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Our Story So Far

Our coach Guy was invited to speak at the Bristol Radical Herbal Gathering on the theme of collective approaches to wellbeing, alongside excellent Bristol projects like Countering Colston, ACORN and Kiki.

It was a good chance to lay out the reasons for setting up the gym and why we feel there is a need for a co-operative model within the fitness industry. The full text is below:

We all know the health benefits of physical activity, so I’m not going to bang on about that here.

Let’s assume we know that and we’d like to experience some of those benefits – what then?

We can develop our fitness pretty easily by walking and maybe even running and cycling if we enjoy that, and we’re lucky to have fairly easy access to the countryside and some green spaces in the city.

But we know there are unique benefits to resistance training, and if we want to get them too then many of us will think of going to a gym to use their equipment and coaching expertise so we can know we’re doing things safely.

Unfortunately, gyms aren’t usually designed with that in mind, and as a result 67% of members don’t regularly attend.

Most gyms – and especially those big, low-budget gym chains – are designed to maximise profit, not our fitness. To give just one example, the machines that dominate the gym floor aren’t chosen because they produce greater strength results than using free weights. They usually don’t. Instead, they are chosen because they have a smaller footprint than weightlifting platforms, so more can be crammed in, and because they don’t require any coaching staff, so gyms can save on staff costs. There are many more examples.

Gyms rely on this non-attendance in order to turn a profit. In America, Planet Fitness gyms have on average 6500 members signed up for gyms that could only accommodate 300 people. The situation is not as bad here, but the UK tends to follow American fitness industry trends…

If we look at the research around the reasons for non-attendance, we can categorise them into two groups:

  1. Socio-economic
  2. Cultural

To take the first group, we know that there is a socio-economic gradient to physical inactivity in England. The most active people in our society are young, white, wealthy, non-disabled, hetero men. Some people are excluded from being more physically active as a result of their socio-economic status.

There is a bit of an overused phrase that goes something like “if exercise was a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine.” To extend that analogy, at the moment that super-pill is only being given to young white men. It’s problematic.

Turning to the second group, we encounter the issue of gym culture. Reasons given in the research are around:

  • Lack of social support – gyms are often very individualistic environments
  • Dissatisfaction with facilities
  • Unattractive environment – gyms are in the same property band as light industrial buildings, which is why so many set up in warehouses, which lends a certain aesthetic
  • Anxiety in unfamiliar surroundings – in many gyms, aside from a rushed induction, you’re left to fend for yourself in this weird space full of mirrors, loud music and intimidating machines
  • Lack of self-efficacy – this relates to the above

So what can we do about this?

Well, we thought, what about starting a gym that was co-operative and not-for-profit? We could use the socially-engaged aspect of co-operatives to try to involve those in our society who aren’t currently as active, and use collaboration to get past the individualism, weird design decisions and unfamiliarity.

We set up Bristol Co-operative Gym in September 2016 and we act according to the Seven Co-operative Principles.

  1. Open and voluntary membership
    • Anyone is welcome to come and train with us, and once they have, they are also invited to join our co-operative and help us design and run the space. We have had more than 500 people come and train with us and about 30 of them are currently members of the co-operative.
  2. Democratic member control
    • We have four General Meetings each year, as well as sub-groups dedicated to specific aspects of running the gym – working with specific communities, marketing, finances etc.. For those who can’t attend meetings, we use an online decision-making platform called Loomio.
  3. Members’ economic participation
    • We are not-for-profit and our finances are reported at every General Meeting so members can be assured that any money we receive goes back into developing their fitness. We have tried to make our classes as affordable as possible and offer tiered memberships according to how often someone is actually training rather than relying on their non-attendance. If we do have any surplus, we decide collectively on how we want it to be used.
  4. Autonomy and independence
    • We are very careful about who we partner with. The fitness industry is incredibly capitalistic but we try to resist this and think very carefully about the monetisation of our bodies and our health.
  5. Education, training and information
    • We host monthly workshops that introduce members to all sorts of things they can do with their bodies, and try to counter the siloing away that can happen within the industry – that separation between dance, weightlifting, gymnastics, tai chi etc. We also try to encourage a discursive sort of coaching, moving away from the classic hierarchical coach-member relationship.
  6. Co-operation among co-operatives
    • We rent our space from All Hallows Community Co-op and have been lucky to receive support from Co-operatives UK. We have worked with co-operatives in other parts of the country that have shown interest in starting a similar sort of project.
  7. Concern for community
    • This relates those socio-economic aspects of inactivity. So far, we work with Bristol Refugee Rights to offer free spaces to their volunteers and have received a grant from Bristol Ageing Better to provide resistance training sessions for older people.

