He’s a best-selling author, social media sensation and upcoming TV star… so how does Joe Wicks have time to stay lean – and so cheerful? This article was first published in March 2017.
If there’s one thing Joe Wicks knows about, it’s working at high intensity. Obviously, that’s how he’s made his name – those all-out 15-minute HIIT sessions that regularly rack up millions of views on YouTube and form the backbone of his best-selling 90 Day Shift, Shape and Sustain plan. It’s still how he trains himself, fitting in bursts of burpees and mountain climbers on beaches and in hotel rooms as his schedule takes him jet-setting around the world expanding his empire one emoji at a time. But it’s also how he operates from day to day: high energy, always on, ever ready to meet and greet, create content or build the brand. It must be exhausting. But Wicks doesn’t seem to mind.
Case in point: this photoshoot. Though the real-life Wicks dials the intensity a notch or two down from his super-exuberant Snapchat persona, he walks through the door ready to go – there are handshakes all round, a bit of banter with the crew members he’s met before, and then it’s shirt off, pump up, and camera ready.
In between shots, he’s talking to the gym owners – we’re in the London Bridge branch of new franchise F45 – about how business is going, their approach to training, what they’re doing on social media. At one point, we see his hour-by-hour schedule on a flawlessly colour-coded spreadsheet, and there’s barely a glimmer of white space among all the red, blue and green. Even for a man who’s made millions from being high-energy, isn’t it ever… a bit much?
“Well, the rewards are so high,” says Wicks. “Yeah, I’ll be tired when I get up in the morning, but when I get to whatever I’m doing, the people there, the questions they’re asking me, the response I get… every day is different. Going to Abu Dhabi to film a DVD, that’s wicked, that’s fun. Doing a Channel 4 show, that was really awesome. Doing book tours, hearing from people who’ve changed their lives – I never get sick of that. I do get holidays – I had a little break in Antigua, I had a couple of days in America, so I do manage to squish little holidays in here and there. But yeah, this year’s been mad.”
This, if anything, is an under-exaggeration. Just over a year ago he had 400,000 Instagram followers and a booming business in bespoke training-and-nutrition plans, a book deal in the pipeline and a chance at stardom. Now he’s published the best-selling cookery book in UK history, Lean In 15 (with a pair of sequels doing almost as well), been featured on dozens of front covers, been questioned by the Loose Women, and set off on a world tour to bring Lean In 15 to America and Australia. There are fourth and fifth books planned for next year, and almost certainly more to follow.
2016 also brought Wicks’s Channel 4 show, a 40-minute compression of the Wicks workout philosophy into a handful of success stories via members of the public. It was an interesting experiment for more than one reason – the Wicks persona, so perfect for 15-second soundbites on Instagram, could have been irritating stretched to a longer format, and one reviewer noted that his enthusiasm “could make Jamie Oliver seem positively indifferent”. So how did Wicks feel about the final product?
“It was a very small crew, it was just one cameraman, one lighting guy, a really polished team… but I had no idea how it was going to come out of the edit,” he admits. “But I watched it, I laughed a few times, I thought the information that was in it was good. I was worried that I was going to come across as shouty and annoying, but there was quite a good balance I thought: a bit of bosh and wallop in there, but they like a bit of that on TV, don’t they?”
He concedes that there wasn’t much in it for people who were already fans. “Some of it probably came across a bit boring to people who’ve followed the rest of my stuff. But I had to try and get across the basics to people who’ve never heard of it before. What did you think of it?”
That’s a question, I tell him, that we’ve discussed among the team. We saw more “serious” personal trainers complaining on social media that the show oversimplified matters, pushing a one-size-fits-all solution above education on how to make better food choices or structure a workout.
But let’s be honest, education is not what sells TV shows – and it seems a bit unfair to ask Wicks to pack into half an hour what the government’s been trying to do with years of (mostly ineffective) health campaigning. Most of the criticism, it has to be said, felt a bit like griping from people jealous of the Wicks juggernaut. But surely he’s used to that. Right?
“I don’t even really acknowledge it,” says Wicks. “Sometimes my brother (Nikki, a former magazine editor who helps run Wicks’s PR effort) shows me stuff, or I catch something on social media. Some of it’s just not true: one guy was comparing one of my Lean In 15 recipes to a KFC meal, saying they were just as bad as each other. Whatever you think about me, that’s unfair – I’m encouraging people to eat unprocessed food, drink water, learn to cook for themselves. It’s not the same thing at all.”
