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 99th 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."
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 breathe its way of life? To find out why workout classes lend themselves so well to cult followings, we spoke to clinical psychologist Sabrina Romanoff.
Meet the Expert
Sabrina Romanoff is a Harvard-trained clinical psychologist working in New York with people of all ages and backgrounds. She specializes in relationships, stress, and life transitions.
Three Keys to Cult Status
I ask CEO of Berry's Bootcamp Joey Gonzalez point blank why he thinks Barry's achieved its "cult" status, and he names three factors: the efficacy of the workout, the community, and a phenomenon that he calls "the magic."
"There are a lot of cool workouts and concepts out there that people go to, and they wear the retail and they do it, but it isn't that effective," says Gonzalez. "You'll rarely pick up any magazine saying that interval cardiovascular and strength training don't work. Most people's goals nowadays are to eliminate fat and have a really nice lean body, and this is exactly the way to get it."
Cohen says those three ingredients are exactly what made SoulCycle so explosive, too. The efficacy is vital; it's what makes people believe in it. SoulCycle's approach is cardio only, but the brand owes much of its success to its balance of intensity and accessibility. "Everyone can ride a bike going nowhere," Cohen says. "It's low impact; it's really easy on your joints. It's the one workout you can do with your eyes closed. We have riders in their mid-80s."
But the brains behind Barry's Bootcamp and SoulCycle agree that what brings a fitness brand from an exercise to a lifestyle is what happens beyond the activity itself. "That's the magic," Gonzalez says. "It's the cool red lighting, the amazing sound system, our new stretch lounge, and our fuel bar, which is an area where you go to after class to hang out and get your protein shake." At SoulCycle, it's the energizing music, the dark lighting, the limited-edition merchandise, and the pop culture–themed classes on offer. "Hamilton-themed rides have been a big hit," says Cohen. "It takes a mix of being aware of what’s happening in popular culture and listening to our riders."
That relationship between the studio and the clientele (and the clientele with one another) is the true jackpot for establishing an obsessed following. It's what convinces people that they can't live without it—this sense of community that makes you feel like you're a part of something bigger than fitness. Cohen and Gonzalez agree that the right instructors are essential to this. "Back in 1998, every instructor knew your name, your dog, your daughter, everybody; it was like Cheers," says Gonzalez. "We've really tried to preserve that through the years."
Cohen agrees, adding, "We always say that we're not in the business of fitness; we're a hospitality company. We cultivate this amazing community in the sweaty halls of our studio." In other words, SoulCycle and Barry's have been successful in finding instructors that eat, sleep, and breathe, the brand. The contagiousness of that has been the key to achieving cult status.
Why Do Workout Classes Develop Cult Followings?
"Fitness lends itself to the cult mentality because it carries over many analogous tropes of excessive admiration and fixation," says Romanoff. "For example, symbols of the community are represented, financial tributes are paid, and members seek each other out to congregate in dark congested spaces."
When you look closely, you'll see how the typical markers of a cult are present in these types of workout classes. Romanoff explains further: "Ritualistic chants, mantras, and shouts echo through assemblies, almost as if members speak a shared language." And it's these details that make the class and its participants seem unique and special—something many people crave.
Many workout brands capitalize on this while pushing the branding and cult-like exclusiveness even further. "The more niche the program, practices, and guidelines, the more likely folks are to become invested. For example, the particular cycling shoes, grip socks, foam blocks, no-slip towels, and mats—are all exclusive to the program itself. These symbols, which do not hold their value outside the community, are powerful internal representations of status and commitment," explains Romanoff.
The Most Popular Workouts With Cult Followings
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 plot lines 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.
If the phrase "cult workout" doesn't trigger images of candlelit cyclers, perhaps it makes you think of Barry's Bootcamp. With more than 70 studios spread across 14 countries and a striking roster of celebrity clients (Kim Kardashian West, Jessica Biel, Katie Holmes to name a few), Barry's Bootcamp has become the fitness junkie's choice for getting in serious shape fast.
While Rice and Cutler conceived SoulCycle out of a need to "bring joy to fitness," Barry's Bootcamp was founded on a demand by Angelenos to shape their bodies quickly and effectively. "Barry was teaching at a gym and feeling really frustrated that his clients would have to, for example, do a Spin class and then lift weights with him, and it was taking people an hour and a half or more to get their full workouts in," says Gonzalez. At the time, the only workouts that existed in class form were one-dimensional (think step aerobics and "Cardio Slide"). There was no such thing as an hour-long class that combined interval cardiovascular exercise and strength training, which is exactly what Barry's Bootcamp has done for 22 years. "Barry just wanted to eliminate the need to go to the gym," says Gonzalez. "That's what he was trying to do, fitting your workout into an hour."
In the beginning, Barry worked with his gym clients to test out what is now his signature mashup of lifting and cardio. The clients saw quick results, and not long after, Barry teamed up with his business partners John and Rachel Mumford to found the brand and open its first studio in West Hollywood.
"It was just this little hole in the wall, but it gained kind of a cult following in West Hollywood," says Gonzalez. As for Barry's take on the word "cult," Gonzalez says he thinks it's funny. "I tend to think like the brand; I don’t take things too seriously," he laughs. "I actually think sometimes that I myself am a little crazy and obsessed, so I can relate to why people would use it."
For the first several years, the cult of Barry's remained small. "For a long time, I think my partners thought that L.A. was probably the only place where people would do this workout," says Gonzalez. In the late '90s and early aughts, they weren't convinced that other cities would take to the workout or the brand itself. "You know Barry's brand has a very specific voice: super cheeky," says Gonzalez. It juxtaposes a seemingly intimidating workout with humor and sass, which Barry's followers love now but seemed potentially too niche back then.
