In spring 2020, as pandemic panic swept over Bucks County and the Wolf/Levine lockdowns came, Marty McLoughlin sat on the edge of a seat in his commercial gym in Fallsington.
“We’ll get through this,” he said, his voice vanishing into the cavernous warehouse on Lower Morrisville Road that he converted into his business, Extreme Fitness.
His jaw was set, his eyes were as steely as the silent iron racks, bars and kettle bells around him. It was his game face. Like so many other small business owners, he didn’t know what would happen.
Marty, 51, spent 20 years building Extreme Fitness, which emphasizes functional training philosophy, that is, exercise that mimics natural human movement, over the lunkheaded lift-the-whole-weight stack variety. He had switched his career from professional landscaper (he’s a DelVal grad) to emulate his idol, Jack LaLanne, a pioneering television fitness instructor.
He began at LA Fitness in Langhorne, gathering enough clients to train them privately on the second floor of his house in the Appletree Hill section of Levittown. As his client list expanded, he built a large shed in his backyard, and trained clientele there for a few years. He moved to a commercial storefront on US 1 in Falls, then to Lower Morrisville Road in Fallsington, which some customers affectionately called “the Dungeon.” He was there 10 years when COVID came.
“It looked like the pandemic was just gonna tank gyms all across the country,” he said. “We watched it on the news. We wondered when was our number up? When will enough people say ‘I’m too afraid to go outside,’ and how many were gonna die? We just didn’t know.”
By “we” he means himself and wife and business partner, Linda, who helped build the business, too. Everything was on the line.
But how does a business relying on one-on-one fitness training and group classes survive when it’s forced shut indefinitely?
“At that point, your guess would have been as good as mine,” he said.
As prison inmates say (and a lot of us felt like inmates during the Wolf/Levine lockdowns) you have a choice. Do the time or the time does you.
Marty did the time and not only survived, but grew. He moved from the Dungeon to a sparkling new place on New Falls Road in Falls Township. He, his wife and their employees had a grand opening last week, with a ribbon cutting, township officials and a champagne toast. There was a sight of relief, too.
“We made it,” he said.
After the lockdown shock settled, he was unsure of how to proceed. One of his clients, a woman who does global consulting work, advised on how to proceed.
“She called me and said, ‘You’re going to do Zoom. If you don’t know how, I’ll show you. You’re going to figure this out. It’s what you have to do.’”
She tutored him, but said, “You need to find a way to implement this into your business.”
His group fitness clients, a main source of revenue, were alarmed.
“They said, ‘What do you mean you’re gonna go to Zoom?’” he recalled.
How could they do at-home workouts without the barbells, dumbbells, kettle bells, exercise balls and stretch bands required?
He answered with a simple statement: “Tell me what you need.”
When they did, he loaded the stuff into his truck and drove it to each client’s house. He dropped the equipment in their driveway, and wiped it down to allay fears it was contaminated with the virus.
“I told them ‘You’re gonna watch me clean whatever I drop off. And then you’re gonna watch me leave. And then you’ll have nearly everything you’ll need to continue training,” he said.
Only a couple of people turned him down. He went live on Zoom with a flat fee of $5 a class for anyone who wanted to do join him. Not only were his local clients still with him, he was acquiring more online from around the country, from California to Massachusetts. He still isn’t sure how they found him.
“We have one in North Pole, Alaska. So how did that connection happen? I don’t even know,” he said.
By mid-summer 2020, they had a hundred people training online. Extreme Fitness launched memberships, something Marty had never done before, preferring pay-as-you-go fees.
A client donated professional camera and wireless microphone equipment. The McLoughlins had a studio built and professionally lit.
“It gave it the look and sound of real television,” he said.
By March 2021, there were hundreds of online customers. The classes were moved to Facebook, the gym’s strongest social media link.
He, his wife and his trainers went to work every day. Suddenly, things changed.
“We wound up with this whole new source of revenue we never had before. I had tried online training prior to COVID, but if you’re not Tony Horton or The Rock, nobody knows who you are, so I couldn’t break into it. So, this, it turned out, was the doorway to success,” he said.
The gym was earning $10,000 more per month than it was pre-COVID.
Extreme Fitness was growing, but it was also dealing with an ex-employee who opened up a similar fitness center next door.
“We knew we had to find a new place,” he said.
He wanted another warehouse, but couldn’t get one.
“Amazon was buying everything up. We’d talk to people and they’d say, ‘Sorry, Amazon just took it,’” he said.
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Even when landlords had something available, they wouldn’t rent, believing the lockdowns doomed fitness centers to extinction.
Finally, a former supermarket on New Falls Road was available. With the help of Falls Township (Marty grew up in Levittown and is a big township booster) they landed on New Falls Road with 11,000 square feet.
He showed me around, then sat behind his desk in an open office on the gym floor. Behind him is a huge photo of him and Jack LaLanne.
“I’m lucky,” he said.
If the harder you work the luckier you get, sure.
Columnist JD Mullane can be reached at 215-949-5745 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.