Is America Getting Less Fit? (with Kenny Santucci)

Today I’m talking to one of my longtime friends in the fitness space, Kenny Santucci. Kenny is actually joining the podcast for the second time. He’s a trainer, multi-time gym owner, and founder of the Strong New York fitness festival. Today, we’re talking about health & fitness trends, the pitfalls (and triumphs) of owning and opening gyms, and how fitness communities evolve over time. Where is strength training becoming “cool” again, and why are so many Americans still sedentary?

Kenny Santucci Joins the BarBend Podcast

In this episode of The BarBend Podcast, David Thomas Tao and Kenny Santucci discuss: 

  • How has fitness evolved due to COVID-19? (2:40)
  • Did CrossFit lose steam in the past few years? Why didn’t Kenny open a CrossFit gym? (5:00)
  • Why “unconventional” movements have such an important impact (and are they really new?) (8:30)
  • “New” trends and bodybuilding basics that are once again popular (13:02)
  • The in person power of fitness culture (16:30)
  • How do we repair connections in the fitness industry? (19:40)
  • Why the biggest, most lasting fitness trends include a social layer (23:00)

Relevant links and further reading:


At F45s, and then orange theories. These are all built around cardiovascular work. You’re trying to ramp up your heart rate as high as you can. You got the rowers, the bikes, the runners, all these things.


You’re starting to see the younger generation pull away from that and start to do a lot more bodybuilding.

David TaoDavid Tao


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

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

Today, I’m talking to an old friend of mine. He has actually been on the podcast before, Kenny Santucci.

He’s a multi-time gym owner in and around the New York City area, and he’s also the driving force behind Strong New York, a yearly strength and fitness festival that takes place in New York and celebrates strength in all forms.

Kenny joins us today to talk about owning and opening a gym post-COVID, why in-person events have changed and why they’re so important to the fitness industry, and how nothing is new in fitness. More explanation of that in the podcast.

It’s a great conversation about the state of fitness today and how we can take inspiration from fitness pioneers starting decades ago. I think you’ll really enjoy this one, so stay tuned.


Kenny Santucci, welcome back to the podcast. We saw each other in person for the first time in a hot minute over the weekend, and we’re going to talk about what happened over the weekend. First I got to ask, how are you doing today?


You’re a new gym owner. Once again, you’re an event organizer. You’re wearing a lot of hats in New York City’s fitness community. What’s life like these days?

Pretty good. Everybody’s still trying to get back to normal a little bit. I opened this gym back up in October 1st, 2021. I wish it was 2001, but 2021. It’s a year old now. Still trying to figure out what the groove is and what the fitness scene is.


I got contacted by Technogym about eight months ago and they were like, “Hey, could you explain to us what’s going on in the fitness scene and what people are doing there, and blah, blah.” I’m like, “I’m still trying to get a handle on it.”


There’s a lot of people doing the virtual stuff and working out at home, which wasn’t a thing before COVID. There wasn’t that much of a at-home scene. It’s like people had Pelotons and stuff, but not in the numbers that they do now. I think people are coming back and then people are more educated.


One of the things I used to say all the time at Solace was, “The more educated the consumer becomes, the more people are going to have walking through the door, the more people are going to want to strength train and learn.”


Because the more educated they become, they’re like, “OK, I got good at this. I understand this. I know about this, I’m going to move onto the next thing,” because it’s ever evolving. We’re all still learning. Even the people who’ve been in this 20, 30 years, talking to Gunnar the other day…

David TaoDavid Tao

Just to give folks context, who is Gunnar?

Gunnar Peterson who has been a trainer for a long time. Got pretty popular because he trained Sylvester Stallone, the Kardashians, Tom Brady, you name it. He’s been there. I was chatting with him and he was telling me, it’s like, “I’m still evolving. I’m still trying to figure out what’s going on and everything else.”


We’re all in this learning phase and that’s why these events like we had this weekend was great because everybody gets together and we share thinking caps. We figure out what’s next and what everybody’s doing and mingle. It’s sad that here in New York City, we’ve never done this before.

David TaoDavid Tao

We’ll get to the event in a second. Let’s talk about opening a gym during COVID or post-COVID however you want to define it, is not your first rodeo in the brick-and-mortar space. I’ve known you for a while.


