There is a strange paradox within the home workout boom: 2020 has absolutely necessitated them, a way of keeping fit with an expert eye overseeing you at a time when fitness offerings were few and far between. But the curse is that social media, where most of these workouts can be found, is also a place where people promote a certain kind of flawlessness: an aptitude and exceptionalism in their physique that doesn’t always translate well to someone who, furloughed and in need of an outlet, wants to start doing HIIT for the first time.
While Instagram remains a vital resource if you’re looking for free workouts from some of the industry’s greats, there’s a new social media outlet that’s offering something a little bit different: TikTok. Famed for its viral trends, dance routines and Vine-like chaos, TikTok is not without controversy. But it has carved out a particularly interesting niche for fitness professionals: a space where people can be athletic and hot, but also have a personality.
TikTok might not seem like the next place to look to for help with your workouts – its videos are short, its energy much more scrappy – but the people who are making names for themselves on the app have found that it’s the perfect place to suggest new workouts, trial unusual supersets and even just go over the basics of gym etiquette and exercise form for people who need a refresher. Whether you’re an exercise newbie or a veteran, it might be worth turning your attention to TikTok.
Two things lead the men of Fitness TikTok to the platform: young girls in their families and seeing an opportunity to grow an audience. For Eyal Booker, it was seeing his younger sister using it; for Paul Olima, it was his daughter. For Alex Crockford and Franklin Sopuluchukwu, it was a chance to build an audience and give their expertise to a new group of people who needed it.
David Templer, a 30-year-old personal trainer and content curator, first joined TikTok as part of a paid partnership. “I think TikTok reached out to me and offered me £150 to set up an account,” he explained. “And then I also just post a few bits of content both on my TikTok channel and my Instagram feeds. I got addicted within a week.”
Templer’s entire business model is built on a holistic approach to health: nutrition and fitness go hand in hand, and he’s found a huge amount of success with his “shirtless chef” recipe videos, his often audaciously OTT meals finding a huge audience during lockdown. But fitness still continues to drive a lot of traffic for him: one of his most successful videos, at the time of talking, had been a guide on how to do a deadlift. “I think it is those educational pieces that people are really, really looking for, so I think what I’m going to do is go back into doing those one-off tutorials.”
For Templer, the real power of TikTok is its ability to offer simple, general advice that anyone can use. As an F45 instructor, he knows that not everyone responds to the same blanket information on how to do a workout. For some people, he thinks, checking out the guides on TikTok might provide an explanation no one had offered them before: “There’s more than one way of explaining how to do something right to people. I’m not saying what I say is gospel; my content isn’t the best out there. But it’s one way of explaining and describing how to do stuff.” This instructional aspect is helped, he adds, by the app’s easy-to-use captioning options.
Alex Crockford has long been prescient about the move to home fitness. A trainer on the telefitness behemoth Fiit, with an active YouTube channel and his own app, #Crockfit, TikTok just felt like another place to share his work: “If your passion is to reach more people and help them in their fitness, then why not go for it? It’s a good opportunity to be more playful, to create good content and help more people.”
The biggest change in making content for TikTok, he says, was how attention differs. All platforms require you to hook somebody in quickly, Crockford explained, “but with TikTok you have to get the attention quickly, hold the attention throughout, whilst also delivering whatever the whole video is about in a really short amount of time. On YouTube, if you get their attention, they may stay for 20 or 30 minutes.” You can see this editing ethos now influencing his other content: flexing his guns in a brief intro before going through each step of an arms workout.
Eyal Booker also found that sharing condensed workouts was where his fitness content really took off. He’d started posting in January this year and had some success leaping on dance trends. But he knew he could either be reactionary, “or break away and do something that actually interests you”. Ever since finding success on Instagram following his years as a reality star on Love Island, Celebs Go Dating and Celebrity X Factor, Booker had found he was uninterested in being an influencer if he didn’t influence anything of importance. “You’re somewhat conditioned into being what people presume you should be after going on a show like [Love Island]: working with fast-fashion brands, not really caring about anything more than superficial things. And I realised that wasn’t really me.” Fitness had always been a big part of his life, so he decided to see if he could offer something useful.
