Please Don’t Compare Yourself To Kayla Itsines
The founder of Sweat and Bikini Body Guide looks back on a decade of lunges.
If you were online between 2014 and 2017, you probably came across the Bikini Body Guide at some point. Maybe you were a practitioner yourself, dutifully sweating your way through a PDF of the grueling 12-week high intensity interval training program — $69.97 AUD, or free if you got a bootleg copy from a friend. (Perhaps you were actor Allison Williams or model Candice Swanepoel, both fans, according to The New York Times.) Maybe you were one of the millions who posted body transformation photos of themselves on Instagram with hashtags like #bbg and #deathbykayla. Or maybe you experienced it through social media osmosis, passively absorbing knowledge of its existence as you scrolled past clips of the program’s founder, Kayla Itsines, gracefully performing lunges and jump squats, her sleek, dark brown ponytail bobbing gently from the top of her skull, her dazzlingly white sneakers more luminous than the surface of the sun.
When she first uploaded the PDF of the first Bikini Body Guide (better known as BBG) in 2014, Itsines was a 22-year-old personal trainer in Adelaide, South Australia, running exercise classes on the beach. By 2015, she had launched a $20-a-month app called Sweat with Kayla. Now 32, Itsines still calls herself a trainer, but that’s kind of like calling the pope a priest: not exactly wrong, but it doesn’t really capture the scale of their work. Itsines currently has 16 million followers on Instagram. That’s roughly the populations of Greece and Norway combined. In 2017, Forbes named her the most influential fitness star in the world, and pre-pandemic, her in-person bootcamp workouts sold out stadiums across the globe. In 2021, she sold her fitness platform, Sweat, to iFit for a reported $400 million — just slightly less than the GDP of Micronesia, as the Cut put it at the time. She is now listed on the Sweat website as its co-founder and one of its trainers.
Over video chat in May, Itsines’ hair is pulled back into the same glossy ponytail, her skin glowing with aggressive good health and alertness even though it’s 7:30 a.m. in Adelaide. She’s been up for two hours already. By 9 a.m., an hour she describes as the “biggest inconvenience of my life,” the house descends into the chaotic rhythms of child care. She has to get breakfast for her two kids, get them dressed, and send the older one off to day care. But before all of that, she has the wee hours of the morning to herself. Some quiet time to shower and put on a face.
“I like to put makeup on,” she explains. “I don’t want to look disheveled. I like to present myself at least with my hair in a ponytail and a little bit of makeup. Because I wear sports clothes, I could look like I just don’t have it together.”
It’s hard to imagine Itsines (pronounced It-seen-es) ever seeming like she doesn’t have it together. In conversation, she is warm and jovial, but she speaks with the confidence and authority of one who could land a jet in an emergency. (Do I even need to say at this point that she’s an eldest sister?)
Of course millions of people trusted her to guide them through 28 minutes of aerobic exercise. The appeal of BBG wasn’t just that it was accessible — workouts were under 30 minutes and required minimal equipment — or that you could theoretically “transform” yourself. It was Itsines. Like Jane Fonda and Arnold Schwarzenegger before her, Itsines is, to some degree, selling herself. Do BBG, the fantasy goes, and become someone who looks like a gazelle that was transfigured into a human woman by a benevolent witch; someone who has the air of being so un-rumple-able that you could toss her in an industrial dryer and she would emerge just as sleek and calm as before.
Itsines knows this, knows comparison is an inevitable part of her work. Still, she says she wants to discourage it. Her life, she says, has been unusually easy. She didn’t realize just how easy until she started traveling around the world for BBG bootcamps in 2015, hearing stories from people who didn’t have the close-knit family and support system that she’s always had.
“I grew up in a household of love, food, and lots of family,” she tells me. Dinners were crowded affairs, and having 14 or 15 kids around the table was the norm. When she got back from school, her mother would have fresh cut fruit waiting for her and her sister. If she didn’t get her homework done, her dad would stay up late and help her finish it. “When I stepped out of that bubble and realized that people didn’t have that, it was such a shock, and I felt so immature.”
Itsines still lives in Adelaide, a city she describes as “quite cold and gloomy.” She would happily move, but says, “I’d have to take my whole family with me.” To this day, her immediate family, extended family, and her fiance’s family all live within blocks of her house. She has “like 30 people on call at any given time,” to help with kids and give her time to work and work out, and to help lead a life that looks idyllic on social media because it’s pretty idyllic in real life.
Itsines’ parents are both educators, but she didn’t love school growing up. She was an energetic kid who liked sports and bossing around her cousins and didn’t like doing homework. After she graduated high school, she went to university for a year to study to become a physical education teacher. She dabbled in personal training and beauty therapy (a higher qualification of beautician training) on the side because “I loved making someone feel beautiful and confident, because I felt beautiful and confident.”
