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Asking a 'Swole Woman' about fitness with Casey Johnston: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with fitness guru, writer and self-described “Swole Woman” Casey Johnston about rethinking the traditional approach to fitness.

Fitness guru, writer and self-described “Swole Woman” Casey Johnston has written, “a lot of health content is focused on blowing smoke up you’re a-- about jade eggs and vitamins and toxin-dispersing cellulite-curing silver-thread leggings.” But why? What makes lifting and working out seem so complicated? We’re constantly bombarded with get-fit-quick marketing perpetuated by “bros” who got fit overnight, but achieving real gains often just requires an incremental, consistent and methodical approach. Casey joins for an enlightening conversation about building strength, maintaining form and to answer the age-old debate: are machines or weights better?

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Casey Johnston: We have a real kind of almost meritocratic conception of lifting, that it's like either you were born a football linebacker and you lift weights, or you're everybody else and you don't bother with weights because there's no reason for you to be strong.

Which, like, nothing could be less true. Everyone could benefit from, like, learning to squat or deadlift 135 pounds. You're, like, I swear to god, your life would be completely different. It would feel different every single day if you just learned to do this. And I think we could benefit from that information sort of percolating a lot more.

Chris Hayes: Hello, and welcome to Why Is This Happening? With me, your host, Chris Hayes. Well, this is a fun one today, something a little different. I'm gonna tell you a story first and then we're gonna talk to our guest. So the story is that in the fall of 2017 we got a house upstate, which I mentioned before.

That's where we were during part of the pandemic. And (LAUGH) we got one of those, you know those benches that, like, upholstered benches you put at the end of the bed but then you can, like, store linen in them or whatever? So we had gotten one of those.

And I went over to pick it up, thinking that it, not realizing that it opened and you could put things in it. So I went up, and it was, like, cheap, like, thing. It was not an expensive piece of furniture. I went over to grab it, thinking it was, like, 25 pounds.

But it had been loaded with stuff so it was, like, 125 pounds. And in grabbing down to reach it I, like, pulled out my back in a really gnarly way. Like, one of those, like, oh, in the moment you realize something bad has happened (LAUGH) that's probably gonna stay with me for a while.

So, like, I had to walk around. I couldn't, like, sit. I had to lay down. I spent a few days recovering. And then, you know, it got slowly better, but then it just persisted. And it persisted enough and was painful enough that I started going to a physical therapist.

Went for some stuff on strengthening my core, and then she was like, oh, you should maybe work out with a personal trainer, that's really the best way to restore yourself and to heal this injury is to just get stronger, to get your core stronger and that's gonna take pressure off your back and to strengthen all these different muscles around where you injured yourself, and your glutes, and your IT bands, which are these muscles that are sort of on the outside of your hips.

And, like, all of that stuff getting stronger is going to help you heal and help prevent you from getting injured again. Now, over the course of my life I have gone through periods, I always play pickup basketball, I've always loved sports and I love basketball particularly, and I've gone through different periods of working out in a gym or not working out in a gym.

But I started seeing this trainer. His name is Eric Freeman. I love and adore him, as you'll see in today's conversation. And in the beginning all we were doing was a lot of, like, core work, a lot of, like, planking, things called bear crawls where you sort of crawl on the ground like a bear, and all this stuff that I could feel making parts of my body stronger that hadn't been strong, and also effectuating this healing of the back muscle and taking away the back pain.

And it was really pretty miraculous. And it felt really good to get stronger. And then at a certain point we started to transition from a lot of what we call body work, like planking and that kind of stuff, to weights. And then we started lifting weights.

And for the first time in my life, probably since I was, like, in high school, I started lifting weights seriously with, like, a serious program on a serious schedule that was repeated day after day and week after week, and doing free weights and doing some of the major basic lifts.

Deadlifts, squats, bench press remain ones that I do. And I started getting a lot stronger. (LAUGH) And it was really fun. And I discovered that I love this thing. I liked being under several hundred pounds of weight on a squat where it feels like the world we're in, if you lose concentration for a second and everything in your mind goes blank.

