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A Startup Brings Circuit-Training to the Masses

This story appears in the November 2013 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Shannon Hudson was ripped. After a lifetime of martial arts and more than 80 professional kickboxing bouts, the South Carolina native was in the top shape of his life. However, he noticed, most of the people around him weren't--in fact, they weren't even close. "I thought, How do I bring the training I do to the average person?" he remembers. "I had circuit-training concepts like Curves caught in my head, that 30-minute workout model."

He took the plunge in 2008. "I begged and borrowed to open my first gym in Greenville," he says. "Within one month we had 100 members, and no sign of slowing down."

In the five years since, Hudson's concept, 9Round, has kept growing. It now has 70 U.S. units open and another 50 sold.

Taking its cue from boxing and kickboxing, 9Round moves members through a nine-stage workout; several stations utilize a variety of punching bags. Trainers are always on site, motivating clients to get the lead out, and routines change daily, giving members a fresh workout every time they come in. Earlier this year, Snap Fitness bought a minority stake in 9Round, giving it some extra franchising firepower.

We convinced Hudson to stop kicking us long enough to explain how 9Round works.

There are a lot of gym concepts out there. Why buy a 9Round?

First is our low cost. All of our units are about 1,200 square feet. We keep them small, which reduces overhead and keeps rent, heat and air conditioning costs low. And 9Round can be operated with minimal staff. One trainer on the floor can see every station and can make sure everyone's doing the exercises right. They're right there in the mix, coaching. They have to have great customer service. We like to say we're in the people business, not the fitness industry.

How do you describe your culture?

All of our gyms are more female than male, and that has a lot to do with my wife and partner, Heather. She's had a big influence on why women are drawn to us. It's all about fun and fitness. We try to make it feel like a nightclub in our gyms, but without the drinks.

What about the exercises?

Some of the bags and exercises boxers use seem strange or secretive. Certain bags have specialized purposes, like the double-N bag, which is hooked to the ceiling and floor. We bring those things to the average person, so they feel like a real fighter, like they're doing something Muhammad Ali would have done.

Everything is full body. At one station you might do 10 front kicks and three push-ups in three minutes, which will really wear you down. The next day, you might do 20 hooks and five jump squats at that station. Our trainers have to have really high energy.

Is 9Round for all fitness levels?

Since there are no machines, which limit variations, our trainers are there to push you. We cater to any fitness level and can amp it up. We have a lady in her 60s who had a knee replacement, so the trainer substitutes in exercises for her. We also have triathletes who come in because they love the cross-training.

Are you still kickboxing?

I won the International Kickboxing Federation Light Middleweight World Championship in 2011. When franchisees come here to train, they see the belt on the wall and the world title, and it's fun. But I'm semi-retired now. I have two kids and a thriving business, and training at that level takes so much time and mental energy. But I'm still competitive--I just put that drive into my business.

Written By

Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.