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Kayla Itsines: The personal trainer turned Instagram star on social media, body image and her new found fame

Exclusive: The fitness guru with a social media reach of more than 13 million talks to The Independent about Instafame and what she says to people who say her app is too expensive

Olivia Blair
Thursday 06 October 2016 08:37 BST
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Kayla Itsines
Kayla Itsines (Kayla Itsines)

The ubiquity of #cleaneating hashtags, avocado pictures and weight-lifting workout videos has come to define Instagram thanks to the explosion of wellness and fitness bloggers on social media.

With so many self-made entrepreneurs fervently competing for likes and followers it can be easy to get lost among the crowd. But Kayla Itsines has managed to distinguish herself from the rest and stands at the helm of a burgeoning fitness empire, aged just 25.

Since transferring her day job as a personal trainer in Australia, working with select clients, to the giant platform she now boasts on social media, Itsines has amassed over eight million followers on Facebook, five and a half million on Instagram, launched a bestselling app and toured the world with stadium workouts.

An integral part of her branding is the 'before and after' pictures from her dedicated ‘army' who have followed her 12-week bikini body guides – a tailor-made combination of meal plans and workouts she says help women “feel fitter, stronger and more confident”. Followers came in droves to lose weight, tone up or get fit and testimonials are now key to her popularity.

But the term ‘bikini body’ is controversial, becoming increasingly problematic in recent years for perpetuating unrealistic body ideals and discriminating against women who don’t fit one select body type. Body positivity campaigns led by models such as Tess Holliday and Iskra Lawrence have launched in response and the movement continues to gain momentum worldwide. Yet Itsines remains one of the most successful fitness bloggers on Instagram.

Itsines herself has acknowledged the connotations of the phrase, telling Bloomberg of her regret in naming them as such in July. "Do I regret calling my guides Bikini Body? My answer is yes. That's why when I released the app, I called it Sweat With Kayla. Sweat is so empowering. I love that."

What does she think sets her apart and what is her response to people who say Instagram accounts like hers are only fuelling the body image insecurities many young girls and women have?

Kayla Itsines (Kayla Itsines)

When did you realise you wanted to devote your career to fitness?

Ever since I was young I always knew I wanted to help people and I’ve always had a passion for fitness. This led me to study personal training at the Australian Institute of Fitness. I love that I’ve been able to help women on their health and fitness journeys. It may sound cliche but I feel so blessed that I have been able to turn my passion into a career.

Did you have insecurities and body issues growing up?

I often felt tired and run down when I was younger. Although I was always active and played a lot of sport, I didn’t fuel my body with an amazing variety of foods like I do now. That’s when I started focusing on getting fitter, stronger and healthier. I began studying personal training and now I love that I can help so many other women feel confident too.

There are hundreds of fitness and nutrition bloggers out there. Why do you think BBGs have resonated so well with followers?

I definitely believe that the support and motivation provided by the BBG community has helped so many women on their journey to feeling fitter and stronger. These women are all different ages, come from different backgrounds and are of varying fitness levels, however, they all share one common goal: ­ to feel confident. Most women can also relate to being time poor, which is why I believe the 28-minute training circuits in my app work really well for them.

You’ve said before that when you first posted pictures on Instagram you didn’t realise other people could see them. How did you learn to use social media to your advantage?

My little cousin was actually the person who suggested I use Instagram to store my clients' transformations. Once I learnt that others could see my account, it was a great tool (and still is) for me to be able to reach and speak with girls from all over the world.

Your audience is predominantly women given your slogan “Bikini Body Guides”. Why do you only target women - could men use them?

My guides are aimed at predominantly women because that’s where I began my career, as a personal trainer­ in a women’s only gym. I have trained with women for over eight years now, so I feel I have developed an understanding about their goals when it comes to how they want to feel on their healthy lifestyle journey. Having said that, a lot of girls actually get their boyfriends/partners to do the BBG workouts, which I absolutely love.

There is a lot of pressure on women to look a certain way and social media can play a bg part in this. What would you say to young women who look at your photos and feel inferior about themselves?

I believe you need to be kind to yourself and try not to compare yourself to others. Everybody’s journey (and body) is different and I personally believe that having the right mindset is really important. What might work for one person may not work for someone else. You’ve got to find what makes you feel good. You can have all the reasons in the world to workout, but when it comes down to it, you’re going to enjoy it so much more if you’re exercising for your own health and happiness.

