This article originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of Australian Men’s Health.
With a devout following that includes the Hollywood elite, two Australian trainers, Wade Farmer and Jaden Garft, hold the key to unlocking your fitness prime.
Early last year, Zac Efron’s body once again became the subject of international tabloid fascination. No stranger to objectification, Efron and his much-admired rig first made headlines back in 2016 when he buffed up to don the famous Hasselhoff red swim trunks alongside Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in the big-screen adaptation of Baywatch. Lean, muscular and tanned, Efron had adhered to well-documented fasting regimes and training protocols (and a seemingly time-intensive sunbed routine) to portray Californian swimmer-turned-lifeguard Matt Brody. As is always the case on the internet, reaction was mixed: some admired the young actor’s commitment to transforming his body, while others (Efron among them) highlighted the absurdity of Hollywood’s new male-body standard and the extreme measures required to reach it.
This time around, in 2021, the reaction was different. Bloggers and the like all but universally praised Efron and his body after photos emerged of the actor in the lead-up to his Netflix docuseries Down To Earth. While once again shirtless, Efron was noticeably less defined. Cries of “Daddy Efron” echoed through social media, though few responders were being critical. On the contrary, it was an overwhelmingly positive reaction to a thicker, stronger and entirely more functional leading man. Simply put, the man looked healthy.
Efron, 34, had spent much of the pandemic in Australia, with his new physique the result of an extended training block under the guidance of Byron Bay-based PT Jaden Garft. Efron did a long stint in the South Australian desert on the set of his new film, Gold, so Garft’s programming relied heavily on simplicity and creativity.
To the east, in Sydney, Kiwi director-slash-actor Taika Waititi, 46, was preparing to direct and star in the latest Marvel instalment, Thor: Love and Thunder. Somewhat more under-the-radar, Waititi was kicking off a training program of his own under the expert guidance of Wade Farmer. The goal: enhanced quality of life ahead of a six-month stint on set, honing a sharp mind, body and spirit. That was Waititi’s story, anyway; the unadorned truth was rather different, according to Farmer.
“I think, in reality, anyone who tells you that they’re just training for enhanced quality of life and longevity. . . there’s always a goal somewhere in that to look good,” laughs Farmer. “No one trains for the mental aspect alone. The mental aspect is Taika’s – and probably most people’s – secondary goal. The longevity aspect, however, is a key component. In no way is he an old man, but he had a career in rugby, so he is carrying a few niggles and aches and pains from years of getting smacked around by guys who were probably twice his height and weight. That all came into it. We were working around shoulder, neck and knee stability. In and around that, it was, how do we build this stuff into a program that’s also going to help him pack on some muscle, strip away some fat and generally just make him a better human all up?”
You’d think the training regimes of Efron and Waititi would be poles apart. Outwardly, the Hollywood heartthrob and the acclaimed writer-director of Jojo Rabbit would seem to have only their profession in common. Separated as they are by more than a decade in age, they’d surely have different training priorities, right?
“The irony is that, in reality, they didn’t,” says Farmer. “They had different programs, but if you had have looked at the actual systems and frameworks that Jaden and I were using with each of them, they were very similar. The meat and veg of most everyday workouts is going to be similar in the sense that most people need to lift a certain amount each week, and they’ll need a similar style of progressive overload. You need a relative level of conditioning and high intensity in there as well. But what makes up those categories in terms of exercise selection and training tools, that would be where the little differences occur.”
The training system shared by Efron and Waititi is called Verce. It was developed jointly by Garft and Farmer, and it’s Australia’s latest burgeoning online fitness empire.
With hindsight, a business venture between Garft and Farmer seems entirely logical. Verce’s origin story isn’t one of two celebrity trainers converging; it’s about how two already compatible trainers drifted into the orbit of celebrities.
In a world far removed from the film sets and private jets to which they’ve recently become accustomed, Garft and Farmer began their careers in fitness more than five years ago in the same gym on Sydney’s Northern Beaches – Chocolate Box Training in Cromer. It was during these formative years that the lads’ complementary skill sets became apparent and the foundations for what would become Verce were laid.
As Farmer tells it, he provided the science. “I was originally on a path towards medical science rather than preventative healthcare,” he says. “I did medical science with the goal of becoming a doctor. I finished my undergrad and then went to sit my entry exam for medicine. And I just was not about that whole schtick.” To Farmer, the system seemed to have things backwards. Why was the emphasis on cure instead of prevention?
“That’s the way I was introduced to medicine. Basically, here’s how to help people when it’s too late. Whereas what I admired about the strength and conditioning space is that it’s all effectively preventative healthcare. How do you fix a problem before it’s even become one? I align much more with that thinking. I had an opportunity to go and become a PT, and from that things just snowballed.”
From Chocolate Box, Farmer went on to craft programs for national gym chains BeFit and REVL, known for their evidence-based approach to training. As both chains expanded nationally, Farmer educated staff on what he saw as the key principles of fitness, creating training programs that were followed by thousands of budding Australian athletes.
