Last fall, when my husband and I were in the middle of our big move to Dallas, my exercise routine was the first thing to fall through the cracks. I knew I’d soon have to forego my beloved (but expensive!) yoga membership in lieu of a more flexible fitness regimen, so I racked the internet for fast-and-effective sweat sessions that could be done from anywhere. Within seconds of Googling “workouts for women,” I was bombarded with beautiful transformation photos of Kayla Itsines’ #BBG tribe, most of whom were proudly sporting rock solid abs. As you can imagine, I was intrigued. I wanted what these girls had: their undying dedication to health, a strong sense of community, and most of all, their enviably toned tummies.
If this is the first time you’ve come across the name Kayla Itsines, you might either be new to the world of fitness or a stranger to Instagram (or both!), but allow me to fill you in. The 26-year-old Aussie has built an empire of smoothie-sipping, Lululemon-wearing, burpee-loving babes through her Bikini Body Guide, a 12-week fitness plan that’s been changing lives since 2012. Because of the guide’s amazing success around the world, Itsines has garnered a staggering 6.9 million followers on Instagram, a number that continues to grow.
Of course, I had to see for myself what all of the hype was about—so I downloaded her new(ish) fitness app, Sweat, and set out to get fit and fab. Here’s a brief summary of how it works, according to PopSugar:
The program is built around intense 28-minute workouts three days a week. That’s it. They’re broken down into arms and abs, legs, and full body, so each day of the week, you’ll focus on a different muscle group. Expect to see moves like push-ups and planks, burpees, jumping jacks, mountain climbers, and weighted squats.
Don’t be fooled by the seemingly short duration of Itsines’ workouts. They are TOUGH. Like, I might die from a heart attack tough. But for almost three months last year, I was devoted. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from October to December, I’d jump out of bed, grab my yoga mat, and head outside for half an hour of cardio-based circuit training. The cool morning air and Spotify’s Katy Perry radio were exactly what I needed to jumpstart my sweat sesh, and for the first five minutes, I always felt unstoppable. Strong. Like a ninja in yoga pants.
That feeling never lasted long. Fifteen minutes in, I’d be completely out of breath, drenched in sweat, and ready to call it quits. But I didn’t. Time and time again, I ignored the fact that my heart was beating out of my chest and pushed through the pain instead, all the while imagining the tight bikini body I’d surely have by spring. After completing each workout, I’d optimistically tell myself that the next one would be easier, that I’d master the moves in no time. But it wasn’t until Week 4—actually Week 8, if you count the four weeks of pre-training—that I began to notice any real improvement. At last, I could knock out ten burpees in a row without resting in between, and for the first time ever, a set of 15 push-ups didn’t fill me with dread.
Christmas Eve, however, was the turning point: I flew through the full body workout as my relatively fit husband (who had tagged along at my request) struggled his way through two of the four circuits, and then shamelessly gave up on the third. (I told you: Tough. Kayla don’t play.) As you can imagine, I felt pretty good about myself that day. I had reached the peak of my obsession—seriously, who works out on Christmas Eve?—and was determined to keep it up until the official 12-week mark. That is, until I fell ill.
The first week of January saw me couch-ridden with a brutal cold. My energy tanked, and my motivation to do anything but sleep and watch Netflix crumbled. The guilt crept in as I saw not one, not two, but THREE circuit days go by without any training on my part. It killed me to lose momentum in my fitness journey, but I knew my body wouldn’t be able to fully recover if I didn’t give it a much-needed break.
The following week, I laced up my sneakers and hit the mat yet again. I was ready to tackle Week 8! (Or so I thought.) Immediately, I knew that something was off: Not even halfway through, I felt like I was going to pass out. I had never before quit in the middle of a session—because quitting was for weaklings—but this time, I didn’t care. I was done. I blamed the failed workout and my lack of strength on my lingering cold, but the experience left such a sour taste in my mouth that I couldn’t bring myself to try again for a few weeks. When the weather grew warmer, I attempted to start over from Week 1 several times. But getting back in the groove of my previous routine proved impossible, and after months of dreading my workouts, I cancelled my subscription altogether.
In the beginning, I convinced myself that the fact that the BBG was the most difficult exercise program I’d ever tried must mean that it was also the most effective. But in all that time, I never lost any weight or noticeably gained muscle. My body didn’t really change at all, from what I could tell. I might have been “fitter” during those dedicated months, but my motivation stemmed not from a health standpoint so much as it did a desire to look as good as the Australian trainer in a bikini. When I reflect back to the end of last year, I see a girl who was desperate to become another one of Itsines’ transformation stories—who was addicted to crossing the finish line of each workout, just to prove to herself that she could.
I ultimately quit Kayla’s program because it began to control the way I viewed myself on any given day. If I struggled through my circuit training one day, I was weak; if I knocked it out of the park on another, I was strong. And if I didn’t do it at all—whether because of a packed schedule or PMS—I was lazy. Regardless of how my body was (or in my case, was not) “transforming,” the mindset I was stuck in was anything but healthy. It was only after my wintertime cold cured me of my exercise addiction that I realized how much I actually hated doing the BBG workouts, as well as the pressure I put on myself to do them perfectly.
I’m not writing this blog post to criticize Kayla Itsines or her followers, or even to suggest that her program is flawed. A lot of people love BBG, and for good reason: It has worked wonders for their lifestyles and their bodies. But I know now that just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. Physical activity is supposed to increase your energy and pump your blood full of good-feeling endorphins. I, for one, didn’t like that I felt shaky and depleted after each session. Basically, I was getting my ass kicked three times a week and calling it exercise—but the truth is, I didn’t feel any healthier.
These days, I’m aiming to change that. I enjoy going on brisk walks—and the occasional jog—around my neighborhood multiple times a week. I’m back to practicing yoga regularly, and I’ve just started dabbling in strength training workouts via The Balanced Berry, whose approach to fitness is summed up in one sentence on her website: “Wellness that works with your body, not against it.” Now that’s a mantra I can get behind.