It wasn't until year five or six when Gonzalez stepped in as CEO and convinced his partners that the brand's uniqueness could translate elsewhere. He was right—by 2011, Barry's had expanded to New York City, Europe, and several other U.S. cities. "That's when we really felt like we'd hit our stride," says Gonzalez. "The excitement and enthusiasm we felt from New Yorkers, from everyone, was evidence that this concept could work across the world."
LIT Method focuses on high-intensity, low-impact training. If SoulCycle is the cult of cycling, LIT Method aspires to be the cult of rowing. Their technique involves a unique machine that uses real water as resistance to give you a full-body workout without the risk of injury.
The brand's founders are former trainers Taylor Gainor and Justin Norris. Since they started working together on LIT Method, Norris and Gainor have become veritable scholars in the market of cult workouts. Unlike the founders of SoulCycle and Barry's, they had the specific ambition of starting their own fitness venture from the beginning. They diligently studied the successes and failures of other studios to formulate a no-fail brand of their own.
"We wanted to create a safe and effective workout that isn't like all these other knockoff facilities that are copying somebody," says Norris. "We wanted to be innovative; we wanted to be creative."
Gainor and Norris have designed their brand with the utmost precision, from the workout itself (which, like Barry's, combines cardio and strength training) to the vibe, which they are eager to describe as "trendy, sassy, and high-energy." The couple regards SoulCycle as their biggest brand inspiration. If you take one of their classes, this will become clear. A dark atmosphere, flashing lights, and spirited instructors evoke the same fun and intensity of SoulCycle.
While SoulCycle won't even acknowledge the word cult—and Barry's does its best not to think too much about it—when I ask Gainor and Norris how they feel about the word, they say, "We love it. They call us the Bolt Cult on Instagram because our logo is a lightning bolt," says Gainor. "I know there's a negative connotation to the word cult, but we see it in a very positive way."
"We actually just got our Bolt Cult shirts made," Norris adds. "We designed them, and literally within 24 hours, we almost sold out of every single one."
Limited-edition retail? Check.
You'd have to be living under a rock to have not heard of CrossFit. The high-intensity workout sensation began in 2000 and has spread the world over. CrossFit checks all the boxes of a cult-like workout program—the group hive-mind, the lingo (WOD anyone?), the branding—and adds an extra layer of "oneness" with its singular body-type of the muscular, thick, blocky athlete that is synonymous with the brand.
CrossFit is called the "sport of fitness" and even has its own competitive games and popular CrossFit athletes. Combining aerobic exercise with Olympic weightlifting and bodyweight exercises, complex movements are often performed for time in quick succession, which has led to scrutiny over the high incidence of overtraining, injuries, and potentially life-threatening and painful rhabdomyolysis—a condition that causes the breakdown of muscle.
CrossFit has come under a lot of fire for overreaching into diet, philosophy, and politics in a way that has caused division and breakdown of the original owners and operators. Regardless of the ups and downs, CrossFit is one of the original cults of working out and paved the way for many of the fitness brands in this list.
Orangetheory was started in 2010 in Boca Raton by exercise physiologists Ellen Latham, Jerome Kern, and David Long. It has since spread like wildfire with over 1900 studios across the U.S. and 23 other countries. Orangetheory is a form of high-intensity-interval-training that blends tech and group training inside an orange, dimly lit studio where you workout based on your heart rate and effort level—all displayed on screens above you. Like some other cult-like fitness trends, Orangetheory combines cycling, rowing, and strength training stations.
The coach doles out secretive lesson plans at the beginning of the session, where your heart rate will be monitored, and reaching performance landmarks will gain you "splat points." All of your data is sent to you through the app after class with statistics for how well (or not!) you did compared to others. While being monitored, participants wear a branded heart rate monitor, and the data for everyone in the class is displayed on the screen.
Orangetheory also holds themed competitions and challenges where participants can win branded merchandise.
Barre (Pure Bar, The Bar Method, Barre3)
Barre is a ballet-inspired workout format that—as you can probably guess—uses a ballet barre as part of the equipment during workouts. Barre also brings in yoga and Pilates elements for a total body strengthening and light cardio workout that builds balance and coordination.
Barre has its roots in rehabilitative exercise therapy, created by a ballerina who was injured. However, several more accessible Barre brands have taken these classes to a whole new cult level with hundreds of studios. Barre's body type is the opposite of the CrossFit physique—long, lean, and slim like a Ballerina (naturally!).
However, Barre has taken some criticism. Classes generally cannot produce many results when it comes to building strength and muscle. The exercises are too gentle, and no compound movements are used—the backbone of any strength training program. Additionally, the calorie burn during Barre classes is minimal, similar to a leisurely walk. The positions used are also only transferrable to dance and not functional, with the knees pointed outward and the spine straight and pelvis tucked, back pain and injuries are a concern.
Maybe they're a little kooky at times; to an outsider, they might even look crazy. Fortunately, workout cults are not as sinister as the real thing. "Workout movements have the potential to cultivate valuable rewards for members such as community building, sense of mastery, and reassurance and familiarity of faces, movements, and setting," says Romanoff. While these workout movements may seem, on the surface, similar to cults, they're more likely to "include the positive aspects and opportunities to achieve emotional and physical recalibration, personal growth, and spiritual connection than the negatives," according to Romanoff.
Hospital for Special Surgery. How Not to Get Injured in Barre Class. July 2013.