While Farmer was delving into the science of human conditioning, Garft was busy honing the “know-how” of training – aka the implementation of that science. As Garft tells it from his home-made jungle gym just south of Byron, his background in football allowed him to “explore doing more, with less” – though that’s somewhat underselling it, according to Farmer.
“Jaden has an extensive background in Olympic lifting,” says Farmer. “The integration of complex, highly technical barbell movements into the training and coaching of clients is something he’s just so proficient in.”
Garft stayed at Chocolate Box for five years, honing his skills, until the start of the pandemic at the beginning of 2020 forced the gym to close its doors and Garft to start plying his trade in the parks of Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Farmer also took his programming online, seeking to create a harmony between science-based training and the limited equipment REVL clients had at home.
Australia’s early successes in containing the spread of COVID saw a flock of Hollywood actors land on our shores, Efron and Waititi among them. And that was when, Hollywood style, the lives of Garft and Farmer took a dramatic turn.
STROKES OF FORTUNE
Farmer and Garft are now officially the newest members of the Australian fitness industry’s Rat Pack, a group of elite operators, all mates, helmed by Chris Hemsworth’s PT, Luke Zocchi. Renowned for whipping local and international A-listers into shape, all Rat Pack members present as extremely affable entrepreneurs with global aspirations living around Byron. It would be a mistake, however, to confuse their geniality for lack of ambition. There’s a reason they’ve all been successful in an overcrowded industry – being ‘good blokes’ has simply helped their cause.
The story of how Farmer and Garft joined the Pack has the makings of a movie. Garft, a longtime friend of Zocchi’s, was first to get tapped as the pair whacked golf balls at a driving range near Sydney’s Marvel Studios.
“Zocco goes, ‘Hey mate, I might have a job for you’,” recalls Garft. “He said, ‘I’m not a hundred per cent sure what’s going on, but stay close and be ready just to come up to Byron for a week. Zac needs a trainer. Obviously I can’t do it because I’m with Chris. Would this be something that would interest you?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, for sure’.”
Farmer’s call-up was not far off, with Zocchi on the phone to him a few months later. Says Farmer: “He basically said that he had a mate who was in town and needed a trainer – could I look after him? And I replied, ‘Yeah, cool. I’m pretty busy, but if he’s a mate of yours, he’s a mate of mine’. So the mate in question was Taika, and we just got on like a house on fire.” He and Waititi went from one or two sessions a week to training every day.
“Our lives paralleled,” says Farmer of the months that changed he and Garft’s careers. “Jaden was working on Gold over in South Australia with Zac, and then I was working on Thor with Taika. We were both in a position where it’s like, hey, we have this joint knowledge, and now we have an opportunity to put that into a system that we could make accessible to everyone. Because what good is this if we are just keeping it for the 10 to 20 people that we can handle per week, when we could be putting this out for anyone and everyone who wants access to it? That was why we started Verce.”
Despite the stellar credentials of their colleagues, Garft and Farmer have distinguished themselves from the rest of the Pack. Theirs is a unique approach to fitness programming, which they insist “isn’t for everyone” – and nor do they ever want it to be.
For starters, it’s somewhat puzzling, though ultimately refreshing, that two trainers with such high-profile clients have decided to team up rather than go it alone. They recognise that their collaboration is greater than the sum of its parts.
“I would say that [as individuals] we are both complementary and contrasting,” says Farmer. “Complementary in the sense that we align so much on how we train and our belief in what we know gets results. That’s how we were able to start Verce. It wasn’t like [Garft] had a Taekwondo background and my background was straight conditioning, which would put us miles apart. It was more so the fact that we both knew what it took to get results. Combined.”
Perhaps even more remarkable than their niche targeting and joint offering – and the greatest testament to their humility – is the fact neither Garft nor Farmer hinges the promotion of their business on the names of their clients. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find even a social media post linking them with Efron or Waititi. Instead, it seems almost as though they’re determined to distance themselves and Verce from their most charismatic talent, whom they insist are just regular clients – and regular guys.
Farmer offers an explanation: “I don’t think it’s that special to train celebrities or high-profile people. I mean, the more time you get to spend with people and have candid conversations with them, the more you realise that we’re all the same. They just have these high-profile careers that put them in the spotlight. People recognise them when they walk down the street, but at the end of the day, you don’t train a celebrity any differently than you train anyone else, just because they’re a celebrity. They’re still human. The same things that work for you and I are going to work for those guys.
“And as a result, yeah, maybe we don’t leverage off those guys as much as some others might. At the end of the day, they don’t define what we do with Verce. They are exceptions to the rule.”
Garft is characteristically to the point: “I don’t want to be out there throwing them [into the social media universe] and trying to ride on their coattails. We want our program to speak for itself.” And boy, does it ever.
When you commit to any training program you have three ways to go: forwards, backwards or nowhere. Progression and overload are key when it comes to pushing your fitness in the preferred direction.
