The Future

Science Bro

YouTube scholars make watching workouts feel as good as actually doing them.
Fitness videos that work in science regularly crack one million views.
The Future

YouTube science bros will get your ass to the gym

Or even make you feel like you already went.

In a typical video, Jeff Nippard completes a punishing set of bench presses to a soundtrack of Run the Jewels. Then he racks the barbell, collects himself, and launches into his signature patois of scientific analysis.

“In 2014, Akagi et al concluded that pec size was tightly correlated with one-rep max strength on the bench press,” he says, barely pausing to breathe. “It’s also really good at activating the pecs, as many studies looking at EMG research have shown.”

Nippard, who holds an undergraduate degree in biochemistry, has built this peculiar blend of sensibilities — part gym bro, part jacked Bill Nye — into a viable career as an internet personality. He sells a variety of exercise programs and merchandise, and he’s collected a modest 500,000 followers on YouTube, where his uploads routinely break a million views with grabby titles like “Drunk Workout” and “KIWI FRUIT: THE ONE TRUE SUPERFOOD.”

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Nippard has perfected this peppy formula. As he talks about “shoulder flexion” and “lipolytic suppression,” scans of relevant academic papers flit past the screen, accompanied by a faint sound effect of rustling paper. Sometimes, color-coded highlights appear to emphasize excerpts or diagrams in pleasant shades of millennial pink and baby blue; an unseen hand scribbles handwritten chemical formulas across the screen. And it’s obvious, visually, that he’s doing something right. Nippard is a rippling mass of muscle, but his act isn’t all poise and Olympian physique — he also wears a tidy beard and hipster side fade, and sometimes sets up at a desk with a globe and a small green plant.

His style fits into a larger trend among online fitness gurus, many of whom now frame their workout advice as equal parts accessible and empirical. Nippard is a protege of Layne Norton, a powerlifter and bodybuilding coach with a doctorate in nutritional science whose own YouTube videos have titles like “Lipolysis and Beta-Oxidation (Getting Science as F***).” There’s Abby Pollock, a mechanical engineer who, like Nippard, peppers her YouTube workout videos with references to scientific journals. The site Stronger by Science produces seminars and a monthly “research review” with a similar message: that the latest breakthroughs in physiology and nutrition will get you swole.

I desperately want to believe. A couple months ago, staring down the barrel of my 30s, I got a gym membership for the first time in my life. But it turns out that exercise is complicated, and when I turned to the web for advice, it seemed the internet-powered democratization of fitness advice might have a dark side: different self-styled experts seemed to contradict one another, or to be selling various supplements and workout plans.

Personalities like Nippard, however, are a refreshing contrast: they carve confident paths through jungles of data that inevitably lead to the one perfect way to do a squat, or the scientifically optimum amount of protein to eat.

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In reality, the relationship between watching and doing is complex. It’s easier to watch someone cook a healthy meal or work out than actually doing either. Researchers found in 2014 that watching a video can implant a false memory of having carried out the action it depicts, and another team found that watching someone else confront a phobia can help reduce the observer’s own fear. Part of the popularity of YouTube videos like these doubtless feeds on a similar cognitive misfire — the peculiar sensation of accomplishment associated with watching someone else do something productive.

Nippard can occasionally play fast and loose with language — he sometimes strays into territory in which a scientific paper “proves” instead of “suggests” a finding — but overall, he’s an effective motivator. He makes me want to stop typing and go to the gym right now.

In fact, his secret weapon might be just that he’s extraordinarily likeable, a quality that sometimes seems compounded by crisp video editing. There’s a moment during a segment about his pre-workout meal, for instance, when he uses a knife to cut into a prickly pear.

“I’m gonna look up the micros [micronutrients] on this thing, and put them right here,” he said, gesturing at the empty space of his living room. “If they’re good, then it’s worth eating. If not, this is not the greatest fruit ever.”

With a “ding” sound effect, the information materializes on screen — modest doses of vitamin C and magnesium — in the familiar formatting of a “nutrition facts” label.

Pollock embodies a similar affability. She and Nippard seem to genuinely enjoy working out, and to want others to feel the same way, like vintage Richard Simmons. I’m not a go-getter, but I find that enthusiasm infectious. At heart, if not in build, they seem to be nerds like me — convinced that if you slice the data just right, you’ll find a better path through a complex world.

Jon Christian is a contributing writer for the Outline. You can follow him on Twitter at @Jon_Christian.