“Pre-Covid I was in LA and I started to post workouts because I knew that people were going to start to think about their summer body,” he explained. “I did an abs workout and then a fat-burning workout. And the fat-burning workout blew up and has over ten million views.” He had just wanted to show people a précis of what he’d done in his own workout, editing together footage of him “in a manky pair of gym shorts” in probably five minutes. Suddenly he was finding success, and he’s kept fitness posts in his feed ever since. Just like everyone, though, he also does a little bit of everything: TikTok, everyone agreed, is a place that rewards users who engage with multiple different strands.
According to the people we spoke to, abs seemed to be the thing TikTok users wanted advice on: Franklin Sopuluchukwu and Alex Crockford both mentioned that ab workouts had been some of their most successful videos. But then you’re faced with an interesting conundrum: how do you make sure you balance what people want – a six-pack – with what people actually need, AKA just working on developing a stronger core?
This has been one of the biggest questions for Sopuluchukwu, a 27-year-old paediatric respiratory physiologist who has managed an almost impossible undertaking: working for the NHS during a pandemic while also becoming a major fitness influencer on a burgeoning social media platform. “It’s not hard to find the time, because fitness is my true passion,” he explained. “When you do something you love, you don’ really account time for it.” He’ll do a 12-hour shift, he said, then go straight to the gym. He wants to inspire people that “no matter what life you live, you can still find time to get that workout in”.
Being a fitness enthusiast, and also someone with a strong background in medicine and the human body, means he never wants to put something out there just because it’s what people are asking for: people on his page might care most about abs and six-packs, but he still makes sure to cover less viral muscle groups, like leg exercises. No matter what he does, he says, he makes sure it’s safe and effective. “With an app like TikTok, if you put out something that’s not necessarily true and it gets ten million views, that’s ten million people’s lives it’s impacted,” he explained. “It’s important to care about what people need rather than what they want. The balance is quite hard, but that’s my number-one priority.”
David Templer has also experienced a similar thing: what happens when you want to cover something but you know it’s not going to perform as highly as the posts that came before? “I have to try to pull myself away from doing what I know is going to perform well,” he explained. “What do likes and views actually mean if it’s not actually helping anybody? If I get a post that has 10,000 views but it’s helping 10,000 people, versus me making a brownie and 300,000 people are dribbling over it, what’s the weigh-up there?”
Although everyone I spoke to produces content for multiple platforms, there was a universal acceptance that TikTok is uniquely great at showing off a trainer’s personality, which is invaluable if they also work as a trainer. “I think personal training is all about being personal,” Templer said. “You could be the most knowledgeable personal trainer in the world, but if you don’t have that personability with clients? You’re never going to pick anybody up.”
Templer may be a PT, but he’s felt the sting of how some people in the world of fitness can be: “Somebody in the fitness industry said I’m the only personal trainer who needs a personal trainer,” he recalled. But he says that, fundamentally, this approach to fitness runs the risk of excluding people at the beginning of their fitness journey. “I think a lot of people, especially on Instagram, make content for people who don’t need to see the content. There’s a lot of bodybuilders flexing for people who are already in shape.”
Eyal Booker agreed. “TikTok still has this rawness of just day-to-day, real people. I think Instagram can be quite standoffish for people who aren’t already in the fitness world and be quite scary because it’s really beautiful. It’s really aesthetic. You’re only doing the hardest exercises to show off to an audience.” He stressed that he doesn’t think Instagram is fake, but that it’s focused on inspiring awe, rather than inspiring inclusion.
