Trainer Kayla Itsines (Photo: Instagram.com/kayla_itsines)
I first discovered 24-year-old Kayla Itsines the way most people do — on Instagram.
One of her followers had posted a spliced image of two photos: one before she started working out with one of Kayla’s workout plans (called Bikini Body Guides, or BBG), and one from three months later, after she’d completed one round of the training plan.
I was transfixed. The woman was wearing the same Spandex shorts and sports bra in both pictures, but her body was transformed. Her stomach, initially soft and slightly puffy, was tight and cut with visible ab muscles; her arms were leaner, and her legs were more toned. But more than anything, this girl seemed to glow. Her face was radiant, and she was wearing a grin that said, “I took on a challenge and totally destroyed it.”
Kayla regularly posts images of her followers’ progress on her own account. (Photo: instagram.com/kayla_itsines)
In the caption, she gushed about Kayla and the #BBG (#KaylasArmy, I’ve learned, is very into hashtags). She said that she’d never stuck to a workout before Kayla’s; that she went from being uncomfortable in her body to feeling strong and fit for the first time in her life.
That was the moment I followed Kayla on Instagram — and since then, I’ve spent every Sunday morning (when I’m lying in bed, trying to motivate myself to get up and move) scrolling through her account to catch up on the posts I might have missed throughout the week.
Kayla, for the unaware, has 3.1 million followers on Instagram, three e-books (Bikini Body Guide, Bikini Body Guide 2.0, and Bikini Body H.E.L.P., a nutrition guide), and one world tour under her belt. Her largely millennial following is a marketer’s dream: mostly women (plus a few guys, Kayla tells me) age 16 to 30 who complete her workout guides and post photos of their progress on Instagram. Her followers — many of whom started BBG-specific accounts to track their fitness journeys — befriend one another, meeting up to train together and congratulating fellow #KaylasArmy troops on their progress.
The BBGs include 12-week workout plans, with three 28-minute workouts per week (one for abs and arms, one for legs, and one for full body). They’re designed for women — meaning the moves burn fat and strengthen muscles for a lean, toned look — and were developed by Kayla and her boyfriend and business partner, Tobi Pearce (both certified trainers).
But even though I’m a loyal Kayla follower on social media, I’ve never actually tried out one of her guides. I don’t know what’s stopping me: Maybe it’s shelling out the $70 or so to buy one (they’re sold on her site, kaylaitsines.com), or the fear that I wouldn’t be able to power myself through one of her workouts without an instructor cheering me on. It wasn’t until I sat down with Kayla, the day before she led her New York City boot camp in late June (which drew a staggering 4,000 fans), that I really understood the appeal.
Kayla didn’t gain her huge following overnight. She got her start as a certified personal trainer in Adelaide, Australia (where she still lives), working in a women-only gym. She used early versions of the exercises in her guides — lots of plyometrics, planks, and other toning moves — to target the hard-to-change areas her female clientele struggled with. “I started training one-on-one, and then I got more clients, and I couldn’t fit everyone in,” Kayla tells me. “I felt really bad, so I started doing groups of four, then groups of six, and I had about 220 clients” by the end. That’s when Kayla’s Instagram presence began to rise.
Back when I’d first heard of Kayla, I read an article that suggested she didn’t realize she had an Instagram following at first — that she didn’t even know what a follower was. But how could someone like that build such a social empire?
“I had this interview back in the day, when I had like 200,000 followers, and someone twisted my words!” she tells me. What really happened was this: “I literally had no idea, because Instagram had just come out. It was nothing, there were four filters. I thought it was a photo-editing app. I was a mobile personal trainer, and I had nowhere to store my pictures. I put them in my photo roll, and at the time there were no favorites. So I was like, ‘Fine, I’m going to download Instagram and put everything I think of — exercise ideas, before and after pictures I’ve taken of my clients — and put them on [there].’” It wasn’t until a follower from across the country asked for training help that she realized people were paying attention to her— and that the platform had the potential to reach others outside her small city.
Then Tobi had the idea to create an e-book. When he first suggested it, she nixed the idea, thinking that “People wouldn’t buy it.” That was 18 months ago — and now, they’re three guides deep and in the process of translating them for global readers. (It’s probably safe to say Kayla has changed her tune with regard to e-books.)
