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1Rebel Hammersmith

Don’t sweat it: how to find the post-pandemic fitness sweet spot

In a home workout rhythm or feeling anxiety about hitting the gym floor IRL? Experts from FRAME, BLOK, and 1Rebel unpack the future of hybrid fitness in a post-lockdown world

Our relationships to our bodies have changed profoundly. We’ve navigated the tricky terrain of a touch crisis amid the coronavirus, social distancing meant a profound lack of human contact for many, and living through a virus outbreak amplified our awareness of germs and transmission. We’ve scanned our bodies for symptoms and done test after test, with many facing up to an uncertain future with long COVID. The slower and more reflective tempo of life for some staying at home brought about dialogue on body image outside of the public sphere. Then at the height of lockdown, outdoor pursuits became regimented, and many of us had to pivot to new forms of exercise with gyms shuttered and routines rearranged. That rhythm of life saw the fitness industry remobilise in an unprecedented way – with no way to get bodies on the gym floor, how would it survive?

The UK’s gym industry pre-COVID clocked in at over £2 billion in the years leading up to the pandemic, taking a hit to £1.62 billion when lockdown forced gyms and fitness studios to close and pivot their services. Home workouts proliferated in the gulf without physical spaces and classes – swathes of influencers, trainers, and clubs began guerilla campaigns on Instagram Lives with home workouts, like Alice Liveing, London boutique fitness studio 1Rebel, Panorama Barre, and Ciara London’s Body By Ciara Squad Instagram community, which then morphed into a fully fledged app (and now, soon to be IRL gym). Others pushed ahead with on-demand subscription services like FRAME and BLOKtv.

London’s FRAME has been open since 2009, and has always been about getting more people moving “in a way that they love, and in a way that makes them feel great,” says Pip Black, FRAME’s co-founder alongside Joan Murphy. Pre-lockdown, FRAME was working at high volume across its seven London sites, with 75,000 bookings a month. They had been planning to open their first site outside of the capital just as the pandemic kicked off.

“We had to act super quickly,” says Pip. “We were able to turn around our digital offering in eight days from when lockdown was first announced.” A bank of FRAME faves – from classes in barre to HIIT – were built up, the platform was beta tested, and they were off. “It was very much for our FRAME members at the start, just to make sure they felt connected with us and could keep moving with their favourite instructors,” she continues. The platform was also opened up to NHS workers for free, with more than 3,000 NHS staff signing up. “The first few videos were very scrappy and DIY,” says Pip. “We took some of them offline once we built up the archive, but OG Framers were asking for the ‘corona classics’ back! There is a real energy from those early videos, and they formed a strong connection with our audience.”

Pip says FRAME was determined to offer users stuck in lockdown a workout experience that was less serious, more fun, and not as competition-focused as their industry peers. Lack of studio equipment wasn’t so much of a problem given FRAME’s creative class experiences and an emphasis on bodyweight and movement. “We’ve always tried to be countercultural and disruptive. In the early days we stood out with our 80s dance classes. We really pioneered the concept in London of going to a class to have fun with your mates. Lockdown brought us full circle, with ‘Cher Aerobics’ and Dolly (Parton, that is) dancing.” The studio had an uptick in people purchasing their bands and rebounders (like mini trampolines) to do their online classes, and old school bangers-led sessions became a total hit.

Surprisingly, the classic step aerobics became a digital fave, and it’ll be returning as a class in their physical spaces because of it – you can keep living the Jane Fonda fantasy. Real-life and on-demand offerings include ‘Your Mum’s VHS’, a full body workout to 90s bangers, and ‘Jumpboard Pilates’.