And I got really into it, and I'm still doing it today. And then I started to get into, like, I started to sort of get into it as a hobby. I mean, I started reading more about free weights and about lifting technique. And I started my social media feeds, because the algorithm knows who you are and starts picking up on it.

And the funny thing is there's an enormous world out there around this, as one might imagine, like TikToks and Instagram and influencers and YouTube. And, like, a lot of it is, like, really reactionary garbage. (LAUGH) Like, it's just, and it's sort of a bummer because there is something, to me, really pure and beautiful about this thing that I've discovered about getting stronger and about working out.

But every time that I, like, go into a cultural space to try to enjoy it I end up bumping up against, like, neanderthal nonsense, and like, anti-vaxxers. (LAUGH) And, like, I want there to be a sort of, I don't know, like, progressive, left space of workout meatheads that doesn't exist, really.

But the closest thing I've found is the writer who is our guest today. Her name is Casey Johnston, and she wrote this column that I started reading which is very funny called Ask a Swole Woman. And that has now moved over to her Substack, which is called She's a Beast, which I read on Substack.

And she's, like, a cultural critic and a writer and editor. She lifts heavy weights and she's been writing about fitness for over a decade. She was the editorial director of health and lifestyle coverage at Vice, but she's, like, one of the few people I've found who is, like, fusing a genuine sort of, like, pure love of and enthusiasm for weightlifting and fitness.

Not as, like, a gross, culturally over-determined activity, but actually a sort of, like, restorative one physically, mentally, and spiritually, with, like, incisive cultural commentary and criticism of how weird the world around all that stuff is. And so I've been wanting to talk to her for a long time both about that but also about, like, you know, getting swole and how we stay (LAUGH) swole. And so Casey, it's great to have you on the podcast.

Casey Johnston: Wow, thank you for having me. I'm so excited to be here. What a lovely introduction, I'm gonna steal this for when I talk about myself.

Chris Hayes: Would you agree with that premise there, that like, if you're like, "Oh, I wanna watch stuff about squats on YouTube," it's like, you're like, two jumps from QAnon (LAUGH) half the time.

Casey Johnston: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Like, it's a little weird how much the algorithm or the world seem to sort of push you in that direction if you start getting into stuff around, like, lifting heavy weights, for instance.

Casey Johnston: Yes. I think you're not wrong. And I also find this very mystifying. I'm not sure why, but we have this real kind of very narrowly circumscribed, like, acceptable forms of exercise for people who, like, are intellectual. It's like, you can run, you can do Pilates, you can use your Peloton.

If you lift weights, you're like, automatically a Cro-Magnon kind of person. And I'm not sure why that sort of divide persists even now. Like, I think we've learned a lot about lifting, especially in the last, like, ten or so years. But still I have trouble sort of bringing people over to the side, and I'm not really sure why.

Chris Hayes: Well, I think that's part of the reason, right? Because I think the culture around it tends to be a little weirdly alienating and intimidating and not particularly welcoming, so like, there is a little bit of meat-headiness around it. And if you ever go to a gym and, like, you're in the room with the free weights, that's often not the most inviting place. And to be honest, I think that if I didn't have a trainer, I probably wouldn't have started doing this stuff, because it feels intimidating or scary, or not, like, a welcoming space for a newbie. (LAUGH)

Casey Johnston: For sure. But it's like, but then it's like a little bit of a chicken and egg problem, where it's like, people who don't go in are the people who are not there, and then it's like, but it's also like I'm there. I don't know. I think we might be judging people a little bit too much on who they are before we go into the weight rooms.

I do agree, though, that the people making content online, they are, like, often very, there's a lot of problematic conservatives out there who are like, very big figures in the space. But then many people I know are just, like, kind of holding their nose as they recommend this, like, beginner strength program or whatever, because they're like, "Oh boy, this guy's a bit of a Nazi apologist but his program's really good." And it's just, like, (LAUGH) rough.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. And I wanna say that, like, some of those people, I don't even like, I weirdly kind of, like, some of them have terrible politics and I like them or I find them sorta smart and charismatic about these things, and then as soon as they deviate over.

