F45, a fast-growing HIIT franchise, is poised to have more studios than Pure Barre and SoulCycle combined.
From the first time you encounter trainer Cory George in the gym, it’s immediately evident why he’s the one demoing the workouts. A 6-foot-3 former football and volleyball player from Grass Valley, California, the muscular 27-year-old looks like a personal trainer created by an algorithm (his unerring form during ab exercises and cardio-heavy warmups betrayed no hint of effort or exhaustion).
His form, in fact, is copied by hundreds of thousands every day, across the globe, most of whom he’s never met. George has become the body behind F45, a rapidly expanding Australian workout class that claims to be the globe’s fastest-growing fitness franchise, boasting 300,000 active members worldwide.
Every gym — from the first location, which opened in 2012 in Sydney, to the Venice, California, location where George teaches — plasters the walls with flat-screen TVs showing recordings of the trainer demonstrating that day’s routine, one of roughly 30 different sets offered by F45. George knows exactly how varied the constantly evolving routines can get; in 2017, he filmed every one of the then-3,800 exercises in F45’s repertoire over a 2.5-month period in an LA warehouse.
A 45-minute, high-speed series of punishing, “functional” exercises that engage multiple muscle groups — hence F45 — the Down Under export currently has 1,300-plus outlets across the globe, with 570 gyms active or planning to open in the US. For comparison, Pure Barre has roughly 460 US locations, and SoulCycle has 88 studios. I’ve attended F45 classes in the Venice studio and saw George’s face and form onscreen, modeling perfect burpees, effortless squats, and nonchalant hammer swings, before I met him in person.
The program feels a bit like a workout designed by a computer. Everything is optimized, from the ever-changing routines — which involve circuit training across a series of stations stocked with barbells, ropes, rowing machines, and more — to the curated hip-hop playlists that shake the room (Saturday classes feature a live DJ). During classes, the screens that catch George in an endless loop count down each and every second of each and every exercise. The constantly changing workout, George believes, motivates members, many of whom socialize over the latest F45 fitness challenge or via meetups outside the gym that George and other instructors organize.
“Nowadays, people lift in big-box gyms to look good,” George says. “It defeats the purpose. You should exercise to feel better.”
F45 taking advantage of a titanic shift in the fitness world
F45, as founder Rob Deutsch says via email from Sydney, succeeds by offering effective, and in many ways mindless, workout routines. Members are challenged as they exercise together in a team training scenario, but one of the big attractions for the mostly 21- to 35-year-olds who shell out $200 to $250 per month for classes are the preset routines, guidance from trainers, and ruthless efficiency.
“Everyone is time-poor these days, so the efficient nature of a 45-minute workout, where a member can just enter their studio and start, is a real time-saver,” he says.
Many workouts and fitness programs have, to varying degrees, tried to incorporate the personalization, tech, and community aspect of social media into a space long dominated by big-box gyms and crash-and-burn trends. As F45 expands to new cities this year, including Austin and Nashville, as well opening locations within colleges and universities, it’s seeking to be the more friendly, accessible, and tech-accentuated routine for the Fitbit generation. It’s also the latest concept, from CrossFit to SoulCycle, seeking to capitalize on an industry navigating a changing business and cultural landscape.
“Fitness is going through a titanic shift,” says Bryan O’Rourke, an industry veteran and president of the Fitness Industry Technology Council. “The idea of fitness just being brick-and-mortar locations that charge people for [gym] membership isn’t going to be the definition of the market anymore.”
“Think of what’s happening to music; consumers get what they want when they want it,” O’Rourke explains. “More and more, it’s about personalization, community, and convenience: F45 has done a good job of bringing together all these trends.”
The rise of HIIT
If F45 sounds like CrossFit, that’s because both are based on similar research and science, and can be categorized as the same style of workout: high-intensity interval training, or HIIT. As the name and acronym suggest, HIIT consists of a rapid-fire sequence of different exercises, which rotate through different muscle group and shock the body into shape.
CrossFit, which started in 2000, branded itself as a more extreme, exclusive version of HIIT training, offering classes in black, industrial-style gyms nicknamed boxes — critics complained of a cult-like atmosphere and strenuous and injury-prone workouts. F45 tries to sell itself as a more accessible style of communal exercise than CrossFit; not a lifestyle in itself, just an easier way to optimize the one you already have. As Deutsch says, the workouts are about “training smarter, not harder.”
