You may not recognize the name Kayla Itsines unless you’ve seen it as #KaylaItsines on Instagram. Follow the hashtag trail, and you’ll soon be deep into a K-hole of female bodies in various forms of an exercise journey known as the #bbg or “bikini body guide,” an intensive e-workout guide developed and sold by Itsines, a personal trainer from Adelaide, Australia. Outside of Instagram, Itsines may not have the brand-name appeal of celebrity trainers like Tracy Anderson or Gunnar Peterson. But she boasts over 3.1 million followers (for perspective, Anderson has 167,000), doesn’t train any celebrities, and has a strong community of followers worldwide. Models like Candice Swanepoel even follow her account.
As the flood of daily hashtags show (her name has 861,214 posts at the time of this writing), her empire extends far beyond the reaches of her hometown. Women worldwide have become proselytizers of the 12-week #bbg, a PDF workout that pushes you to squat, burpee, and bust out push-ups for 28 minutes almost nonstop. In New York for a worldwide tour during which she put on free boot camps for her legions of fans, Itsines spoke to the Cut about her critics, how she’s trying to change the way people think of the “bikini body,” and why her followers are the true face of the Kayla Itsines brand.
What was your personal wellness journey?
I was quite underweight as a kid and quite unhealthy. I went to the doctor and he said, “Look, if you continue at the rate that you’re going, you won’t be able to have kids.” That hit me and that hurt.
The doctor said, “Exercise. Go to the gym and be healthy and get strong.” I joined the gym and I literally loved it. I got healthy. I got strong. I started eating way, way better. I felt better. I was more awake and that’s when I thought, I’m going to start to inspire others.
What really motivated you to get onto Instagram and to document that journey on the app?
It was kind of a fluke. I needed somewhere to put my photos. I’ve been a personal trainer since I was 18, 19 years old. I’d go to people’s houses and say, “Oh, look at my client’s transformation.” I’d scroll up my phone and then say, “I can’t find it I’ll show you later.” My little cousin said, “Why don’t you just download Instagram and just start uploading new stuff on there?” She didn’t really explain it properly, so I downloaded it and started documenting transformations. Then I realized that it doesn’t work like Facebook. Everyone could see what I was doing.
Why do you think that people are so drawn to the social aspect of what you do?
Although it’s called Kayla Itsines, it’s not me. It’s not just my face and my brand. The brand is the transformations of women everywhere. People are drawn because it’s a community and girls from all over the world. They can relate. If you’re in this like-minded community, no one is going to say anything but positive stuff to you. I can’t motivate the world. I live in Australia. But if, for example, someone from New York uploads their transformation photos, someone will go, Oh, I live there. I can do that, too.
Is that part of the reason why your photos usually obscure your face?
Oh, definitely. Everyone’s like, “What’s wrong with your face? Why don’t you like it?” There’s nothing wrong with my face. I have no problem with my body or my face and no insecurities whatsoever. But a “bikini body” is not my body. A “bikini body” is when you feel comfortable in a bikini. I upload transformations to show that there are girls with completely different bodies and it’s about feeling good. It’s the community-building. The hashtag #thekaylamovement started when someone was like, Let’s all do the guides together. It brought up 100,000 hashtags in a week.
What would you say to critics who say your plan is too unhealthy or too drastic or too quick?
It’s 28 minutes of high-intensity training as hard and as fast as you can. It’s not about a certain body type. The whole point of this program is to get rid of the “skinny is better” thought process and focus on happiness and confidence. The plan gets harder and harder to push you mentally to do something that you haven’t done before. It’s not to make you smaller or to work your body harder. You can go at whatever pace you want to go. You finish the workout and you say, “I did that.” It’s fantastic for people who don’t want to spend hours and hours in the gym. No one can go to the gym for two hours.
Everything we do is based on science. That’s why we get such great results. It’s 28 minutes, but we’re getting the most out of the time you’re working out. When we started doing plyometric training, everyone else was laughing at us. But it works.
Girls have got to realize, Okay, this is not going to make me lose tons and tons of weight. It’s going to make you fit. It’s going to make you strong — and mentally strong. That’s what’s hard.
If someone wanted to join the Kayla community on Instagram, where should they start?
Start anywhere. Start by taking a progress photo. Start by talking about why they started and what their goals are. Just start. Follow like-minded people like yourself. That’s why I’m doing the world tour and bringing these girls together for free. You don’t need to follow someone’s body type. No one is looking at you. Everyone is focusing on themselves. Unless you’re a big-time celebrity, you’re not going to get hate. You’re not going to get judged. The best thing you can do is just talk and realize that people aren’t going to judge you as much as you judge you.
Try not to separate exercise and your life from your actual life. Why should you make another account? This is your life now. Include exercise in life. People used to say, “No, I don’t go to the gym” like it’s a scary thing. And now it’s like, Yeah, I go to the gym.
What is your advice to people who say they hate exercise?
You’ve got to find something that you love and then stick to it. Just find something that you love and don’t go with the fads. I try to give lots of variation. I don’t care how you do the guides. You might just want to keep one page and do it once a week. It’s better than doing nothing. Although obviously I would love for the women to follow the guides as they are.
Do more than you did yesterday. Just do five squats. And then the next day, do ten squats. I know it feels like nothing, but it’s something. And it’s more than you did the day before. So just try. Just try and implement exercise into your daily life.
This interview has been condensed and edited.