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The Body Coach is hot news – but he’s not the only one banging the fitness drum to an audience of millions.
Which author sold the most print books on Amazon in the UK last year? Clue: it wasn’t JK Rowling. It was personal trainer turned social media ‘influencer’ Joe Wicks – The Body Coach, as most know him.
His debut book, Lean in 15: The Shift Plan, sold 77,000 copies in its first week of release in 2015. Last year, it shifted 972,000 copies, making it the third best-selling book of 2016. Even as Sport goes to press, it is number two on the Amazon bestseller list, with Wicks’ other two books (The Sustain Plan and The Shape Plan, also published by Bluebird), at numbers three and six.
A fourth book is due out later this year.
“I had a good idea at the right time and I’ve caught people’s attention,” says Wicks when we meet him in the offices of his overworked publicist. He’s not talking about cookbooks, more the millennial concept of filming himself making a quick, healthy meal and sharing it with the world via social media.
It’s something he started doing in 2014 after Instagram introduced a 15-second video function allowing users to share more than just static selfies.
There was nothing slick about Wicks’ early videos, but they grabbed attention. He was loud, animated and seemed to be having the time of his life, hurling packets of rice into a microwave from across the room and offering plates of food to passers- by from the balcony of his first-floor flat. Cooking videos were soon joined by ones focused on fitness, showing his followers effective exercises they could do without leaving the house.
Three years on, Wicks has a following of millions across Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat.
It’s a rise to fame so steep that the 31-year-old is spinning his wheels trying to keep up. He describes the past few years as insane. Not so long ago, Wicks was running bootcamps in Richmond Park and lingering by Tube stations, thrusting flyers for his services at disinterested commuters (you would never catch us doing something like that). Now he has an eight-book publishing deal, top-selling workout DVD and a host of celebrity fans including Chelsea’s John Terry and singer Ellie Goulding.
Building a body of work
“He’s the first ‘fitness superstar’,” says Jean-Claude Vacassin, owner of W10 Performance Gym and veteran of 12 years in the fitness industry. “Interestingly, it’s not the information he’s brought to the table that’s new – it’s his way of packaging it and communicating with people.
“What he’s done better than anyone is to meet the general population where they’re at. Most of us are boring the pants off people talking about elements of fitness that are so removed from 95 per cent of the population. I see his success as a positive thing for the rest of us because it has raised awareness of fitness and nutrition in a way that’s well-rounded and suits the majority.”
Wicks is the most high-profile health and fitness guru to emerge from the social media sphere, but there are scores of others wanting to usurp him. That includes LDNMuscle, a group comprising two sets of brothers: the Exton twins, Tom and James; and Bridger brothers, Max and Lloyd. This month LDNM released their own ‘lean themed’ book, providing healthy recipes and training guides. Leaner, Fitter, Stronger likely won’t hit the heights of Lean in 15, but for LDNM it is just one part of a business that exceeded all their expectations. Training guides, fitness qualifications, supplements and a clothing range are all available under the LDNM brand.
“It wasn’t designed to be a business at all when we first started,” says James. “It was just an advice pool – a blog answering questions we were asked all the time about what we ate and what we did in the gym.”
The founders of LDNM were at university together in Nottingham ( James and Tom qualified in law), where they trained as hard as other students boozed. They built impressive physiques and reputations to go with them.
“There was a bit of a cult following in our area,” explains James. “So we put together a website explaining what we stood for and to try and get some more transparent information into the public domain – something we thought was lacking when it came to fitness.”
After six months of seeing the website traffic grow and ever increasing numbers flocking to their social media channels, LDNM became a registered business.
“It was massively time-consuming,” says James. “We had a Twitter account, Facebook and Instagram – it’s a full-time job. We were at work on our phones when we probably shouldn’t have been. Something had to give.”
James left his job at a legal firm in London to help launch LNDM’s first ‘product’: a training guide costing £1.99.
“It was a digital workout delivered to you,” he explains. “Every Sunday was ‘chest Sunday’, so every week you’d get a new chest workout on a Sunday. That scaled up to a diet and training plan that cost £30 and sold really well. We had a massive following who’d had free content for six months, so we didn’t think there would be any resentment [at being asked to pay for it]; there wasn’t.”
“Most of us are boring the pants off people talking about elements of fitness that are so removed from 95 per cent of the population. Joe’s raised awareness in a well-rounded way” - Jean Claude Vacassin
From niche to normal
LDNM pride themselves on offering a realistic approach to fitness. Tom Exton, for example, juggles his training with a demanding job in the City, fitting 35-minute gym sessions in at lunchtimes.
“A few years ago people weren’t that interested in the fact I went to the gym,” says Tom. “Now it’s part of culture and it’s inclusive – not elitist in a way it used to be.
“We were keen to catch on to the mainstream market and bring fitness to everyone. We wanted to show that it’s not terrifying. There are 101 different ways to skin a cat; you don’t have to be absolutely obsessed and cut out everything. This is the way we do it, and we’re relatively normal.”
Fitness itself has gone from niche to normal. That is largely thanks to social media, says James: “It has opened the doors to fitness for everyone. At the click of a button you can watch videos for how to get in shape at home, or be told what to eat for dinner and how to make it. If you’re on Instagram, it’s littered with fitness posts – people feel more obliged to get into it because they see it in their feeds.
“It’s cool now to put up a nice-looking meal, whereas before it was like: ‘Why are you showing me your breakfast?’ Health has become trendy. You even see it with clothing. Leggings are the new jeans. Running trainers are now trendy enough to wear out.”
LDNM and Wicks have grand plans. The Body Coach wants to go beyond Instagram’s likes and follows into the NHS and schools, where he feels he can make the biggest difference.
“As a nation I think we are getting fitter,” he says. “But there’s still a massive part of the country that are sedentary – people who don’t even walk and hate the thought of exercise. I want to influence them, because if you can do that then you can change habits. If you can’t change someone’s habits, you’re never going to change their body. It’s my mission. I really believe I will influence millions of people around the world. Someone has to do it.”
Three of LDNM (Tom aside) have given up full-time professions to focus on the business. “It has to be successful,” says James. “We are as passionate as we have been from day one, but now there’s a lot resting on it for us. The next two years are critical. We’d like to see the brand become a place where you can get your training plan, food, education and apparel.”
Last year, the Leisure Database Company’s annual report into The State of the UK Fitness Industry revealed that for the first time, gym membership numbers exceeded nine million, with the total market value reaching approximately £4.4bn (3.2 per cent higher than 2015). Fitness, wellbeing and health have become fashionable.
“If you can’t change someone’s habits, you’re never going to change their body. It’s my mission. I really believe I will influence millions of people around the world” Joe Wicks
“It’s a good thing in many ways,” says Vacassin. “But it’s also a bit of a problem because, as with anything, once it becomes mainstream the message can get diluted.”
He says the industry must look at itself: “We should ask: ‘What’s wrong with our message?’ Low-carb diets, interval training protocols that beat the crap out of you, body beautiful models – these are not the messages people want.
We want to get as many people engaged as possible, and convince them to make better choices. So far, Joe has done that better than anyone.”
A booming industry brings with it a need for scrutiny. “We have a lot more experts now than we’ve ever had,” says Vacassin. “But over the next two or three years I think social media is going to sort the wheat from the chaff.”
By then, of course, Wicks could be the next health minister.