Monday, 5 Dec 2022

The empire is in deep trouble, so why do people love F45?

Australian fitness giant F45 is known for its fast-paced moves, though not the kind it is currently receiving attention for. It has found itself in deep trouble as swiftly as it has risen to global fitness prominence.

One year ago, the company was valued at $2 billion. Now, share prices have dropped 86.64 per cent.

F45 ambassador, rugby player Cameron Murray is one of many celebrities who have helped the brand become a household name.Credit:

It was revealed last week that chief executive Adam Gilchrist (not the cricketer) is stepping down, expansion plans have been largely scrapped and nearly half of F45’s employees will lose their jobs.

Steadily falling share prices, rash expansion and the brutal effects of COVID on the fitness industry have been blamed for the turmoil they find themselves in. Yet, F45 retains a cult-like following around the world that has fuelled its expansion from one studio, in Sydney’s Paddington, to 1555 studios around the world within a decade.

Why do people love F45 so much? Why is it different to other gyms?

It hasn’t hurt the brand to have ambassadors and partners that have included local and international icons like Stephanie Rice, Mick Fanning, Morgan Mitchell, Cameron Murray, Mark Wahlberg, Cindy Crawford, Magic Johnson and David Beckham.

The cult-like status of certain fitness brands, including F45, also exists partly because they are so different to traditional gyms. Their unique approaches, smaller communities and strong branding (F45 has its own merch store where you can buy hats, towels, flasks, bags and athletic gear emblazoned with the logo) are appealing, and can give members a greater sense of social capital (the opportunity for social networking and bonding) and enhanced belonging.

It has also been suggested that the more brutal the workout, the more empowered a person feels. And though this may only apply to certain types of people, there is no doubting that F45 workouts can be brutal.

One member, whose testimonial is featured on the F45 website, promises the workouts will “kick your butt”.

When the franchise started in 2013, the 45-minute functional high-intensity interval classes, which alternate between cardio, resistance, and hybrid, were based on a motto of “no mirrors, no microphones, no egos”.

Cofounder, Rob Deutsch, who left the business in 2020, recalls the original vision of the brand: “The workouts were super innovative, and it was revolutionary in the fact you didn’t need any other gym/boutique fitness membership(s).”

Its other founder, Luke Istomin, who left in 2016, says they wanted to give members “a great experience primarily based on HIIT cardio with no two workouts ever being the same”.

As the business rode the HIIT wave, and an ever-expanding body of research supporting both high intensity interval training and the effectiveness of shorter workouts, F45 also provided its members with something else.

When I asked what the appeal of the brand was, multiple members said a variation of the same thing: “I don’t have to think, I just have to show up.” And when they show up, they like the people as well as the variety, structure of the workouts, and the music.

“Walk in, walk out and exercise is done,” one member said. “I love that it’s programmed for me. Love the energy. The trainers and members are good value and foster great community.”

But former members had other things to say too. They said they flogged themselves, and it wasn’t sustainable; the calibre of the trainers was inconsistent; the fast-paced model values profits over people meaning those who are less fit or new to training are more likely to get injured; and there was little or no guidance around technique.

Istomin has since created a fitness model, REUNION, which he says is based on the lessons he learned from F45.

The flip side to the high “fun factor” at F45 was a lack of focus on improving strength or skill sets, he says.

“The retention rate was quite low as the constant high intensity and high-impact work led people to burning out, or becoming injured as they were trying new exercises every day and not developing the skills to master the movement sufficiently,” Istomin says. His new fitness model is about “building you up, not burning you out.”

It may be too soon to say whether F45 has peaked and the tumult they now find themselves in spells the beginning of the end.

Istomin thinks it might be the brand’s kick up the butt to reinvent itself and fix the problems that have plagued it: “It’s a new beginning for F45 now,” he says, “and that’s something long overdue.”

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