So where are we now?

Having started in late 2016, we now have 7 classes a week, run by two coaches. We have had more than 500 people come and train with us and about 30 of those have become members of the co-operative.

We appear to be the only multi-stakeholder co-operative (coaches and members working together) in the fitness industry, and this seems strange since the fit between the co-operative model and the running of a gym seems pretty neat!

We are still at an early stage of our experiment but the results so far are very exciting.

To work, though, we need support, so I’d like to finish by inviting you to come and train with us. Your first session is free, so you can try it out and see what it’s like. It would be great to have you there.

Thank you for listening.

Going to a Normal Gym as Someone Who Has Never Gone to the Gym Before

Our member Steph shares her experience of going to a “normal gym” after attending our Strength Circuit sessions. Thank you, Steph!

Never would I have imagined that I would willingly, and with enjoyment, be going to a local gym before joining the co-operative gym! I think that is such an amazing thing. Everything you get from going to the co-op gym is so transferable – it’s a gateway to all sorts of things you could do with your body that you didn’t know yet.

I think the main barrier I had about going to the gym regularly by myself was a lack of knowledge and motivation. Going to regular gyms often means (though not necessarily) trying to ignore certain elements of macho bullshit which a gym space seems to fuel. Going to the co-op gym means that you learn technique in a really nice, supportive and unpatronising way. Also, the sharing and teaching of your fellow lifters means that you learn certain cues like ‘spread your toes’ even better. And knowledge equals power! I kind of imagine this a little bit like becoming my own coach – though it’s good to check with others on technique!

The kind of coaches you might come across regularly can seem intimidating… There is a whole load of language to learn. There are people who spew it at you like you’re an idiot for not knowing. There are people who actually use “come on you girl” as an insult. Trying to deadlift after hearing that is hard! Trying to ignore the screaming in your head is hard! I don’t want my gym session to instead turn into righting the wrongs of gross people. I want to lift!

What I am practicing at the moment is overcoming that and concentrating on what I would like to learn and get better at, and I am enjoying practicing this before starting work in the morning. This is where knowing the technique comes in. Knowing what to focus on simply means you focus on it. Learning the technique means you know what you alone are doing, and you can get on with it. Nevermind that you are the only woman in the room, nevermind that – omg why are they counting out loud, you are throwing me off pal! But then there are nice things, like noticing other little exercises people are doing, or noticing when someone is on the same ‘push’ and ‘deadlift’ day as you!

A little trick I have when walking into the weight room, maybe a little intimidated trying to find a spot in a busy room, is to put my shoulders back and pretend I am a man and deserve to take up space. But politely! Hey, if going to the gym teaches you anything it’s where to put your shoulders, so you might as well use it.

I guess what I am really trying to say is that knowing how to do stuff is empowering and so is feeling strong, so hurrah to the co-op gym for giving us that!

New Coach Call-out!

We are looking for another self-employed strength coach!

About us

We are the inclusive, body-positive gym that’s run by its members.

We offer expertly-delivered strength training and HIIT sessions in a supportive, open environment where people can feel comfortable to train and progress free from judgements about who they are and what they can lift.

We are a co-operative, meaning decisions about the running of the gym are made collectively by our coaches and members. We seem to be the only gym that runs like this in the country, and we’re excited to demonstrate how this alternative gym model can work.

You read more about the reasons we set up in our Aims & Objectives.

About the job

We are looking for someone to join our coaching team who will:

  • Revel in our members’ successes and support them through their challenges.
  • Lead by example to create an environment of excitement and respect in every class.
  • Give new members a warm welcome and introduce them to the class when they arrive
  • Make sure all members are signed-in before midnight
  • Plan and deliver safe, effective, fun workouts, with appropriate modifications to accommodate injuries and abilities
  • Be present for members’ questions before and after classes
  • Actively listen and reflect on how future sessions can be made even better
  • Have a nationally-accredited trainer certification, insurance and Emergency First Aid
  • Become a member of our co-operative and help us shape our alternative gym future

You will be required to lead classes on some weekday lunchtimes and evenings. Currently, our timetable includes classes on:

  • Monday 13:00-14:00, 17:30-19:00
  • Wednesday 13:00-14:00, 17:30-19:00, 19:00-20:00
  • Thursday 17:30-18:30, 18:30-20:00

Ideally, you would be able to cover all of these in the period between 17th and 23rd September, while our other coach is on holiday.