This simplicity, of course, is part of the Wicks appeal. It’s easy enough to go “full Wicks” – cook the recipes in the book, follow his workouts on YouTube – but he’s also endorsing a set of lifestyle changes that couldn’t be more straightforward. Do some high-intensity training a few times a week (he’s an evangelist for morning training, crediting the resulting endorphin hit with getting him through those ultra-long days), prep and cook your food whenever you can, and stay off the booze (“It’s probably one of the reasons I stay so lean – I don’t drink that often. Alcohol’s one of the things I have to keep under control”).
He promises that he practises what he preaches, and swears that his tabloid-selling torso comes from a hotel-room regime of close-grip press-ups and other bodyweight moves. This is probably true: warming up for our photoshoot, he does a genuinely staggering amount of pull-ups, only pausing to switch from wide-grip to narrow, and back again. But every trainer worth their salt adapts their approach over time, as their knowledge expands. Has the Wicks approach changed in the last 12 months?
“A bit, yeah. Now I do a bit more mobility stuff, a bit of yoga when I can. I’ve started putting a stretch and a cool-down in my videos. It’s one of those things – if you tell people ‘OK, now stretch and cool down’ they won’t do it, because they don’t always know what you mean. Put it in a video, and they can follow along.” He’s also been tweaking his views on sleep and stress. “In the new book I talk a lot about them both. If you feel negative the moment you wake up, it changes the direction of the day.”
He stays abreast of diet trends, he says – he’s heard of Sirt, for instance – but doesn’t worry too much about keeping ahead of the latest superfood studies. The Body Coach philosophy is about what works for most people, most of the time. “Don’t cut too much out too quickly,” he says, when nudged for his single best tip. “Just make small changes and see the benefits. Do it so that you enjoy the journey. Keep going.”
Enjoying the journey, of course, is easier when you’ve got a cheerleader like Wicks. He’s always on social media, with a biceps emoji here and a shades smiley there, exhorting people to smash out a session first thing in the morning or not be too down on themselves if they’ve fallen off the wagon at the weekend.
And MF has first-hand experience of how it extends to real life – 20 minutes into our shoot, there’s an unexpected knock at the gym door from a young Wicks follower called Dylan, who’s come along with his mum after getting an invitation on Snapchat. Dylan, his mum tells us, was heavily overweight before he picked up Wicks’s first book and starting to follow it, eventually losing more than 25kg and gaining a ton of self-confidence in the process.
This could feel like a stage-managed moment, but Wicks is genuinely delighted to see him, grabbing him at half-a-dozen moments during the shoot to take selfies and stage impromptu press-up competitions.
At one point, the pair pose for a photo that’s gone on to get more than 27,000 likes on Instagram, with hundreds of comments congratulating Dylan on his success. But even then, there’s an example of the downside to this level of fame.
“Somebody said, ‘Oh, why’s he got his top off, why’s it all about him?’” says Wicks, when we catch up with him a couple of days later. “It’s one of my most liked pictures ever, but it’s not because I’ve got my top off. I wouldn’t normally reply, but I had to explain, had to say look, it’s not about me, it’s about stories like that. Meeting Dylan, that really touched me. That sort of thing without a doubt is what keeps me on the hamster wheel.”
And those stories, of course, are why Wicks is far from finished. He’s already strategising, for instance, about how to deliver more success stories like Dylan’s. “I’ve got to somehow get into schools, roll things out there. Like, imagine if kids learned one healthy recipe a week, then their homework was to go home and cook it with their mum and dad. They’d learn 30 recipes a year, and they’d be set up for life.”
At the same time, his conquest of America is in progress (“Over there it’s all based on selling products. It’s all fat burners and operations, or detoxes and cleanses. That isn’t what they need”) and more TV shows to consider (“We’re talking to people about the format. I’m thinking about making my own stuff where I produce myself – a lot of people do that these days”).
There’s also YouTube, where Wicks can already connect with more people than watch TV shows every week, and social media, where he’s cross-promoting his Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter accounts better than most multi-million-pound brands.
There are more books, more plans, more lives to change… but first, he’s going on holiday. “I’ve booked the whole of February off. I’m going to South America, explore as much as I can.” A short pause. “I’ll have to do a lot of content for that month, get a load of recipes done, just so I can keep posting things while I’m away.” High-intensity as always. But there’s no doubt he’s enjoying the journey.
