Whenever a friend of mine has suddenly walked back into my life looking better than they’ve ever looked before, the reason was always the same: F45. The cult exercise class, which can be found nearly anywhere in the world, just seems to work for people.
For me, F45 seemed to exist in the same kind of upper echelon of exercise-as-community where I would also put regular marathon runners and CrossFit bros – both of which absolutely terrify me. I’m an introvert at the gym and love classes where I have an instructor giving advice and instructions but ultimately leaving me to get on with it alone. I just wasn’t the sort of person, I reasoned, who benefited from the kind of high-fives and Instagram-ready photos I saw my F45 friends engaging in. When I interviewed Ed Gamble about his preparation for the London Marathon, he described it as “someone’s living room but they’re charging you hundreds of pounds” and I felt oddly validated in dismissing it as not for me.
Then, about six months ago, I went to my first class and kinda loved it. It was effectively a choreographed run round a gym floor’s equipment, with a lot of R&B blared out, looped instructional videos at every station and instructors who were encouraging but pragmatic. I also didn’t feel heavily out of place with the clientele. I left it converted. I even ended up interviewing F45’s founder, Rob Deutsch. “If we go back ten years, people either trained in a normal gym or got a trainer,” he explained. “I set up F45 so that people could get the same workout, results and motivation you get with a personal trainer, but in a really fun environment with other people.” I couldn’t agree more: it gave me the feeling I’d had in PT sessions before, of being completely winded and fully worked out. I was hooked.
So when F45 approached us to see if someone from GQ wanted to try its body transformation programme, I was intrigued: what happens when a perfectly ordinary exerciser goes into one of these shrines to fitness? I went to our first orientation just before the two months started.
Although it was clear we were about to climb a mountain, at least it was clear our Sherpas were empathetic
Oxford Circus’ F45 is… small. For a relatively expensive fitness offering, it’s bare bones, but it leans in quite heavily to this (as will you, if you attend and try to find space in the male changing rooms). For our orientation, the last class of the day cleared off the gym floor and we all took over, swaddled in autumn coats, using Pilates balls and weights benches for seats. It had the odd feeling of a swole child making a tea party for their toys.
The F45 body transformation programme is intense. It’s as much dietary as it is athletic, with certain foods and caffeine cut out in various stages, no alcohol at all during it and you’re expected to turn up four to five times a week. But Haydn and Tristen, the gym’s co-owners, are also deeply pragmatic: if you find yourself light-headed and you’re not eating, fix it. If you need caffeine in the morning to function, a black Americano is fine but a mocha is not. If you drink… well, that’s not great. But it happens. And don’t think that because it’s an intense workout, you need to come seven days a week, twice a day. Four to five, they argue, is plenty. Although it was clear we were about to climb a mountain, at least it was clear our Sherpas were empathetic.
A little note here on how F45’s exercises work: Monday, Wednesday and Friday are cardio; Tuesday and Thursday are strength and resistance. Weekday classes, as the name suggests, are three quarters of an hour. Saturdays are an hour-long combo of the two, and Sundays… well, I never did a Sunday class, so you’ll just have to find out for yourself. I fell into a pretty comfortable routine of Monday to Thursday and then Saturday, meaning I had Friday mornings to get an extra 40 minutes kip and cuddle my boyfriend, an attempt to make up for my break-of-day alarms.
Also a note on food: to make sure I was consistently in a calorie deficit, we signed up to Key To Food’s food delivery service: three meals a day, plus snacks, delivered every other day to the office. F45 also offers a meal plan programme.
At the start, a weigh-in, done at about six in the morning, Haydn, already in, was chirpier than anyone has a right to be, but his charming optimism was also one of the best things about the process. Numbers down and jotted in my phone, I’m given targets for weight loss, body fat percentage and muscle. Then I go home and take some “before” pictures, stood in my pants in front of our living room wall. These pictures will, and I cannot stress this enough, never see the light of day. The great game began and I was absolutely terrified.
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The first few classes are tough. I’ve written in my notes that I “managed to hold my own”, which I can almost certainly confirm now I did not. But even after that first class, I was excited to be back for day two, which is a rarity in and of itself. I go to a lot of gyms and fitness classes and sometimes the atmosphere breaks you and sometimes you can’t face getting out of bed. Not once did I ever feel this way at F45.
Thursday night is also a pub quiz, which my colleagues and I are attending. We arrive to a literal tub of chilled booze per table. It takes two hours for me to get a cup of water. Our culture is rotting from the liver out and having to cut booze out is only difficult because society makes it impossible. On another night, at my friend’s play, people literally mock me for sticking to Diet Coke.