Ryan Roth, the lead industry analyst for IBISWorld, a market research firm, predicts that the personal training segment of the fitness industry, which includes HIIT classes, will expand, due in part to the decreasing time Americans spend at the gym. Despite rising awareness and spending on a fitter lifestyle — one study suggests millennials spend more on fitness than on college tuition — the overall time Americans spend on leisure and sports declined over the past five years by 0.2 percent. It’s a small drop, but one that Roth says is indicative of the need for speed in such a time-sensitive culture.
Americas aren’t just becoming busier; they’re also trying to find connection within fraying social networks. The entire fitness world is trying to instill some feeling of community within their offerings, says Pam Kufahl, editor-in-chief of the fitness industry magazine Club Industry. CrossFit popularized the concept of fostering tight-knit groups that would cheer each other on. Now, boutique studios have tried to match that blend of intensity and teamwork — witness Peloton turning exercise bikes in living rooms into a link to a larger community — while lowering costs.
“CrossFit showed a way to do it cheaply,” says Kufahl. “That’s why you’re seeing these new studios pop up so much: They take less square footage, the rent is cheaper, and you don’t have as many employees. It’s a more efficient use of your money. There may be fewer members, but they’re all paying more money.”
“If I’m spending money at a studio or gym, I want to make sure I’m seeing my results and can track my workout, but if the instructor doesn’t know my name when I walk in, I’m not going to come back,” she says.
The company is also ruthless about efficiency (Deutsch was an equities trader before launching F45). Scripted-to-the-second workouts, with names such as Brooklyn, Abacus, and Wingman, aim to provide a sense of community to more members with more video guidance, just a handful of trainers per class, and lower expenses (labor is the industry’s biggest recurring expenses, per IBIS). No-frills locations without locker rooms make turnover quick, and the gear is relatively inexpensive, largely consisting of ropes, weights, and mats. The most expensive items are basic stationary bikes and rowing machines. The company’s recurring eight-week group fitness challenges, which combine workouts with diet recommendations, highlights this approach; F45 leverages community without adding much in the way of overhead.
My experience with the Venice location, at a modest 1,200 square feet, suggested it works; despite crowded classes (and a low ceiling) that forced you to be very aware of whoever was swinging a hammer next to you, every class covered a lot of ground and always left me exhausted.
Tech and the efficiency scale
Deutsch believes F45 combines elements of Apple and Amazon: the elevated look and style, merchandise offerings, and engaging interaction and experience of Apple, as well as the tech and efficiency focus of Amazon.
F45’s embrace of technology isn’t new for the fitness industry. In 2013, Anytime Fitness created Anytime Health, which enables users to track their fitness progress and compare with other community members. Orangetheory, another HIIT franchise with roughly 1,000 US locations, also uses video screens to remind users of routines and exercises.
What F45 does well is create a seamless experience, says O’Rourke. The best franchises and facilities are the ones that have simplified their technology in a way that makes it very efficient for the user. A club with 2,000 members that offers everything from classes and weights to cardio has a hard time with technological integration.
“While there’s nothing new with F45, it’s a great user experience,” he says. “One of the advantages of being a focused offering is that you can incorporate the technology in a meaningful way.”
Last year, F45 offered nearly 700 new exercises, as well as four new pieces of equipment, all sent to 1,300 studios around the world. O’Rourke says this year, they plan to add stretch-based sessions, as well as a similar number of new moves. He also hinted at a new form of gamification within F45 workouts but wouldn’t provide more details.
Franchises riding economic trends
Analysts believe F45 and its franchise model have room to grow, in terms of both expanding the workout routines and community engagement and making a bigger impact on the fitness landscape. IBISWorld’s Roth says there’s growing demand for franchise fitness locations, which allow a local owner to invest and open a business, as opposed to starting from scratch, capitalizing on industry growth and low interest rates.
It’s no accident the Aussie chain, which has recently made big inroads in Canada and the UK, chose red, white, and blue for its logo and gym decor (“We actually made it look Americanized because we always wanted to take it to the US,” Deutsch said in an interview). The company, and franchises, seeks to grab a larger portion of the US gym market. Gyms, fitness clubs, and fitness franchises comprise a $37.1 billion chunk of the United States health and wellness industry, according to IBISWorld research, with nearly 61 million Americans paying for membership.
Pete McCall, host of the All About Fitness podcast, compares the growth of these franchises to Howard Schultz’s strategy with Starbucks; spend on new locations, instead of advertising, and explosive growth becomes the story.
He sees reasons to be hesitant, with recent signals of a wider economic downturn hinting at a recession. But McCall has no doubt that F45, and studios and programs like it, will increasingly shape the fitness landscape.
“HIIT is going to be here for a while,” says McCall. “It’s effective, and there’s explosive growth. Adam Smith and Charles Darwin would have liked the fitness industry. It really does favor survival of the fittest.”