Joe Wicks: The Body Coach Workout DVD is out now (BBC Worldwide). Buy on amazon.co.uk
Joe Wicks’ Four-Week Fat Loss Workout Plan
Circuit 1: Monday
Your first session of each week for the next four weeks is this tough and challenging bodyweight circuit. Like all four of the sessions you’ll do each week for the next month, every circuit is made up of five moves. You’ll do the moves in order from 1 to 5, performing each one for 30 seconds before moving straight on to the next exercise without resting. You only rest after the 30 seconds of move 5 are up, and then for no longer than two minutes until you repeat the whole circuit. Do a total of four circuits, which should take around 15 minutes. If you want to get your fat-loss results even faster, do an extra fifth circuit at the end.
Joe Wicks says “This high-intensity interval training session will get your week off to a really great start! I know it can be hard to get going on a Monday, after the weekend and with a long week ahead, but I promise you that if you smash this workout you’ll feel amazing and have more energy to tackle whatever the week ahead may hold. Go for it!”
Time 30sec per move Rest between circuits 2min Circuits 4
Stand tall, keeping your chest up and core braced. Squat down as far as you can. Drive back up through your heels explosively so you lift your feet off the ground. Jump as high as you can, land and go straight into the next rep.
Stand tall, keeping your chest up and core braced. Squat down as far as you can. Drive back up through your heels to return to the top position and repeat. Keep each rep smooth and controlled and don’t “bounce” at the bottom.
3 Star jump
Stand tall with your chest up and feet together. Jump, moving your feet and hands as far to the sides as possible, then bring them back in as you land with feet together. Keep your reps fast and minimise the time your feet are in contact with the ground.
Get into position with your feet together and hands underneath your shoulders. Brace your core so your body is straight from head to heels. Bend your elbows to lower your chest, then press back up powerfully.
Lie flat on the floor with bent knees. Contract your abs to raise your torso, then rotate one elbow inwards while simultaneously drawing in your opposite knee to meet it. Pause, then return to the start and repeat with the opposite elbow and knee. Do fast, fluid reps, keeping your entire core braced throughout.
Circuit 2: Wednesday
Do this second session every Wednesday for the next four weeks to torch fat and build muscle.
The second circuit of each week builds on the hard work you’ve already done to push your body even harder so it has the incentive it needs to tap into fat cells to free up fuel for energy. The combination of upper-body and lower-body moves will keep your heart rate high and increase your oxygen consumption, which is crucial for maximising fat loss.
All five moves also tax your abs, which will help sculpt a leaner and better-defined six-pack. Do all five moves in order, only resting after the end of move 5. Stick to the form guides to work your muscles effectively, and do a fifth circuit if you still have some fuel in the tank.
Joe Wicks says “This is the time to push on and dig deep – I find banging the tunes out helps keep me going when I’m struggling. We all have bad days where we have slightly less energy, so the key is to find the motivation that will work for you. If that’s blasting the music or doing this session with a mate, make it happen and push through. You will feel better for it!”
Time 30sec per move Rest between circuits 2min Circuits 4
1 Knee raise
Stand tall on the spot on the spot with your chest and core braced. Staying on your toes, raise one knee at a time as high as possible. Keep the reps fast and minimise the amount of time your feet spend in contact with the floor.
Stand tall with your chest up and core braced, then take a big step forwards and lunge down, keeping your front knee in line with your toes and making sure it doesn’t go past them. Push off your front foot into a jump, switching legs in the air so you land with your other leg forwards. Go straight into the next jump. Keep your reps fast but controlled with good form throughout.
Stand tall then drop into a crouch with your hands flat on the floor. Jump your feet backwards so that your legs are straight, then jump them forwards again so your knees come towards your chest. Plant your feet and jump as high as possible. As soon as you land, go straight into the next rep. Focus on keeping your abs tight the whole time.
4 Diamond press-up
Get into a press-up position with your hands together so that your thumbs and index fingers form a diamond. Brace your core so your body is straight from head to heels, then bend your elbows to lower your chest. Press back up powerfully.
Hold your body in a straight line from head to heels with your arms straight and your head looking down. Draw one knee in towards your chest then across towards the opposite arm. Return to the start and repeat with the other leg. Do fast, fluid reps while keeping your abs and lower back fully tensed.
Circuit 3: Friday
Do this third circuit of each week on a Friday to keep burning fat and to work your core harder to build lean, strong abs.
