My t-shirt is soaked like a dishrag; my foam rubber mat resembles a Jackson Pollock canvas. It’s lunchtime, and I should be eating a sandwich somewhere—preferably one loaded with processed meats and trans fats. Instead I’m trying to catch my breath in an Old City workout studio, surrounded by 21 women who appear to be perspiring much less than I am. They’re mainly in their 20s and early 30s, fit, fashionable—no baggy tees and ill-advised spandex here. By comparison, my Sixers t-shirt and Champion shorts give me the look of a sweaty, hyperventilating hobo. I’m gripping two elastic resistance bands that dangle from the ceiling, trying, largely in vain, to keep up with the choreography in a class called “Weightless.”
“Arms are going to stay low,” says the cheery instructor, Lauren Boggi, through her headset microphone. “It’s just stiletto and flat, up and down, squeeze the glutes!”
The club music pulses as the women around me flap their bands and make sharp, distinct movements that would do Beyoncé’s backup dancers proud. Booties are slapped. Struts are fierce. I flop around like a just-caught mackerel on a dock.
“You got it!” says Boggi.
Welcome to Lithe Method, the made-in-Philly boutique fitness craze that has made otherwise sane women wake up at 5 a.m. to check the Internet and see if they’ve escaped wait-list limbo for a crack-of-dawn session. (As one classmate tells me later, “If you’re not registering three weeks in advance, you’re not getting in.”) Lithe was founded by Boggi (pronounced BOH-gee), a peppy blond firecracker whose self-described “cardio-cheer-sculpting” kingdom will soon include five locations, spanning from the city to the Main Line to a soon-to-open outpost in New York City’s trendy Flatiron District. “She’s like Joan Shepp,” says Boggi’s former publicist, Nicole Cashman, comparing her to the Philadelphia designer-boutique doyenne. “Joan was a trailblazer in her industry 40 years ago. Lauren is doing the same thing in the fitness world.”
Lithe’s classes have cheeky names like “Skinny Mini” and “Arm-istice” and incorporate “Lithe-exclusive props” like the resistance bands and trampolines, wrapped in tidy but brutal one-hour workouts. At the center of it all is Boggi, today in a white sports bra and black yoga pants, her hair in a swishy ponytail. At 35, she represents Lithe’s aspirational, but relatable, fitness ideal: Unlike the waifs and Gumbys who populate most yoga and Pilates studios, Boggi is a four-foot-11-inch powerhouse, with muscular thighs and steely abs that offer no evidence of self-deprivation. She talks freely about her curves, and her recent struggles to lose baby weight. She has the workout instructor’s cadence down cold, striking just the right balance between life coach and drill sergeant. “Shake it!” she exhorts. “Really tuck. I want to see cellulite in the right cheek.” Boggi still sounds like the cheerleader she was in college, but not the kind you want to see tormented in a horror movie—she’s the one on the dean’s list who’s nice to the nerds.
She moves us to the barre. I grip it with both hands while holding the tension bands, trying to keep my left leg in “stiletto” position, perched on the ball of my foot as if I’m wearing an invisible five-inch Louboutin. We do squats, knee lifts, reverse lunges, all in sets of 30. I consider myself to be in pretty decent shape, but by the final set, my calf is shaking with fatigue. Some of my classmates struggle with me; others, dead-eyed and focused, don’t tremble at all. Boggi has advised me to “not worry about anyone else. You’re focusing on survival.”
There were cheers and laughter when Boggi introduced me to the class. Few guys try Lithe, and of those who do, almost none come back. (Ass-shaking and “stiletto” moves hold limited male appeal.) What’s less obvious is why Lithe has become a certified phenomenon, a religion for the region’s most discerning and demanding female fitness junkies. It’s more than just a workout. It’s a clothing line (Lithe Wear), it’s health-conscious meals and drinks, including a cleanse (Lithe Foods), it’s even exercise getaways to chic villas in the Caribbean (Lithe Escapes), all orchestrated by the petite Boggi, Lithe’s L. Ron Hubbard. Says one Lither: “It’s a cult.”