Without the squat racks or studio equipment, lots of people used the time at home to explore other styles of exercise outside of their usual routines or cortisol-spiking sessions. And those changing fitness sensibilities are now coming out into the world and augmenting the offerings of IRL studios again. FRAME is back IRL with an even bigger community both online and off, introducing a hybrid membership option and a revamped digital platform. 55 per cent of FRAME’s online customers are outside of London now, spurring on their moves towards their first non-capital location soon. “We were there when the narrative around fitness was first changing, and we’re charging through as we reflect and grow once again,” affirms Pip.

For boutique fitness brand BLOK, a hybrid training model is something they have been implementing since the first lockdown lifted in July 2020. Since then, members have been able to access studio classes alongside BLOK’s digital fitness platform BLOKtv, which offers 70 Live classes a week and over 350 On Demand classes.

Ed Stanbury CEO and Founder of BLOK shares: “We’ve always offered our customers a flexible approach to fitness. Now with the shift to a hybrid working model, we’re building on our existing in-studio and online fitness platform to create a one stop offering for members that seamlessly fits into everyday lives, enabling them  to join in-person classes virtually and attend studio classes via our virtual platform BLOKtv.”

“The entire fitness industry has to reckon with new barriers, pandemic or otherwise, and see them as either a threat – or what it is for us – a challenge,” James Balfour, co-founder of 1Rebel, London’s top boutique fitness studio, says. “We had to reconfigure to home workouts, but we also saw fitness influencers grow their own models with Instagram Live workouts and plans. Whether you talk about Peloton or Joe Wicks, we should see the success of those models as things that will complement our industry, rather than compete.” 

“We’ve had a level of honesty with customers through this, and I’m proud of how we have communicated and responded,” James continues. Through the pandemic, the brand was committed to supporting its trainers and staff, resisting redundancies or off-brand pivots. “We haven’t looked to profiteer in an international crisis – goodwill has definitely increased. We put long term relationships ahead of any financial crisis in the short term. Our brand vision hasn’t changed, but we’ll move quicker.” 

1Rebel has taken in the changing sensibilities of its ‘Rebels’, both veterans and newbies. In August, the studio revealed its latest concept, RIG, at a new Hammersmith location. It’s a circuit-based combination killer, melding functional fitness and HIIT to suit all fitness levels and push people to their individual limits. The new class sits alongside 1Rebel faves like its spin class RIDE and the iconic RESHAPE treadmill and bootcamp sweat session. 

1Rebel has been pivoting to more ‘local studios’ in the last few months with gyms now open, keeping hybrid-working patrons with changing routines in mind. Though this was always part Balfour’s plan, lockdown accelerated their thinking. Founded in 2015, 1Rebel studios pre-pandemic lay in commuter hubs including St. Mary’s Axe, Broadgate, Victoria, Holborn, and the more recent Oxford Circus branch. Hammersmith was its first less central location, and there are plans for spots like Ealing. “We’ll be over 50 per cent larger than we were pre-COVID,” confirms James.

Most recently, 1Rebel launched Rebel Labs, its first ever personal training studio in the popular Holborn space. It’s truly personalised and bespoke, with Rebel trainers offering tailored training plans and sessions, catering for all fitness needs, injuries, and goals.

For anyone seeking that post-pandemic fitness sweet spot, the industry seems more diverse and dynamic in its offerings than ever, which Balfour happily attests. “If people are afraid of getting into new fitness ventures – you have to pull the trigger!” he says. “Making that first step is so important. I’ve done my utmost to resist any clique-behaviour in our gyms. We respect and nurture anyone who walks through our doors – we need to prove to you that we’re worthy of your custom.”

“Your body is the only real estate you truly own,” he adds. “A cynical reader might think I’m using the pandemic to sell class spots at 1Rebel, but truly from the bottom of my heart, whether you're with us, PureGym, or doing laps around the park, I think getting the nation active is more valuable than ever. There’s a craving to be together in physical spaces, community, that we and our peers will always meet.” 

1Rebel newbies can get three sessions for just £29 now and 25 per cent off new memberships and packages. Introductory offers at FRAME include two studio classes for £20 or two live stream classes for £8.