it everyone’s before work, and then, at five it’s a ghost town? Or is it everyone comes, and it’s Bryant Park, and it’s lunch-time craziness or something?

 

SoHo was a good spot for us in that regard. If you look at the SoHo map, we like the branding. That was a conscious choice to say SoHo. When you look at the map, we’re literally on the cusp, and we’re technically in Little Italy. For us, it was really being taking a good lease at a space.

 

At the end of the day, if your lease is expensive, which a lot of these boutiques are, and, unfortunately, they just had VC-type money and VC-type expectations on exponential growth and all these different things, that put them in locations where, even without COVID, the price per square foot rent was just not tenable. You can’t.

David TaoDavid Tao

It’s almost juggling on a unicycle while being chased by a pack of dogs. That might not be the scalable future of fitness.

Albert MathenyAlbert Matheny

Yeah. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

It felt like concepts were maybe getting that specific at a certain level. That might work in New York at a couple locations, but I don’t know if they’re going nationwide. I just don’t know. I’m going to have to pass on that bit. I’m going to pretend I’m on shark tank right now.

 

One thing, I want to change tack a little bit. You’ve been in the fitness industry for a while. You know the ups and downs of owning and operating gyms, as we’ve discussed in this call. By the way, thank you for being so candid about the high points and very much the low points recently in being a gym owner. It’s not easy to talk about.

 

One thing I know you’re really passionate about, one thing that I’ve been lucky enough to try in person is one of your new projects which is ARENA. The way I’m going to bill it, if I had to give the elevator pitch for it, and this surprised me, it’s the true strength training gym that basically fits in your suitcase.

 

I’ll give a little background. Albert came by the BarBend office, was kind enough to bring by a prototype of what he’s building. In an under-40 pound package, I was able to do loaded belt squats with about 200 pounds of resistance. I’ve never seen a solution that allowed a strength athlete to do something like that.

 

Albert, if you don’t mind, tell us a little bit about ARENA. This is not paid product placement. I was a bit blown away by what I was able to do with something that you literally just rolled into our office in what looked like a carrier.

Albert MathenyAlbert Matheny

That means a lot. Thank you. I am very excited about ARENA. Literally, the technology walked in SoHo Strength Lab a few years ago. When I saw it and I used it, it immediately solved for me, like what you were saying, I can do strength training at my house now without a barbell setup or a garage gym.

David TaoDavid Tao

Or it’s worth owning a heavy, heavy stack of weights. This is not a 500-pound stack. This thing literally weighs 40 pounds. Give us an idea of what it is. Obviously, we’ll talk about it in the description. If you visit BarBend in the corresponding post we’ll have on this podcast, you’ll be able to see it. If I’m just describing it without looking at it, what is ARENA?

Albert MathenyAlbert Matheny

ARENA looks like what I would call a step box, or it could look like jerk blocks, or something like that. It looks like a box. It’s 9 1/2 inches tall and it’s about 32 by 24 inches. It’s smaller than a yoga mat, if you’re trying to get some parameters around it.

 

What it is, in a simple format, is a cable that comes out of the middle of the box, and that cable goes directly into a motor. That motor is controlled by a board or a computer. Through your phone, you can control that motor with a high degree of specificity to create immediate resistance.

 

A big differentiator for us versus some other strength products on the market is the fact that that cable goes directly into the motor. There’s no pulleys or anything involved. You’re getting immediate feedback. It’s very much like a Tesla in that it’s electric.

 

You pull on it, and it immediately is 200 pounds, or 100 pounds, or whatever you want, just based on you moving your finger on the phone. As you mentioned, it weighs less than 40 pounds. That’s a factor of we wanted something that had enough heft to it, where it didn’t throw you off; that you’re messing with something that’s 10 pounds and can’t create 200.

 

It’s a all-steel, high-grade product that has some heft to it. Coming from the strength and conditioning background, we wanted something that was tough. It’s built to be used and built to perform day in, day out.

 

Something else, technology-wise, that I thought was cool was with that direct drive into the motor, you’re recapturing 80 percent of the power that the battery exerts to resist your movement. That allows us to, on a 45-minute charge, give you about a month worth of the workouts.

 

That means just like a suitcase, you can put that thing in the back of your car or truck and go see your parents for the weekend or whatever it might be. Especially now, a lot of people are traveling domestically, you can take your gym with you. You can do every type of pulling exercise that you want.