So I don't wanna, like, foreclose it all and just be like, "I will never take tips on, like, my bench progression from, like, a person whose political views don't sync up with mine." But yeah, I think there's just a little bit of, like, a cycle that sort of happens. And I'm curious, maybe just a good place to start is, like, tell me about yourself and how you first start getting into weightlifting and fitness, as an enterprise that you found, like satisfying.

Casey Johnston: Sure. So I was a pretty active kid. When I got to college I didn't really have a framework for exercise. But I gained the freshman 15 and I felt really bad about myself, so I was like, "I'll start trying to lose weight, and like, I'll do the 1,200 calorie diet and I'll get into running."

And so then for the next seven years I was just sort of dieting sort of as aggressively as I could, and running more and more and more to the point that I ran I think four half marathons. And I was just like, I'm never getting to a point where I feel like I can stop worrying about this. If anything I'm worrying about it more. The more that I run and the more that I diet--

Chris Hayes: Oh, that's the best. That's such a great cycle, just like, when you get that nice little sorta dysmorphia thing going.

Casey Johnston: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

Chris Hayes: Where it's like, you're working more on it, but then it's just now you're noticing imperfections more, so then you gotta work more. It's good. It's good.

Casey Johnston: Yup. And the less you eat the more fixated you are on eating. And it's just, it's a horrible drain-circling thing that I don't think, I wasn't educated very well on it. I don't know. But I also didn't feel like I was having a wildly different experience from most other women I knew, where it was just like, "LOL, we diet all the time. That's, like, what we do." (LAUGH)

And (LAUGH) so I, eventually I stumbled on this Reddit post that was one woman describing her experience with six months of weightlifting. And she had before and after pictures. She, like, described her program where she was going three days a week and she was only doing three different movements for, like, five reps.

And the weights she was lifting had gone up by a lot. And she was really enjoying it. She was like, "I'm eating a lot of food and I'm loving this." And a lot of people commented and were like, "You look great," and whatever. And she was like, "Thanks, but you know, it's not really about how I look. I'm, like, I'm just excited to, like, do this." And I was like, "This is"--

Chris Hayes: Hear me when I say, "I'm actually enjoying this." (LAUGH)

Casey Johnston: Yes, right, exactly. (LAUGH)

Chris Hayes: It's, like, not entirely gaze directed.

Casey Johnston: So the way she was describing it was a night and day difference from the way that I understood lifting weights, which was that you use every machine available in the gym, you do three sets of 20 reps on everything. So that was a night and day difference from the way I understood lifting weights, which was more of the vibe of you go to a gym and you use every single weight machine, and you do three sets of 20 reps.

But also that the point of lifting weights was to make you bulkier. And I was like, "I don't wanna be bigger, I only wanna be smaller, so lifting weights feels, like, counterintuitive to everything that I've ever known." But this woman's photos showed that it actually didn't make much of a difference at all.

She looked a little more, quote unquote, toned, as people might say. But she was not, like, suddenly really huge. And she was eating probably 50% more food than I was eating at that time. And I was just like, "I have this all wrong. She's working out way less than I am. She's eating way more. She's getting everything that I want and working way less for it."

I was like, "I'm doing this all wrong." So I was like, "I'll give this weightlifting thing a try." I started with reading this book called Starting Strength, by Mark Rippetoe, which is, like, a very core text to lifting, even though Mark Rippetoe's a bit of a controversial figure.

Chris Hayes: This is, like, for people that don't know this, Starting Strength is sort of, like, the foundational text in the space of, like, modern lifting, like, contemporary lifting. And it's a sort of fascinating text. The first line is, like, "Strength is the most important human attribute," I think is the first sentence. (LAUGH) Something like that, like--

Casey Johnston: Interesting.

