Dramaturgy of Youtube fitness: exhaustion and redemption


If you watch fitness videos several times, at some point you can not only participate in gymnastics, but also have a say.

strained face

Give it your all and let yourself be talked about Photo: Terje Rakke/Plainpicture

It certainly didn’t take a pandemic to drive many of us in front of the screens to do fitness there. But the pandemic hasn’t hurt either. There are thousands upon thousands of videos on platforms like YouTube that invite you to exercise. Interval training, Pilates, building muscle with your own body weight. They are watched by millions with the aim of changing their bodies. But there is also talk. The instructors in these videos come up with all sorts of catchphrases to keep the viewers engaged. The fitness is staged almost like a play, with speech acts that are repeated in many of the videos. It’s about a language that should drive and engage. A community of active people is being created. Where there is no common ground in sport in the studio, this physical presence has to be produced verbally here. The performance begins.

The fitness stage is ready. In the image section we see a shiny wooden floor, sometimes a functional rubber floor covering. There may be plants – only a few – in a corner. Maybe we’re looking at a window on the back wall. Outside we see the silhouette of a city. It has to be tidy and clean. Simultaneously inviting to productivity. Comfortable but not comfortable. Modern but not luxurious. There should be a sense of proximity: It could be our apartment.

“Always think: you’re looking forward to it”

At the beginning, the trainer reminds us why we clicked on the video in the first place. We’re standing there in our sportswear and hearing that we’re going to exhaust ourselves in the next 20, 30, 60 minutes – and that we really want to. It is a performative language, one that not only describes the joy of sport, but also wants to create it at the same time. In the warm-up it is made clear to us that we are only doing this for ourselves. For our bodies, our health. Most digital trainings start with this promise: you will feel good afterwards – while we are still contemplating whether we should maybe click another video.

“I know you hate me now”

After warming up, it’s time to get down to business. Before doing particularly heavy lifts like side plank crunches, the trainers tell us that they know we dislike these moves – and we’re allowed to hate them for it. It’s almost like they know us – every bead of sweat that’s rolling down our backs right now. They give us a channel to channel this destructive energy into. Lying on our mat, we hear the words of salvation as we try again to stretch our hips sideways toward the ceiling. So we scream at the screen.

“High knees are called high knees because the knees are high”

It is important in these videos that people speak. Just as the audience in a play gets nervous if there is too much silence, we apparently need verbal assurance that everything is still going according to plan when we are sweating. The tautology is perfect for this. Because no matter what is said – it may be superfluous, but it is always true. Yes, with High Knees the knees are really high. That’s why they’re called that. There is no uncertainty here, no vagueness. We don’t have to think either – what the instructors say is correct.

Break

The break in the fitness video is a delicate matter. Entered, the trainers look into the camera. We should drink a sip of water and shake our legs. Driving words are useless, we are supposed to rest. While we, like theatergoers, reach for cool water or get some fresh air from the window, they have to hold out. They cannot leave the stage. A sigh of relief as the timer indicates the break is over.

“It always looks a little stupid to me”

The coaches must remain human. In a verbal act of self-deprecation, they become more approachable. The trainer tells us that she is not as good at boxing as her colleague. That it looks stupid on her. And we realize that she is one of us. She’s just as afraid of embarrassing herself. So we can click the video over and over again – to get better with her. In this admission of not being perfect, we find ourselves and our flaws. We are reminded that sport is also absurd; those awkwardly wriggling bodies. That’s why we’re in front of a screen and not in the gym. So everyone makes a fool of themselves.

“We stretch our leg up to the floor”

The longer the video goes, the more the language stumbles. If she was still inflexible in the tautology, she now falls over her own legs. The coaches promise each other, laugh uncertainly. What may look like a loss of control is the staging of authenticity. A trick: the linguistic stumbling could have been edited out before the video was uploaded. The director in the theater choreographs the fall of an actor. The trainer testifies to her exhaustion by using nonsense language. And we sit panting in front of it and are glad that it’s not just us.

“Remember…”

Finally the language breaks off. Breathlessness sets in and destroys all eloquence. Begin sentences and … While the trainers want to push everyone to their limits in the last minutes of training, they themselves reach the limits of their resilience. The performative of the language ends here, the exhaustion increases… 55 more push-ups, 10 more seconds in the plank – we only hear snorting. Ours and the trainers. Then we sink to the ground. After a cool down, the trainers have one wish: Please subscribe to the channel and leave a thumbs up.

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Now the fitness staging is finally over. Applauding isn’t necessary, it’s not even required, after all we really don’t have that much energy anymore. But it is now becoming clear: Even when you are exhausted, you still need language. Especially now that we find ourselves in isolation again, it is important to be addressed in an apparently personal way. As in the theatre, we are looking at a stage where the performers are addressing us directly – or pretending to be. We see people. The words may be clichés that most of us don’t really listen to. But sport, the intensive exercise of one’s own body, is a highly emotional affair. In order to be able to classify them, we need the language. Or, as one commenter quite eloquently puts it, “You know the workout is real when your brain starts pounding instead of your heart.”



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