The first thing you notice is the DJ.
That’s because you’re not in a club or partying at your nephew’s bar mitzvah; you’re at the gym. And it’s 9 a.m. on a Saturday.
Big-box gyms and their lobby DJs are one thing. But this guy is playing inside a boutique gym, catering to just one small class of 20 individuals.
Perched by a turntable, the buff and shaggy-haired DJ mixes a medley of hip-hop with some Daft Punk thrown in. He’s bopping his head and sipping from a water bottle as the crowd lunges and runs in place.
This is F45 Training, the fastest-growing fitness franchise with over 1,750 studios worldwide—800 in the U.S. alone. Founded in 2012, the cult Australian import has quickly turned into a boutique fitness behemoth thanks to its unorthodox structure.
Here, members endure 45-minute HIIT workouts composed of functional movements, cardio, and weight training—in a community-driven, “experiential” format. (The brand’s name is shorthand for functional 45 minutes.) Coaches encourage attendees to meet and high-five one another; one wall completely opens up to the street, inviting the public to peek in; and competitive events connect members outside of sessions. The brand even puts on festivals and hosts brunches at local restaurants outside of workout hours.
F45 founder and CEO Rob Deutsch, a former equities sales trader, centered the brand around millennials’ increasing desire to connect IRL. “I’m trying to get people to actually want to attend a gym and feel like they’re part of something,” says Deutsch.
Getting personal in a group setting
At first glance, the F45 looks rather sparse. There are no treadmills, boxing bags, or bulky equipment. Instead, the open-floor layout features a medley of free weights, dangling TRX straps, a few exercise balls—resembling a cross between a gymnastics gym and a children’s playroom. Every piece of equipment gets rearranged each day.
“We look at ourselves like four white walls of group training,” explains Deutsch. “It’s literally like painting a blank canvas in terms of a workout. It’s always changing.”
Members rotate through numbered stations to perform one-minute exercises, all while watching monitors that demonstrate exactly how to perform each move. Accompanying the visual step-by-step guide is a team of coaches who examine and adjust any improper alignments during class.
“The technology acts as the chief trainer, leaving the actual trainers free to coach and correct,” explains F45 athletic director Cory George. “The idea behind this was we wanted to combine semi-personal training in a group training environment.”
Exercises vary from slow and precise weighted lunges to fast box jumps and burpees. F45 boasts a database of over 3,000 filmed exercises. It prides itself on never repeating the same sequence of exercises twice, thereby ensuring members never get too complacent with the style of movements.
“We would argue that, over time, it is not overly innovative when every time you turn up [at a gym] 70% of your workout involves a treadmill or rower,” notes Deutsch. (Studios such as the wildly popular Orangetheory and Barry’s Bootcamp mostly depend on such equipment.)
By having their own station (up until a minute, at which point, they shuffle to the next), members can go at their own pace while still enjoying a varied class environment. In that sense, F45 accommodates beginners or those seemingly intimidated by the idea of high-intensity group workouts.
But it’s also more than just a workout: the brand engages its audience through numerous touch points. The F45 Challenge, for example, is a quarterly season-long event offering members access to nutritionists and an app that includes meal plans and calorie-trackers along with groceries and meal delivery. All programs pair with weekly F45 training sessions and the company’s branded heart-rate monitor. On average, studio prices average $50 a week or $200 a month.
By providing a full food and fitness program, F45 is better able to inspire members to hold themselves accountable to a healthy lifestyle, not to mention, stay committed to the studio. At F45, the average attendance rate is three times per week.
“We highly encourage all the studios before the challenge starts and after the challenge finishes to hold social gatherings,” says Deutsch, noting the importance of community functions. “We’re big on people getting to know each other outside of the gym.”
One of the more popular out-of-gym programs is the F45 Playoffs, which are friendly competitions between studios, cities, and soon, countries. Dubbed “the ultimate fitness test,” it spans thousands of members in a multisport and music festival in which members can win thousands in cash prices. In the future, Deutsch envisions “a global heart rate challenge between all the studios.”
So far, F45 skews 68% female, partially because the workouts seem less hardcore than traditional CrossFit. The nutrition challenges are also far less restrictive than say a Paleo diet or other trendy plans on the market. As Deutsch says, it’s a more balanced approach for 25-to-40-year-old females who “care about the way they look at their health and fitness, but don’t want to be professional athletes.”
More than a celebrity endorsement
The company’s marketing focuses on sports stars such as NBA players or fitness influencers like Paige Hathaway. But its main celebrity is investor and chief F45 enthusiast Mark Wahlberg. (The actor’s investment group acquired a minority stake in F45 this Spring, although the specifics were not released. The investment propelled F45 to a $450 million valuation.)
Wahlberg repeatedly shows fans how he pushes through a F45 workout on his Instagram account, visiting various franchises and mingling with members across the country. He’s often spotted sweating through repetitive squats and uncomfortably straining through cardio, just like everyone else.
“What’s been really powerful for us is that we’ve actually had professional athletes and sports people—and now Mark Wahlberg—pay to be associated with our brand as opposed to, in normal circumstances, expect them to be paid to endorse their brand,” says Deutsch.
There are also various partnerships such a recent collaboration with Athletic Propulsion Labs (APL) sneakers. APL is the brand once banned by the NBA for giving players a “competitive advantage.”
Last month, F45 broke its own franchise sales record with 84 studios signed in just one month. The fitness brand now counts 44 countries with plans to further expand in Europe and South America. As for the States, Deutsch harbors an ambitious goal of growing to 5,000-7,0000 studios. In addition, F45 is playing with new formats and programs, including a workout program for adolescents that focuses on self-confidence.
“Every year, we bring out five to six new workout systems and a thousand new exercises,” says Deutsch. “We’ve grown extremely fast, but I believe globally, we still feel there’s still huge headroom to come.”