On a grey Sunday morning at the Islington branch of Fitness First, 30-odd people – mainly women in their 20s and 30s – are slogging away the weekend's excesses with the help of a barbell, a bench and a pounding soundtrack. "Don't slow down!" commands their ponytailed instructor. "I'll call you out!" No one does; in fact, they appear as engrossed in their presses and curls as their tutor. Most seem to know the routine by heart.
A few days later, it's exactly same thing. The same click of the CD player, the same opening bars of Freemasons' "If", followed by precisely the same routine. The same warm-up, the same workout, divided into the same set of intervals. Fifty-five minutes in total. The only thing that is different is the setting: a different instructor, a new assortment of classmates – more men this time – and a new location (Monday evening, Virgin Active Kensington). It could be any time of day, at any number of gyms.
If you live in the UK and have, at some point over the past few years, set foot in a gym, however briefly, you will probably have heard of them. The names, at least, will ring a bell: Bodypump. Bodystep. Body-something or other, you know that class so-and-so goes to, the one she's always going on about? These "Body" workouts are exercise classes – but not as they used to be. Not the makeshift step-aerobics you might find round the back of the local leisure centre, nor the legs, bums, and tums of yesteryear, where ladies who lunch don fading scrunchies and baggy T-shirts to bob along to the lacklustre beats of the instructor's tape recorder. No – the "Body" brand represents something different entirely. Part of a well-oiled fitness franchise, it provides a quick an easy exercise option which has come to dominate gym schedules and inspire devotion amongst its leggings-clad fans.
In the UK, some 1.3 million people regularly attend one of the classes, at more than 1,750 different gyms. Around the world, that number extends to 6 million, in 75 countries. You can find "Body" classes at just about every major fitness provider: Virgin Active, Fitness First, Nuffield, Bannatyne, LA Fitness – you name them. Crucially, wherever you happen to attend yours, whether it is Champneys Piccadilly or Midlothian Leisure, you are guaranteed an identical experience: the same trademarked routine, accompanied by the same 10-song combination of chart hits and classic rock. Done correctly, participants exercise exactly the same muscles, and burn exactly same number of calories (600 in the case of the flagship workout, Bodypump).
The company behind this sweaty revolution is Les Mills International, a New Zealand fitness franchise operation founded by trainer Phillip Mills, who designed Bodypump in the 1980s while working for his father, the athlete Les Mills, at his Auckland gym. Inspired by the group exercise regimes flourishing in California, Mills's product was an instant success, and drove the family to open a chain of gyms across New Zealand and Australia. In 1997, they turned to the international market, launching the first British Bodypump class. Initially working with local leisure centres, Mills gradually extended his repertoire to include Bodyattack, a cardio-driven aerobics-style class, Bodycombat, a martial arts inspired programme and Bodystep, a traditional step aerobics class with purposefully straightforward choreography. Now there are eight different classes, each catering for a different clientele. This year, over-16s will be able to participate in two of them – Bodycombat and the dance-based Bodyjam – at British secondary schools.
Given the scale of the operation, it is tempting to call them the McDonald's of fitness – though perhaps Starbucks would be a more accurate analogy, since the Body franchises retain a sturdy reputation as providers of quality. For all their ubiquity, says Mills, the Body classes represent an improvement on the varied, gym-specific workouts they are replacing. "Not everyone is able to develop safe, effective and enjoyable programmes from scratch, or is motivated to do it over and over, year after year," he observes. Essential to this is the intricacy of the Les Mills model. Programmes are carefully devised by a team of choreographers, and tested in Mills's Auckland gym before being filmed for DVD and dispatched to 60,000 qualified instructors around the world, complete with detailed choreography notes, education sessions and a ready-made soundtrack CD. Once the workouts hit the international market, they are constantly updated; every 12 weeks, variations are designed, soundtracked and simultaneously rolled out. Customers will be provided with new choreography, to new music, though nothing so drastically altered that they won't be able to keep up. Instructors, meanwhile, are constantly monitored; after qualifying, they are expected to attend two or three annual workshops, and are regularly assessed.
The result is that every Les Mills customer knows what they are getting – and for many, such consistency can be a major draw. Nichola Bennet can regularly be found working out at a Bodypump class in the Wandsworth Virgin Active. She began attending in her native New Zealand and, when she moved to London, immediately sought out the opportunity to take them again. "It is exactly the same as it is over there, which is great," she explains. "It makes it easier when you are in a new place; I was already familiar with it and know from experience it is a really good workout."
It is also one reason why gyms are so keen to get them on board. Carl McCartney, Virgin Active's national group exercise manager, has witnessed the classes' expansion since 1998, when the gym chain then known as Holmes Place began to offer them. The Les Mills model offers the kind of quality and reliability that, were the individual instructor left to their own devices, simply couldn't be guaranteed, he argues. "They are simple to deliver and we know the results. Les Mills does exactly what it says on the tin, so we know exactly what we're giving customers. It offers us peace of mind."
Of course, the downsides of such rigidity are obvious. Standardising the product inevitably creates a lowest common denominator and, although instructors are expected to aid beginners, there's little room for much variation in ability. On this point, the British Association of Fitness Instructors has voiced concerns, worrying that novice participants may not be properly briefed. At the other end of the scale, according to one prominent London instructor, once customers improve beyond a certain ability, they plateau. "You can't fault their product as a punter," she explains. "But it's cookie-cutter. As an instructor you're told only to provide a certain thing, catering for one level. Ultimately you end up keeping people at that level."
