Inside the ‘hi-tech’ gym of the future

By Jack Rivlin on October 24th, 2013

I’m sweating, red-faced and desperately trying to catch my breath as a svelte woman performs something called the Turkish Snatch. It sounds like the scene at an experimental brothel, but I am in fact at Tottenham Court Road’s Fitness First, experiencing quite a lot of pain, and almost no sexual ecstasy at all.

The woman performing is on a large video screen in the gym’s “freestyle area”, demonstrating how to contort into a series of degrading shapes in the name of exercise.

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Jack Rivlin pays attention to his ‘virtual PT’

It’s all part of the company’s £20 million project to make gyms appeal to beta males like me, by installing futuristic machines which are more fun and less intimidating than traditional weights.

If you’re sceptical, I empathise. For years I have tolerated sparrow’s kneecaps for arms and a swollen gut fuelled by lager and cheese toasties. The gym has never even been a consideration. Firstly, it’s boring.

The treadmill may have a quiet dignity but is there anything more depressing than getting the stitch in a windowless cell with only Sky Sports News, mid-volume Lady Gaga and the stench of stale sweat for company?

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Floor exercises are a key part of the hi-tech workout

Try to progress to something more exciting like the weights room, and you’ll come up against the gym’s second great downside: guaranteed embarrassment. JK Rowling characterised poverty as “a thousand petty humiliations”, which also perfectly describes my expectations of a gym experience.

First you’ve got to choose a machine and work out how to use it, which is honestly a 10 minute job when you include the umming and aahing over what weight is too pitiful to justify. Next you’ve actually got to move the machine several dozen times without letting out too pathetic a groan or yelp.

And then you have to do it again. This all occurs under the intimidating gaze of a posse of perma-tanned meatheads, who you suspect could turn you to powder for their protein shake. I’d rather waste away than suffer that torment every week.

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No more weightlifting for me, says Jack

So when Fitness First gave it large about a new “gym of the future” which would actually appeal to cowards like me, I had to try it out. And you know what? It’s fun. There’s a “reaction wall” which is basically one of those whack-a-rat fairground games redesigned for people who wear lycra. There’s a virtual personal trainer (the aforementioned svelte woman) who orders you to dance around with kettle-shaped weights.

They’ve even got interactive screens on treadmills which simulate famous marathons and let you race others. It’s part gym, part games arcade, and it might be the first instance I’ve ever experienced of technology making me do something physical rather than helping me to cut corners.

Before I began swinging a phallic plastic pipe between my legs for the next routine of the weekend, I did nevertheless glance around the freestyle area to make sure no-one was watching. The workouts do look pretty ridiculous after all, especially the ones with the virtual personal trainer.

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A look of joy spreads across our correspondent’s face

They’re noisy, because they mainly involve dragging and throwing heavy objects, and ultimately you are being taught how to exercise by a screen, which is even more demeaning than a real personal trainer yelling: “How much do you want to achieve your goals?”

But you soon ignore the scars of past embarrassment – you’re actually getting a workout, and it’s fun. And best of all, the only other people using the hi-tech equipment are pigeons like you. Let the meatheads keep their weights room, there’s a new place for the rest of us. I’m going every day.

Photography by Joshi Herrmann