A year into university, she dropped out to pursue personal training full time. Her family wasn’t overly enthused. “To tell you the truth, I was mortified,” Itsines’ mother, Anna, wrote over email. It wasn’t clear how Itsines would make a living off of personal training. Anna said she’d hoped Itsines would follow her parents into education. “I should have known though,” she says. “When Kayla was little, she would be outside doing chin-ups with her dad.”
Itsines worked briefly at a women’s only training center, which she thought was too slow-paced, then hosted exercise classes in her parents’ backyard for some of her clients from the training center. One memory from this time stands out in particular. It was a frigid morning, and she was training a group of about eight women. She was blasting music, and beneath her jacket and track pants, she was wearing a onesie to keep warm. Shivering, she thought, “This is the funnest job. I have loud music on; I’m wearing a onesie. I was like, ‘This is so fun, I never want this to stop.’”
When I stepped out of that bubble and realized that people didn’t have that, it was such a shock, and I felt so immature.
No one else wanted it to stop either, it turned out. She trained her clients and her sister’s netball team, who told their friends, who told their friends, and on and on, until she was doing classes on the beach with 300 people. In 2012, she made an Instagram account where she would upload her clients’ transformation photos, before-and-afters of how their bodies had evolved after working with Itsines.
Interested followers started reaching out from around Australia asking to train with her. Her then-boyfriend, Tobias Pearce, encouraged her to put together a program she could sell online. Itsines was skeptical. She liked to be there in person to correct a client’s form and to offer encouragement. Plus, she wasn’t sure who would buy it. She put one together anyway, and called it “Bikini Body Guide,” because it was modeled after a Bikini Body Boot Camp she had been doing at the beach. She designed the Instagram post announcing the program on Microsoft Paint. (“On literal Paint! Do you remember Paint?!”) She thought that if 10 people bought it, she would be happy.
Significantly more than 10 people bought BBG. People started sending her their transformation photos. She didn’t believe they were from her program at first. “I was like, ‘I know it works, but you don’t have me there,’” she says. “They were like, ‘We don’t need you there.’”
Itsines attributes the success of BBG and Sweat to the fact that, from the beginning, her focus was women. Her clientele, she said, were people who didn’t feel ready to go into the gym. Many of them felt the gym was for “bros.” “Honestly, if you went up to any dude in the gym and were like, ‘Can you help me lift this?’ they’d be like, ‘Yeah, of course,’” Itsines says. “But some guys treated it like a nightclub, and it’s not a nightclub.”
She recalls gyms divided into men’s and women’s sections, with the weights in the men’s section and cardio equipment in the women’s section. By running her own classes and putting out her own program that women could do on their own time, in their own space, she removed gym culture from the fitness equation completely.
She realized how big BBG was getting when she started doing boot camps. At one boot camp in Perth, the line of women was blocks long. When she arrived at the venue, a panicked woman greeted her and said something along the lines of, “Listen, we are only allowed to have 4,000 people here, so we need you to say there’s only 4,000 people here.” When she got up on the stage on the beach, she could barely see the ocean through the dense crowd of people. She was so nervous she wanted to cry. “But as soon as the music goes on, you’re like, ‘You’ve been a personal trainer your whole life; you know exactly what to do.’ So I was like, ‘All right guys, I’m going to start with star jumps.’”
In 2016, two years after Itsines uploaded the first edition of the Bikini Body Guide, Women’s Health announced it would no longer use the phrase “bikini body” on any of its covers. In the magazine’s January/February issue, Editor-in-Chief Amy Keller Laird wrote that the term suggested that “a body must be a certain size in order to wear a two-piece,” and that, “any body — every body — is a bikini body.” The announcement was not a direct dig at BBG, though BBG was not and is not without its critics, who say that the early versions of the program, as well as Itsines’ accompanying Healthy Eating and Lifestyle Plan (HELP) Nutrition Guide were overly intense and, in the case of the eating plan, restrictive.
At the same time as BBG was taking off, body positivity was increasingly de rigueur. After the low-rise jeans and master cleanses of the early aughts, the mid-2010s seemed to usher in an era of greater body diversity in media. In 2013, the model Tess Holliday launched the #EffYourBeautyStandards campaign, and in 2016, Ashley Graham became the first plus-size model to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit edition. The mainstream conversation surrounding women’s health and fitness appeared to be shifting, albeit slightly and slowly.
Itsines has been open about her feelings about the backlash. “Do I regret calling my guides Bikini Body? My answer is yes,” she told Bloomberg in 2016. “That’s why when I released the app, I called it Sweat With Kayla. Sweat is so empowering. I love that.” In 2021, Itsines officially renamed the BBG programs “High Intensity With Kayla Itsines.”
