Dawn Fichot, HSBC’s former global head of advertising, was always taken aback when fellow spinners at her local SoulCycle ignored the instructor’s advice to make time for a good post-cycle stretch. As the music softened, the athleisure-clad group would begin unclipping their shoes and grabbing their water bottles. Few abided in the communal calf movements.
Until one time, one instructor lost it.
“She started yelling at everybody in the class for not stretching, and I was like, she’s right! Why don’t they do this?” recalls Fichot. “By the time the 45-minute session was over, I walked out with a basic business model fully formed in my mind.”
Last year, Fichot partnered with chiropractor Keren Day to launch Racked, a mobile stretching concept that aims to finesse the often-ignored post-workout ritual. The New York-based group offers one-on-one deep stretching, in which a trainer manually pushes your limbs. These sessions can be customized for a wide range of specific needs, be it running, cycling, tennis, or just relaxation. Prices start at $40 for a 20-minute stretch.
“We do a lot of things to our body that are slightly unnatural, like sitting for 10 or 12 hours a day looking at screens, or carrying our phone around,” says Fichot. “This isn’t the way that our bodies are meant to be moving.”
Over 80% of Americans don’t get enough exercise, and likely don’t do enough stretching either, despite its ability to improve blood circulation, mobility, and flexibility. Those who do work out regularly need it: Repetitive motions can cause damage to the body. Even just 20 minutes of stretching a week can counteract damage and prevent potential injuries. Not to mention, “people say they sleep better, and it just feels great, too,” notes Fichot.
The rise of recovery
Racked is one of many new stretching studios sprouting across the country as recovery’s popularity widens. ClassPass named it the fastest-growing trend last year, reporting a 16% rise in restorative and recovery classes booked. The category is no longer restricted to professional athletes or physical therapy offices. Recovery has been reimagined as chic floatation tank studios, biohacking centers, and cryotherapy chambers. It’s received the boutique fitness makeover.
Lauren Shroyer, director of product development for the American Council on Exercise, sees the trend growing in a hyper-connected society. “Our minds are always on the go, increasing the amount of adrenaline in the body,” she tells Fast Company via email. “That cycle is exhausting. All recovery is a respite for the mind and the body, perhaps what people are looking for is a mental recovery as much as they are looking for muscle recovery.”
Amanda Freeman, founder of the popular boutique fitness chain SLT, saw the same thing Fichot did. Her clients consistently skipped the last few minutes of class devoted to gentle stretching, with some of her own instructors excusing clients before they even left.
“I was like, what? Everyone needs to stretch–it’s part of the class!” recalls Freeman.
At the same time, she noticed the exact opposite trend at her gym: People eagerly stretched with their trainers. They took it seriously, and perhaps more noticeably, they enjoyed it.
“The big difference between the two is that being stretched out by someone else is an experience that people relish, whereas stretching yourself out is something people tend to avoid,” notes Freeman.
In May, the serial wellness entrepreneur opened New York’s Stretch*d studio in hopes of bridging the gap between exercise and self-care. Like Racked, it’s a one-on-one model in which instructors hold a client down, using a strap to lengthen limbs for more effective stretches. These are moves one cannot perform on their own.
Stretch*d, much likes its competitors, hires employees who have some background in body work, be it yoga or personal training. At some places, you’ll find a former dance instructor who can easily point out all the muscles in one’s body as he or she pushes a leg across the chest.
Educating the public
Deep stretching by a professional, which differs from self-stretching or even yoga in its effectiveness, is not something most Americans have experienced. That makes it a somewhat difficult sell: It’s not a massage, but it’s also not fitness. It’s exercise-like, in that it’s good for you, but someone else is doing the work.
“When you experience it, you get it,” says Freeman.
In that sense, studios such as Stretch*d and Racked must first get people through the door. They, along with other newcomers, need to educate the public on the many uses and lasting effects of a deep stretch. In some ways, it’s reeducating people, as they’ve often been taught the practice is of little importance.
“It’s not like you open the door and people show up,” Fichot says. “There’s definitely education that has to happen and we have found that when people try it once, they come back. If people try it twice, they come back regularly. So, the proof is in the trial and the doing.”
That struggle for awareness is precisely what propelled Xponential Fitness–the fitness brand portfolio that includes Row House, CycleBar, and PureBarre–to invest in the three-year-old StretchLab. (The Irvine, California-based group is responsible for turning Club Pilates into the fastest-growing Pilates franchise, with plans to add 500 clubs this year to its already 300 existing locations.)
Categories like boxing are far more popular, though that’s exactly why Anthony Geisler, CEO of Xponential Fitness, avoids them. There’s more promise in less saturated markets.
“I look for things that are not working,” says Geisler, “because that’s where the opportunity is.”
When Xponential Fitness first acquired what’s since been renamed StretchLab, it quickly refashioned the business model. To start, it added memberships in lieu of packages, and introduced group classes in addition to the one-on-one labor model. The staff workers were quickly renamed “flexologists.”
Interiors were also fully redesigned to better encompass the community-inducing boutique gym concept; StretchLab exudes a homey decor space that’s somewhere between a gym and salon. Locations feature wood floors, midcentury furniture, and modern pop art meant to give off a certain energy, explains its president, Lou DeFrancisco. There’s no Enya over the loudspeakers. Instead, you’ll hear upbeat music, but not so loud that you can’t hear others.
“We don’t want a spa-like serene, quiet feel . . . We also didn’t want a clinical feel,” explains DeFrancisco. “We also don’t want to be associated with physical therapy. This is stretching and that’s all we do is stretching.”
Stretch*d’s approach focuses on a stylish storefront and interesting menu items beyond stretching. (One treatment dubbed the “anti-aging stretch” encompasses LED-light facial toning to combat wrinkles and fine lines along with lower body exercises.)
Racked, meanwhile, opted for a partnership model to lower costs: It works within established fitness studios such as Mile High Run Club and Body by Simone as a complementary client service. Fichot is in the early stages of fundraising with hopes of ultimately opening a flagship location, but her business model surrounds underutilized space in gyms or other stores that serve a similar clientele. It also works within various companies in the tech, law, and finance sectors by setting up shop in an office for 10- to 20-minute sessions.
“It’s a great way for us to build our business both in terms of client base and just bringing in revenue,” says Fichot.
StretchLab also invested in the pop-up model, bringing its services to boutique gyms, YMCAs, or companies where people sit too much. Xponential is taking an aggressive approach to expansion, with 150 nationwide locations slated to open by the end of 2019, in addition to on-site services.
In fact, Geisler predicts stretching could grow as big as Pilates, if not bigger. The category sees an equal amount of male and female attendees, and if the “self-care” trend continues as its current pace, consumers will only seek more and more recovery methods. Even Massage Envy, with its 1,000-plus locations, recently added a stretching option.
“The thing I love about stretch is that it is literally complementary to everything,” says Geisler, noting its importance in nearly every fitness category. “It’s the only modality where nobody tells you it’s bad for you or you could do too much of it. It’s almost like vegetables–people don’t say, oh you’re consuming too much fresh food . . . With stretching, people feel like they did something good for themselves.”