Chris Hayes: It's got a great first sentence, which is just basically like, "There's nothing more important than being strong (LAUGH) to a human being."

Casey Johnston: Yeah. The thing that I really liked about it was he did have this kind of, like, philosophical, like, "Your body is made of systems of muscles"--

Chris Hayes: Totally.

Casey Johnston: --approach, where I was like, "Oh, I only know muscles as, like, you sit on the quad extension machine and you work your quads, then you go to the calf raise machine and you work your calves." I never really thought about it as, like, "Oh, your whole leg and like, your whole posterior chain is, like, designed to work together. That's, like, how bodies are."

Chris Hayes: See, this was the discovery that I had in the process of the physical therapy, and training was like, that feeling of, like, "Oh wait a second, just getting stronger in these things," again, when I used to think of, like, "Are my biceps big?"

Like, you think of it in terms of these vanity questions. But I was doing (LAUGH) all this, like, core stuff for all these things and muscles that don't show anywhere. But it was improving the functioning of my body, because a body is made up of a bunch of systems, including muscles, that are designed to, like, move you through the world, first and foremost.

Casey Johnston: Right.

Chris Hayes: As opposed to, like, pose in front of the mirror.

Casey Johnston: They're not meant to move weights on a glided track, one at a time. And when you walk or when you pick stuff up or when you push things around, you're not doing it with, like, your bicep, then your tricep, then your delt, then your lat. You're doing, it's like, all one fluid thing.

And that was, like, how this beginner program was designed. It was all based around compound movements. And because of that reason, it was like, way fewer reps than I was used to. It was way shorter. But also, like, you got strong really, really fast, without having to do very much.

And it was shocking to me. And my mind was blown. This was why I started writing about it. I was like, "Why does nobody know about this? Why aren't more people doing it? Why haven't I heard about this before? Why am I hearing about it from Reddit?" It was like, I had a million questions. (LAUGH)

Chris Hayes: How old were you at this point?

Casey Johnston: This was when, hmm, it was like seven years ago, so I was 26, 27.

Chris Hayes: Okay. And so you start doing this, and what happens? Just, what's your physical experience of it?

Casey Johnston: I started doing it and I mean, not much changes right away, which was kind of very surprising to me. But the initial feelings that you get are, like, the type of hunger that you feel for food when you start lifting is very different from when you do cardio.

It's like, a very deep, like, "Oh no, I gotta eat now," sort of feeling that you get. And then just, like, because you're sort of incrementally working on not just strength really, but like, for instance, in order to do a good squat you need to have pretty good mobility and range of motion in your hips to be able to, like, bend down the right way instead of kind of, like, lurching over with your lower back, which is what I had been doing my entire life.

So you just start to move differently in all of these ways that you are moving in real life, but like, you don't really realize, like, how many times a day you bend down to pick something up, or like, you lean over to grab something and like, suddenly your body is able to support itself in all of these ways that you're like, "Oh, I was having such a hard time before, and I just didn't even realize. And now everything is easier."

Chris Hayes: With me, the big thing that I noticed when I first started, and it was a somewhat similar program, like, when I started segueing into, it was like Starting Strength adjacent, basically, was you know, at that point we had just had our third child.

And, you know, it's a lot over picking up and moving kids, you know? When you've got young kids, particularly babies, toddlers, there's a lot of, like, and kind of awkwardly so. And in fact, the back injury, the big bummer about it, had been that, like, I couldn't bend down to pick up my daughter or reach into the back of the car.

That was the thing I started noticing was this, like, functional strength, which is a term, you know, that's used in this universe, was there for these things. Like, oh, I have to awkwardly bend over. And I also knew, like, oh, I have to engage my core now. And I have (LAUGH) to like, stabilize myself in a certain way if I'm gonna lean over in this way and not get injured while I pick up my kid. But that really was, like, a real night and day thing.

Casey Johnston: Yes.