This circuit follows exactly the same formula as the previous two sessions, but the exercises are more targeted towards your abs. The result is that while you’ll continue to tap into your fat cells to fuel your efforts, you’ll also work more muscle fibres of your abs, including your obliques (or side abs) to help craft an impressively lean and defined midsection.
Do all five moves in order, resting only once you’ve done the full 30 seconds of move 5. Do four circuits in total, but add a fifth and final circuit if you feel that you have enough energy while maintaining perfect form – only good-quality circuits count, remember.
Joe Wicks says “On Fridays excuses can creep in, but I’m a big believer in ‘no excuses’, especially with this workout plan where you don’t need any equipment! It can be done anywhere at any time– whether that’s on your living room floor, in your lunch break at work, in the park, in a hotel room - it doesn’t matter! Get it done and feel like a winner.”
Time 30sec per move Rest between circuits 2min Circuits 4
1 Rope climb
Stand tall with your head up. Then raise your left hand and right leg. Bring them back down and raise your opposite hand and leg to mimic climbing up a rope as quickly as possible. Always raise your hands and legs as high as possible and focus on doing as many reps as possible for the full 30 seconds.
2 Side lunge
Stand tall, then take one step sideways and lower your body until one of your knees is bent at a right angle and you feel a slight stretch in your groin. Push off your foot to reverse the movement to the start, then go straight into the next side lunge on the opposite side. Alternate with each rep.
3 Wide press-up
Get into position with your feet together and hands on the floor about double shoulder-width apart. Brace your core so your body is straight from head to heels, then bend your elbows to lower your chest. Press back up powerfully.
4 Crab cross-over
Get into position with your feet flat on the floor, knees bent, and your palms flat on the floor behind you. Keeping your abs engaged throughout, raise one foot and bring the opposite hand forwards to meet it in front of your body. Alternate hands and feet and focus on keeping the reps fast, smooth and controlled.
Hold your body in a straight line from head to heels with your elbows beneath your shoulders and head looking down. Brace your abs to hold this position without letting your hips sag. Don’t hold you breath, which can momentarily increase blood pressure, and breath deeply and slowly for the full 30 seconds.
Circuit 4: Saturday
Do this session over the next month every Saturday, and don’t leave anything in the tank if you want real results fast
The final circuit each week is arguably the hardest, with its first three exercises working almost all your major muscle groups and pushing your heart and lungs to the limit. That’s why we’ve left it until the weekend, because being a bit more rested and having more free time will allow you to attack it with 100% intensity to push your body well out of its comfort zone – that’s the key to making rapid body composition changes by losing fat and adding muscle.
As always, do the moves in order, only resting after the last exercise. Do four circuits minimum, but five if you can: it will make a big difference to your fat-loss results at the end of the month.
Joe Wicks says “One of my top tips to make getting lean as easy as possible is to use an interval timer on your phone. If you’re struggling it makes it much worse to clock-watch as every second drags. Put your all into the exercises and just keep going until you hear that timer beep. It will feel less of a struggle for those 30 seconds than if you watch the second hand ticking.”
Time 30sec per move Rest between circuits 2min Circuits 4
1 Standing sprint
Brace your chest and core and sprint on the spot. Drive your arms back and forth powerfully and raise your knees as high as possible, as if you were sprinting at top speed.
2 Squat thrust
Stand tall with your chest up and core braced, then drop into a squat and place your hands on the floor. Kick your feet out behind you so your legs are straight, then bring both knees back in.
3 Clap press-up
Get into position with your feet together and hands underneath your shoulders. Brace your core so your body is straight from head to heels, then bend your elbows to lower your chest. Press back up explosively so that your hands leave the ground so you can clap them together before landing.
Lie flat on your back with knees bent and fingers touching your temples. Contract your upper abs to raise your torso off the ground, pause briefly at the top, then lower back to the start. This slight pause at the top of the move means your abs must work harder to keep your torso upright and stable.
5 Reverse crunch
Lie flat on your back with knees bent and arms flat by your side. Contract your lower abs to draw your knees in towards your chest and raise your hips off the ground. Lower your feet slowly back to the floor under full control to place more tension on your lower abs as they work harder to control your legs against gravity.
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From 2008 to 2018, Joel worked for Men's Fitness, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Though he spent years running the hills of Bath, he’s since ditched his trainers for a succession of Converse high-tops, since they’re better suited to his love of pulling vans, lifting cars, and hefting logs in a succession of strongman competitions.