At a glance, Joey Swoll is like so many other weightlifters on TikTok. He’s got a massive physique, rippling with muscles most laymen can’t even identify, let alone flex. He posts videos about his favorite workout and dieting tips. He’s obsessive about bringing positivity to the gym and inspiring others, especially newbies, to embrace the joy and fulfillment of lifting.
But Swoll (real name Joey Sergo) isn’t merely on a mission to get people interested in lifting, or to push them to break through comfort zones while exercising. What’s really led to an explosion in Swoll’s audience on social media in 2022 has been his willingness to call out other content creators, levying lessons on accountability and respect when influencers try to shame or blame others for their own clout.
Swoll began posting to TikTok back in early 2020, and many of his early videos are pretty boilerplate as far as fitness posts go: There’s a clip depicting how his muscles can leave strangers flabbergasted, and some content of him goofing around at home, climbing on the walls. There’s also an assortment of more reflective posts, including a video with Swoll sharing that anyone is invited to eat at his table if they can respect others, regardless of race and creed.
But in January 2022, Swoll started pursuing a different theme, and it’s elevated his popularity to a whole new level. The crux was that instead of just talking about what he does in the gym, he started reacting to others’ videos, finding teachable lessons on gym etiquette — especially what not to do, particularly if it involves recording others for content.
That includes making fun of strangers’ exercises while being ignorant about the legitimate reps they’re doing, and assuming that someone is being “lazy” because they’re scrolling on their phone for a second. He’s called out content creators who perpetuate sexist jokes about others’ performance, and those who behave cruelly to anyone who looks different, including by mocking a man for wearing the same clothes at his gym sessions and “falling asleep” in a workout room.
“You don’t know this man’s story. He could be homeless. Maybe he has nowhere to go. Maybe he pays for a gym membership just to have somewhere warm to go for a few hours, to feel normal, to get a shower, to not be judged,” Swoll says to the camera, speaking to the other content creator, but also his audience.
Perhaps most of all, he talks about the toxic side effects of a gym culture that’s perpetuated by people who try to dominate spaces for their own ego and look down on others who don’t fit their vibe. Beyond this philosophical issue, a practical concern from Swoll is that, with video recording now rampant at all kinds of gyms, random people can be labeled as a creep, jerk or moron through the use of selective footage, and end up getting flamed online by viewers who have no context. It’s why his critiques on posts from influencers are most pointed — he knows the power of an audience, and the desire to stir up conflict for views.
Sometimes, a video about an “ego lifter,” “creep” or rudeness isn’t what it appears to be, and it’s actually the person who posted the clip that is in the wrong. In multiple cases, the recipient of Swoll’s criticism has ended up deleting their clip altogether. It’s especially disappointing, Swoll notes, when professional trainers and other gym stalwarts are the ones treating people with disrespect and judgment.
But amid the negativity and the criticism is a central thesis: That we can all do better to uplift others in the journey toward improving body and mind through exercise, and that we can learn something new in the process. It’s clear that what Swoll wants most is the gym to be a sanctuary for people of all backgrounds — something that was key for him in his own battle with mental health and a nasty painkiller addiction that brought him to the brink of suicide.
It’s why he’s adamant that the gym isn’t merely a setting to shape a big butt or get huge gains alone, but a place for people to connect with one another with mutual respect. And he also takes care to show that side of the culture off, including in a popular clip of a woman being praised and hyped up by two fellow gym-goers while flexing in the mirror. It is, in his eyes, the zenith of gym culture.
“I always say the gym is a brother and sisterhood, it doesn’t matter what race you are, what gender, what sexuality, what size. If you’re in the gym trying to better yourself, you deserve love, respect, support…” Swoll says. “And the true gym rats in there are going to give it to you.”