Les Mills regional chief exec Trevor Brennan on the success of group fitness

Ahead of Les Mills Live on Saturday, we speak to regional chief executive Trevor Brennan about the company’s exercise mantra

Les Mills Live last year. Courtesy Les Mills
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It's no wonder that Les Mills is expanding in Dubai in a major way. The Auckland-based company has managed to partner with 20,000 of the world's 200,000 gyms, a robust 10 per cent by any standards. But in the UAE, that number is much higher. Of the country's 800 gyms, Les Mills has partnered with 290 – a penetration rate of 36 per cent. Accordingly, the company is poised to be at the forefront of the country's gym industry, which is projected to grow to Dh3 billion by 2022, from Dh1.3bn in 2016.

Les Mills, now in its 50th year, was started by a retired New Zealand track and field athlete, Leslie Roy Mills, who won a gold medal in the discus discipline at the 1966 British Empire and Commonwealth Games. He is now a robust 84.

From BodyPump and BodyAttack to The Trip and Sh’Bam, Les Mills offers a range of group-fitness classes. “We know with group exercise the exertion ratio of people in the class is higher, which in turn increases motivation,” says Trevor Brennan, chief executive of Les Mills Russia, India, Middle East & Africa.

Brennan, who started out as a trainer in London and is a 20-year veteran of the fitness industry, landed in Dubai seven months ago. His aim is to make the emirate a company hub on the level of Chicago, London and Auckland. The number of full-time Les Mills employees in Dubai has already risen from three to 25, and the company is "aggressively recruiting" to make it 100 within two years, says Brennan.

Finding a successful formula

All of Les Mills' offerings will be on display on Saturday at the Dubai Active Show, in the form of Les Mills Live, a day-long roster of classes expected to attract more than 1,000 people. Programme directors Dan Cohen (BodyCombat and Cxworx) and Lisa Osborne (BodyAttack) are flying in from Auckland to lead the sessions. The team is also hoping to conduct the largest session of The Trip, its 40-minute, boutique-style immersive cycling class.

The secret to the company’s success – in the face of an explosion in the boutique gym sector – lies in its ability to stay relevant through a science-backed approach to group fitness.

Workouts such as RPM, BodyCombat and BodyAttack grab consistent numbers because participants get better results with group rather than individual sessions, according to research conducted in collaboration with Penn State University in the United States.

Les Mills is even trying to coin a term for the boost in motivation and exertion that comes from group fitness: “groupiness”.

Some of the newer, 30-minute Les Mills high-intensity interval-training workouts, such as the cycling session Sprint and Grit, which uses barbells, weight plates and body weight to build strength, were launched specifically to target millennial and Gen Z exercisers. However, they are also justified by research that the American College of Sports Medicine released this year, showing that the benefits of HIIT can be attained in just two, 30- to 40-minute sessions per week, with a full rest day in between.

'Exercising is the new going out'

The company’s devotion to the science behind exercise means that it won’t launch a class just because it’s trendy. For example, while Les Mills Barre was finally added, the team is still considering the Bollywood-style dance workouts that are turning up in other clubs. “Because of the work we do in our lab linked to the style, to the workout, to the music, we need to make sure it’s going to stand the test of time and our partners want it,” explains Brennan.

And while Les Mills is consistently pumping out new trainers – there are 1,100 certified in the UAE and 300 going through training – it's not easy to become one. Only 60 per cent out of those trained end up being certified to instruct. There is a closely followed formula for each class, but those who do pass are encouraged to mix it up. "If you go to a BodyPump class in Chicago or Auckland or Riyadh, the music will be the same, but what will be different will be the instructors – their personality, the words they use and the passion they show," says Brennan.

One trend the company is definitely seeing is that “exercising is the new going out”, particularly among millennials, says Brennan. The age of the average exerciser is dropping, and people are spreading their exercise wallet around, meaning they are more likely to attend classes at a number of gyms because they are more aligned with a healthy lifestyle. “There is an absolute trend there … working out together and socialising with the same type of person, which is why boutiques have worked so well,” says Brennan. “And you’re going through that same enjoyment and getting an endorphin rush at the same time.”

The most important thing when it comes to working out, though, advises Brennan, is to revel in it. “If you put yourself in the mindset that you actually want to work out, that you want that lifestyle, it becomes a habit and it’s something you do,” he says. “If you are in the mindset of ‘I have to work out’, then that is an extreme demotivator.”

Les Mills Live is on Saturday, from 9am to 7.30pm, at Dubai World Trade Centre during the Dubai Active Show. Tickets are from Dh449. For more details, visit www.lesmills.com/les-mills-live/dubai


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