Promo image for How Heavy are the Dumbbells you Lift? The main character, a tanned woman with blonde hair, looks over her shoulder at the camera while drinking energy drink from a pouch. Around her are chibi versions of other characters lifting weights

Niche

The Short History (and Strong Potential) of Fitness Anime


I admit it, I want to be as hot as a 2D anime girl. I want the lustful eyes that are directed towards the curvy vectorized forms of 2D anime girls to gaze just as longfully at my 3D one. While there’s no concrete “how to” guide for transforming into a piece of animated art, there are other, more grounded options. Some may simply want to modify their bodies through weight loss or muscle building just like how they might get a piercing or tattoo. If these changes come from a place of love and celebrating yourself and your body, trying to achieve those goals is a noble pursuit.

In my case, I use a wheelchair and wanted to increase my strength while being a bit more active in general, and was hoping I could somehow use my love of anime and manga to help achieve those goals. With Japan having the 9th highest gym membership rate in the world and the US fitness industry being valued at $32 billion or more, I figured there would be plenty of properties to choose from.

Goku from Dragon Ball doing a one-handed pushup

It turns out that I was absolutely wrong. While there are plenty of stories out there about sports and other ways to stay in shape, few actually focus on how to healthily exercise at all. The genre is also steeped in a history of eroticized images of women’s bodies for the titillation of a presumed masculine audience. This leaves no options for those who would find that distasteful. The genre has its problems, but it also has plenty of potential.

One of the first attempts at an anime workout video was Issho ni Training: Training with Hinako. The “first muscle training anime ever”, released in 2009, is more of an excuse to ogle a sixteen-year-old girl than it is about actually getting in shape. This trend would continue across the twenty-teens with several series receiving OVAs purely made for fan service with a workout routine as a premise. Some examples of this would include Maken-Ki! Secret Training and the Queen’s Blade OVA specials. Admittedly, these would provide an adequate challenge to those new to a fitness journey if they attempted to work out anything other than their dominant hand.

A character from Maken-Ki! Secret Training doing a pushup. Her comically large bust is squishing against the floor and revealing a lot of cleavage

It took until 2013 before something even close would exist. Show Higashiyama’s Stretch is a manga spanning forty-six chapters following Keiko, a woman who was a carefree punk in high school, as she is introduced to stretching exercises by her med student roommate. The story is mostly composed of comedic slice of life moments, but does have some intense themes thrown in. For example, Keiko has a strained relationship with her mother due to her being hit on by, and eventually sleeping with, the man she was dating while Keiko was a teen.

Despite the soap-opera-level drama suggested in plotlines like these, plot itself tends to take a backseat. Ultimately, as with many hobby series, in Stretch the story is a shell surrounding the exploration of the hobby itself; in this case, detailed vignettes that teach viewers real stretching techniques to help keep themselves healthy and pain-free. Stretch definitely shines more as an instructional series than as a serious narrative. I’ve started using their wake-up and before-bed routines and I can’t lie, my body feels great for it.

Panel from Stretch, showing one character standing behind the other easing her neck into a gentle stretch

It still took until 2015 for an anime or manga purely focused on exercise to be created. Anitore! EX received two seasons with its four-minute episodes covering basic exercise routines. Like in Training with Hinako, a large point of the series was watching the various idols in sexualized exercise positions. While there wasn’t much of an overarching plot, each character had a unique personality or gimmick which would allow viewers to get attached and argue over a “best girl” between reps. These workouts were particularly light but likely excellent for someone who is trying to get moving for the first time.

But then came Yabako Sandrovich and MAAM’s How Heavy Are the Dumbbells You Lift? which is a series so excellent that even fitness scientists have given it praise. The manga, which was nominated in the shonen category for the 65th Shogakukan Manga Award, began in 2016 and received an anime adaptation in 2019. Unlike what had come before, these weren’t just OVAs or short episodes; protagonist Hibiki’s adventures making friends and learning exercises at the Silverman Gym build out into a full story.

A comically muscular, tanned man flexing in front of the mirror at the gym

From the lead fitness instructor Machio constantly bursting out of his clothes to the extremely rich Akemi who goes gaga for muscles of any kind, there are so many characters to fall in love with, and viewers got to see them doing more than just cutely leading instructional videos. While there are undeniably still scantily clad women in centerfold poses, both the anime and manga actually present amazing information that can take someone from an amateur at fitness to someone ready to step into the gym and get some gains.

As someone in a wheelchair which leads to workout restrictions, the fact that I could use the information in a manga to design a doctor-approved workout that hits every major muscle group I can do safely is phenomenal.