 

For me, [laughs] as you probably appreciate yourself, you can do a lot on your own, body weight-wise and all that kind of stuff, but getting some heavy compound movements is like, you need that. You need to have it, and this excels at that. The way it is in terms of a single pull point, centered, it’s great.

 

It makes strength training more accessible for a lot of people. That’s the bigger picture is show people that more people need, and can do, and learn proper strength training.

David TaoDavid Tao

The thing that immediately hit me when I saw a picture of this, and then you brought it by the office, I was like, “I have to do belt squats on this thing.” If you’re a strength athlete, belt squats are a great solution to get some good lower body training without spinal loading.

 

You could be recovering from an injury, you could be not wanting to put a lot of pressure on your spine, it could be an accessory movement. Great way to overload the legs without overloading the spine.

 

It was the simplest belt squat setup I’ve ever seen. I’ve done belt squats on big $2,000 machines with a big old weight stack, some were plate-loaded. I’ve also done belt squats with that…I call it a jerry rig setup, where you’re standing between two plyo boxes and the weight’s hanging down on a weight belt. I’ve fallen off one of those.

 

It was like the scariest moment of my life with hundreds of pounds dangling between my legs.

 

I immediately got on this thing and was able to do belt squats. I stood on a box, the cable attached to a weight belt, and from an app, I was able to immediately control the resistance.

 

I was able to, even if I wanted to, determine, “Here’s my bottom point where I want resistance to stop.” Or, “Here’s where I want resistance to stop or modulate at the top.” It was great. It’s the best belt squat solution I’ve ever seen.

 

With this device, I know that you all are looking at a range of hundreds of exercises you want people to explore with this. People who might be doing sprint training, plyometric training, attach it to them. You also talked about having a bunch of different attachments for pulling exercises. Basically, anything you can attach a cable to, you want this to be utilized for.

 

Who is your target market? I know that you haven’t officially released this. People can pre-order, but they can’t but it yet. Who, ultimately, do you think will adopt this first? There are a range of different types of athletes who might want something like this. Who do you think it’s going to catch on with it potentially first?

Albert MathenyAlbert Matheny

That’s great. That’s a good question. It’s going to be guys like you who are like you get it. For me, I was like, “Cool, this thing allows me to deadlift heavy, front squat heavy, in my apartment.” That, for me, is enough, period. That now has solved a real need for me.

 

For you, it might be, “Hey, when I look at the other belt-squat options, this literally is a better solution at a better price point, with more functionality. Done.”

 

I think people that take their training pretty seriously and have the programs, and they look at this like a multitasking kitchen accessory. It can do a lot, and you can figure out how you want it in your training program. Those people, they’re more advanced, basically, in terms of how they approach their training.

 

The other big group…My original sports background was in endurance training. Most endurance athletes, myself included, was not comfortable in the weight room. It’s not something that’s promoted in endurance training.

 

Just like we see recovery now becoming the new thing, strength training is going to be that for endurance training. If you think your top endurance athletes aren’t doing some strength training, they are. Mainstream people who are runners or cyclists, don’t, for the most part, do strength training.

 

This is going to allow them to do it. Not only in an efficient format, it’s space sensitive and everything like that, but it’s just going to be simple for them.

 

You alluded to it with the belt squat. You get data from this thing. That frustrates a lot of [laughs] endurance athletes. They’re very data-driven people. Lifters certainly are too, but the amount of data you get from your Strava, or whatever it is, you’re running watch, your Garmin, it’s a lot.

 

When you go to the weight room, you can’t post that your total volume of weight lifted was 20,000 pounds today. [laughs] People don’t know what that means. This is a great way that people are going to be able to quantify it. I think it’s going to resonate with the endurance crowd, whether that’s cycling, running, triathlon, and they’re going to get it.

 

Then, like you said, basically just pulling motions. When I think of group fitness, what is the glaring thing? I’m sure you’ve come to this conclusion too. The glaring issue with group fitness is there are no pulling exercises, for the most part. Like yoga, it’s like, “Where’s your retraction? [laughs] Where’s your big posterior chain movements?” It’s not there.

 

All in all, it’s thinking of ARENA as an “and” product. It’s not an “or.” It’s an and to whatever maybe your favorite thing is. I know not everyone loves to lift weights, but if you are a passionate cyclist or passionate yogi, or whatever it is, you need an “and,” and that needs to be strength training.

