Women around the world are obsessed with Kayla Itsines, an Instagram-famous fitness trainer from Australia.
Itsines has managed to c ultivate what devoted fans call an “Army” with her lucrative Bikini Body Guide business. They will fill a venue, packed tightly like sweaty sardines, to exercise in the presence of their famous trainer.
The core of her business is a series of PDFs (and now, a sometimes-criticized app) that come complete with a 12-week workout plan and a nutrition manual.
But the real gem of her branding is her viral Instagram account, with over 5 million followers. It’s an amalgam of social media-friendly platitudes, photos of her enviable abs, some of her colorful meals, and — most notably — striking before-and-after photos of her “girls” who have taken on the her workout plan and lived to show the results. It works, the photos say, seducing you with every visible muscle line. Try this. Get sick, sick abs. Come, join the army!
For a few weeks in my life, I, too was a part of that army…to an extent. If Kayla’s army was the most recent Game of Thrones battle, then I wasn’t a zealot willing to throw my life into the fray for House Itsines. I was more like an onlooker, grateful to not have to tear my body to shreds in the name of the Seven Kingdoms (or a bikini body).
I admit it: I’m highly susceptible to fitness trends. I drank the SoulCycle kool-aid. I’ve tried Insanity. I went up and inch and down an inch at barre class.
So when I stumbled upon Itsines’ Instagram account, I thought, why not. I’ll try this! It’s markedly less expensive than SoulCycle classes, right?
And the 12-week plan seemed pretty simple: you pay $52 for a PDF of her workout guide or her nutrition guide or scoop up both for about $90 (unfortunately for Itsines, it’s pretty easy to find the PDFs online, too).
You do seven minute circuits of burpees, weights, and questionable exercises like “double bench jumps” two to three times a week. Kayla instructs you to do “LISS” (low intensity steady state) three times a week — such as a long walk. She encourages one HIIT (high intensity interval training) in the final month.
As time goes on, she tells people to amp up the number of workouts. She encourages days for stretching, too.
I was definitely sore after some of the circuits. But around week eight or nine or so, I stopped doing it.
Though I truly believe that Itsines is a spectacular business woman who is very good at posting photos on Instagram who has sound advice, I didn’t stick to the program. Here’s why:
1. People report inconsistent results with the program.
Are you a sloth who has never stepped foot off your couch, save to the kitchen to grab some mac and cheese? Have you never exercised a day in your life, and consider doing shots of tequila an arm workout? Congratulations, you might lose weight doing the Bikini Body Guide!
But you also might lose weight doing any workout. (Honestly, I’ve found that getting a Fitbit has been one of the best things I’ve done for my health; I’m generally more aware of how much I move throughout the day.)
These sexy before-and-after photos do not necessarily mean that the Bikini Body Guide is the actual reason people are losing weight; it could be a multitude of factors, from diet to lifestyle changes, and more.
That said, there’s no denying that Itsines has helped many young women feel confident. People on Reddit talk about how they’ve gotten stronger; that’s great! Strength training is important. The photos are pretty obvious and tell a great story — but it’s not the whole story, and it’s a promise that may or may not be fulfilled.
I saw negligible results, and moreover, Redditors have also reported mixed results, with some people saying how since they already ate healthily, much wasn’t going to change — but one thing is clear that in order to see any results, you need to do everything Itsines subscribes, which, unlike the highly-publicized three circuits a week, is time-consuming. There is no short cut to wellness, sure, but I have a lingering suspicion some people latch onto Itsines’ ideas because they think that it might be a short cut.
2. There’s no “one size fits all” approach for weight loss — and the program is innately prescriptive.
“Throughout my industry experience, the more I interviewed my female clients, it became apparent that many girls were aspiring for a specific yet common look,” Itsines writes in her guides. “What these girls really wanted was the confidence and positive physical change that came as a result of a healthy lifestyle.”
“I have heard many trainers and individuals say lots of different things about how to get ‘results’ – such as what IS required, what is not required, shortcuts you can take and things to avoid. In this eBook, I am hoping to clear the confusion for you and focus more on YOUR specific goals,” she writes.
That’s a mixed message, isn’t it? And Itsines seems to make it seem as though this is tailored to individual women, but it’s not: it’s entirely prescriptive, even if it’s not her intention.
This is the sad, unfortunate truth of any exercise program, especially ones that sell themselves as miracle workers and promise to rid your body of excess fat and unleash your hidden six pack: every body is made differently and everyone needs to figure out what works best for his or her body. This can make doing a prescribed workout program extremely frustrating, because you could be twelve weeks in — a fiscal quarter! — and realize that your body needs something completely different than what you’ve been doing.
3. The branding didn’t resonate with me.
The name of her program alone is troublesome — and even some bloggers who rave about her guides often confess that they dislike the name “Bikini Body Guide.” It’s pretty regressive. After all, what is a bikini body? As many people say now, it’s a body…in a bikini. It’s your best you.