Social media has enabled you to build up a huge business with massively positive results, but there is a dark side to the internet. How do you deal with trolls and abusive comments on social media?

We have built such a positive and supportive community online that any negativity is far outweighed by positivity. I love this about the BBG community. We really are a big supportive family.

As a fitness instructor, it’s likely you never strived to be 'famous'. How do you feel when your bootcamp events across the world attract thousands of people you have to address and how do you stay grounded in the face of your success?

I feel blessed to have so many amazing women come to my World Tour bootcamps. They always tell me how excited they are to meet me, but I don’t think they realise I am just as excited. I still don’t see myself as 'famous'. I don’t believe the number of followers you have defines who you are as a person. I believe that it’s what you can do to make a difference or have a positive influence on the lives of the followers that you do have that is what is important. I spend a lot of time with my grandparents who are Greek and don’t speak a lot of English, especially my Pappou. They know nothing about Instagram, followers or social media. They just think I’m a regular personal trainer at a gym. My family mean the world to me and keep me grounded. Time with them definitely helps me to relax.

Have you faced any setbacks or discrimination in being a young woman with a hugely successful business plan?

One of my biggest 'uh­ha' moments was actually from my grandparents, who didn’t think I should be a personal trainer. They didn’t believe it would be a good profession for me because they are very traditional. I almost didn’t do it because I love and care so much about what my family thinks! It was my dad that inspired me to stick to what I was passionate about. He said, 'Are you going to stop doing something you love because someone doesn’t like it? You do whatever you want to do and whatever makes you happy.'

What’s in the pipeline for the future?

2016 has already been such an exciting year, including my 2016 Sweat Tour! I hosted free bootcamps for the BBG Community in London, New York and Los Angeles. It’s crazy to think I trained around 10,000 girls in person in just eight days. We just launched three new languages on the App, Chinese (Simplified), Portuguese and Dutch, which means it’s now available in eight languages! I have also just announced the release of my first ever hard copy book, which will be on sale in Australia, UK and USA this December!

Read Kayla Itsine's exclusive 28-minute workout for The Independent

This full body workout consists of two rounds of two circuits, each lasting seven minutes. Start by setting your timer for seven minutes and aim to complete the exercises in Circuit 1 as many times as you can before the timer goes off. Once completed, take a 30 second break. Reset your timer to seven minutes and complete Circuit 2. Complete Circuits 1 and 2 again for your full 28 minute workout! While you’re aiming to complete each exercise as quickly as possible, it is important that you maintain proper technique throughout.

Circuit 1 (Lower Body)

­ Burpee ­ 10 Reps

­ Reverse Lunge + Lift ­ 24 Reps ­ (12 per side)

­ Jump Squat ­ 12 Reps

­ Broad Jump ­ 10 Reps

Circuit 2 (Upper Body)

­ Lay Down Push Up ­ 12 Reps

­ Outward Snap Jump ­ 20 Reps

­ Commando ­ 24 Reps (12 per side)

­ Toe Tap ­ 15 Reps

Exercise Cues

Burpee

Plant both feet on the floor slightly further than shoulder width apart. Looking straight ahead, bend at both the hips and knees, and place your hands on the floor directly in front of your feet. Keeping your body weight on your hands, kick both of your feet backwards so that your legs are completely extended behind you, resting on the balls of your feet. Your body should be in one straight line from head to toe. Jump both of your feet in towards your hands, ensuring that your feet remain shoulder width apart. Propel your body upwards into the air. Extend your legs below you and your arms above your head. Land in a neutral standing position, ensuring that you maintain “soft” knees to prevent injury. Repeat for the specified number of repetitions.

Burpee step 1 (Kayla Itsines)
Burpee step 2 (Kayla Itsines)
Burpee step 3 (Kayla Itsines)
Burpee step 4 (Kayla Itsines)

Reverse Lunge + Knee Lift

Plant both feet on the floor slightly further than shoulder width apart. Carefully take a big step BACKWARD with your LEFT foot. As you plant your left foot on the floor, bend both knees to approximately 90 degrees, ensuring that your weight is evenly distributed between both legs. If done correctly, your front knee should be aligned with your ankle and your back knee should be hovering just off of the floor.Extend both knees and transfer your weight completely onto your RIGHT foot. At the same time, lift up your LEFT foot and bring your knee into your chest. Release your left leg from your chest and place it back on the floor behind you. Complete half of the specified number of repetitions on the same leg, before completing the remaining repetitions on the other leg.