Chris Hayes: That started to happen, that really feels like a revelation. I'm curious what your sort of mental experience of this is. And people should go, you can go and read Starting Strength. You should definitely read Casey's Substack, She's a Beast. But there's a million different places you can go on the internet, some of which are sort of weird, but around just, like, a starting strength program for basic, you know, compound movements or free weight lifts.

Casey Johnston: Yeah. I mean, actually I could talk about pursuant to the place to go, I'm releasing a program that's, like, a beginner strength program that's from my perspective--

Chris Hayes: Oh, perfect.

Casey Johnston: So, like, that'll be out and available. But my mental experience was, I mean, I had always had these very tense and guilt-oriented and destructive relationships with food and my body and exercise. It was, like, all about punishment and all about, like, trying to exercise more and more and more, and feeling guilty about what I couldn't do, and then trying to eat less and less and less, and feeling guilty about that, which I did eat no matter what.

Lifting, by contrast, introduced this idea that this is all a sort of constructive, harmonious cycle, that you eat for fuel and for joy, and then you go in the gym and you feel really good, and you, like, can crush your weights and add more weight than you did next time.

And you feel very powerful from that. And then you (LAUGH) get hungry, you eat some more. Because you worked out you're tired and you sleep better. And it's just this, like, I was like, I get it now. These things can all support each other and be enjoyable instead of being torture, torture, and torture.

Chris Hayes: I had exactly that experience too, although I wouldn't say that it's, like, solved. I have more hang-ups now because I'm on camera, I think, that have really gotten in my head. And I think that's, like--

Casey Johnston: Interesting.

Chris Hayes: --one of the, oh yeah, it really gets in your head to be on camera. As someone who is, like, a cis man who's moving through the world, has never been particularly, like, related in any way to my physical appearance in any, like, (LAUGH) you know, I've had the privilege of it not being kind of not a big deal one way or the other. Like, (LAUGH) not notable, I think, in like, in either direction, just sort of a neutral fact about me. But being on camera makes you completely insane about it. (LAUGH)

Casey Johnston: Oh man.

Chris Hayes: I mean, just unavoidably. Like, you're constantly looking at your films, and if you, like, gain five pounds, you see it on the camera really quickly in a way that can be sort of crazy making. But yes, I had that experience of the sort of, that feeling of the sort of harmonious, like, "I'm eating and I'm fueling my body to get stronger."

And also for me, the biggest thing was it was the first time I looked forward to working out. Like, it's the closest thing I found to basketball. Like, basketball is something that I will, like, prioritize all things ahead of to, like, get into a pickup game.

And I never felt that way about going to the gym. It always was, like, boring, painful. It felt like counting down minutes. It felt like punishment. It felt like detention. I don't know, (LAUGH) like, and the endorphin release and the feeling of accomplishment of, like, lifting something heavy was something that I was, like, I found myself starting to look forward to workouts and being bummed if I couldn't make them in a way that I had never experienced before. And I think other people might have that experience if they try it, who are people who find the treadmill, like, or other things kind of, like, a taxing chore.

Casey Johnston: Yes. I mean, I have two sort of thoughts about that, which is that yeah, I do think sort of structurally the lifting really appealed to me because I did cardio for a really long time. I was a runner. I never really liked it. I just did not like the sort of slog of it.

Like, you're just going for, you know, especially when you're training for a half marathon, nine miles, ten miles, 13 miles at a time. And it's just a lot to just have to plow through. Other exercise was, like, high intensity intervals, which I was like, "This is painful to be doing."

So it's too intense. Whereas lifting has this cycle of, like, you do a set of not that many reps, five to 15 reps, and then you rest for a minute. You just sit there. And then you do another set. And I was like, "This is my pace. I'm all about this as a sort of workout situation where I'm not, like, going really hard continuously."

And then the other thing is that the other two first kinds of working out, there's not as much of a, progression in those sports is not as central as it is usually in lifting weights. Like, lifting weights is, especially when you start, it's like, the best way, in my opinion, of going about it is, like, you add weight every session.

