With gyms opening back up, the era of at-home workouts — one in which Peloton instructors are discussed with the same breathless enthusiasm as Marvel superheroes — may be facing a downturn. But many fitness influencers are making a case for keeping those sweat sessions online, offering safe spaces that value inclusivity, accessibility and head-to-toe healing as much as they do ab crunches.
One of those influencers is Hampton Liu, who launched his YouTube channel, Hybrid Calisthenics, at the end of 2019 and now has 1.84 million subscribers. Earlier this month the self-taught Liu was featured in a viral tweet racking up more than 300,000 likes, thanks to a video he'd made in response to a follower who said they were unable to do a push-up.
"There's no reason to be ashamed if you can't do a push-up," the ponytailed Arkansas native says, effortlessly planking on his own forearms. "Fitness is a journey, and we all have to start somewhere."
He then guides viewers through wall push-ups and other basic moves that can help them gradually build up to a standard push-up. "I never call these girl push-ups," Liu notes while doing a kneeling push-up. "This is a great therapy exercise that we don't need to shame, and I've never met a girl that likes them being called that."
His no-pressure, encouraging and approachable style won raves on social media. "Now THIS is a fitness influencer," the user who shared the video tweeted, while many commenters shared their "humiliating" gym experiences and struggles with exercise.
"Wish someone like this could have been there to walk me through just like he did," read one comment. "This makes me want to try."
"Fitness is for everyone," Liu tells Yahoo Life. "You don't need fancy equipment and you don't even really need a gym. You can be healthy, fit and strong with just your body, the floor and gravity. You don't need to exercise for hours a day either. A few minutes a day is often enough to make consistent progress. Fitness is very accessible."
Liu — whose videos also address posture, knee and back pain, and beginner-friendly instructions like "You CAN do a pull-up" or "You CAN do one-leg squats, my friend" — sees himself not as a trainer, but as a community builder. To that end, his content also covers mental health and other well-being topics, from relationships to body image.
"I don't think our physical fitness exists in a vacuum," he says. "Our mental health is inextricably tied to our physical well-being. If one suffers, then so does the other. Far more than being 'ripped' or 'skinny,' I'd like people to think about being happy instead. We want to pursue fitness for the right reasons. Insecurity and shame can be powerful motivators, but that doesn't mean they are healthy ones. I find that if we build from a place of security and mental well-being, we are much more primed for long-term success."
Liu hopes that his friendly, open approach appeals to those who've felt excluded or alienated from gym culture. And he's not alone in creating a community that encourages movement for all body types and abilities. Denouncing "toxic fitness culture," Decolonizing Fitness is an educational resource that connects "individuals who have historically not felt welcomed in fitness spaces, i.e. people in larger bodies, people with disabilities, people with chronic pain, people over the age of 65 and people who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community," with "affirming" practitioners, from Disabled Girls Who Lift to Rooted Resistance.
Fitness influencers like Kanoa Greene — who offers seated variations to make her workouts more accessible and assures followers that "athleticism doesn't just look one way" — are also helping to reform the often-intimidating workout space, all from the comfort of one's home.
Mainstream fitness figures also appear to have received the memo that workouts that are less ableist or body-shaming are in demand. Last month, shortly after launching a low-impact, joint-friendly workout inspired by her own mother's complaints that her regular routines didn't address her needs, star trainer Kayla Itsines announced that she'd be ditching her program's "outdated" Bikini Body Guide name in order to "evolve and use language that feels more positive for women today."
"I want to use language that is completely positive and inspiring for all women. Over the last 10 years I've learnt that how we communicate to women and the language we use really matters," said Itsines, who this week also launched a "Move Again" series on her Sweat app featuring "easy-to-follow, beginner-level" workouts to "empower more women to get back into exercise."
Gym — and yoga studio, and bootcamp — life as we know it may very well pick up right back where we left it, but judging by the praise Liu and his peers are receiving, a growing eagerness to redefine fitness culture is afoot. BYOLycra.
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