More Than Likes is a series about social media personalities trying to do positive things for their communities.
The video starts with a trainer and a barbell, like many others on Instagram. But then, when trainer Casey Johnston lifts the barbell—45 pounds, plus 160 weights—up to her waist, a caption pops up in the corner: “Things we have to pick up regularly that weigh 25 pounds” + lbs. Then he lists examples such as suitcases, coolers, furniture, etc.
Ms. Johnston, 36, has built an online community around championing the functional benefits of strength training and demystifying a form of exercise that can be intimidating to those on the outside. For Mrs. Johnston, levitation is about ownership of the body.
She doesn’t promise the secret to flush abs or a slim waist, as many fitness influencers do. Instead, Mrs. Johnston offers her more than 34,000 Instagram followers and nearly 25,000 subscribers It’s a monster newsletter With the tools to build a body that can move more smoothly in everyday life. She writes sharp and insightful opinions on modern discourse on fitness, eating, and other related topics.
“Often it’s guilt, guilt and guilt. You never do enough,” Ms. Johnston said of the prevailing fitness climate. For her, gym sessions “are not about suffering as much pain as you can handle. They’re about building a basic skill that everyone can access.”
In Ms. Johnston’s experience, this difference can, in turn, improve emotional and mental health. “This becomes a satisfying feedback loop, where it’s like, oh, ‘I can get stronger, and my body isn’t there to either be a bag of meat that locks up my brain, or look attractive to other people,'” she said.
Ms. Johnston, who was an editor at Wirecutter, the New York Times product review company, from 2014 to 2018, began writing Ask the Swole Woman 2016 Hairpin column (“swole” means very muscular). She found her writing resonated with readers hungry for more accessible fitness writing, and after the site shut down in early 2018, her column bounced back before becoming part of the paid version of her newsletter. She also wrote an e-book,LIFTOFF: Couch to Barbell,” which has been marketed as “The Powerlifting Guide for the Rest of Us” (it has sold over 10,000 copies), and has a channel on the social app Discord, where she communicates directly with readers.
Before she began lifting weights, Ms. Johnston focused on running and limiting calories as a way to pursue the body type that was glorified when she was growing up in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This pursuit was mixed with negativity.
Ms Johnston said: “I think people my age have grown up in a very difficult time in terms of the way the media has acted towards women and ridiculed them for the smallest of flaws.” “There was such an entitlement in the media to monitor what a woman looked like, or the way she acted in public. Britney Spears is probably the most canonical example we have of that, as there were constant headlines about whether her weight fluctuated.”
In 2013, Ms. Johnston found a post on Reddit featuring a female bodybuilder who intrigued her. She was ready for change: She wasn’t eating much, and her hands and feet were mostly cold. She realized that by lifting weights, she could more intelligently balance eating and exercising. But she is not here to judge the other methods.
I radically accept everything people want to do. Of those who prefer other forms of exercise over weightlifting, Ms. Johnston said, “I’m not here to argue with them about what they think works.” “My only position is that I think strength training gets a bad rap.”
The first time she went to the gym—”a scary place,” she says—she dumped her insecurities and performed three exercises: squats, benches, and rows, three sets of five “repetitions” each, or repetitions.
Then she said, I made a beeline for the bodega. “I’m getting very hungry,” said Mrs. Johnston. “My body, like, demands a feast after going to battle.”
Soon, Mrs. Johnston began organizing her meals around lifting her up, and eating more protein and carbohydrates. She was delighted with her newfound strength.
“She constantly thinks of her body as this system,” said Seamus McKiernan, her partner. “What is going on in it? What can you do? And how can it make you feel better and do more?”
Ms Johnston said her platforms provide “people a place where they know they are with other people who are on the same page as them, where they are directed towards more sustainable careers and practice”.
Her friend Chu’er Sisha, editor-at-large of New York Magazine and former style section editor of The New York Times, bought Ms. Johnston an e-book in 2021. After sitting at his desk for hours during the pandemic, he realized his body was about to “deteriorate” and challenged himself to do something that made him “Very uncomfortable,” in the words of Mr. Sicha. He became a volunteer firefighter but realized he needed to build up strength.
He turned to Mrs. Johnston’s Guide to Lifting and found that the philosophy underlying her work resonated.
“She knows we’re not all going to be powerlifting champions, and she knows we’re not all going to look pretty when we do,” said Mr. Sicha. “It’s just my anti-Instagram aesthetic. It’s very pro-human.”