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Why it feels like everyone on Instagram is filming their workouts

After all, what’s the point of breaking a sweat if you’re not doing it for the ’gram?

An exercise class at a gym Getty Images
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

It was almost exactly one year ago that I took a dance class in which we learned the choreography to Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)” and then had to watch a video of ourselves performing it, and for an entire year, that video has haunted me. I have okay self-esteem, but no one, after spending 45 minutes memorizing a dance perfected by talented and beautiful celebrities, should have to then watch themselves clumsily imitate it.

The company, a popular studio in Manhattan called Banana Skirt Productions that’s existed since 2014, says it films the final run-through for each dance class — which, to be fair, was extremely fun, minus the colossal wallop to my pride — so that participants can download the videos and use them to practice at home.

But I suspect the real reason: We’re supposed to post them online. As one Banana Skirt attendee told Brooklyn Magazine in 2016: “Everyone in the class was only there because of Instagram.”

I chose not to punish my Instagram followers with the visual of me dancing to “Run the World (Girls),” though I have seen plenty of other people do so with their own Banana Skirt videos. Over the past few years, my Instagram feed has become flooded with videos of my friends engaging in not just dance cardio but a variety of activities designed to make them sweat: running, weightlifting, yoga, HIIT. While chains like CrossFit have long encouraged clients to film themselves, the practice has extended to nearly all forms of exercise, and the spectacle of someone using a tiny tripod to film themselves lifting weights has become de rigueur at the gym.

For the gyms, the rise in filming has been mostly a blessing but also, to a lesser extent, a curse. Chad Waetzig, vice president of marketing at Crunch Fitness, told the Wall Street Journal that the studio encourages photo-taking by awarding members who upload pictures or videos using the hashtag #CrunchTV with prizes like free personal training sessions. Staff, however, have to be on the lookout for disruptive behavior like filming in locker rooms or machine-hogging. “It’s a balancing act for us,” Waetzig told the paper. “Members are excited and proud of what they’re doing and want to share. But we also want them to understand there are guidelines and social boundaries to respect.”

Cellphones in exercise spaces have long been a point of contention for both gym-goers and gyms; many people understandably find it annoying to wait for someone to finish using a machine, only to see that the person is using it as a seat on which to scroll through Facebook. A study supposedly proving that people who take gym selfies have “psychological problems” was gleefully shared by multiple websites in 2016. (The evidence was based on the idea that people who share selfies are narcissists, which would apparently mean that a vast majority of Americans have a personality disorder.)

One of the best arguments against picture-taking in gyms came in 2016, when a former Playboy model named Dani Mathers took a photo of a naked 70-year-old woman in the shower of an LA Fitness and posted it to her Snapchat with the caption, “If I can’t unsee this then you can’t either.” Mathers was subsequently banned from the health club, arrested for invasion of privacy, and sentenced to 30 days of community service and three years’ probation.

A less repugnant and far funnier example of gym filming happened when the Twitch streamer and cosplayer Amouranth live-streamed her workout session, which also showed the multiple gym employees who approached her to inform her she couldn’t film there. Though she denied she was streaming, one employee says, “You are live. We have your account open.”

Most instances of workout filming are perfectly innocuous, of course. For Nicole He, a programmer and artist in Brooklyn, shooting her powerlifting sessions was simply a way to evaluate her form. For about two years when she started out, she’d occasionally film herself “and was mostly appalled by how much worse my form looked than I thought,” she says. Once she hired a coach and began preparing for competitions, she started filming every session.

“It’s basically required, so that you and your coach can look at your form, and also to see if you’re properly adhering to competitive standards,” she explains. “At my gym, where almost everyone is training competitively, I think literally everybody films themselves.”

It took her a little while to finally post those videos on Instagram, though. “Posting had two effects for me: One was that I felt more a part of my local powerlifting community, and the other was that I get a lot of supportive and positive comments from friends.”

Chelsey Cioli, a freelance dancer and director of a physical therapy program, was hesitant to post her workout videos on Instagram in the beginning, too. “I kinda felt like a poser at first,” she says, laughing. “A couple of my college friends who aren’t dancers or fitness people gave me a hard time; they were like, ‘Dude, what are you doing?’ And I was like, ‘Just go with it!’”

Even though they don’t get as many likes or comments as her regular posts, she says that thanks to her posts, she’s gained a handful of personal training clients who’ve reached out to her via Instagram. But she’s also concerned about the prevalence of people posting cool-looking workouts that inspire others to try something dangerous.

“It’s easy to display yourself as an expert on social media,” she says. “I really hate when people film their yoga handstands or something, because usually they’re wrong. The poses you do for Instagram are putting a lot of stress on your neck and spine, so you shouldn’t be encouraging people to do it, especially if they don’t have guidance.”

Both Nicole and Chelsey admit to using pretty lo-fi means to film themselves working out, like propping their phones against a water bottle or a kettlebell (although, to be fair, that’s what many people advised doing when a Reddit poster asked for this very advice). Men and women in equal frequency will ask their trainers or coaches to take photos, as Kenny Santucci, the general manager of Solace New York, tells GQ. He says the desire for photos is changing the way we work out: “It’s become more of a visual game than ever before. Instagram specifically has made the fitness culture evolve a lot faster.” The prevalence of designated selfie areas and the popularity of Instagram-friendly workouts like aerial yoga are arguably evidence of that evolution.

Ultimately, though, as fitness becomes more intrinsic to the kind of wellness-focused lifestyles we’re supposed to aspire to, it’s natural that we’re increasingly accustomed to seeing the minutiae of our friends’ workouts on the platform. Even when they’re not using filmed workouts to improve their form or build a client base, it can still be a meaningful way to showcase a hobby and connect with friends.

For Nicole, the best response is when friends say her powerlifting videos inspire them to start strength training. “Probably like many women, I used to think of physical strength as something that was inherently out of reach for my body, but I’ve learned through this sport that it just takes time and practice, like any other skill,” she says. “If by watching me, an average woman, progress slowly but surely in Instagram Stories makes someone else feel like she could do it too, then that’s the best.”

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