This year, the SweatShop Health Club in Saint Paul, Minnesota, celebrates 40 years in business, a remarkable feat for any small business, and one made that much meaningful for owner Gayle Winegar who grew up at a time when there were next to no sports and fitness opportunities for girls and women.
That changed in 1972, when the U.S. Congress passed Title IX, a civil rights law prohibiting sex-based discrimination at public schools and in school athletics. Soon after, in the early 1980s, the aerobics industry took off— with women leading the way in their spandex unitards.
“I was motivated to get into the fitness industry because of the health value it provides and the ability it has to empower women. As a woman who had never been given a platform to participate in sports, that was really important to me because I believe the fastest way for a woman to sense her power and build her confidence is through her body,” Gayle says.
Entering the 1980s as a recent anthropology graduate, Gayle was ready to “set the world on fire” as the next Margaret Mead, a famous American cultural anthropologist, but she got distracted by the world of fitness. While traveling the country for her job, she would drop into Jane Fonda’s studio in Beverly Hills, California.
“It was there that I really saw how fitness could be a vehicle for female empowerment,” she says.
After visiting fitness studios during her travels and seeing Jane Fonda’s workouts practiced worldwide, it became clear to her that this was the beginning of something huge.
Emboldened and empowered by her fitness experience and cultural observations, Gayle decided to open her own fitness studio with two partners.
Training the best fitness professionals in the business
One of the major hurdles of starting her own fitness studio was hiring qualified fitness instructors. There were no accreditation or fitness training programs, so the SweatShop team decided to create their own.
“When we started, I knew we had to get three things right: Always have the best staff, the best training program, and the best messaging, marketing and PR,” she says. This resonated with many women who were eager to leave the corporate world and start careers in fitness.
By the late 80s, Gayle’s sister and SweatShop Fitness Director Jill Winegar, took a class with an early Pilates pioneer, Cathleen Murakami. “Jill reported back to our team, ‘I think this Pilates thing is going to be big. I think it’s going somewhere,’” Gayle recalls.
She didn’t know it then, but this observation would change the entire direction of the SweatShop business. Serendipity also played a part as Trainer Molly Lynn, then in her 70s, had trained at Joseph Pilates’ studio and brought that knowledge to the SweatShop’s program.
Gayle started researching different Pilates instructor training programs— many of which had also just started forming— and discovered Merrithew™’s STOTT PILATES®. Intrigued by the level of detail and depth of this contemporary Pilates method, she invited Master Instructor Trainer and Co-founder Moira Merrithew to teach it to the SweatShop staff in the early 1990s.
“Moira was so impressive with her reach, her vision and her detail that we said, ‘Yup, she’s our person,’” Gayle says.
“Moira came down and taught the first training in the United States at the SweatShop. Jill Winegar, now a Merrithew Lead Instructor Trainer for decades, went through this first STOTT PILATES Instructor Training course.
“It was so much fun. We grew up in this business together. I have a lot of respect for Moira, Lindsay Merrithew, Olivia Merrithew, Lesley Hopps, and Beth Gibbs, all of whom have been like adjunct staff over the years. We have collaborated and pushed each other to do our best. Over the last decades, we have developed a longstanding relationship and valued partnership built on trust, communication and collaboration,” Gayle says.
The discovery and integration of Pilates into the SweatShop offering became the “most pivotal change in our business in 40 years,” Gayle says.
“It changed the whole direction of the business and we wouldn’t be here today if we hadn’t taken that leap into Pilates. We went from being a fitness-based studio to a Pilates-based studio with fitness.”
The SweatShop became one of the early Merrithew Licensed Training Centers, expanding from STOTT PILATES to offer all of the Merrithew modalities, including Halo® Training, Total Barre®, Merrithew Fascial Movement and ZEN•GA®, reaching even more fitness professionals and consumers.
The fitness world is very noisy and there is a lot of competition. By affiliating with Merrithew and the very best Pilates program, STOTT PILATES, from the beginning, it defined and set us up for success over the next two decades.
“It was a natural progression for us and we completely got behind and supported the STOTT PILATES movement to teach and promote intelligent exercise with profound results.”
What’s made the SweatShop so successful as a Pilates studio and Training Center?
“The fact that we’re still standing here with a very solid team is against all odds in every single way. We’re a small, women-owned business, but 40 years later, we still have an excellent reputation and we’ve influenced thousands of people’s lives in our corner of the universe,” Gayle says.
“A lot of it is persistence. It’s way more important than success because not everything you do in business will be successful. We’ve had bad times where things have been miserable, where we were losing money, and couldn’t find good staff. When you look back, all you see is the success of 40 years, but it discounts all the struggle that went into keeping a small business afloat.”
Gayle believes her education as an anthropologist helped her and her team develop a winning culture at the SweatShop that’s been pivotal to the studio’s success.
“We teach our staff ‘collaborative coaching culture’ principles. We have codified the way we function and the language we use to speak to and interact with clients. Every staff member is taught and lives by these mutually agreed upon guiding principles and this has contributed to our longevity. We invited hundreds of former staff to our 40th anniversary alumni events this August. All of these people have worked for us in some capacity over the last four decades at seven locations.”
Gayle also believes that the SweatShop’s ability to lead people through change, develop community and relationships with clients and students, and solve problems has made the studio a leader in its field. This mentality helped staff pivot classes online and get through the pandemic, she says.
“I’ve done a lot of challenging things, including living on a sailboat that nearly sank, but nothing has been as demanding as the last 16 months. Having had that experience of living on a sailboat, I knew that in order to prevail with ever-changing and unpredictable external forces, we had to work together to figure out how to navigate— and that’s exactly what we did. My team did the most amazing job because of these cultural tenets we have in place and the relationships we’ve developed with clients.”
Gayle hopes the next generation of studio owners and Licensed Training Center owners adopt these attributes— focusing on collaboration, dedication to clients’ and students’ success and education, and fostering a community that’s curious and cares about one another.
“The Licensed Training Center owners of the last 25 years are amazing leaders. They’re visionaries in their business worlds, and they’ve built what people need— community, connection, opportunities to learn and grow without a finish line. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next generation of studio owners and LTC owners can do and how they drive the fitness and Pilates industry forward.”
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