After making my “anime girl workout” — which straight-up uses the full ab routine recommended in the series — I forced myself to get motivated and stick to it for a full month. Far more prominent chest muscles, increased grip strength when using my chair, and a more powerful core are just some of the impressive results from that endeavor.

A blonde, tanned woman lifting handheld weights carefully in front of gym equipment

It might sound silly, but in a time of isolation when gym attendance has become dangerous due to the global pandemic, having encouraging characters I associated with my positive experience seriously helped keep me motivated. It’s easy to imagine myself as a self-insert character, getting praise for having managed another workout, commiserating with Hibiki over wanting to down an overindulgent meal, and getting to have friends to talk to about this fitness journey in a positive way. These characters may not be real, but as corny as it sounds, I don’t want to disappoint them by not “hitting the gym” each week.

I’m not alone in this either. There is a massive market of people looking for anime-inspired workouts to keep them in shape. There are countless videos where people attempt the “One Punch Man Workout” mentioned in the series. Personal trainers have designed programs inspired by people’s favorite series to help motivate them to get in shape.

How many fans of Dragon Ball imagined training with Goku while trying their hardest to unleash a Kamehameha in their backyards as kids? Today they might be “training” like Deku, waiting to unlock a quirk and become a true hero. These same people grew up to be adults who want some escapism while exercising, since it’s not exactly the most pleasant activity for everyone to do, let alone stay motivated enough to make it a routine part of their lives.

A tanned, blonde woman lifting weights, yelling against a red and orange background

It’s honestly fascinating that, despite there being an obviously massive audience for more properties like How Heavy Are the Dumbbells You Lift? or simply having licensed workout programs for series like Naruto, Dragon Ball, and more, it has been almost entirely left to a secondary market to create them. Disney’s Mousercise program started in the eighties and was even brought to Japan in 2016. It’s obvious some companies understand the selling power of their licenses and that those in Japan could have seen the idea in practice.

However, it’s likely a good thing that few companies are trying to directly exploit the insecurities of anime fans about our bodies. Studies show that 54% of men and 43% of women consider the ideal body to be an athletic one, and guess how most of these characters are drawn and animated? There’s no way most of us could actually look like them, which is something I’m painfully aware of as someone who will never be traditionally fit or able-bodied. Heck, even manga like Plus-Sized Elf that might contain a few useful tips spend the majority of its pages saying people with chubbier bodies that look like mine are something even mythical creatures would want to avoid at all costs.

I know logically I can’t look like a 2D drawing, but I think that level of escapism helps me get healthy in a joyful way instead of being motivated by shame. Since it’s impossible to achieve that kind of look, I don’t feel bad if I don’t get there.

Promo image for How Heavy are the Dumbbells you Lift? The main character, a tanned woman with blonde hair, looks over her shoulder at the camera while drinking energy drink from a pouch. Around her are chibi versions of other characters lifting weights

I still do wish there was more variety to the stories available though, especially when it comes to the way these series reduce their female characters to little more than eye candy on pages and screens. Maybe the solution is balance, creating more sexy strong anime men to ogle as well or instead. Or we could get more stories that don’t try to use sex to sell themselves in the first place. More representation of different people and bodies in a positive light would be wonderful to see across all genres of anime and manga, especially those with a focus on fitness.

For now, I’ll keep dreaming of a future chapter in How Heavy Are the Dumbbells You Lift? where a character in a wheelchair will explain the arm and core muscles they use to get around. Maybe they could even talk about seated workouts for those with ankle injuries or leg amputations like I have. Perhaps a non-standard body could be shown as the sexy ideal centerfold with a post-workout sweat. If someone can get Yabako Sandrovich on that one, I’d owe you big time.

Until then, the gang at the Silverman Gym is calling me and I have to do some high-intensity interval leg lifts! If you’re looking for a place to start, I know that their recommended ab routine — two sets of crunches, leg raises, bicycle crunches, and v-sits in 20-second intervals every day — is a fantastic challenge to take on.

About the author

Borealis Capps

Borealis, AKA the LiteralGrill, is a disabled award-winning writer and poet living in Portland, Oregon. Her love of anime started with Sailor Moon and Outlaw Star before expanding ever outward from there. She is also an expert on timeloop media after watching Groundhog Day once day, every day, for 365 days. She's most active on Mastodon but can also be found on Bluesky. She occasionally posts videos to YouTube and PeerTube and you can keep up with what she's watching on AniList. For her more personal ramblings, check our her website.

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