It’s 5:30 a.m. on a Monday in St. Louis, the sun isn’t even a rumor yet, and I’m joining a dozen men in a free outdoor workout group called F3, gathering for what we all hope will be a glorious beatdown.
In a public park, we circle Jason Grothe (F3 nickname: Ringer), who has promised to make our lives miserable for the next 45 minutes. He will grunt and groan alongside us—a core principle of F3 is that the rotating volunteer leaders running workouts also suffer.
Ringer’s playlist starts with Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax,” and as the first notes sound, we’re doing jumping jacks. Burpee box jumps and planks follow. Sweat darkens the concrete under a 58-year-old nicknamed Honey Pot, because he’s a beekeeper, and steam pours off a 36-year-old nicknamed Sheldon. “Don’t cheat the man in the mirror,” someone says. Sucking wind, I don’t respond. Doing so would be disingenuous: I’m thinking unkind thoughts about Ringer.
What is F3?
Men across the country are clamoring to be this miserable, with an estimated 20,000 active participants. Think of it as a hyper-positive Fight Club and hipper YMCA. It gives you up to 15 supportive guys in every workout. To “join,” just log on to the organization’s website, find one of the 1,500 free F3 workouts going on in 30 states every morning, and show up ready to sweat in pursuit of conditioning and community. The workouts are usually boot-camp style (reflecting the military background of one of its cofounders), and they happen outside, rain or shine. Occasionally, cinder blocks, kettlebells, or rucks are on the menu; most often, it’s just you versus your body weight.
David Redding (a former Green Beret) and Tim Whitmire (a former journalist) created F3 eight years ago, when their group workout class became too crowded. Redding used military terms for exercises and hoped to see ten men on that morning, January 1, 2011. But after they’d emailed friends to join them for morning burners, 35 guys showed up to the parking lot of a Charlotte, North Carolina, middle school.
F3 quickly became about more than fitness—the other two F’s stand for fellowship and faith.
Whitmire and Redding attended the same Episcopalian church for years but barely knew each other before they started training together. Redding, Whitmire, and other F3 men I talked to realize that having the third F stand for faith will make some skeptical. They insist that the point is not what you believe in, as long as you believe in something beyond yourself.All men, regardless of religious beliefs, are welcome. During six workouts in multiple locations, I hear no proselytizing.
How F3 Makes Better Men
Redding and Whitmire discovered F3 solved two problems—a lack of deep relationships among men and the abdication of leadership roles by men—that they weren’t initially looking to solve. The group is all men, but it does more than get men in shape. The fact that it’s all guys feels like a throwback while also offering a different dynamic. (There’s also F3 for women, FIA.)
Redding believes men think their relationships and friendships can’t withstand deeper reflection. F3 releases them from what he calls “sad-clown bondage”—a Sopranos reference to being happy on the outside, sad on the inside—giving them an instant network of brothers in sweat. It delivers quality guy time, letting men focus on one another.
I quickly realize these are both workouts and social gatherings. After my first workout, I know I’ll get my own F3 nickname. I just hope mine doesn’t suck. F3 nicknames are uniformly silly, often either a play on your name (last name Painter, nickname Drop Cloth) or something from your background (I meet an Ohio State fan nicknamed Schembechler, after the legendary coach of Ohio State’s archrival).
The guys in my session ask me for my most embarrassing life moment, then listen as I tell them about puking during a high school tennis match. That’s how I get my nickname: Ralph.
If it’s your first time, you’re what F3 vets call an FNG (friendly new guy). But they quickly make you feel like one of the guys. And when you’re battling through pistol squats
and pushups shoulder to shoulder with Honey Pot, you can’t help but feel like you belong.
Finding Trust at F3
A few times, I’m tempted to bail, and once, I almost relive high school tennis. But I keep going, partly because of someone (I’m not sure who, because I’m facedown grinding out pushups) mumbling more encouragement. By the time we reach three minutes of plank jacks, the 45-minute workout is nearly over, my hair is matted, and my shirt is soaked.
Every F3 workout ends with a “Circle of Trust” highlighting the third F of faith. Participants count off, saying their name, age, and F3 nickname. The leader notes upcoming workouts and other community events and closes with a moment of thought—typically a prayer or a quote. Today it’s about love, a reference to 1 Corinthians 13: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
And I’m no longer an FNG. Two days later (yes, I come back), I’m officially Ralph.
Six Minutes of Mary
F3’s infamous no-mercy ab burner is not for the faint of heart. Work through the following circuit, spending 24 seconds on each interval.
0:00 Little Baby Crunch
Lie on your back in situp position and lift your chest just off the ground, squeezing your abs. That’s 1 rep.
0:24 High Slow Flutter
Lie on your back, raise your straight legs about 2 feet off the ground, and flutter them back and forth. Take 2 seconds to complete each back-and-forth flutter.
1:12 Low Flutter
Lie on your back and raise your straight legs about 6 inches off the ground. Flutter them back and forth, never letting them touch
1:36 Low Scissors
Lie on your back, raise your straight legs about 6 inches off the ground, then alternately scissor one over the other.
2:24 High Scissors
Lie on your back, raise your straight legs 2 feet off the ground, and alternately scissor one over the other.
F3’s version of a modified V-up. Start lying on your back, arms and legs extended, all just inches off the ground. Tuck your knees and your arms, then return to the start. That’s 1 rep.
3:36 Heels to Heaven
F3’s version of a straight-legged reverse crunch. Lie on your back, straight legs pointed upward (er, toward heaven). Tighten your abs, pressing your legs up higher and raising your lower back off the ground. Return to the start. That’s 1 rep.
4:00 Plank Jack
Start in a forearm plank, feet touching. Then leap your feet wide, then back to starting position. That’s 1 rep.
Hold a forearm plank for 24 seconds.
5:12 World War II Situp
F3’s version of a straight-legged situp.
5:36 Oblique Crunch