A new generation of fitness influencers are taking over the weights room, 60 seconds at a time. Writer Róisín Lanigan investigates the Gen Z rise of TikTok-based lifting.
If Strong Women is proof of anything, it’s that women are embracing the goal of getting strong like never before. Gone are the days of weights rooms acting like a kind of practical smoking parlour for men; in 2021, you’re more likely to find women taking up room on the squat rack or filling a strength class than not.
At Olympic level, a record number of women are lifting and competing, and the body positivity movement has meant that women lifters at all levels of experience are celebrating their muscular physiques. But like all hobbies, finding your feet in lifting, particularly as a woman, can be daunting.
In fact, recent research from Penn State University has revealed that fear and discomfort in the weights room – not a lack of interest – is still keeping the gender gap in lifting alive. To tackle the issue, a new generation of female fitness fans are growing a community on TikTok.
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Led mainly by Gen Z and young millennials, the women of GymTok are encouraging a new, more accessible, less predatory environment in the gym. While it might not have spread to your local gym yet, the community is not niche by any standard; the hashtag #femalebodybuilders has racked up over 6.2 million views on the platform, while #girlsatthegym has nearly 8 million. The more general #femalefitness, a body-positive space which discusses everything from nutrition to gym etiquette, has a mammoth 94.2 million.
From posting videos of the perfect workouts for shy girls to recording men perving on them in the weights room and helping with questions on form, GymTok, with all its humour and body acceptance, is a far cry from the ultra-curated Gymshark-infested waters of platforms like Instagram and YouTube.
Proving that no one is off limits on the ‘gram or ‘Tube, even Chloe Ting (she of 20 million subscribers) still experiences trolling.
Of course, fitness content (and particularly female weight training) was majorly popular on Instagram before TikTok took off. But there’s a noticeable difference between the types of content posted between the two. TikTok, by design, promotes shorter, snappier videos than the beautifully edited bits you find on the ‘gram. That brevity, combined with a commitment to showing relatable, human moments, means that TikTok is, for women like me, far more of an attractive space to learn from than older platforms.
It’s hard to believe that creators did and still do upload 20 minute videos telling their IG followers how to do simple lifts. In my experience, the women on TikTok are less likely to position themselves as unqualified fitness gurus – concentrating instead on making fun out of how they screwed up a deadlift and teaching by example.
I’d argue too that there’s more of a community element to the TikTok lifting community. Look under any video of a woman in the weights room, and you’ll find the comment section filled with other women sharing their own similar experiences.
It’s been widely reported that Gen Z, TikTok’s biggest demographic, are a group that are much more willing to show their flaws, their weirdness and their ugliness on social media.
“The Instagram aesthetic is over”, wrote Taylor Lorenz for The Atlantic, all the way back in 2019. “The look made famous by the platform just doesn’t resonate anymore.” While older millennials were willing to subscribe to the exhausting endless march towards perfection in their lives, their hobbies and on their social media platforms, TikTok’s Gen Z-ers are less convinced by the sham.
While the platform is not immune from the cult of comparison, many of LifTok’s most popular creators and videos celebrate the journey of getting into the weights room and finding a new love of exercise at all levels, in 60 seconds or fewer.
One of Meagan Hayes’ videos, posted to her 49,000 TikTok followers, is the perfect antidote to the traditional gymfluencer vids about serious gains. In it, she lipsyncs to a Keeping Up With The Kardashians clip, making fun of her useless glutes when squatting. Hayes, who started lifting in high school, got into weights because she loved the confidence and strength it gave her.
“My goal was always to get bigger and stronger, not to look malnourished,” the California-based fitness coach tells Stylist. “I love lifting for facing my fears, forcing me to push boundaries and make me feel confident in my own body”.
While Hayes began her fitness journey on Instagram, her content became focused on educating other women on fitness when she moved to the new platform, where her most popular lifting videos rake in over half a million views. “There’s definitely a different vibe. It feels great to be helping other women,” she explains. “I want to inspire others and teach them, give them the tools to do things the right way.”
For TikTokers like Hayes, weights-based education is part of their full-time job, but for others, the platform is simply a place to share their hobbies and passions.
Take Valencia, for example. She became renowned on the platform for her “shy girl” lifting videos. Ironically, Valencia got into lifting through her boyfriend, who was training to compete in Mr Olympia (a bodybuilding contest for men that takes place annually in Las Vegas) but soon carved out her own space after discovering a passion for the gym.
She tells us: “At first, I really just did the stair master and a few machines because I was a ‘shy girl’. The weights room was dominated by men and I felt intimidated, but I soon realised that everyone is so busy with their own workout that no one is paying attention to you.”
She goes on to say that nearly everyone experiences what she calls the ‘spotlight effect’, where they feel like everyone is watching them. “After I started researching, I became more confident and then a year ago I actually started lifting seriously, with a goal to build muscle.”
It was around that time that her “shy girl” video series began. Clad in an oversized shirt and shorts, Valencia teaches her 220,000 followers to use some of the more intimidating equipment in the weights room, or how to complete their entire workout without having to explore the gym. Her most popular videos regularly pull in several million views, and have even inspired a “shy girl” trend amongst other female weightlifters on the platform.
“It’s definitely motivating and empowering when I see multiple women in the weights area,” Valencia says. “When I see a new woman in the weight room, I feel so happy to see them there. But I worry that if they see me looking at them they’ll think they’re doing something wrong or look dumb. I know I had that, but now that I’m comfortable in the free weights area, I know how silly it was to jump to those negative thoughts. Especially because now when I see a woman working out near me, I get so happy and motivated.”
Valencia and Hayes’ reasons for posting weights tutorials are different, and while their content is just one small part of the tapestry that makes up GymTok’s weight lifting women community, they share that community’s values of encouraging accessibility, banishing sexism, and getting women off the endless spin cycle.
For young women like me, the fact that weight lifting can be condensed into a 60-second video makes it so much less frightening. TikTok has taught me that it’s just a case of confidence, attitude and remembering to tidy your station up after your final set).
Looking for a space to get stronger in a safe space? Head over to the Strong Women Training Club where you’ll find plenty of videos, training plans and events designed to help you get stronger tomorrow than you were yesterday.
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