For some users, TikTok’s approach of making fitness a bit of a laugh has always been a part of what they did. Thirty-four-year-old Paul Olima started off as a professional footballer – “a fairly bad one” – at 19. Then he started playing rugby and later got his personal trainer certificate and coaching badges. He’s also modelled for fitness brands and been a body double for high-profile athletes such as Mario Balotelli, Usain Bolt and Anthony Joshua.
“After doing all that work, I started working in the media, creating adverts for big companies like Nike, where I would basically be a fluffer,” he said. When major sportspeople would be brought on set, Olima would be the one who would help athletes understand the director’s vision by being fluent in both the sport’s process and the director’s vision. “With doing that, I realised I liked making videos. Funny videos.” On Instagram he’d be praised for his muscles “but that never made me happy”, so he started doing slapstick, purging followers who couldn’t seem to get his mix of humour and strength. Then he saw his daughter using TikTok and he realised it might be a perfect fit for what he was doing.
Olima says that TikTok is letting people “get away with murder” by “giving free content out to people that have no creativity”, but it’s also doing something much more important: weeding out the vapid people in the field.
“Gone are the times where girls or lads could just post 20 photos of themselves and that be good enough for content. I know a few girls, and lads as well, who were posting pictures of themselves with no substance and then losing following. Because the world is changing. I love it, I’m not going to lie,” he said. “I’d go to events with all the fitness stars of Instagram and none of them are talking, do you know what I mean? They give a persona here, but when it comes to personality there’s none to be shown.” He loves that TikTok actively promotes people in the fitness industry who want to prove they’re “more than just biceps”.
For Paul Olima, humour and fun are the biggest selling points of what he does on the app, whether it’s light-hearted guides to gym etiquette (“‘Don’t drop your weights’ – little messages like that”) or challenges that test his physical ability: seeing how far he can jump, or what he can jump on to, or things he can push and pull with his strength. “It’s the acts of athleticism that do really well,” he explained. “I’m 34 now, my athleticism is dwindling, but at least I know it’s good enough to go viral on TikTok.”
For these men for whom social media is their business, TikTok is an important new platform, a chance to embed with a new, young audience of people interested in fitness and become authorities for them. “On Instagram, you’ve got every age category, whereas TikTok’s a little bit younger. There’s not as many even 25-year-olds as there are 14- to 16-year-olds,” explained Eyal Booker. “I’m young, but I’m old on the platform. Well, not old, just a bit more knowledgeable compared to a 16-year-old doing push-ups in his bedroom.”
He said that he was seeing audience from TikTok come and join his other platforms too, which others, including Alex Crockford, had also seen. “I’ve gotten multiple DMs saying, ‘Hey, I’m from your TikTok, I love your stuff.’ So this certainly helps build the brand all the way across. If I can make viral videos which have a bit of a spillover onto other platforms, then that’s ultimately great brand building.” The fact that Instagram is hard to build growth on, and that TikTok can help circumvent it, means people in the fitness industry who initially sneered at the people making the move have begun to change their tune. “It’s the norm to do TikToks now,” said Olima. “In December, I was getting stick for it. Now you’ll see Instagram is copying TikTok. What else do you need to say?”
Reels, Instagram’s new feature, which shares much of the energy that made TikTok so successful, is also seeing a fitness community build already in its short lifespan, helped, in part, by Instagram’s ubiquity as a fitness outlet already. Alex Crockford has found huge success on Reels too, as have other trainers such as Courtney Fearon and Faisal Abdalla. Other reality stars such as Oliver Proudlock, formerly of Made In Chelsea, have also helped use Instagram and Reels to build fitness communities, and several football teams have also been growing their Reels content of recent, all with that similar light-hearted tone that promises a new future for how we think about fitness.
For Eyal Booker, like many others, TikTok is not positioning itself as a place where you’re going to get a full, frame-by-frame workout, nor are the people succeeding on it trying to offer that. “What it does is it inspires people and gives them ideas of what they can do themselves and hopefully just motivates them a little bit,” he said. “If somebody sees one exercise that they’ve never done and they then go away and do that in their own time, then my job is done.”
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