While the week classes are tough, the first Saturday hour-long session fills me with dread. I arrive to see weighted sleds, dozens of stations, those ropes you whip up and down – the sort of thing I’d always told myself other people only did at a much later stage in their fitness journey. I needn’t have worried: the surprising thing was that, with so many stations, you never get to settle and panic. Even the things that terrified me were completely manageable for 45 seconds at a time.
Cutting coffee is thrown out of the window very early on as the caffeine withdrawal headaches set in, but I do stick to black Americanos and rely on one a day. Diet, however, is stuck to perfectly – even when my boyfriend orders Nando’s and eats it in front of me. It helps that the food, with the odd exception, is absolutely delicious.
My first Monday class, “Abacus”, leaves me so breathless I fear I’ve developed asthma. Tuck jumps may just be the enemy. My instructors share a look at one point that suggests they either really respect my effort or are confused why I’m there. Hopefully the former. My boss says that I have a glow about me and I’ll take it.
First Tuesday class seems to be going OK until we do pull-ups at the bar and I feel like I’m in PE. Even worse: a two-minute plank at the end. This week is marked by a sense of deep self-examination in my notes: how much of my incompetence is my body not being adept and how much of my incompetence is my mind telling me my body can’t do something it’s capable of?
Wednesdays and Saturdays involve “challenge stations” for those of us doing the eight-week programme, where we jot down our scores at some type of burpee, leap or exercise to score points. This, readers, is the absolute worst part of the challenge for me: I am a person who is entirely motivated by my own self-improvement, not by where I sit to other people. F45, as a whole, rarely indulges in competition (though there is, literally, competitive F45). Largely you can just be there and work on yourself, so if that’s your vibe, go for it. If you’re worried about being pitted against other people, the challenge might not be for you (but I coped, mainly because nobody pushed me to compete).
My first break with the meal plan this week, but it is, to my credit, an entirely vegetarian feast of healthy Middle Eastern food for friends on Friday night. I don’t even touch the wine everyone else has. My consolation is that the meal plan exists only to make sure I hit a calorie deficit and I think it’s safe to say that baba ganoush and a roasted cauliflower aren’t going to send me over the edge. Watching my boyfriend eat McDonald’s on Sunday morning post-Halloween is… well, we’re still together, somehow.
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Haydn, one of the two organisers, tells me how much weight I lost. Shrewd move to convince a journo to stick round? Absolutely. Still true? You bet it is.
Exercises this week go great: fast cardio on Monday proves to be a strong suit and there are small improvements in my weightlifting on Tuesday. All the other classes show distinct improvements, though I also stack it on some medicine ball exercises on Thursday and my knees take ages to recover. Sometimes the calorie deficit leaves me very light and in those situations I’m trying to find snacks that help. Going to see Charli XCX on Thursday night made me very glad I don’t do Friday-morning classes, but I don’t touch a single drink. Success!
While I’m not entirely sold on competition, a bit of acute competition in a singular station verges on fun: seeing who can beat each other during bear crawls or synching up on sumo squats. We also begin to see who the regulars are, coming in every day to do the same thing either for the challenge or just because they’re members. This part of it, of being in the trenches with other people, is actually really edifying: it makes the quantity of classes per week actually become a joy rather than a chore.
Monday’s class is “3-peat”, a training routine for competitive F45 circuits. I… was not good. Jack, my colleague, signed up to do the real thing immediately after. But, actually, having targets for how many things we had to do – but that we only shared with ourselves – was oddly soothing.
At strength on Tuesday, one of the instructors tells me how far I’ve come since starting. Triumph doesn’t last for very long: I sleep through my alarm on Wednesday, miss class and it puts me in the world’s worst mood all day. I tell myself it’s important that, when the gym is so good for your mental health, I don’t let the absence of it cause me to spiral. I’m back in on Thursday and it is an exceptional return to form.
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I was on holiday Friday to Monday: we ate well, hopefully healthily, and there… may have been a drink or two. But class on Monday is a triumph, which suggests that maybe a roast dinner isn’t going to kill me. Tuesday is a high point for my form, but I feel awful during it. I skip out of Wednesday class – and do Friday instead – to do some yoga and see if stretching helps.
Thursday there’s some improvement, but not as much as I saw in the first couple of weeks. That makes it hard at times to appreciate how well I’m still doing in many ways. Friday I hit such a terrible, terrible wall that even the enthusiastic instructors seem to realise I’m not worth cheering on. The feeling is insane, but I don’t think it’s anything to do with F45 itself, rather that I’m having a stressful week and it’s impacting on me. Going back on Saturday, however, was an improvement. That night my boyfriend eats an 18-inch pizza, while I watch on with my chicken and rice. My friend arrives, thinks my partner had a great idea and orders two more. I will kill every last one of them if I have to.