It's like, a little bit of weight, but it adds up, like, in a couple of months you might be benching or squatting 100 pounds, just 'cause, like, that's how, it's not like, it doesn't take any particularly great skill in order to build strength that quickly. It's like, most people can do that. And I think that's very rewarding. And something like running doesn't have that same sort of really predictable pattern to it.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I mean, I should say, to speak up for the runners, like, there are people who just love it more than anything and like, people that I'm close to. Kate has recently gotten into it, and like, really gotten into it in a way that I think there's a whole universe of people who feel the way about running that I do about lifting, which is that it's, like, the sort of, like, transported space.

It gives them a kind of, like, deep sense of sort of spiritual ease. It relaxes tension. It does all these great things. So I don't wanna, like, in any way disparage running for the runners out there. I just have never felt that way about running.

And I think there's a lotta people who don't feel that way (LAUGH) about running, and don't feel that way about, like, other kinds of gym workout that the strength workout might be for them. And the point about progression, to me, was really, really huge.

Because, look, I'm 42 now, okay? I'm not getting better at anything in my life physically, except this one thing. (LAUGH) Like, and that's really rewarding. I just played basketball on Monday. Like, I am a way worse basketball player than I was when I was 35. (LAUGH)

Like, I am not better at basketball. I am declining. Like, I was never very good at all. I am declining, you know, fairly precipitously. I wanna chalk it up partly (LAUGH) to being off for, you know, the whole pandemic, or most of it. But I'm stronger than I've ever been in my life. I could do more pull ups than I've ever done. I am benching more weight than I've ever done. I am squatting more weight (LAUGH) than I've ever done. I am deadlifting more weight than I've ever done.

Casey Johnston: That's great. That's sick. (LAUGH)

Chris Hayes: That's sick. I'm physically stronger than I've ever been. I have more muscle mass than I have ever had in my life. And at this age it's like, a little bit I think of, like, why people get older and like golf, because it's a game you can get better at at the age of, like, 50 or 60.

And for me, this has been one of the really rewarding things. It's like, it's a thing I can get better at. I could actually see improvement. I can see progression week after week at 42, which is not happening with (LAUGH) other things in my life physically.

Casey Johnston: Yes. I do think if more people knew this about lifting, more of them would do it. And I think, like, going back to a lot of people don't think much of being strong. They think it's, like, a very sort of base quality to have. But I'm like, you gotta forget about that part and just try it.

Because, like, to see yourself go up in weight over the course of weeks is just gonna be so rewarding. And you're gonna feel, like, you feel a difference in your daily life. And just that achievement is, like, it's way lower-hanging fruit than most people think it is.

Chris Hayes: There's also something primal about the, like, when you put a big plate on and it's bigger than (LAUGH) the last plate that you put on, and then you can lift it, but you couldn't before. And it's just, again, it's like when you paint a room there's something satisfying about painting something, because you just know when it's done.

You know, a lot of tasks that we have in life, and particularly in the world of, like, you know, different kinds of simul-manipulation, whether it's, you know, what's broadly called, like, knowledge work or white collar work, it's like, things are sort of floating around and kind of, like, never done and kind of done. There's just something very concrete about the numbers and the reps, and like, doing them and them being done and the plates getting bigger that is very simple but very, very, for me has been very rewarding.

Casey Johnston: Yes. And I think it's also, like, one of the things I liked about lifting too is, like, that was rewarding, but then also it taught me to see, like, we have this concept of failure in lifting when you don't sort of complete your set. Like, a weight turns out to be too heavy, you can only do three reps and maybe you sort of fall on the fourth rep.

And the bar that you're squatting, the bar is caught in the safety arms. And you're like, "Oh boy." But the thing is that lifting teaches you to see that as data. And it's like, "Okay, I couldn't do that, but now I know sort of where my limit is and I can work backward to work back up to that.

It's a neutral sort of situation. Whereas when I was running it would be like, oh man, I didn't just, like, couldn't run as fast as I wanted to, and I just have to try and run faster next time. And it was very abstract. Whereas lifting, it's a little bit more regimented in a way that I was like, "Oh, it's okay to just, like, mess up sometimes." You know?