We’ve seen each other go through that process and be involved in that process a few times. What was different about opening a gym in 2021, and how did you approach it differently compared to opening a gym back in 2014, 2013?


It’s a little different. The restrictions were a little different. It was definitely a bigger gamble. When I opened my first gym in Jersey, it was the height of CrossFit. CrossFit was starting to pick up steam. I’d say that CrossFit heydays were like 2012 to 2016, 2017. Those were the best of the years. It was still on the incline and on the rise.


Opening at them was exciting because it’s like, “Oh, you open a CrossFit gym anywhere, it’s going to do well.” People were excited about it, people wanted to do it. Opening up a gym post-COVID, CrossFit lost a lot of steam. I didn’t open a CrossFit gym, I was doing a lot more private training.


It’s definitely a different business model. You could open up 50 gyms and they could all be different variations in different neighborhoods with different people.


You never know what you’re going to get. You can do all the marketing you want, it’s word of mouth and how good your business is. What you’re doing on an hourly basis, on a minute basis. Are you keeping people engaged? Are you keeping people happy? Because there’s so much now that didn’t exist then.


There’s so much that people know now that they didn’t know then, so everybody’s looking for the next best thing including myself. You find equipment and you find different things that you feel could change the business, or you’re interested in going down a different path. You want to keep it interesting for yourself as well as the clients.


I thought it was a bigger gamble I opened up this time rather than last time. I obviously know more than I did the first time. Even with the solid stuff walking into that right after having my own gym, I’m like, “All right, I know how this runs. I have a better understanding.”


Now the third time around, I feel confident in what I know, but then it’s the market changing and people are changing. Each time it’s fun and exciting, but also scary.

David TaoDavid Tao

You talked about people being more educated which I would agree with. Hey, I work in fitness content. We want to educate people. We want people to walk in a gym smarter than four or five years ago. That’s a big part of what me and the team at BarBend do.


What are some of the points of knowledge or things that people come in, maybe they’re a prospective member or a new member and they’re asking or they know about and they’re curious about, or that they want that maybe would have surprised you back in 2013, 2014, but these days you’re like, “Oh, yeah, I expect more people know about this?”

Simple things, knowing the names of some movements and wanting to do certain things. For instance, when we started with CrossFit, no one would ever do bodybuilding stuff at a CrossFit gym when we first started. It was all about HIIT workouts, hitting it hard, going as heavy as possible, mastering gymnastics moves.


Now people are a little bit more educated. I’m starting to see what I’ve been preaching for the longest time. It’s like cardiovascular work is for your cardiovascular system. You don’t need as much of that as you do strength training. I’m seeing a lot of people now strength train.


I went down to a gym in Howell, New Jersey about two, three weeks ago, and I loved it. It’s a great space. It’s a great facility. It’s obviously something I’d like to do down the line. It’s obviously very expensive and to do it here in New York is very hard.


It’s called Iron Revolution, it’s a beautiful gym. They have a lot of prime equipment and a lot of bodybuilding stuff. They have a whole room for powerlifting and weightlifting. It’s a beautiful, beautiful space. There were so many young kids that were there.


I was probably the oldest person in the gym by about 20 years. There were all these high school kids, college kids. There weren’t a lot of older people there. They were all doing single-arm lat pulldowns and single-arm rows. Just a lot of stuff that’s become more popular in the last couple of years.


You would see a lot of bodybuilders do that years ago, but not as much as you’re seeing it now. The YouTubers and the Instagram, TikTok people, they’ve all popularized a lot of these unconventional movements that you didn’t see a lot in the past.


Like I said, CrossFit was the big thing in HIIT classes and the sweat classes, the F45s, and then orange theories. These are all built around cardiovascular work. You’re trying to ramp up your heart rate as high as you can. You got the rowers, the bikes, the runners, all these things.


You’re starting to see the younger generation pull away from that and start to do a lot more bodybuilding. It’s cool. It’s the evolution. It’s also again, coming full circle. We’re about the same age.


When I started working out, you bought a muscle and fitness, or men’s health or a muscle development magazine, and it was a lot of conventional bench press, lat pulldowns, squats, deadlifts, things like that.


There wasn’t a lot of this single-arm bodybuilding work. It was very traditional strength training stuff with a bodybuilding spin on it. Then you started to see a lot of the HIIT stuff coming out and the CrossFit stuff. It’s the evolution.


