Years ago, when I first joined Men’s Fitness as a staff writer, part of my role was to review new fitness classes. Every issue I was the mag’s group training guinea pig, and over one three-month period I was the solitary man in classes based on ballet, samba dancing and cheerleading. I was never truly tested by these sessions and in all honesty, it seemed more like a feature meant to entertain more than educate – judging by the permanently amused reaction of my colleagues, at least. (Personally, I thought the cheerleader outfit suited me.)
But times have changed. While group training has always been popular with women, its appeal is growing among men – either as their first step towards better health and fitness, or because they’re fed up with never getting the results they want when they train by themselves.
It’s not surprising when you consider that UK gym membership is at an all-time high: 9.7 million people in Britain are gym members, which is a 5.1% increase on 2016 and equates to 14.9% – or one in seven – of the population, according to the 2017 State of the UK Fitness Industry Report.
And the science suggests a compelling reason why more and more gym-goers are preferring to join group classes rather than lifting alone: people who exercise in a group reported a 25% increase in their sense of physical wellbeing and a 26% increase in mental wellbeing, according to a study in the Journal Of The American Osteopathic Association, with subjects’ perceived stress levels falling by 26% compared with those who train alone.
Of all the new brands in the growing group training arena, F45 is leading the charge. Originally created in Australia, F45 – the F stands for functional training, while 45 is the number of minutes a session lasts – is capitalising on both the growing interest in group workouts and the benefits of functional training, which offers the fat-burning effects of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and the muscle-building response of resistance training.
Although it only launched in 2012 the brand already has franchises in 36 countries, with 500 gyms opened and another 500 on the way. Having spent the past few months training at one of the first franchises in the UK, Farringdon in central London, I know why more men are giving group training a go. Nick Robinson, co-owner of F45 Farringdon, says that the membership split has changed since the gym opened last summer from 75% female to a 60-40 split today.
“More men are coming to F45 because they realise that high-intensity functional training is one of the best ways to get the physique and performance improvements they want quickly,” says Robinson. “Our classes are relaxed and fun, yet they kick your arse. And we all feel part of the same team – no-one gets judged – and there’s a social scene too. That makes it attractive to prospective members and keeps existing members coming back.”
The F45 model is simple: each day the same circuit-style workout is beamed to F45 gyms around the world, so every class does that same session. Each week, half the workouts are cardio-based and half are resistance. The beauty is that while you know the focus and format of each weekday’s workout (Tuesdays are always based on weights, for instance, with similar work and rest timings), the exercises are always different – so you never do the same session twice.
F45 founder Rob Deutsch opened the first F45 facility in Sydney in 2012, believing it would fill a huge gap in the fitness market. “There was a fundamental flaw in the gym business globally where people faced two choices: use a cheap commercial gym where there was no innovation and no motivation and no-one was getting results, or pay a huge amount of money per session to get one-on-one coaching, which is out of reach for the majority of people.”
To fill that gap, he looked at the CrossFit model – but made some significant changes. “CrossFit was doing a lot of things I liked – it was innovative, it was building communities within gyms, and people were getting results and coming back for more,” he says. “But the downside was that it was becoming a bit like a cult and was intimidating for people who didn’t feel part of the scene. There was also an emphasis on heavy lifting and the facilities weren’t very sexy, with no technology. F45 is about balance: our sessions are tough enough to get great results but in a fun and innovative environment so people come back for more.”
For years my training has been either road running or solo weightlifting – I have to admit I never thought group classes would challenge me. But after three months of doing F45 at least three times a week I am yet to finish a workout not drenched in sweat, and I’ve even had to change my top mid-session.
I’ve lost body fat, especially from around my stomach, thanks to the lung-busting cardio days, and I’ve added lean muscle from the resistance classes. Each session ends with stretching, so I’ve also become more mobile and flexible as a result. I am leaner, fitter and healthier, and I couldn’t have got these results training by myself, or without paying a small fortune each week to a personal trainer.
Robinson, who is set to open two new F45 franchises in London (Ravenscourt Park and Chelsea) in the next few months, says my reaction is common among new male members. “All the new guys come out buzzing with an endorphin rush, because most have never trained this way before and it’s opened their eyes to how fun and challenging group training can be,” he says. “There’s no monotony with F45 – you never do the same workout twice, and that helps to keep your motivation and enthusiasm levels sky-high so you push yourself so much harder than you would training alone.”
Does this mean I will never lift weights alone again? Not at all – sometimes plugging in the earphones and getting under the bar is the only thing I want to do. But I’ll certainly keep doing the group classes too. It’s great to just turn up and get moving without needing a session plan or having to wait for kit to become free, and I often push myself harder. And that’s what it takes to get great results.
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From 2008 to 2018, Joel worked for Men's Fitness, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Though he spent years running the hills of Bath, he’s since ditched his trainers for a succession of Converse high-tops, since they’re better suited to his love of pulling vans, lifting cars, and hefting logs in a succession of strongman competitions.