Usually, the classes would be split between both coaches. The times may change in future, and classes may be added or removed, but this would be decided co-operatively to suit you, the other coach, and our members.

In exchange, you would be paid £20-30 / hour and have access to All Hallows Hall and the gym’s equipment to run Personal Training sessions on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays 06:00-12:00 for £12.50 / hour (or less, if you’re training at the same time as another coach and can split the rent).

We want to demonstrate that an alternative gym model is possible. If you would like to be a part of this, please write to us at mail[at]bristolcooperativegym.org before 17th August, explaining why you’ll be a great fit.

We are particularly interested to hear from people who are under-represented in the fitness industry.

Thank you!

On Being A Co-op Member

I started coming to the gym and I quite liked it. The more I came, the more I liked it. Then I noticed on the website there was a ‘become a member’ option. Hmm, a co-op member, that sounds kind of cool. I wonder what that means. I suppose if it means I get to be more ‘part’ of the gym, that would be nice. I’ll give it a go. So I pressed join. Read more…

Floating: My Experience Of Sensory Deprivation Therapy

Doing nothing really does something
Doing nothing really does something

At the bottom of Park Street is the back shop, Back In Action. You may have passed it on your walk up to the museum, perhaps trying to figure out how to sit on the unusual furniture in the window. I am here to use their Flotation Centre. Read more…

Understanding Protein

Options...

When I joined the BCG, I started having conversations with people about nutrition and training, although it was probably less of a conversation and more me rambling at whoever was in earshot at the time.

One of the nicest things about the BCG is how it encourages beginners to get into training who maybe have never been in contact with a barbell before. I wrote this article originally for the BCG Facebook group to cover some of the basics of protein and how it relates to training, with the hope that it may be a nice and accessible intro for members who hadn’t had cause to think about nutrition before, and its relation their training, and also to cut through a lot of myths and misinformation that is present in so much training literature (protein powder companies being the worst for pushing this). Read more…

If You Can’t Sit Less, Sit Differently

In the UK, adults of working age sit down for an average of 9.5 hours each day. As we get older, this increases (source). We’ve all heard how sitting down is terribly bad for us, but what can we really do about that? Most of us are employed in ways that involve being sedentary and wouldn’t be willing or able to quit our jobs just so we can sit less. Read more…

Understanding Programming: Volume, Intensity & Stress

One of the programmes we use for our Strength Circuit

Working out alone vs. working out with others

When I became part of the BCG I had previously spent a few years working out by myself in commercial gyms. I’m not going to spend too much energy on dissecting just how horrible those kinds of spaces can be, but that was a secondary consideration at the time; I was training by myself purposefully, and with the intention of interacting with others as little as possible. I wanted to get in there, lift, and get out.

Training for me was, and still is, the primary way I combat my depression and anxiety. Getting under a heavy barbell, squatting it and trying to stand up again, takes pretty much 100% concentration, otherwise you end up squished. This level of concentration is incredibly calming. A lot of the constant mental ‘noise’ that I experience goes away, and stays away, at least for a short time. So the point of training for me was also to reach that point of intense focus. Suffice it to say this is not a very sociable state to be in. Read more…

Getting Stronger with Bristol Women Climbers

Bouldering at TCA

I have always been the first one up a tree whenever I spotted a good one to climb, or the concerning adult crashing kids playgrounds in order to use the climbing wall – and yet it took me to the age of 24 to actually make it to a climbing center. The only reason I did that was through the Bristol Women Climbers group, organised by Lorna Cooper. Read more…

If You Have To, Which Protein Bar?

"Wake up, Homer! Those bars are just junk! They're made out of apple cores and Chinese newspapers!"
“Wake up, Homer! Those bars are just junk! They’re made out of apple cores and Chinese newspapers!”

Recently I have been experimenting with what I eat. As is my way, I have really gone to town on it and have been tracking my calories, protein, fat, carbs etc.. I’ve been enjoying the way that feels and what it’s taught me about food and my body but I want to say right at the start of this post that tracking and getting weird about food like this is absolutely not necessary.

To pay my bills and fund my impulse purchases (most recently, this), I do support work at a university. I only work term-time and this week is my first week back. This is the first year where I have been paying this much attention to what I eat, so before going back I wanted to get a plan together for how I was going to continue to meet my calorie, protein, fat etc. targets while not spending loads of money and with minimal faff. Read more…