It isn’t exactly difficult to see why gym rats would be drawn to Battle Shonen. The genre’s love of training montages, power scaling, and characters who push themselves past their limits makes many of its common tropes look as if they were specifically designed to appeal to fitness enthusiasts. There’s a clear comparison between the feeling of pushing for one extra rep on a squat or deadlift, and the effort that Goku or Rock Lee put into their training and transformations. Because the protagonists are usually aiming to be the strongest in their world, there is a lot of screen time dedicated to the process in which they get stronger, and to taking an in-depth look at what drives them to chase that dream in the first place.

People who workout have always seen Battle Shonen as a source of inspiration, but amateur bodybuilders in particular have fallen in love with an unexpected character: Baki Hanma. Baki is the protagonist of the manga series Baki the Grappler, a series with multiple anime adaptations set in the world of underground martial artists that chronicles Baki’s journey to surpass his father, known as the “World’s Strongest Creature,” Yujiro Hanma. Baki has recently become somewhat of an idol on social media, with many expressing their admiration for him through challenges on TikTok where they compare their physique to the images on the manga’s title pages and try to recreate Baki’s poses and physical feats, like his one arm planche. Although his popularity has obviously increased since the 2018 Netflix adaptation titled Baki, Baki has still never been the kind of genre-defining, iconic character that you would expect to get such a passionate response. When you look at him a little more closely though, there are a lot of details about him and his story that make Baki Hanma the ideal anime character for the fitness side of social media.

Of course, the natural place to start any conversation about Baki as a source of fitness inspiration is his physique. Baki has the body of someone who has trained himself to become as powerful as possible, to be able to exert as much force as physically possible, without getting so big that he gets in his own way. That size and pinpoint balance conveniently lands him in the sweet spot that most natural bodybuilders aim for, a body that looks quite big in a shirt but even bigger without one. Even though Baki himself is a martial artist who only cares about what his body can do, Keisuke Itagaki’s art in the manga always has a clear love for the way it feels to look at muscular people. When a muscular person’s body fat percentage gets low enough, it begins to feel like their body doesn’t have any fat on it at all, as if their skin is just a thin film wrapped around their muscles and joints like a saran wrap would. The slightly exaggerated way the character’s muscles are drawn emphasizes the impression that these bodies create, even if the art isn’t a photorealistic example of what human bodies actually look like. It’s a testament to the impact of Itagaki’s art that a majority of the TikTok challenges specifically use the manga for their physique comparisons. Baki looks like what they want their bodies to “feel” like.

Baki’s muscled physique seems to be just a few steps beyond what a real life human body could hope to attain, which not only highlights his larger-than-life abilities, it also helps to make him relatable. Baki’s world doesn’t have any magic or special powers, so in spite of all the truly wild directions the story goes in, it’s always an exaggeration of real life martial arts and that keeps everything much more grounded in reality when compared to most Battle Shonen. This consistent connection to real life makes so many fitness enthusiasts want to recreate Baki’s achievements and see who can truly become a “Real Life Baki.” There isn’t any dangerous fantasy world he has to explore or world-ending threat he has to defend against, so it takes a lot less effort to see yourself in Baki and want to be like him.

With all that being said, there is an unexpected reason why, 4 years after the Netflix adaptation, Baki Hanma is gaining so much popularity. See, for a long time, if you wanted advice or inspiration for working out, the only people with a voice on the internet were fitness models and influencers on YouTube and Instagram. That meant that if you had a specific idea of what you wanted your body to look like, the only people you ever saw who were similar to that were people with a very unique circumstance pushing them to go to the gym.  Those same people would often try to convince their audience that they needed some special “trick” or “mindset” to always stay motivated to go to the gym consistently to achieve their goal.

Baki (2020)

Just as people were getting sick of this, the pandemic hit and, as a result, many people dedicated some of their newfound free time to working out. With TikTok’s algorithm making it a lot easier for unknown accounts to go viral, there was an influx of body transformations from regular people who didn’t have the external circumstances or equipment that influencers had and yet were just as impressive. This was the last straw that pushed the fitness side of social media, GymTok in particular, away from valuing external motivation and towards an almost religious idolization of discipline, coming to a consensus that the real task is making yourself go to the gym regardless of your mood, as opposed to trying to stay motivated all the time.

This specific emphasis on the value of discipline over motivation is the real source of Baki Hanma’s appeal to gym rats, because the power of discipline is the central theme of his story.  Baki spends the entire series training and fighting so hard and pushing his body to its absolute limits, and yet you could watch the entire Netflix adaptation and not even be sure why Baki wants to defeat his dad in the first place. There’s no scene with a memory of the reason why he wants to get stronger, pushing Baki to go the extra mile during a fight, and that’s because Baki’s backstory is actually not all that important to the story. Baki’s original reason for training to defeat his father was because he believed that it was the only way to earn his mother’s love, and then it  changed to avenging his mother’s death after Yujiro killed her, but as he gets closer and closer to his father’s level as a martial artist, their relationship is increasingly complicated by their mutual respect for each other’s abilities. Baki’s external motivations have changed often and yet his behavior hasn’t changed at all, and that’s because Baki doesn’t need a reason like pure hatred for his father to push him to try harder. Baki is being pushed by Baki.

Baki (2020)

The thing that makes Baki so inspiring as a character is that, at his core, he’s a normal, polite guy. He doesn’t particularly like pain, he doesn’t get some strange enjoyment out of hurting people, and there isn’t anything requiring him to continue this intense lifestyle. His daily life consists of eating a lot, going to school (where delinquents gather the strongest thugs in town to try and defeat him), taking his girlfriend on a date (that is nearly interrupted by a 7’3” American convict who came to Japan to finally “know defeat”), and working out. The complete absurdity of his environment is a stark contrast to Baki himself, who only became one of the strongest fighters in the world because of his extraordinary willpower. When he isn’t participating in the wildest fight you’ve ever seen in your entire life, Baki Hanma is basically a gym rat; he’s just a regular guy who trains his body to its absolute limits, simply because he wants to. And anyone can do that.