Michael Quinn’s fitness journey began like most everybody else’s—in January, as part of a New Year’s resolution. The London-based financial analyst weighed just over 200 pounds (on a 5-foot-8 frame), and though he played rugby on the weekends, it was for social reasons. “If I was losing any weight, I probably gained it back—and more—later that day,” he says. “We’d finish a game, go to the pub, drink a few pints and probably get a kebab afterward.” It was a routine he had for most of his 20s, and something he seldom gave a second thought. After all, he says, “I could go out clubbing on a Thursday, be back at 2 a.m., eat whatever was in my fridge and still feel good the next morning.”
But Quinn turned 30 this year, and his body began not to recover so easily. “When I went back home for Christmas, all my family made the same comment: ‘Oh, you’ve gained some weight, haven’t you?’” Quinn got a gym membership, but like many guys, the machines confused him and he couldn’t afford a personal trainer to help him. The old copies of Men’s Health weren’t any help either, as they held contradictory advice. “If you want to burn fat, ditch the treadmill and pick up weights,” one article suggested. Yet another promised: “Want to lose belly fat? Ditch the weights and start rowing.”
Online, Quinn found the same problem. When he searched for weight-loss routines on YouTube, there were thousands of videos from male-orientated fitness channels, each of which guaranteed results or documented epic “weight loss journeys,” where muscle-bound YouTubers attributed their success to “hard work” and “self-belief,” before plugging their programs or supplements. “It felt like you had to understand the gym to get anything out of the videos,” Quinn explains. “All I wanted to know was how to lose weight. Like what routines should I start with? What should I focus on? How can I go to the gym, know what I’m doing, and not walk around like a headless chicken? But the more videos I watched, the more confused I was!”
“Even though its YouTube, what these fitness guys are basically offering are fast-track programs to weight loss,” Quinn adds. “They’re selling a lifestyle, where they say that they got ripped effortlessly—and you can do the same! Or they say that the only way to stay lean is by going to the gym every day, and lifting for hours at a time. But I can’t do those things—and I imagine most normal people can’t either.”
Such philosophies are so rampant on YouTube that trainers like Jujimufu have made parody videos of those using “junk science” to promote themselves on the platform. In other cases, fitness enthusiasts have publicly called out high-profile figures like Mike Chang, an L.A.-based fitness coach, of “scamming people into buying into programs and products” that aren’t effective.
This problem, of course, existed well before YouTube dominated fitness culture. In a piece for the Guardian earlier this year, Sirin Kale likened these fast-track programs as a “cottage industry” that sells itself on simple promises. “The message of these programs is clear,” she wrote. “Ditch the carbs, start deadlifting and you too can upgrade your dad bod to the crisply defined torso of a Hollywood hunk.” Both in men’s magazines and on YouTube, she likened the programs to a “new paradigm of masculine excellence, where anyone can achieve physical perfection if they put in the hours. It is an aspirational narrative, accompanied by a specific vernacular. Men are hench, wammo or tonk. A good swolder never forgets leg day.”
To corner a different market then, some YouTubers have aimed to make their fitness videos more accessible and inclusive. Case in point: 28-year-old, Portland, Oregon-based Josh Fenn. His channel, Bearded Fat Loss, has more than 18,000 subscribers; he started it in 2015 following a four-year weight loss, during which he lost 145 pounds—the kind of drop that many fitness channels glorify, and promise to viewers who buy into their schtick.
The purpose of Fenn’s channel, however, is to prove that this kind of weight loss is sustainable without the need for extreme workouts or special supplements. Writing over email, he says he wanted to use his videos to “remove as many barriers and excuses from people that think they can’t change or can’t lose weight. The average person who needs or wants to lose weight might think that they have to become a weightlifter and train six days a week if they want to lose weight or improve their health. And while exercise is an important key to weight loss and overall healthier living, you don’t need to live in the gym for it to happen.”
Admittedly, Bearded Fat Loss does cover topics that are common on many fitness YouTube channels—with advice on how to stick to a workout routine, prep meals and build muscle. Where his channel differs is the way in which he presents these subjects. None of his videos are filmed in the gym. He doesn’t show himself lifting weights. The music isn’t string quartets designed to make you feel as though you’re in a war film. In fact, most of Fenn’s videos are face-to-camera, during which he provides his keys to success on his morning walks to work, in a voice that’s calm, soft and succinct.
Some of this is obviously deliberate—to “set [himself] apart from the crowd in such a saturated market of fitness YouTubers”—but it’s also super organic and highly resonant to an audience for whom fitness is a goal, not a religion. “Most of my audience is men in their mid- to late-20s, and they’re pretty similar to myself—they’re ‘regular guys,’” he says. “They’re looking to improve their health, lose weight or live a more purposeful life. Health and fitness is a big part of my life, but it doesn’t define me. And I don’t want anyone else to think it needs to define them in order to be successful.”
There are others preaching a similar message on YouTube—including ObesetoBeast, Brian Turner and DannyGetsFit—but Fenn says that even YouTubers with the best intentions can end up overpromising at times. Though some of that, he explains, is simply the nature of the YouTube beast. “I don’t blame any channels for doing things like that—we’re all playing a big game against an algorithm and doing everything we can to ‘crack the code,’ and I know at times I skirt that clickbait line more than I’d like to.”
When I catch up with Quinn, he says that he still finds YouTube confusing, but that channels like Fenn’s might offer a “good starting point” for him to build a fitness routine without feeling intimidated. His primary weight-loss goal is to shed another seven pounds before Christmas, but mostly, he just wants to build better habits.
And who knows? If he succeeds, maybe he’ll start a YouTube channel of his own.