No one – myself included – ever wants to see the words “fitness journey”, least of all in 2020. Certainly, it was not how I imagined this year going. Yet in March, as the world wobbled, much like the “holiday weight” I was still carrying from the previous winter (and the winter before that), I found myself in a tasteful office a few minutes walk from Bank station deep in conversation with a three time Olympian, wondering exactly how many after-dinner biscuits constitutes a “problem”.
Sarah Lindsay, a fibreglass blond with a steely gaze and a kind smile, is the proprietor of Roar Fitness. The micro-chain of personal training gyms – two in the City, with a newly opened branch in South Kensington – has become a byword for body “transformations” and jaw-dropping before and after photos. Her 12-week programme – a combination of intense, weight-based, one-on-one sessions with some of London’s best personal trainers paired with nutritionist appointments and personalised diet plans – is the stuff of fitness legend. You trot in with an extra chin, strut out with a visible ab or two. And the word is that not only are they masters at making you feel strong, but confident and empowered too.
It’s also a scene. Waiting for my first chat with Lindsay, I bump into a star Fleet Street interviewer in the lobby and spy a much-loved radio presenter panting by the protein shake bar. There’s a definite Daily Mail sidebar vibe: Ellie Goulding, Christine Lampard and Pixie Lott have all been Roar’d. Even Piers Morgan has recently succumbed (yikes). Yet among the toothy Insta faces, wealthy wives and banker types, the famed red and grey walls also hold particular allure for the fashion crowd. You are as likely to spot a front row critic huffing the weighted sleigh down the internal track as a junior partner at Clifford Chance.
But what does it involve? Specifically, what exactly does it take to free fall your body fat percentage while building the sort of muscle tone that will read under a T-shirt – all in under three months? Tears, initially, says Lindsay. “You’d be amazed how many people break down and cry when they come to see me,” says the former short track speed skater, who co-founded the company in 2016. The stress of normative body aspirations aside, she says clients often arrive with their self-esteem and energy levels in a deeply fragile state. Her success, she believes, is as much about the psychological uplift she – and lifting extremely heavy weights – can provide (in addition to the uplift to their bottoms, of course).
Roar founder Sarah Lindsay.
For me, at first, it feels like a simple tough love situation. After some uncomfortable real talk about my proclivity for martinis and mashed potato, she swiftly irradiates most carbohydrates from my diet. Poof… gone! Instead, it’s fish, eggs and avocado breakfasts, lots of chicken and veg for lunch, a few nuts here and there, and tiny, low-fat dinners for a grand total of around 2,000 calories a day (not including the occasional protein shake and the fistfuls of supplements). Fine, I think. Let’s go.
After a detailed and helpful movement assessment, it’s time for the first session. She dispatches me to see James Castle-Mason, a bespectacled wall of muscle with a ready sense of humour and ferocious eye for detail. I’m nervous, though vaguely comforted by the blessedly low number of people permitted on the PT-only gym floor at the Bank branch, flatteringly lit in a manner not dissimilar to a Mayfair bar. Pleasingly, the gender split is about 50/50, and the mood is surprisingly low-key and non-macho. All sorts of body types are here. It feels friendly.
I’d heard whispers Castle-Mason is one of the most respected trainers on the Roar team, which explains why the first session passes in a blur of purest body shock. All the classics are employed – dead lifts, chest presses, lunges and squats, complete with the weight of a small person attached to a bar on your back. Although it’s a full workout for the heart and lungs, there’s no cardio. Just weights, weights and more weights. (“I don’t think you should pay a trainer to watch you run on the treadmill,” is a Lindsay mantra). And it is brutal. Despite some previous gym experience, it is fair to say that around 40 minutes in I pull the exercise equivalent of a whitey by a tower of stacked dumbbells. I instantly think of quitting.
Then, after a session or two, the first lockdown descends and everything changes. Somehow the floating nihilism of home isolation snaps me into focus. Once gyms reopen, I find myself desperate to have some hours in life that aren’t about work or checking the R rate, or trying to resist the clarion call of a vodka rocks. So three times a week I go to see James, who takes me through the motions. It can be sweaty and sweary, but, after the initial shock, also surprisingly meditative. Monk-like, even. The trick with Roar is that they don’t do tricks. There’s no big secret. It is simply the methodical, repetitive mastering of a series of very hard exercises that you do over and over again. James watches me like a hawk, missing nothing. He adjusts me at every turn, maximising every ounce of effort, then cheers me on like an old friend or gets a little stern when required. It is a magic formula.
I appreciate no one wants to read about weight loss at the end of a fraught year, so I’ll keep it brief. The pounds tumbled off – hardly surprising, given my diet is first reduced to 1,800, then to 1,200 calories a day (only for a stint, thank God). Assessed at various points throughout the 12 weeks, I am stunned to see my body fat more than halve in some areas, but everyone’s goal is different. Some people come wanting to lose weight, some to gain it. I didn’t have a goal in mind – I just wanted to feel good – and there’s no doubting the process is legit. I feel more energised. My appetite evens out. I sleep better. Soon, my arms start to ping, my shoulders widen, and the first hint of abs emerge. People notice and say nice things. My “comfy” trousers are retired to the back of the closet.
But I keep remembering Lindsay’s prophesy: it’s the brain lift you’ll love. She’s right – and I’m not sure you could do it on your own. Is aesthetics-focused working out shallow and non-sustainable? Perhaps. But I’m still going, and not for the reasons I thought I would. The sheer thrill in the mental freedom of handing over control of your body and headspace at regular intervals to a benevolent but no-bullshit expert feels much more restorative than the ever-increasing leanness. You learn patience and develop willpower. Two skills that, after everything this year, feel even more valuable than these exciting new triceps. Well, maybe.
For more information, visit Roar-fitness.com.
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