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On TikTok, Workouts Are Over Before You Even Know It

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Hot Bod is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.

Time spent working out is time spent considering the very nature of time. Time gets so devious during exercise! How can two minutes of push-ups last a full-blown Mesozoic era? And how does a half-minute recovery take only four seconds? And of course, there’s the eternal question: How can I somehow do this for longer but spend less time making that happen?

In early spring I noticed the escalation of an editing aesthetic that seemed to answer this question: the sped-up workout video. My most reliable gym-class friend began sending me fitness videos that lasted only a minute, but that promised to contain the outline for a full cardio routine. Shantani Moore, one of my favorite instructors in Los Angeles, filled her Instagram stories with quick time lapses of her practicing yoga. Now the aesthetic of the human body at hyperspeed is unavoidable; a 19-year-old CrossFit icon with 13 million subscribers (also Lizzo and Britney Spears) often cranks the speed through a cardio session or a weight-lifting burn or a yoga flow.

And while this aesthetic may have something to do with our desire to move quickly past this bad era of history, it probably has the most to do with TikTok. The app maintains a strict 60-second time limit, meaning many maximalists choose to condense their showmanship rather than cut anything away. As Miran Miyano recently wrote in Vice, downloads of the app skyrocketed when quarantine began, and now FitTok — “short workout and wellness videos that are equal parts exercise and viral internet trend” —has emerged. Pent-up energy found its outlet on the TikTok platform’s countless fitness challenges. What’s most interesting to me about FitTok culture is not the hovering graphics, the meme-ificiation of workouts, or the pseudo–community building of challenges, but the play with time. It’s the language of the quick hit, even when it’s showing a full workout routine. These videos play out one of humanity’s greatest exercise fantasies: doing 30 minutes of cardio in 60 seconds. Doing 100 push-ups in the time it usually takes to do four.

From one vantage point, these quickened videos crystallize the fantasy of immediate gratification; from another, they confidently include all the imperfections that would have been edited away. Jen Selter, a distinguished founding member of the fitness social-media strata, tells me, “I’ve been using speed in my videos for years,” but TikTok has been the most natural platform for sped-up clips of her squats. She says she likes to slow down her videos when she’s introducing a new pose, but loves to speed them up “to emphasize the intensity. I’m also a huge lover of photography and videography, and I think the human body is a work of art.” Playing with different video speeds serves to “highlight the beauty of what human muscles are capable of!”

“Oh, I’m very familiar with these sped-up videos,” says Dr. Megan Vendemia, a communication scholar who’s also a fitness instructor. She theorizes that the fast clips are less about proving perfection than proving dedication. “Anyone doing any time lapse, even pictures of sunsets: It’s about commitment to seeing something through.” Vendemia, who studies perception and motivation in social-media presentation, thinks these sped-up videos might even be a reaction to the image control in more choppily edited videos. “Time lapse would seem even less modified because you’re seeing the whole process,” she says, “you see kids crawling in the background, a dog jumping in.” The longer something goes on, the harder it is to completely control the stuff around the edges.

Even so, the videos can make things look easy. The quickest way to undo this illusion is to actually imitate them. Yesterday, I spent 17 minutes on two 60-second videos. When I’ve gotten lost in the TikTok fitness simulacra, I’ve gone in and gathered up five or six clips, trusting that it would take me about 30 or 40 minutes to work through all the reps.

Sometimes, I can’t even tell if the workouts are sped-up or if the person is really fast! And I’ve watched videos like three times in a row with the intention to imitate them before realizing that it’s not humanly possible for this human to do that at all. The videos happen so quickly, it can be hard to pinpoint the exact dynamics of the movement. I’ve replayed a video over and over, shifting my weight in my sneakers before I admit that I was just watching a piece of entertainment masked as instruction. Stefana Avara, who runs a popular fitness/body positivity TikTok, doesn’t post sped-up videos to avoid this deception. “I think that showing your audience proper form and timing is vital,” she tells me, “especially on apps like TikTok, where the users are typically younger and less experienced.”

“Sped-up videos are like Tasty-style recipe videos,” says Caroline Anderson, a weight lifter and TV writer in Los Angeles. “I don’t think they’re particularly good tools for teaching or instruction, more just entertaining.” Anderson has been posting videos of herself doing superheavy lifts for a while now; when she started doing workouts that were more focused on endurance, she quickened up her vids to keep her new posts engaging. Making a time-lapse video also helps hold her accountable:“I can’t tap out or over-recover if time lapse is going.” She started to speed things up to keep her new footage interesting, but the witness of the camera keeps her dedicated to the whole thing. 

While these videos all seem to exist for my consumption, Anderson reminds me that people often make the things they project into the world for themselves. In a fitness-y video performance piece for the Baltimore Museum of Art this summer, Nicoletta Daríta de la Brown also used manipulations of speed. Brown tells me that when she started making this footage, she had no art piece in mind. “At first, it wasn’t for anybody. I actually wanted to have a conversation back with myself,” she says. Since the pandemic began, she “had lost track of time. Months, weeks, days. Do I exist?” To prove it, she began to film herself just moving in her apartment, in tight workout clothes, “so I could see the lines in my body.” When she watched them back, she messed with the speed to “really focus on the preciousness of that moment. There was a lot of energy in that. I want to show how I felt in that moment. I felt like I could bend space and time.”

This is another way that working out messes with time: While it sometimes seems like the laws of physics have been derailed and time has slowed to extend some terrible push-up, once it’s over, you feel like you could have done it for hours longer. Then, an intervention of editing can make the video clip look, honestly, like the way it felt.

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