 

That was the foundation of SoHo Strength Lab is everyone needs to be strong. Whatever it is you want to do for your health, for your sports performance, for general longevity movement, you need a strength-training base, period. The data and science supports that from every kind of health parameter.

David TaoDavid Tao

I have good news for you, Albert. Most people listening to this podcast really like strength training.

Albert MathenyAlbert Matheny

Yeah, OK. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

You are preaching to the choir in the best way. We get feedback on this podcast. We’ve had endurance athletes on. We’ve had Olympic rowers on. We’ve had people who talk about how strength is complimenting…Strength might not be their core goal, but it’s a means to an end. It’s always cool to hear from that perspective.

 

Then we’ll hear feedback from our listeners, and it’s like, “I should do more strength training.” For them, it’s complimentary. You’re very much right. The trend in sports performance is to look at things holistically. It’s to say, “OK. What can benefit my performance on the field of play?” Whatever that be. If I’m a triathlete, a runner, a hockey player, what’s going to benefit that performance?

 

Our perspectives are getting broader over time. Strength training is going to benefit that performance, nutrition is, good sleep is, recovery, mental training and mindset training.

 

I actually was talking about this last night. I was watching “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix, and I happen to have a friend who used to be an extremely high-level chess player. We’ve had long conversations about the benefits of strength training to elite chess players.

 

I love that perspective of thinking, “OK. How is strength training going to become more accessible to these groups where maybe they’re not trying to set a back squat PR? Maybe they’re just trying to get their legs stronger.”

 

I think it’s that goal-oriented mindset because humans are very goal-oriented, and we want to perform at a high level. I really like that perspective, and that’s something I can see you’ve clearly taken from your time at SoHo Strength Lab and now try to productize it. [laughs]

Albert MathenyAlbert Matheny

People, [laughs] speaking to your audience, I think most of us in the strength world feel like everyone would like strength training if they just had some success with it. That’s what I’ve seen at SoHo Strength Lab over the years.

 

You have men or women come in that have not done strength training in their lives, and they say, “I don’t want to get bulky. I don’t want to do this. I’m trying to lose weight.” Whatever it is. Usually, the secret, which ARENA benefits from, is people might be intimidated by a barbell, and they might be intimidated by the numbers on dumbbells. What they don’t know is kilograms. [laughs]

 

You give them kettlebells, and they don’t know that 10 kilograms is over 20 pounds, or they don’t know that I can give someone who said, “I’m never going to lift more than 25 pounds.” I give them a 24-kilo kettlebell, and they’re happy to work with it.

 

ARENA benefits from the same thing. You don’t see the weights. You don’t see the big, heavy stuff and the giant dumbbells. You go into a big gym, and they got 100 pounds dumbbells. That’s very large. That’s a serious thing. You put someone on ARENA, and you can put 100 pounds on there, and it looks exactly the same as 20 pounds. I’m excited about that part.

 

David TaoDavid Tao

That’s awesome. Albert, where’s the best place for people to keep up to date with the work you’re doing both as a gym owner and now as, I guess, a fitness tech entrepreneur? Is that a term? Sure, we’ll use that term. Where’s the best place to keep up to date with you?

Albert MathenyAlbert Matheny

I point everyone over to two places. My Instagram is…I’m a fitness guy, not an Instagram guy. [laughs] I’ll leave it at that, but I try to repost things. @go.arena is our Instagram handle. We got a great team of all fitness people, real fitness people running it. They’re also happen to do Instagram, so we’re keeping it real there.

 

ARENA is also — I just want to mention this — everything is assembled in the USA. The battery is the only thing that’s not made here, which is really cool. Something that I care about is doing things in the USA.

 

Then, the other place is are SoHo Strength Lab Instagram channel. My partner, Ryan Hopkins, is, I would say, the best trainer in New York, so check him out. He’s always doing some cool stuff.

David TaoDavid Tao

I’ve heard literally dozens of people call themselves or call other people the best trainer in New York.

 

We’re going to need to have some sort of Hunger Games-esque competition to find the best trainer in New York because I’m sick and tired of not knowing [indecipherable 31:43] .

 

Albert, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.

Albert MathenyAlbert Matheny

Thank you, David.

David TaoDavid Tao

Always a pleasure chatting. I’m glad we could actually get one of our talks on the air. This one maybe a little toned down compared to some of the others. I do [laughs] appreciate that. Thanks for joining us.

Albert MathenyAlbert Matheny

Much appreciated, David. Great job, man.

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