And then there’s Kayla’s physical international presence. “Someone said to me, ‘What’s your goal?’ And I said, ‘I’d love to be able to travel and train women all over the world,’” Kayla tells me. So she made her dream a reality: Two months later, Kayla, Tobi, and their small office of employees flew to London, then the States, to host their first international boot camp tour. (If you missed Kayla on the first go-around, take heart: Kayla and Tobi are thinking of this world tour as the first of many, and have plans to hit more American cities soon.)
Pretty much everyone who follows Kayla and works out using her BBGs posts pictures of their progress on Instagram — and secretly (or not so secretly) hopes she’ll regram them. But are there any tricks to getting your photo noticed?
I asked Kayla how she selects the photos she features on her feed: “Anyone that comes up… I literally just scroll, pick one, read her story. I’m like, ‘That’s awesome, upload.’” There are a few qualifications: “They have to have done my guide, I have to be able to see their before-and-afters, read their story. I make sure that the person has a story. It has to be mentally stimulating. That’s what we’re trying to bring — to mentally stimulate women to be more confident, instead of being like, ‘Look at that girl, she went from being like this to being a model.’ That’s not inspiring.”
Inspiration is Kayla’s M.O. “It’s all about health, and getting your body fitter and stronger. It’s not about weight loss. You can be thin and look good, but if you’re healthy, you’ll look better. Your teeth are brighter, your eyes are brighter, even your skin,” she explains.
Kayla also shares that she’s experienced her own version of body image issues. “Back in the day — I have no boobs, and I was telling my mom, I need a padded bra! I have to have a padded bra! I was obsessed with these bras. And now I’m like, ‘You know what, it’s fine!’ This is my body, and this is what it is, and if people don’t like it, fine! It’s about being confident. Just appreciate what you have.”
But this is where I draw pause. I’ve found myself falling into Kayla-holes, scrolling through rows and rows of “transformation pictures” on Instagram — side-by-side images of women pre-Kayla (taken before they begin the guides, or on BBG Week 0, in Kayla-speak), and post-Kayla (either on BBG Week 12, the end of the guide, or at some point during the guide). While they’re inspiring enough to get me up and moving on a lazy weekend morning, they can also trigger that image-focused voice in my head. And as much as the images make me want to move, it’s hard not to compare myself to the pictures in her feed.
And when I click through to Kayla’s site to check out her guides again, I remember why I still haven’t pulled the trigger on buying the first one: In big, bold letters above the button to purchase, it says, “Earn your bikini body!” Do I really need to earn the right to wear a bikini? I do not. Does the lack of definition in my abs make my body any less bikini-ready? It does not.
I ask Kayla about this — if she’s ever worried that the before-and-after photos put too much emphasis on image. “No,” Kayla answers, “because when we put the pictures up, the people always have a story. And it’s relatable.” She tells me about a transformation picture she once posted, one that she later refers to as the most inspiring story she’s heard. The girl looks slim in her before and after photos, but her story, which Kayla usually includes in the caption, revealed more: She’d shattered bones skydiving, and went from being in a wheelchair to having the ability to do Kayla’s guides.
“I can’t only show myself and what I do and eat, because it’s not always relatable,” Kayla says. “But if you’re seeing all these girls, and you see someone in New York and she’s doing the guides, you’re like, ‘I can do that too.’”
There’s no question about it: Kayla’s success is remarkable in a world of boutique fitness classes and pricey personal training sessions. Scores of women are printing out a 102-page guide, bringing it to the gym, a park, or their living room, and pushing themselves through hard workout in the name of fitness. It doesn’t really make sense, and had Kayla not been sitting in front of me — halfway across the world from where she posted her first picture to what she thought was a photo-editing app — I’m not sure I would have believed it was at all possible. Thousands of girls credit Kayla with helping them to gain strength and confidence, and to finally feel comfortable in their own bodies. I understand that they are doing it, and that it works, but I need to know how.
After talking with Kayla, I’ve decided: I’m trying it. Will doing the actual exercises make me feel any differently about the body-image alarms going off in my head? Will I be able to push myself through solo workouts? Will I stand taller and feel more confident — or collapse in a puddle of #deathbykayla sweat? We’ll see. I’ll be posting on Instagram (both on @yahoohealth and my own account, @mollylizshea), and on Snapchat (yahoohealth). Have any tips for me? Leave them in the comments below, or tweet me at @mollylizshea.
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