Functional Fitness on the Bluffs, The Renaissance Gym
What if a gym had no front door? What if it had no walls, or a building of any kind for that matter, would it still be a gym? Would the concept work if the gym’s sound structure was only the people who were involved? Function Fitness on the Bluffs (FFOTB), which describes itself as both an elite school of fitness and, ironically, a “fake gym,” is discovering that the concept not only works, it thrives.
Before the coaches and members of FFOTB arrive for the early-morning class on the iconic Palisades Park bluffs in Santa Monica, all that exists is a strip of grass aglow in dawn’s pink haze. Towering palm trees mark every few meters. Then there's the view of the spectacular Pacific Ocean: to the north, Malibu, to the south, the still lit Ferris wheel balanced on the silhouette of the pier against the water. Logan Gelbrich and Danny Lesslie, the founders of FFOTB, begin placing barbells, kettlebells, and mats on the grass. A whiteboard is propped up against a palm’s trunk. Members begin to appear, yawning in zipped hoodies. Slowly the energy stirs. After they warm up, Gelbrich and Lesslie draw the members in under their thoughtful care and give top-tier instruction on weightlifting, on running, on how to attack their fitness fears. And suddenly, as cars whiz by on Ocean Avenue and as running clubs trot past in clusters, a gym appears on the grass. Outside among the trees, rain or shine, FFOTB athletes hit personal records regularly, transform their lives, and interweave to create a community unparalleled in any gym atmosphere.
“We were just supposed to pretend for a while,” Gelbrich said. “We were going to fake it outside until we could get a real space and then create a legit indoor school of fitness. But something happened along the way and this feels as legit as any world-class facility.” The value of FFOTB is based on the notion that being an athlete starts in the mind. The equipment or anything else one thinks they need does not make a gym and it’s not a necessity to build fitness. And though it sounds esoteric, it is absolutely working. FFOTB boasts major transformations with their members. One member has lost one hundred pounds. Coupled with nutritional guidance, two members have cleared their asthma. There are countless stories of members feeling their best and their fittest. Mainly, FFOTB has become an insulated sanctuary for their members, and within that insulation Gelbrich and Lesslie have created the safest and kindest of environments for students to lay it on the line as an athlete both physically and emotionally.
This remarkable atmosphere is due largely in part because of Gelbrich and Lesslie. Though they both stand a commanding six foot three and are amazing athletes in their own right, they each exude a gentle touch that is organic to their natures. Gelbrich, who played two seasons as a catcher for the San Diego Padres, is now an impressive CrossFit competitor. He competed in the 2011 CrossFit Games as part of the CrossFit Los Angeles team. Lesslie was a late bloomer, and after high school, he grew into a football player’s body without having the full experience of competition. CrossFit has filled that void and he, too, is now part of the CrossFit LA team having competed in Regionals this last spring with Gelbrich. Philosophically their views on coaching and running a fitness business converge, but their personalities differ just enough to cast a wide net of care. Lesslie is more jocular and outgoing. Gelbrich is a thinker and more the technician.
It was Lesslie’s personality that got the ball rolling a year and a half ago for FFOTB after he met Gelbrich at CrossFit LA. “I had moved here from Kansas City, just months before, with the dream to open a gym. This is why I was here, but it was a dream with no set plans,” Lesslie said. “I knew Logan was a tremendous athlete, but I didn’t know much else. I just approached him one day and asked him what his career dreams were.” Coincidentally, Gelbrich had already written a detailed business plan to open a gym. Lesslie took that as a divine sign and three days later they were experimenting on a few of Lesslie’s personal training clients with this outside gym idea. “I would have never jumped in with two feet like that,” Gelbrich said. “I had the detailed plan, but Danny just said, ‘Let’s do it.’ And we did.” Gelbrich thought a moment at how FFOTB has grown and added, “If you think about it, we had the worst branding. [Before they moved to the current location] We were hidden and hard to find. We taught class at the worst times. We came up with this name that is totally hard to say. Functional Fitness on the Bluffs? I mean, come on.” But despite all of that, they have successfully touched a lot of people and got members moving “better than yesterday,” which is their motto.
FFOTB host BBQs, they go out to dinner together, and they conduct goal-setting workshops. Most recently they added two new programs that they are fired up about, an endurance class and a women’s class. Relatively, their membership base is small at about seventy-five people. Impressively, their blog, however, gets a few thousand hits a week worldwide. Lesslie and Gelbrich are stunned by this, but what they write about resonates with life, not just life in fitness. They don’t write about how to technically get a better dead lift. They write about how an average, everyday person is capable of the seemingly impossible. And we need to hear that not just as athletes, but as parents, as employees, and contributors to anything bigger than ourselves. It’s important to know that we can be the heroes of our own lives, and this is how FFOTB makes you feel whether through personal interaction, fitness instruction, or their blog. It’s why the FFOTB community is so loyal and so tight, and it’s truly the root of the transformations in which they’ve played a part.
The original idea of FFOTB was based on questions: What would life look like if we didn’t sell ourselves short? What are the best versions of ourselves as athletes, as people? What does the best version of a gym look like? A year and a half later, Gelbrich and Lesslie still seek these answers for themselves and their members, and from that authentic passion, they have built something incredibly unique and quite astounding, a conventional space be damned.