A new generation of fitness instructors teaches simple skills that make a difference. Why is beginner-level exercise treated like a niche?
If you tried to imagine the perfect gym teacher, you’d probably come up with someone a lot like Hampton Liu. He’s a gentle, friendly guy who spends most of his time trying to figure out how to make the basics of exercise more approachable, and he talks frequently about how he never wants anyone to feel shame for their ability or skill level. In other words—and with apologies to good gym teachers, who almost definitely exist—he’s probably the polar opposite of whoever lorded over your middle-school physical-education class.
And Liu is a gym teacher of sorts. He has amassed millions of followers across YouTube, Facebook, and TikTok by teaching a remedial PE course for adults from his Arkansas backyard. In many of his videos, he wears a T-shirt and jeans instead of specialized athletic gear, and he uses little or no equipment. The most popular installments take viewers through super-common exercises—squats, lunges, push-ups, pull-ups—with variations tailored to many different capability levels. For someone who has never exercised at all, a push-up might start as—or might just be—lying on your back and “bench-pressing the air” in order to expand your range of motion. There are several more types of push-up that Liu tells viewers to master before they assume the hands-and-toes position that’s long been taught to American kids as the One True Push-Up. (Kneeling variation acceptable for girls, if they must.)
Teaching a series of increasingly difficult movements, called a “progression” by fitness pros, is common at every level of exercise instruction and meant to build capacity over time. All progressions start somewhere, and most of the ones you can find on YouTube, through instructional services such as Peloton, or in classes at your local gym will assume a baseline of ability that a lot of people don’t have. The first step, for example, might be a standard squat, performed without weights. Over time, you might graduate to squatting while you hold a 25-pound kettlebell, and then to kicking out to the side with one leg in order to challenge a different group of muscles. But what if you can’t do a squat?
Read: Peloton is stuck, just like the rest of us.
Liu focuses on teaching progressions for novices, which work toward the skills that other types of exercise instruction take for granted. There’s a real audience for these, he told me. Lots of people seem to assume that their inability to do sets of those basic moves is an irreversible failure—for many of them, it’s been their lot in life since elementary-school gym class.
For decades, exercise instruction for adults has functioned on largely the same principle. What the fitness industry calls a “beginner” is usually someone relatively young and capable who wants to become more conventionally attractive, get swole, or learn a trendy workout such as high-intensity interval training or barre. If you’re a novice looking for a path toward these more intense routines, most of the conventional gyms, fitness studios, and exercise experts that offer them don’t have much for you—come back when you’ve developed on your own the endurance and core strength to avoid barfing, crying, or injuring yourself in the first 10 minutes. The situation is even worse if you have no designs on getting ripped and instead just want to build a baseline of capability, whether that’s for hoisting your toddler, shaking off the stiffness of a desk job, or living independently as you age.
On the surface, this is pretty dumb. More than three-quarters of Americans don’t currently hit the CDC’s recommended minimums for regular exercise, and the fitness industry is a graveyard of once-buzzy businesses that abruptly stopped growing—much to their investors’ chagrin—at least in part because they never had a plan to turn anyone into a customer who wasn’t already pretty fit. But the numbers suggest that there is enormous demand for services such as Liu’s: His super-popular videos make him just one recent example of the teachers and trainers who have found significant audiences by courting true beginners. In doing so, they’ve created entry points for more types of people to do something near-universally regarded as essential to mental and physical health. Why has the industry itself been so slow to catch up?