Article Thumbnail

The Underground Economy of Influencer Fitness Plans

Fitness influencers’ branded weightlifting programs sell for a premium. Or at least they did — before a mysterious leaker gave it all away online

There’s a small thumb drive in my desk that contains the secrets of how to attain the body of a Greek god (or Mark Wahlberg). On it, there are comprehensive workout plans, diets, supplement recommendations and tools to calculate the precise amount of macronutrients necessary for me to get shredded. It’s the kind of information that celebrity fitness trainers protect as highly guarded secrets, leaving Reddit’s fitness enthusiasts to speculate and obsess over it. Some people would pay good money for what’s on this thumb drive.

In fact, Marco, a pseudonymous 18-year-old from Austin, Texas, tells me that he’s made close to $300 selling such fitness plans to his Instagram followers. The thing is, Marco didn’t write any of them. If anything, he prefers playing soccer to hitting the gym and loathes the taste of protein shakes. Rather, he obtained 10 gigs’ worth of this intel from an anonymous Reddit user who had leaked dozens of exclusive, subscriber-only workout and diet plans created by the internet’s most notable fitness influencers, many of whom are associated with the sports lifestyle brand Gymshark

In modern gym culture, the “fitness plan” is more than just a routine to help newbies — it serves as a bespoke piece of branding, too. In an industry worth well over $100 billion, fitness influencer giants like Whitney Simmons, Nicole Wilkins, Steve Cook and Ryan Terry are always looking for ways to differentiate themselves. Sometimes that can be in the form of lifestyle branding — a la Cook, who has more than 2.5 million Instagram followers and often posts pictures of himself driving expensive cars, going on beach vacations and hanging out with models. In other cases, they build their following by offering unique training styles, ranging from classic bodybuilding routines, to fully vegan plant-based plans that focus on mental and physical wellness. 

Arguably the gym influencer most adept at this is Greg O’Gallagher, who is best known for his simplistic approach: lift heavy, at low reps, three days a week, and don’t eat anything until mid-afternoon. But that’s the only advice O’Gallagher is giving away for free. The specific details of his fitness philosophy cost upward of $69 (nice), with more advanced programs running considerably more.

As such, guys like Marco know they can make serious cash by selling these programs at a cut price (around $50). “A lot of people who follow me talk about fitness,” he tells me. “They follow all the Gymshark influencers, too, but because their gym plans are so expensive, they haven’t bought them.” There were a couple of other kinds of buyers, too: “Some were gym guys who had their own Instagram fitness accounts, and they wanted to see what the competition was like.” Then there were, he adds, “a few more who were just curious about what was in there.”

In the aftermath of the leaks, some have criticized those who have downloaded or resold fitness guides, arguing that for people starting out as personal trainers, routines are essential parts of their business. On the other hand, many (such as the Fitness Guides Sharing subreddit) often share routines free of charge, believing that knowledge of physical fitness should be accessible to everyone, and shouldn’t require purchasing products designed to build an influencer’s brand.

“A lot of these fitness influencer programs reuse knowledge that’s been publicly available for decades,” explains Oliver Lee Bateman, MEL’s very own fitness guru. And though Bateman says that no text, on its own, will compare to having an experienced trainer, purchasing a personalized plan is really just “purchasing a slice of an influencer’s identity. And if you’re using them for the gym, it’s essentially buying CliffsNotes from the coolest person in class.”

It’s unclear how much of an influencer’s income actually comes from selling plans, especially compared to personalized protein powders or sponsorship from supplement companies or lifestyle brands like Gymshark or Barry’s Bootcamp. After all, though the Gymshark leaks were taken down, the company — at least on social media — seemed pretty chill about the theft, and none of the influencers whose plans were leaked seemed to comment on it publicly. Indeed, as those who obtained the leaked plans have noted, a cursory look through them suggest that the information contained therein isn’t revolutionary. If anything, it appears as though it could be put together by anyone with a few hours to spend browsing YouTube or old issues of Men’s Health.

But it might be precisely for that reason that the fitness plans have accrued such currency. “The [Gymshark] leak was basically accumulated knowledge, but that has a high premium. Even if people aren’t going to use it — or it’s not right for them — just possessing that information can be aspirational,” explains British journalist Moya Lothian-Mclean. Lothian-Mclean has used influencer fitness plans in the past, and while she says that they can be useful blueprints, especially for people new to working out, they provide far more insight into how influencer culture actually works.

“The plans can act like springboards to launch the careers of aspiring gym influencers. There have been influencers who made their name by being really successful on someone else’s program, developing a big following of their own, and then launching their own fitness program, complete with private Facebook and WhatsApp groups,” she continues. 

Not to mention, “a plan is almost a way of the fitness influencer saying to trust them, that they have a ready-made strategy just for you and that will change your life,” she adds. “They’re selling physical and mental transformation.”

It’s for that reason that, despite fitness plans’ being easy to produce, they continue to be popular among fitness influencers looking to make their mark. For them, it’s not about the correct combination of techniques, or getting the macros in a meal plan exactly right — it’s about selling hope to those without it, and structure to those who need it so much that they’d happily pay for it. “In a lot of ways, the fitness plans are like religious texts,” Bateman says. “And the people who buy into them — and who follow them — see transforming to be like their favorite influencers as a near-religious experience.”