I’ve long believed that whoever develops the next progression from F45 would have it made. F45 has undoubtedly broken down training barriers for many thousands of previously inactive men and women worldwide, propelling their fitness forward at a rate of knots. F45’s architects took the guesswork out of fitness, providing a commercially successful model and making HIIT training accessible to the masses. Operating on such a large scale, however, comes with limitations, such as the difficulties of working progression and personalisation into what is essentially a one-size-fits-all methodology. You simply can’t program for individual development at such a large scale, and so clients inevitably hit plateaus that become very hard to leave.
For a moment, it looked as though CrossFit was perfectly poised to accept a generation of F45 graduates. That was until a slew of well-publicised cultural and head-office issues slowed and even derailed the speeding train. Frustrated or disgruntled F45ers and CrossFitters partially comprise the audience that Verce hopes to capture.
“Most people are coming for a different type of program,” explains Garft. “They’ve done that bro-science program; they’ve dabbled in some CrossFit; or they’ve just come from F45. What we’re trying to do is create a program that the world’s fittest man could do, as well as someone who’s come out of F45 classes and wants something more. What we’re trying to do is create full-body health by working on larger muscle groups right through to the knee, the hip, the shoulder. Creating mobility and stability, then also strengthening that with overlooked aspects, like say unilateral-strength stuff with compound lifts. You’re not just going through that standard, ‘Oh, it’s Wednesday, I’m doing a normal deadlift today’. We’re playing with tempo. We want to move on all planes. Because that’s what everyone does. No one’s just walking forward. Someone walks in front of you on the street and you’ve got to jump to the side and be able to catch your knees. Make sure you don’t buckle. Structural balance is what we’re looking to create.”
Farmer concurs, while once again asserting their point of difference. This isn’t an entry-level offering. Their Rat Pack mates have that space covered. No, what they’re providing is an outlet for the seasoned gym-goer. “We know that it requires a certain level of effort for you to get results,” says Farmer. “It’s not going to be a program for everyone. Not everyone will be able just to get off the couch and start on Verce on day one. But if you’ve been training for nine months to a year plus, if you know your way around the gym but you have no idea what to do and you need a plan, that’s what we’re offering.”
Because of my vocation, I’ve been fortunate enough to access most training programs, from the hard-core legit to the gimmicky. I’ve dabbled in some of Garft’s reviled ‘bro science’ [essentially bodybuilding], and although I’m yet to try F45, I have spent years following various CrossFit programs. Some methods have stuck, some have thankfully fallen by the wayside. Yet it wasn’t until I started training with Garft in 2020 that I really found a training program that provided a way forward.
I first encountered the Verce program before it was so named. During the first lockdown of 2020, I trained with Garft from my local park. Sessions were outdoors and participants were socially distanced. In a given week, Garft would schlep a barbell around for the amusement of clients across the city.
The training was focused on strength and conditioning, with the conditioning elements never exceeding 12 minutes. This was training stripped to the bone thanks to the closure of gyms across the world. It was A-grade fitness without the flash – simple because we didn’t have access to the equipment and contraptions that can bog you down and distract you from basic principles.
“We try to do as much as we can as with minimal equipment,” says Garft. “Say you’ve got the gym, you’ve got a barbell, some plates, a couple of dumbbells and whatnot. You can get as much out of that as you need . . . maximise that equipment rather than continually purchasing new pieces. We want to be creative with the equipment we have and the programming we’re giving you, while staying consistent. Consistent, yes – avoiding stagnation – but with enough creativity to keep you engaged.”
And the training did keep me engaged, such that I stuck with it even as gyms reopened. Then Garft got the call-up to train Efron, and you’d have understood if he’d just walked away at that point to fry bigger fish.
By this time, however Farmer and Garft had built such a devoted following on the back of their programming and charisma, and achieved such incredible results for their clients, that they didn’t want to stop. So they did what every forward-thinking trainer did at the time: they went online.
“Verce is basically a comprehensive training system that is going to help anyone who has access to basic equipment. You don’t need cable machines, you don’t need a fancy gym membership. You don’t need a leg extension. All you need is either a bar and some free weights and maybe a bike or a rower, or right down to just a pair of dumbbells. We can take just a pair of dumbbells and give you a great training stimulus, because it’s the systems that matter more than the equipment.”
Since the creation of the online program, the Verce lads have wrapped filming with their respective clients and gyms have reopened, which has led to the next and necessary phase of their expansion. The boys are in the process of partnering with gyms across Australia, educating coaches in the style of training that has helped carve Hollywood royalty and schmucks alike. Soon, probaby, you’ll be able to look up your nearest Verce gym in the same way you’d look up your nearest F45.
And clients like what they’re seeing. “We’ve seen a range of weight-loss, muscle-gain and joint mobility improvements,” reports Garft.
Keen as they are to share their methodology with the world, they’re loath to expand too quickly, aware the success of their offering depends for now on their personal appeal and input.
Farmer and Garft are delivering solid training solutions with a side helping of larrikinism that flavours everything they touch.
“We’re not trying to blow up like crazy. We want it to be controlled enough so that clients speak to us knowing they’re going to get a response, rather than having to wait around and twiddle their thumbs,” says Garft. “We want to be on top of everything.” Including, it seems, the fitness world.