Deadlift at Jekel Strength Club

"Proto Paul" assists with a deadlift workout.

You’ll have questions after walking into Jekel Strength Club. The Lynnwood studio doesn’t house the stacks of dumbbells and walls of treadmills you'll find at many other gyms. Instead, Ross and Paul Jekel train their clients on rare exercise equipment, including ARX and 1080 Quantum machines that adapt resistance to people’s movements and track their performance with software. “We have equipment nobody's ever seen before,” says Paul.

When the Jekels opened the gym in 2019, the father-son duo intended to coach clients through that unfamiliarity from just an arm's length away. But the coronavirus pandemic would soon put more distance between trainers and students than ever before. Gyms opened, and closed, and opened again, with limits on the amount of people allowed within indoor spaces (local fitness facilities are currently operating at 25-percent capacity).

The Jekels' club was still in "startup mode" when the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order went into effect, says Ross, Paul's father. That came with a benefit—they were the only staffers, so no layoffs—but also a glaring drawback: Their upfront investment in coveted, pricey machinery would be a sunk cost if nobody could actually access it. 

Their business reopened after the state's initial shutdown, but the trainers knew that social distancing measures and remote training weren't going away. How could they keep eyes and ears on their clients' form on the machines without crowding them? “We thought about putting cameras up everywhere, and I would just watch them through a security camera with a mic,” says Ross. “And it just wasn't personal enough.”

So the Jekels called upon an unlikely source to preserve that human touch: robots. Since last spring, a pair of Ohmni Robots have allowed Ross and Paul to assess workouts virtually without shedding potentially infectious aerosols in the process. "Proto Paul" and "Robo Ross" wheel around the Lynnwood gym with screens attached to their long necks. The customers see and hear their trainers on those displays, and the trainers can tilt the sub-five-foot robot's "head" to scan the room like a person normally would.

ARX machine

Not your average machine.

The telepresence robots were developed by Silicon Valley-based OhmniLabs, which has seen its creation in new settings since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. COO Tra Vu says gyms, art galleries, retail stores, and hospitals have all acquired the $2,699 product to help practice social distancing, as have educators schooling students at home.

The Jekels have used the robots to draw some of their club's most risk-averse members, who range from people in their teens to their 70s, back to the space. The robot's "cute" design, Ross says, has helped clients get over any attendant weirdness that comes with communicating through the technology. "We get some very, very animated conversations with people face-to-face with no mask that just is such a relief for some of these people," says Ross. "Some of them are elderly, they're pretty much in the house all the time and [the] club is their only trip for the week."

They're not the only ones comfortable with the bots. A building inspector stopped by one time just as Paul was about to lead a remote workout. He spoke to the inspector via the robot. "Paul's like, 'Yep, that's great, I'm working remotely today.' And it just sort of seemed natural, almost," recalls Ross. "I was kind of surprised by that. Because, you know, to go to a business that their front desk person is a robot is pretty unusual, I'm sure."

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