A lot of things are coming back. If anybody says out there that, “Oh, we came up with this movement, we came up with that move,” it’s like people have been doing a lot of the shift forever. It’s now becoming popular.

David TaoDavid Tao

Strength training can be very simple. There are only so many muscle groups. There are only so many ways to target them. A lot of the novel stuff we’re seeing today is retro. It’s just been forgotten. I’m seeing that machines are cool again. At least, that’s the perception I get.


I remember 10 years ago, if you were hitting the Nautilus machines, which are great machines, like a lot of fantastic machines, people look down on you like, “Oh, you’re just a meathead. You’re not being functional.” What the heck does that even mean?


Now, I’m seeing boutique spaces that are focusing on functional fitness or functional movement. They have machines because those have a place. Those have a real place and a real purpose in creating well-rounded and resistant bodies.

When you talk about rehabilitation and focusing in on a lot of the injuries that I see throughout CrossFit, I would tell people, I’m like, “Get on a machine. It’ll isolate the muscle a little bit more. You want to have this much freedom through the joints, so you can still train but it’s not going to hurt you as much.”


People are starting to see that. I remember when I started the body class at Solace. I would do a lot of Gym Jones style stuff, push-ups, and pull-ups, and dips, and things like that. It was all very strict.


There wasn’t a lot of CrossFit. People are like, “Why can’t we [inaudible 11:40] ? Why can’t we move faster.” I’m like, “There’s a time and a place for it.” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.


Obviously, I did CrossFit for a very long time. I wanted to teach them how important that stuff was. Then you’re starting to see more and more people do that. Now, it’s even taken a point to where they’re using machines again.


I love machines. I want to get more machines in here. I just wish I had more space for it. I do think, just like you said, machines are cool again. Everybody wants them.

David TaoDavid Tao

Look, machines are expensive. They take up a lot of space. There’s a high barrier to entry. People want when it’s scarce. Now there’s like a scarcity of access to these things. A lot of people have big open gyms that have pull-up bars, and some bumper plates, and barbells, and kettlebells. That’s all great.


The athletes are seeking out places that have…There are any number of brands. I say Nautilus machines because I’m a little old school. That was what existed when I was first getting started. People are seeking these out now.


You see, for example, CrossFit athletes that are getting memberships or guest passes to gyms that have machines to isolate muscle groups. It’s mind-boggling to me in a really funny way. I’m glad that I’m not the only one who sees this and observes this, because I felt like I was taking crazy pills, to be honest.


For guys like us, it’s like we came up around the same time. We started to see a lot of that. If you did curls…I was working at Equinox when I was still doing CrossFit with you and stuff.


I would do some bodybuilding stuff just because I always enjoyed it, but I even pulled away from it. I was like, “I’m not going to use a machine. Why? I have a barbell. I can do everything I need to do with a barbell.”


Then you get banged up, or your back sores, something. I’m like, “I need to jump on a machine just because I still need to get a little bit of a pumping, but I can’t bend over and pick up a bar right now.” Yeah, I love it. There’s more people…


This is one of the questions that I actually had posed to Gunnar during the talk. It’s like there’s so many people or what seems to be so many people on social media taking up training and wanting to be trainers.


People are working out more than ever before. There are more gyms than ever before. Just think about it. When I first started working out, my family had moved from Newark, New Jersey up to Cedar Grove. The only two gyms that were there was a gym around the block from my house in Verona which is [inaudible 14:12] .


Then the next nearest gym, the next [inaudible 14:16] full gym you can go to was like 30 minutes away. Now, in my mom’s town where she still lives in Cedar Grove, there’s probably six gyms just in that town.


The town’s like a square mile. There’s like two CrossFit gyms. There’s two private training gyms. There’s two full Globo gym or box gyms. It’s funny. It’s the evolution. People are heavier and more sick than ever before.


Explain that to me. Is it just the mass number of people, and half the population is working out, the other half isn’t? I just find it funny. You get outside New York City, and you see how out of shape people are.


I went down to a conference, a strength [inaudible 14:59] conference down in Orlando back in February, March. Going through the Orlando airport, I’m like, “What is it? No gyms in Orlando. What the hell is going on down here?”


