April 2019

The Nation Reviewed

The F45 gym revolution

By Helen Sullivan
Illustration
The Australian fitness franchise is high-fiving its way around the world

F45 Training, a franchise founded in Australia in 2011 by former equities trader Robert Deutsch, boasts close to 1500 studios in 40 countries. Approximately half are antipodean. And all day, every day, at every F45 gym, people do the exact same 45-minute class: from Adelaide to Atlanta, Brisbane to Beijing, Canberra to Cape Town, and so on.

On a recent Wednesday, along with my fellow F45 patrons on Australian Eastern Standard Time, I was making my way through the All Star class, “an exciting resistance session, using antagonistic muscle pairing techniques to obtain results” at F45 Bondi Beach, the franchise’s busiest studio worldwide. The gyms, decorated in all-American red, white and blue, have star-­spangled phrases like “teamwork” and “life changing” on the walls. The classes – with names like Firestorm, Wingman, Miami Nights and Athletica – each have logos, most of which are drawn in the style of American high-school football teams. It’s cheesy, but it was working: I felt, just a little, like I was in a sport film’s inspirational training montage.

As Toto’s “Africa” played on F45 Radio, I lay back, lifted a barbell above my head, and thought of the Daily Star. In June last year, the British tabloid published an article about a Reddit survey that declared the words women most want to hear in bed are “good girl”. These words were on my mind because the instructors – a man and woman – kept shouting them: “Gooood girl. Good! GIRL!”

Everything about F45 seems perfectly designed to appeal to its core demographic, which is, if not strictly millennial, certainly on the younger side of 45. Short bursts of exercise change constantly, keeping social media–addled brains engaged; recognisable, friendly ’90s and early ’00s radio hits play loudly; every moment of the time is utilised perfectly.

Class begins with everyone sitting to watch a demonstration of the exercises that will take up the next 40 minutes (a timer counts down five minutes for the demonstration). From there, divided into “teams”, we make our way to “stations” within “pods”, where we do plank poses while dragging a bag of sand, hop over miniature hurdles, or lift and wave two massive chains, in a row like an amateur theatre troupe making a flowing water scene. Throughout the class, a computerised avatar of LA-based fitness influencer Cory George performs the various exercises on screens, while a timer counts down: to exercise, to move between stations and, now and again, to HYDRATE.

F45 is easy to mock. Its devotees, if not exactly a cult, are close-knit, unsettlingly upbeat and convinced enough to part with around $70 per week for memberships. (Then again, this ticks two millennial boxes: if you can’t afford to buy a house, no matter how hard you save, why not spend your money? If you’re not drinking – as my generation apparently isn’t – you have the money and energy for commodified fitness.) When I signed into that first class at F45 Bondi, a woman was announcing that she was “obsessed with smoothies at the moment. It’s bad.” Another was telling a friend that she personally knew the man who introduced acai to Australia. At the end of that class, the tall football player–looking man to my right and the short high-ponytailed woman to my left high-fived each other, and then me. As we filed out into the pale yellow light of a late Bondi afternoon, the instructor high-fived every single one of us, bidding a final “good girl” to several of the women.

What makes F45 such a successful franchise model, says Jane Herden, who owns branches in Petersham and Leichhardt in Sydney’s inner west, is that because there are no fixtures or heavy electronic equipment, the space needed is much smaller, and the equipment costs are far lower than those of a traditional gym. “I wish I’d bought more,” she adds. “I wish I’d taken a leap of faith and bought five at once.” Now, she doubts there are any areas left in Sydney where F45s can be set up – each one has to be beyond a certain distance from the next.

F45 Petersham feels a world away from F45 Bondi. It is gentler, smaller. Shani McCaig, general manager at Petersham and Leichhardt, says that the other reason F45 is successful is because of its “community feel”. Their operations try to pair people together who will complement each other’s needs in the class: two new mums; a person who usually wears glasses with someone who can help them make out the exercises. They had 70 people come to their Christmas party, says McCaig, and she “bawled [her] eyes out” during Herden’s speech: she’s worked really hard to grow the gyms to 470 members altogether.

During classes, trainer Aimee Eastcott is attentive and calm, delivering instructions with the presence and projection of an actor. In addition to her instructor role, she works part-time as a social worker, in alcohol and drug services. She attended F45 Newtown for three years before deciding to become a trainer – and after earning the necessary fitness certificates, which she got at the Australian Institute of Fitness, at a cost of around $10,000. The high fives, says Eastcott, offer clients a sense of achievement. “They also break that barrier with physical touch,” adds McCaig. (Herden says her 15-year-old daughter usually sneaks out of class before anyone can manage to slap her palm.)

If there is one worrying thing about F45, it’s not the high fives. It’s that little time is spent making sure the exercises are done properly – they are learnt quickly and done in short bursts. Yes, there are corrections, but it’s a precarious ratio of clients to instructors to exercises and repetitions: even more so at Bondi, where the focus seems to be, understandably, on getting a large group of people to move smoothly from one activity to the next. I often found myself craning my neck towards the screen to figure out what I was meant to be doing – after I had started the exercise, and with just a few seconds left to go. The New Zealand Herald reported in February that F45-related injuries cost taxpayers just under $30,000 over the past five years, via claims made to the Accident Compensation Corporation. Forty-six of the 51 F45-related claims occurred in the year ending June 2018.

But Professor Evangelos Pappas, head of physiotherapy at the University of Sydney’s health sciences faculty, thinks F45 is a fine thing, overall. The fast transitions are a necessary part of high-intensity interval training, he explains. He went to a class after I contacted him for his opinion, and that word “community” came up again. He felt that F45 “builds the sense of community, healthy competition”. If people enjoy an exercise, Pappas believes, they should just do it – they’re more likely to stick with it.

This year, F45 launched vegan meals. It has also announced F45 Prodigy: classes for children aged 11 to 18. Both Herden and McCaig mentioned to me that high-school girls were coming to classes, spending money from their after-school jobs on fitness. I wondered whether this was messaging from HQ. Then again, I’d encountered such girls. At one Bondi class, two high-schoolers in my team discussed whether they should let the new girl at school into their friendship group. “I just don’t want to end up hating her,” said one.

After five classes my body did look better, neater: my muscles were more defined. Maybe it was the fact that the men in one of my pods kept taking the light weights and short hurdles – the equipment designed for women, basically. The photogenic muscle tone is a key part of F45’s appeal: its social-media presence is overwhelming. Its hashtag has half a million posts on Instagram. With variants, such as #F45Challenge, referring to the eight-week weight-loss program offered by the company, that number is doubled.

And so, in the late 2010s, as the world burned, we went to F45, where the music was from a simpler time. Nothing was falling apart and we had not a moment to think or fret. Once, the instructor brayed at me: “Goooood. Helllenn.” I blushed.

Helen Sullivan

Helen Sullivan is a Sydney-based freelance writer. She has appeared in The New Yorker and The Guardian

@helenrsullivan

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