Another oft-raised criticism is the brand's erosion of the role of instructor. Like any big chain, its expansion has occurred at the expense of the individual operator. Although few gyms offer just Les Mills classes, with every new programme unveiled, a fresh block of the timetable is consumed. When the brand first arrived, it appeared to many to be a case of signing up, or risk being squeezed out. "In the late Nineties, there was a big freestyle community: "presenters" they called themselves," remembers McCartney. "They would have conventions. The guys at the top were a very high standard, though in reality the gap between them and the average instructor was huge. Inevitably there was a negative reaction from some." At the same time, those who do sign up to the Les Mills method are expected to meet high financial commitments. Qualifying to teach a class costs between £140 and £170, plus a fee to submit your initial "audition" tape. Maintaining a licence, meanwhile, means paying to attend workshops, and buying the appropriate music, at £16 a pop, every three months when the choreography gets updated.
Regardless of any flaws, though, among punters the Les Mills operation can inspire fierce loyalty. On social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, membership of the workouts' various fan pages reach into the tens of thousands, while the internet is littered with dedicated chatrooms and forums for enthusiasts to debate the intricacies of their latest side step or bench-press. At Fitness First, you need to call ahead to nab a spot at the Bodypump class, where devotees like Christine Garfourth arrive early in order to set up their specially-designed mats and benches. She started attending several months ago, after being "converted" by her Les Mills-loving sister. Now she goes at least once a week, as well as dropping into Bodycombat and Bodyattack. For her, the class's appeal is largely the very strength of its brand identity that can leave instructors complaining of quashed creativity.
"I used to do freestyle aerobics with my mum when I was younger," she explains. "It was all cycling shorts and embarrassing music. Bodypump is totally different. The music, the instructors, the choreography are all part of a specific thing. In London, gym is a serious thing to a lot of people. Bodypump is part of a lifestyle – it's not just a case of going off to the gym, or trying to maintain some routine. It's 'I'm going off to Bodypump'; it's fun, a bit trendy and, because they change it every few months, it's not too boring. I think they've got it bang-on."
It's a similar story on the other side of town at Virgin Active. "It really is a phenomenon," agrees Carly Crockford, the class instructor. "Once you start you don't stop. I see the same people come in week after week after week. On their first time they are really nervous. They worry they won't know the routine. But then they realise how much fun it is and they come back again and again. Even I was like that before I was an instructor. I was really sceptical but it completely won me over." For the really enthusiastic, Les Mills offers an online clothing store, with a variety of his-and-hers ensembles.
Such success has made the brand a serious draw for those looking to sell something, and the standardised Les Mills soundtracks have become big business for record labels seeking to plug artists' new releases. The workouts are unique in their use of current chart hits – Mills claims the millions spent on acquiring rights are offset by the value of the music as an essential "brand differentiator" – and given that they are destined to be heard by some 6 million people worldwide, the CDs are a sturdy form of exposure. Each one contains approximately 10 songs, obtained through the licensing firm PPL, which deals with virtually every major record label and most independents (over 5,000 in total). This renders very little off-limits; customers are liable to hear songs by anyone from big-name commercial enterprises like U2 or Britney Spears, to Green Day, or lesser-established, edgier artists like VV Brown. In fact, the actual tracks played are frequently cover versions, with the tempo tweaked to fit the Les Mills choreography (in Bodypump's case, that's 32 beats per minute), though few are likely to spot the difference. If you hear a song you like, you can always log onto the Totallylesmills website, where the track listing for each quarter's choreography is listed. And from there, it is just a short click to Amazon or iTunes. It's not surprising labels are keen to get involved. As Paul Bursche, a representative from Sony, explains: "Les Mills are professional to work with and expose our artists and music to people. We've worked with them for about 18 months. It gives our artists exposure in addition to radio plays."
At present, the Les Mills enterprise represents an annual turnover of £100m – though plans are afoot to expand even further. The most recent workout to be launched, Bodyvive, represents an attempt to recapture that old aerobics heartland: the aforementioned ladies who lunch. Aimed specifically at the over-50s, Bodyvive offers a conditioning class described by the company as the "antithesis" of Bodypump. Also on the agenda are further, "simplified" versions of existing classes targeted towards getting under-16s, currently prohibited from taking part in the Les Mills repertoire, involved, and a move into online coaching and the profitable pastures of the fitness DVD. Yet for all his commercial conquests, Mills pitches himself as part of the modern crusade against obesity. He recently authored Fighting Globesity – A Practical Guide to Personal Health and Global Sustainability with his wife, Jackie, and regularly advises business on the importance of a healthy workforce. "We need to make the shift from treating obesity. If we don't, it will cripple societies around the world," he argues. "We'd like to have over 100 million people exercising using our products and classes." From the look of things, that prospect can't too far away.
Bodypump: Step by step
Bodystep is a step workout using height-adjustable easy-to-follow movements led by approachable instructors. Muscle-conditioning moves are alternated with cardio "blocks" for both calorie burning and toning.
The Les Mills flagship, Bodypump uses barbells for all-over strengthening. Participants chose their own weights before being taken through a series of squats, presses, lifts and curls.
This fuses the latest dance moves with street dance. Participants are partnered and taken through a series of short routines.
One of the most popular of the Les Mills franchises, Bodyattack is a sports-inspired high-energy cardio workout. It uses interval training to combine aerobic exercise with strength and stabilisation.
A yoga, tai chi and Pilates-influenced class that promises to improve strength and flexibility as well as "leaving you feeling centered and calm". Exercises include controlled breathing, concentration, and a structured series of stretches, moves and poses.
The Les Mills martial arts class draws on karate, boxing, taekwondo, tai chi and muay thai. Participants are taken through a high-energy routine of strikes, punches and kicks.