There were so many people who were out of shape, overweight, you could tell, don’t even think about the gym in here. To guys like us, we’re just obsessed with it. We’re in and out of gyms. We base our whole lives around this thing.


I just found that very interesting. I’d like to get a lot of people’s takes on it, because I’m like, “What is going on?”

David TaoDavid Tao

Let’s transition a little bit. We could talk literally for hours about the gym environment. We have. We could sit down, and we could just wax poetic for a long time. I also want to talk about events.


Last time you were on the podcast, we talked about Strong New York. This was December 2019. It was pre-COVID, seems like an eon ago. It was the latest in a series of fitness events you do called Strong New York, which brings together people from all over the strength and fitness community.


There are speakers. There are vendors. You can sample the latest products, the latest things to eat, supplements. You can hear very smart people talk. You can get in a bunch of workouts. There are trainer-focused workouts, everything from yoga to HIIT to boxing, you name it. It’s basically a one-day fitness festival.


That happened in late 2019. COVID hits. Things shut down a bit. You recently restarted that backup. I guess it was what? October 1st? Chelsea Piers in New York was kind of the relaunch at a big scale.


I was there. Full disclosure, had a ton of fun, caught up with a bunch of people, some of whom I hadn’t seen in a while. It struck me that I interact virtually with so many people in the fitness space. We’re a remote team at BarBend. We don’t have an office anymore. We did pre-COVID.


It’s tough for me to describe the impact of being in person at one of these events. I’m having trouble putting it into words. I’m curious as to what your thoughts are on the unique value proposition of in-person fitness events in a post-COVID world.

It’s very interesting. This was my sales pitch to a lot of the brands and a lot of the speakers. It also gave me the inspiration to open up the gym. For me, we’ve agreed in society that the worst possible thing you could do to someone is throw them in jail.


The worst thing you can do to somebody in jail is throw them in solitary confinement. We’ve all agreed that this is the worst possible form of punishment in our society.


During COVID, that’s exactly what was going on. You’re in your little box. If you look at a building, everybody’s in their little box. They’re stuck in that little box and don’t move out of that box, stay in there. It’s almost a form of prison.


For me, I felt that right away. I was like, “I need to get out.” First couple weeks of COVID, I would take my dog for 10-mile walk, 12-mile walks all over the city. I literally would walk from my apartment through Central Park all the way down to Financial District.


I’m like, “I just got to move.” Coming back into my apartment after I did that, I’m like, “All right, I feel good, I feel normal, my brain’s working again.”


I watched a great documentary on Netflix about a young man who got locked up in Rikers Island. They put him in solitary confinement, and they were saying that after 24 to 48 hours, your brain starts to atrophy because it doesn’t have human connection. By nature, we are tribal creatures. We need to be around people. We need that energy.


When people were saying, “Oh, well, everybody’s going to do virtual. Gyms are dead and blah, blah, blah.” I was like, “That’s the worst possible thing. It’s never going to happen. People want to be around other people.”


The energy in that room, I wish I could bottle that up, put it in a jar and send it to people who are like, “Hey, I don’t know if I want to come to the event, or I don’t know if events are worth it.” It’s like, “Come on, you felt it. You were there.”


The amount of people that had that great experience…Knock on wood, I haven’t gotten any bad feedback or anybody saying they didn’t like it. Everybody was like, “10 out of 10, can’t wait to be back, blah, blah, blah.” That’s what we all wanted. Everybody wanted to be around other people.


Again, it was two years, we hadn’t done anything. New York’s never experienced an event like this. We wanted to get people having a good time, hanging out, interacting. First thing I said, the first initiative for the event was, to connect to people again, to get people in the same room.


There’s this animosity that builds or this kind of…You lose connection with people, and then when you see them in person it’s different. You’re like, “Oh, my God, I miss this person. I miss that vibration than I got being in front of somebody.”


A lot of that was happening that day. There was a lot of good vibes in the room. Everybody got what I wanted out of it. Our minds are almost trying to be like, “Oh, I’m in front of David right now, but I’m not really with him.”


It’s almost like, “I see you but I’m not with you.” It’s different. It’s like talking to somebody through glass. It’s not the same as being able to embrace them, to touch, to be around them and I wanted to recreate that. I think that’s the most special thing.