The week feels decidedly quieter and actually these sessions are often the best. But there’s an odd reluctance in the room at times: the weather is terrible, the light is drawing in and people I talked to in the first weeks aren’t there any more. It’s a fine class on Monday, but I do feel oddly disconnected.
It’s not that the classes are worse or that I underperform. It’s just me and my mental health getting in the way, but I always – always – want to attend. Even when I’m complimented, I can’t crack a smile. I feel so exhausted and I talk to a fellow challenger in the locker room: leagues fitter than me, he admits he’s had a few drinks, had a few snacks, but vastly improved in most ways. Hearing we’re both human is a huge help: sometimes it can feel like you and you alone are finding this challenge impossible. It’s so hard to cut everything out of your life. How do you stick to a meal plan when social events involve food? How do you stop drinking when it’s how everybody hangs out? How do you cut down on caffeine when it’s how you meet up with sources and writers?
Thursday starts in a bad mood but ends on a high after a moment of solidarity between me and the two women going round the stations with me. After seeing how long we had left on our final lap, one of my station mates looks crestfallen.
“That’s nine straight minutes of exercise,” one pines.
“That’s just three songs,” I say in an inexplicable moment of optimism. “We’ve all danced for three songs.”
During a dark moment on the TRX machines, one of the women turns to me. “One more song,” she pants. We blitz it until the end.
On Friday night, I’m unsure if I want to even go in the next day, but I decide to go through with it. Best decision I’ve made in ages: the Saturday class truly shows how far I’ve come. I’m thrilled.
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I’m away from Thursday to Sunday, so it’s just Monday to Wednesday this week. I feel like I do all right in all the classes, but my body is so achy and I feel weirdly fragile. At one point I’m patted down by a bouncer on my way to a gig and it feels like he’s punching me.
A side note: with this many classes a week, the laundry has truly overwhelmed me. Having to do five gym kits plus my normal clothing is… I mean, our flat can’t handle it. I go all out and get a laundromat to do it for me.
A friend asks me how I plan on celebrating when this is all over. I’ve been saying for ages how hard I’m going to go but – and perhaps this is because I just cooked Thanksgiving dinner for friends – my desire to rebel is low. I’ve always pledged that I’ll be ordering myself a gigantic pizza with mozzarella sticks once it’s over but, while I’m excited to go and do some different classes for a few weeks after, maybe spin a bit more again, do some barre, I don’t relish the idea of not doing the challenge any more. I really want this to be my life.
Monday’s class is great. One section, in which I flip from mountain climbers to bicycle kicks and back to mountain climbers, is a sensation, pushed on by instructor Hannah. We’re now at the stage where people actually push me, rather than leave me be, and sometimes we all have a chat while I’m on the spin bike, which actually really does provide some needed levity. In another class, weights are piled on top of me during hip thrusters, the way they do with the regulars.
By the time we get to Saturday – my final class – I’m oddly nervous. I get to my weigh-in and get the results: I’ve dropped 6kg, 5 per cent body fat and added on a kilo of muscle. Hannah, who does it, says I should be ecstatic. I don’t really understand the numbers all that much, so I just nod. It’s only halfway through the stations of today’s class that the pride hits me like a tidal wave and I have to hold back the tears mid-speed squats.
In the weeks after the challenge, I’ve been nothing but thrilled with the results. I’m not going to be a fitness influencer anytime soon, but I’m healthier and fitter. Friends have been amazed at the change, converted to join themselves, and people say it’s not just a physical transformation: my posture is better, I’m lighter on my feet, I’m happier.
F45 is more expensive than most gym memberships in London and in the weeks that followed I really weighed up whether it was worth going back. I loved it, but I also knew I was writing up a piece about its pros and cons: there was no point denying that the cost wouldn’t be a con for some people.
However, on the last day before Christmas, I was talking about it with a colleague. She said that she had never seen me more happy or motivated than I’d been during the challenge. I agreed: I think this is going to become a thing now.
My colleagues had never seen me more happy or motivated than I’d been during the challenge
There are things that, if you’re not into it, F45 will not be able to surpass: the changing rooms and facilities are the bare minimum you’ll find in a boutique fitness offering and you need to have your wits about you when you’re having to move from station to station. If you’d rather be left to work slowly and methodically, that isn’t what you’ll get here.
But the structure, ease and good faith of the whole operation completely won me over: unlike other gyms or classes in London, you can book a full fortnight ahead and classes are rarely filled up on the dot so you can take it at your own pace. The people are lovely, and while you could catch pockets of hypermasculine competitive chest-puffing here and there, it never became the dominant vibe in the room (in part thanks to the amazing team who work there). I have never enjoyed an exercise routine more and, most importantly, I’ve never seen such absolute and distinct results. Whether it’s via the challenge or just by joining the studio, F45 might be the workout that changes how you think about exercise.