From SoulCycle to Barry's Bootcamp: An Inside Look at the Cult of Working Out

Amanda Montell
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Urban Outfitters

When we say the phrase "cult workout," what comes to mind? If you live in a major city like New York or San Francisco, your answer is probably SoulCycle. The indoor cycling studio, which just opened its 66th location, is known for its 45-minute classes where riders burn up to 700 calories while spinning to base-heavy pop music in the dark. "We call it a cardio party," says Gabby Cohen SoulCycle's senior vice president of brand strategy and PR. "We dance on the bike. We ride to the beat of the music in candlelight." She tells me this by phone from her office in New York. I imagine her in a spacious Manhattan high-rise with floor-to-ceiling glass.

Over the past five or six years, SoulCycle has become more than a cardio party. Extending beyond the fitness community, it has made a searing impression on the cultural consciousness at large. SoulCycle is responsible for toning the frames of A-listers from Lea Michele to Nicole Kidman and has made its way into the plotlines of successful TV shows like Broad City and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The brand's merchandise has become its own fashion trend; its spark-plugged instructors have become minor celebrities. The brand even has its own vocabulary—moving meditation is one of its buzzwords, as is mind-body. When I ask Cohen how SoulCycle feels about its "cult" status, she says, "We don't use that word. We say community."

But before Nicole Kidman, the TV shows, and the exclusive terminology, SoulCycle was a single nondescript studio on West 72nd Street in Manhattan. "Our first studio was in the back lobby of an unmarked office building; there was no exterior signage," Cohen remembers. "When riders came in and actually found us, we were so excited to see them that we had to love them so hard that they'd return."

SoulCycle has grown exponentially in recent years, but its success was not overnight. Its founders, Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler, never expected it would be. When Rice and Cutler founded the brand in 2006, neither of them had backgrounds in fitness—their work experience was in real estate and talent management, respectively. "SoulCycle was created strictly out of a need in the marketplace for a workout that didn't exist," says Cohen. It's not as if Cutler and Rice were actively looking to start a business either. When I ask Cohen if they had any sort of entrepreneurial spirit, she laughs, "No definitely not," she says. "It was totally serendipitous." In other words, SoulCycle was born out of a personal, genuine desire for working out to be enjoyable. "At the time, exercise was something that you checked off your to-do list; it was a chore," says Cohen. "Our founders wanted something that they looked forward to." They wanted fun.

As it turned out, those authentic intentions would end up being one of the keys to generating the intense loyalty (and multimillion-dollar success) that SoulCycle and only a few other fitness studios have. Celebrity workout craze Barry's Bootcamp is another of these religiously followed brands. But when it comes to business, authenticity can only take you so far. Which begs the question: How does a fitness brand go from a simple exercise class to a bona fide movement? How does it convert followers to speak its language, wear its uniform, live and breath its way of life?

To find the answer, we took an in-depth look at two established cult workouts, plus one aspiring brand, hellbent on cracking the secret sauce.

What are your thoughts on the cult workout industry? Are you a follower? Sound off in the comments below!

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