How Virgin Active is innovating exercise around the world

Virgin Active isn’t short of innovative individuals, so we caught up with two of its amazing employees to discover how they keep coming up with pioneering exercise classes on opposite sides of the planet.

Odette Blacklock - Head Coach Calibration, Virgin Active Australia

What will make the new Virgin Active Barangaroo so special?

Because it’s the first Collection club in Australia, it will be refreshingly and distinctively different. It’s aimed at making exercise irresistible. The lighting, the music, and the sleek club fit-out make it a beautiful place to work and train. And the training and development for instructors, to help us make each class the best member experience, is unique to Virgin.

Image of Odette Blacklock

Why do you think group exercise is so good for people?

Community engagement. Being part of positive community-based activity is amazingly beneficial for people’s mental and physical health, and acts to combat our biggest social illnesses – diabetes, heart disease and mental illness.

You’re a mother, an ex-Australian Survivor contestant, semi-pro sprinter, podiatrist, and Masters medical graduate! How do you manage all that?

I owe it to starting my career in the fitness industry. After having my son, I struggled with depression, but I made it my mission to find a way out. I knew that I had to fix my health – mental, physical, educational, spiritual and social. So, I enrolled in education, I joined a gym, I ate healthy food, I saw a psychologist, and I put my hand up for every opportunity. When you work on your health, life gets better.

Tell our readers a bit about your Outdoor Calibration programming.

Well, because of my background in sprinting, Pilates and podiatry, I started to connect the dots around running performance. I designed a running programme for everyone, pros and newbies, focused on building a runner’s body. The class consists of mobility drills to release any restricted areas; biomechanical and postural drills to align the body and perfect the gait cycle; then the conditioning component of the class. Then we smash out some hills, stairs or interval repeat sessions.

Do you have any other new and innovative classes in the pipeline?

I won’t say too much, but I feel the mind/body area will be hit next. Also there’s the outdoor arena – that’s where people are heading, and I want to create a space for them to thrive, from 100m sprint to half-marathon.

If budget and space weren’t issues, what would be your ultimate class?

Well, I love nature and I know how beneficial it is for humans to be among it and ground themselves with the earth. And the science behind play is worthy of addressing. So an outdoor gym with obstacles on the beach would be my ultimate fitness playground. (And maybe a sneaky cocktail afterwards, because it’s all about balance!)

What makes Virgin Active stand out from the competition?

It’s the sense of possibility, and this originates with the Virgin brand established by Richard Branson and his entrepreneurialism and creative risk-taking. It’s natural that people want to be associated with such qualities. The fact that we deliver and hold to these qualities is what makes us game changers and leaders in the health and fitness arena.

Israel Rivera Head of Group Exercise, Virgin Active UK

You’ve joined us in the UK from the US. Do Americans approach exercise any differently to us Brits?

I think that the UK is just beginning to learn the value of fitness. At the end of the day, you can never put a price tag on the value of your health; it’s the biggest return on investment. Putting your health first – both physical and mental – matters!

What’s your perception of the health club world in the UK, compared to the industry in the USA?

The industry here is just beginning to experience a rebirth. People will certainly begin to learn the value of fitness and investing in their health. So, if anything, the UK is just a few years behind the curve. Buckle up, though. It’s going to be an exciting time.

How do you plan to make Virgin Active an even better career choice?

We have so much talent within our ranks to support, develop and set on a pathway to success. We plan to engage, empower and excite our teams to claim their rightful place as fitness industry leaders. In partnership with Head of Personal Training Hugh Hanley, the Fitness Academy and our Rockstar Instructor Bootcamp will set the tone and define their career trajectory. I want Virgin Active to be the place where people develop their career in fitness.

What in your opinion is so important about group exercise at Virgin Active and in the exercise industry right now?

It’s not about exercise – it’s about the experience. Our customers are looking for a place to belong. More and more people are opting to meet at a fitness class rather than a bar to socialise. I’ll encourage that behaviour anytime!

Can you tell us a bit about the focus of your new flagship classes?

Our goal is to make exercise an experience – and fun! Our Revolution class is a 45-minute cycling and total-body workout fuelled by music. Your instructor acts as the DJ and fitness coach, setting a high-intensity rhythm to the cardio, strength and movement elements to the class.

In Reformer, traditional exercises go hand in hand with functional training concepts to give a total body and core workout. In both cases, we’re bringing the personalised, high-end experience into our clubs.

Or keep your fitness levels afloat with our Row & Lift programme – hit your strength and conditioning targets at the rig, then head to the rower to burn fat and blast through your cardio workout. Add a splash of entertainment to it all and voilà!

You are passionate about fostering belonging and camaraderie at Virgin Active’s UK clubs. How will you do this?

Group exercise tends to be a silo, and a transient community as a result. They need a voice. I’m all for it! We’ve invested a great deal of time into making our visits a much more personal, considerate and empathetic experience. We’re defining the path and supporting everyone along the way.

What makes Virgin Active stand out from the competition?

We’re innovative and we’re clear about who we are as a company, brand and culture. We play nice in the sandbox, but we don’t mind being clear about letting the community and our customers know why we’re here.


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