In her eBook, Itsines appears to be ready for that criticism. She swears that a “bikini body is not a certain body weight, size or look, but rather a state of mind where you are confident and feel good about YOU. I do not believe that a single figure, idealistic individual, or image should be the sole goal for a broad-spectrum audience. I think the end goal should still be the same, but the definition for that goal is happiness through health.”
“I completely understand that there are many women around the world that have different goals or are already comfortable with their body. I don’t promote my work in a derogatory or demeaning way to anyone, as we all have different tastes. My work is entirely about making women feel comfortable about their bodies, and assisting the women that specifically seek the outcomes that my advice has proven to achieve,” she writes.
But it’s impossible to ignore that Itsines’ main way of advertising is showing impressive before and after photos, though she also appears to cover her bases by posting Instagram photos that claim “health is not a size. It’s a lifestyle.” But then, why is there such an emphasis on scintillating, chiseled abs?
Not everybody’s body is meant to be cut like a Victoria’s Secret model. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a better you — I’m not against dramatic weight loss photos — but Itsines’ message feels inconsistent to me.
4. I need more guidance than a photo.
Those without her app are left with something troubling: no guidance other than illustrations. It’s not really rocket science to realize that improperly doing a workout (and for twelve weeks) could be risky, and that’s a risk that anyone who signs up for the Bikini Body Guide is taking.
There are some moves I felt wary about doing on my own. Jumping onto two side-by-side benches typically used for bench presses? No, thanks.
Celebrity fitness trainer Anna Kaiser has spoken out against the problem with the rise of the Instagram fitness celebrity (though she didn’t name names; she just spoke vaguely about the problem with Instagram fitness stars).
“Most of the trainers are personalities,” she said to me recently. “They’re not educated in fitness, and you don’t actually get to interact with any of the people. They’re just going off of pictures and videos, and … could end up hurting yourself for years with injuries that will affect you for years down the road.”
“I would just warn people against following a personality or someone who looks great in a bikini and really seek out someone who knows what they’re doing, and that’s the general feeling in the fitness community today,” she added.
Personally, I feel safer doing intense exercise with some supervision nearby.
5. The schedule is not realistic for everyone.
In her guide, Itsines advises against doing her circuits and “LISS” workouts at the same time, and toward the end of the guide, she’s encouraging more workouts than there are days in the week. She doesn’t advise that people do resistance training and cardio back-to-back, but suggests training once in the morning and once in the evening.
Do you know who works out in the morning and at night? Victoria’s Secret models. Do you know the audience that’s gobbling up Kayla’s advice? Young girls. Young girls who are in formative states — mentally, emotionally, and physically — and they’re nodding their heads and saying, “yes,” and making the gym the center point of their lives.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with making the gym a priority. But Itsines is subtly advocating that people schedule their lives around multiple workouts a day. This is not doing a double SoulCycle class for fun on the weekend. This is subtly telling young women that in order to get this elusive bikini body, they need to make gym trips. Twice. That’s just not realistic for most young women, who should be living balanced lives.
Weirdly, though, Itsines says her goal is to help women lead balanced lives.
“I want to help educate girls all around the world, and make them understand that exclusionary diets or training styles are not necessarily the best way to go — rather, a well-rounded healthy lifestyle can be far more flexible, beneficial, and enjoyable,” she writes. To be fair, her diet doesn’t demonize carbs…which is a plus.
I fully believe that Itsines is out to help young women, but unless you have a very open schedule, this just might not work. That’s how I felt, for sure: when would I get in all of these sessions and sleep and have a social life and prep all this healthy food? All of those are very important aspects for being a well rounded, healthy person.
6. It’s really not that revolutionary for the price.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Kayla Itsines is a very smart young business woman. The workout guide is more than $50…for an eBook. It’s more for the nutrition manual. The app is $19.99 a month. Itsines swears you don’t need anything, but you do need equipment, from medicine balls to weights and more (and reviewers have said how they didn’t anticipate the additional expenses, and they can really add up).
And realizing what Itsines is getting people to do — resistance training, fat burning low intensity cardio, and high intensity interval — isn’t entirely groundbreaking in the fitness world.
The only revolutionary thing she’s done, in my opinion, is that she’s cultivated a community and made women accountable for their wellness. She’s made them feel strong and helped them feel like they can do push ups. She’s brought millions of women together. That’s great. And to her credit, she’s gotten millions of women interested in exercise, which is hugely important.
But I think the brilliance ends about there. After all, like with diets, there is no magical mystery cure for getting the body of your dreams. It’s a combination of taking care of it, exercising safely so that you can keep exercising in the long run, and eating well — doing something that you enjoy and works for you. And sometimes, if you have really specific goals, you might have to seek out an expert — which, yes, costs money, but they’ll pay attention to your needs.
To be fair, Bikini Body Guide may work for some women, but if it doesn’t work for you, that’s okay. Remember, this guy lost 140 pounds eating Chick-fil-A almost every day, so really, it’s all about finding something that’s sustainable for you.