You can’t show that to somebody. It’s like seeing a live performance, I can watch. This is when I thought that the inner…doing everything through the computer sucks. Bruce Springsteen is one of my favorite artists of all time and he was doing a live show on Zoom or some bullshit, and I started watching him like, “This sucks.”


Now Bruce Springsteen is playing next year, it’s a $1,000 for shit seats. It’s $5,000 to sit anywhere close. I’m thinking about, I’m like, “I’m probably going to pay that because I want to be around that.” That’s what you’re paying for, you’re paying for that vibration, the feeling of seeing something live that you can’t explain to somebody unless they were there too.


When you’re with a buddy of yours and you’re like, “Remember that time we went there?” You’re trying to tell somebody else, but they’ll never get it. You have to be there to get it.


There’s something very special about that, and that’s why I put so much into this. I put so much money into it. I put so much time into it, and I love the people who get what I’m trying to do with this.

David TaoDavid Tao

That is all very heartfelt and I want to take a beat and recognize that. That is also the most New Jersey thing I’ve ever heard because you somehow incorporated your love of the boss, Bruce Springsteen into that, which is perfect. That’s perfect because we think of being at a concert.


I got to a lot of Billy Joel concerts. I’ve been to two or three Billy Joel concerts this year at Madison Square Garden. Unbelievable energy. You’ve never heard “Piano Man” until you hear what is it? 40,000, 50,000 people singing along, however big MSG, the whole different vibe.


That is something that I think we’re underestimating fitness because fitness can seem solitary. There’s still this stereotype at least when I was growing up in fitness when you were as well. You’re doing the body building style stuff. You put on the oversize shirt or the sweats. You put the towel on your head, you hit the incline on the treadmill for steady state cardio.


You hit your muscle groups, it’s very solitary, maybe on bench day, or squat day you have a buddy there to spot you. It can be a very solitary endeavor, and you can look at the past decade in fitness, and all the things that have hit in a big way are social by nature.


CrossFit is social by nature. Even something like Peloton took what was previously a pretty solitary activity just riding a stationary bike and they made it social. They put a leaderboard on there. You can high five people, you can connect with people, you can compete against your friends in-person or elsewhere. They brought people into the studio to film.


There’s a social component and I think that you mentioned earlier, fitness is a lot of stuff that seems new but it’s been there for a long time and people have spun back up. Oftentimes, they’re adding a social component to something that already existed and boom. It’s new, it’s hot, it’s successful.


That to me is a life cycle of fitness over the last 10 years. Let’s take stuff that people have been doing alone for a long time, add a social component. Boom, you have something new.


100 percent. I completely agree. A lot of times people don’t realize how important it is to have somebody there with you. Misery less company but also so does joy.


There’s no point in having a ton of money, a boat on the water, unless you have other people around you. I don’t want a yacht seating in the middle of the ocean by myself, you want a ton of people there with you. Everybody wants that.


I think at the end of the day everybody says, “Oh, I want to retire and go to an island by myself.” Well, if that were the case the Bahamas will be a lot more crowded.


Here we are on this smaller island right here in New York, and there’s all these people shoved on top of each other and we all pay a fortune to live here. It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s rainy, [laughs] and we’re all still here because we want to be around other people.


The electricity and the vibration in New York is because there’s so many people, and that’s what makes it special. It’s not the dirty shitty streets or the subway, it’s the people, and people want to be around other people.

David TaoDavid Tao

We do have dirty shitty streets and the subway. Not to say we don’t have them.


It’s not a sales pitch. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

For some people. Kenny, where is the best place for people to follow along with you and to follow along with future iterations of Strong New York?

The Strong New York’s Instagram, I can’t wait to see all the pictures. I had seven photographers there capturing everything — video, pictures and stuff. Hopefully as the days go on, we’re getting more and more stuff coming through. At Strong New York, @KennySantucci and then the gym is The Strength Club NYC.


Anything I do on my day-to-day basis is there and then anything Strong New York related. Hopefully, we’re going to get the ball rolling for 2023 coming up pretty soon. Since the moment the last one ended on Saturday night, I’ve been doing nothing but writing down notes and ideas as to how we can make 2023 bigger and better.

David TaoDavid Tao

Excellent. Kenny, it’s always a pleasure, I appreciate it. I appreciate what you do for the community in New York and beyond. Thanks for joining.

Thank you so much, buddy. I appreciate this.