Over Zoom, Itsines says she still feels the BBG programs are strong, but she wishes she had changed the name earlier so customers would understand that “it had nothing to do with aesthetics.”
“I stuck to the same thing the whole time,” she says forcefully. “I’ve always said, ‘30 minutes or less is all you need for a workout. Just three, four times a week, and then walk every other day.’” When it comes to food, she says, “just eat whatever you want.” She pauses. Corrects herself. “Well, not whatever you want, but a healthy, balanced diet.”
But she insists she has never preached restriction. “I have always said, from Day One, that if your grandma offers you something to eat, just say yes,” she says. “You are not going to have them around forever. And you will regret that you said no to one of your favorite meals because you think it’s high in calories.”
Itsines is both troubled and heartened by the changes she’s observed over her career. She is bothered by the explosion of supposed fitness professionals hawking their wares on social media (“It’s giving people the ability to start a business, and with the right marketing and without any qualifications, to just put out programs”), but she is happy that it seems Australian fitness culture has moved away from “weight loss, fat loss pills” and “what is Jessica Alba eating?” and moved toward a focus on mindfulness and mental health. “This stuff has been around for so long, but we’re just getting around to it now,” she says.
Itsines didn’t know about the Ozempic craze when I brought it up. As her assistant and I give her the gist of various articles we’ve skimmed, her mouth opens wide and then closes. Her white teeth disappear behind downturned lips, and her ponytail seems to deflate slightly. She sighs. “Stuff like this sends me backwards. It sends me so far back from what I’ve been trying to achieve with women.”
Then she pauses for a moment to consider, as if constitutionally incapable of being inconsiderate. “But am I a person who is genetically small? Yes. So how do you know what it feels like to want to take something like that to lose weight?” she says. Maybe someone has four kids, she muses, maybe they have a hectic job. “I don’t know that I can sit here at the computer with my tan and be like, ‘Oh, don’t take that, go to the gym.’ It’s understanding people’s positions as well.”
“I don’t want people to compare themselves to me,” Itsines says again, emphatically, near the end of our conversation. “I grew up in a bubble, and I still am in a bubble. No one has their whole family on the same street. Like, are you joking? I still have my grandparents. I’ve never lost anyone. I don’t actually know what pain is.”
Her assistant chimes in. “You have felt hurt,” she says from off camera. “You have felt things.”
Itsines nods in a sort of impatient acknowledgement, like negative feelings are not something on which she cares to dwell. Her personal life has undergone a sea change over the past few years. She and Tobias Pearce, her former business partner, got engaged and had a baby, Arna. Then their relationship ended, and Itsines started dating Jae Woodroffe, to whom she is now engaged and with whom she shares another baby, Jax.
Woodroffe and Itsines’ story is something out of a cozy rom-com. Did you expect anything else? They met through his sister, who worked at a coffee shop nearby. He lived a few streets over, and one day, he was walking by her house, which she was thinking of selling at the time. He told her he didn’t like it. “I was like, whatever, the bungalow’s cool,” Itsines says, rolling her eyes. She invited him to her open house, and then, in her words: “It was, like, cool. And he was cool. And I was cool. And then he was single. And I was single. And then it just is what it is now. We have a kid, and we’re still best friends.”
There was one hurt she hasn’t talked about. A scare during her pregnancy with Jax. She didn’t mention it online, she says, because she didn’t want to cause “massive drama online,” and because everything’s fine. But 20 weeks in, doctors found a mass of fluid in the brain. They wouldn’t be able to tell if everything would be OK for eight or nine weeks. A nurse told her not to Google the condition, that it would only freak her out. So for two months, she and Woodroffe waited. At one point, she called a psychic she knew who told her the baby was fine, and it was a boy. She’s not a woo-woo sort of person, but she would take whatever hope she could get. Eight weeks later, the scan came back, and everything was OK. The baby was fine, and it was a boy.
Now she has two healthy kids, a lot of help, and a fiancé who’s her best friend and who occasionally takes her to dinner on the back of his motorcycle.
“So, I’ve gone through all that sort of stuff, but… yeah,” she says, trailing off. In half a second, her face rearranges itself. All sentimentality and fear is erased, and the no-nonsense trainer is back. “I just want women to feel confident and strong and beautiful, and to not say that they can’t do something when they clearly can.” She laughs. “Like, it’s a box jump. Just do it.”
Photographs by Eliza Harrison
Photo Director: Alex Pollack
Editor in Chief: Charlotte Owen
SVP Fashion: Tiffany Reid
SVP Creative: Karen Hibbert