Reverse Lunge and Knee Lift step 1 (Kayla Itsines)
Reverse Lunge and Knee Lift step 2 (Kayla Itsines)
Reverse Lunge and Knee Lift step 3 (Kayla Itsines)

Jump Squat

Plant both feet on the floor slightly further than shoulder width apart. Looking straight ahead, bend at both the hips and knees, ensuring that your knees remain in line with your toes. Continue bending your knees until your upper legs are parallel with the floor. Ensure that your back remains between 45 and 90 degrees of your hips. This is called squat position. Propel your body upwards into the air. Extend both your legs and your hips before landing back into squat position. When landing, ensure that you maintain ‘soft’ knees to prevent injury. Repeat for the specified number of repetitions.

Jump squats step 1 (Kayla Itsines)
Jump squats step 2 (Kayla Itsines)

Broad Jump

Plant both feet on the floor slightly further than shoulder width apart. Looking straight ahead, bend at both the hips and knees, ensuring that your knees remain in line with your toes. Continue bending your knees until your upper legs are parallel with the floor. Ensure that your back remains between 45 and 90 degrees of your hips. This is called squat position. Propel your body upwards and forwards into the air. Land back into squat position. When landing, ensure that you maintain ‘soft’ knees to prevent injury. Repeat for the specified number of repetitions.

Broad Jump step 1 (Kayla Itsines)
Broad Jump step 2 (Kayla Itsines)
Broad Jump step 3 (Kayla Itsines)

Lay Down Push Up

Start by lying flat on your stomach, with arms extended out in front of you and both legs straight behind you. Position your toes in towards the floor, as shown.Bring your arms in towards your body and place your hands on the floor on either side of your chest. Push through your chest and extend your arms to lift your body back up into push up position, resting on the balls of your feet. Ensure that you maintain a straight back and stabilise through your abdominal muscles. Slowly lower your body completely to the floor and extend your arms out in front of you. Repeat for the specified number of repetitions.

Lay down push up step 1 (Kayla Itsines)
Lay down push up step 2 (Kayla Itsines)
Lay down push up step 3 (Kayla Itsines)

Outward Snap Jump

Place both hands on the floor slightly further than shoulder width apart and both feet together behind you, resting on the balls of your feet. This is your starting position. Quickly jump both feet outwards so that they wider than your hips, as shown. Quickly jump both of feet inwards to bring them back together into starting position. Continue alternating between feet together and feet apart for the specified number of repetitions.


 Snap Jump step 1 
 (Kayla Itsines)
Snap jumps step 2 (Kayla Itsines)
Snap jumps step 3 (Kayla Itsines)

Commando

Start by placing your forearms (wrist to elbow) on the floor and extending both of your legs behind you, resting on the balls of your feet. This is called a plank position. Release your right forearm and place your right hand firmly on the floor directly below your right shoulder. Push up onto your right hand, followed immediately by your left in the same pattern. Ensure that you brace through your abdominals to prevent your hips from swaying. Return to plank position by releasing your right hand and lowering onto your forearm, before doing the same with your left hand. Repeat this exercise, starting with your left hand. Continue alternating between right and left for the specified number of repetitions.

Commando step 1 (Kayla Itsines)
Commando step 2 (Kayla Itsines)
Commando step 3 (Kayla Itsines)

Toe Tap

Start by lying straight on your back on the floor with both arms extended above your head. Gently raise your legs off of the floor so that they form a 90 degree angle at your hips. Engage your abdominal muscles by drawing your belly button in towards your spine. Bring your hands up towards your feet – slowly lifting your head, shoulder blades and torso off of the floor. Allow your hands to meet your toes (or the action of) before releasing your torso and laying back down on the floor with your arms extended above your head. Repeat for the specified number of repetitions.

Top tap step 1 (Kayla Itsines)
Top tap step 2 (Kayla Itsines)

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