Chris Hayes: We'll be back after this quick break.

Chris Hayes: There's this whole question around how you get over plateaus when you hit them, and I'm still getting stronger. And this is the other thing we should say, right, about like, when you start is what people in the world call newbie gains, which is like, you go up really fast, really quickly (LAUGH) when you start.

And it's extremely intoxicating, but it does, like, the curve sort of starts to flatten a bit. In the beginning you don't keep going up at that rate. One big thing I think is just, like, the intimidation of injury, and like, free weights versus machines, which feel, like, a little safer and feel like you're not gonna injure yourself.

But to me they take away a lot of the fun of the challenge of form, which ends up being a big part of lifting, like, the same way I think in, like, yoga or other things. Like, you really have to focus on the various different things your body is doing, whereas the machine sort of takes that away from you. You sort of focus much more single-mindedly. What do you say to people about free weights versus machines?

Casey Johnston: Yeah, this is a big component of my, like, I'm calling it a couch to barbell program. It's called Lift Off. And this is, like, a big cornerstone of it, which is to think about this as a skill building process. It's not even really about trying to lift as much weight as you possibly can.

It's about building skills within your body. That includes being able to move in a particular way. Machines are more just about, like, kind of building the size of a muscle, which we've probably already agreed is not what you want if you're afraid of, quote unquote, becoming bulky from lifting.

But learning to use free weights is about building the skills that let you move those weights that translate to your real life in a way that machines are not going to. So I understand the fear. Like, the weights look very heavy. You know, you see guys in the gym using, you know, six, eight plates on each side of the barbell at a time.

No one's asking you to do that, though. It's like, you start those, it's not even like, where you're comfortable. It's like, where you're capability is and you build from there. No one's asking you to do anything that is putting you at risk of injury or is, like, really testing your limits. You're always kind of staying in a Goldilocks zone of challenge, and that's, like, how you can progress really is by doing, like, neither too much nor too little.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, and in some ways learning the form is a big part of the fun of it. Like, I didn't really know how to do a squat. Independent of how much weight you're putting up when you're squatting or deadlifting, like, I didn't know how to deadlift before.

It looked super dangerous to me. Like, you're gonna pull your back out. What are you doing? (LAUGH) And when you learn how to do the form and you're just focused on the form, you're not trying to, like, show off to anyone, you're not (LAUGH) trying to, you know, all you're trying to do is, like, do it in a way where you learn how to do it and you don't injure yourself and you're focused on ways that don't injure yourself, it's a fun thing to learn how to do.

And then, like, you get better at it just as a form. Like, before you're even talking about putting weights on it, in the same way that you get better at certain poses in yoga, or you, you know, you get better at certain skills in a sport. It's a skill that you get better at.

Casey Johnston: Yes. We have a real kind of almost meritocratic conception of lifting, that it's like, either you were born a football linebacker and you lift weights, or you're everybody else and you don't bother with weights 'cause there's no reason for you to be strong.

Which, like, nothing could be less true. Everyone could benefit from, like, learning to squat or deadlift 135 pounds. You're, like, I swear to god, your life would be completely different. It would feel different every single day if you just learned to do this. And I think we could benefit from that information sort of percolating a lot more.

Chris Hayes: So something you write about a lot is just sort of fitness culture, and its idiosyncrasies, its problematic aspects. (LAUGH) How would you characterize fitness culture? You know, obviously it's an enormous source of content. It's enormous on various platforms.

It was, of course, huge in, legacy magazines. You know, now it's big on, you know, there's a million different fitness influencers. And, like, it all feels like a combination of motivational and also like a con. Like, (LAUGH) it sorta feels both at the same time. Like, I look at fitness videos and I'm like, "Oh yeah, I gotta get in there." And then it's like, "Well, I'm being sold something here."

Casey Johnston: Yes. I sometimes worry that I take it a little bit too seriously maybe, where I'm like, other people see this as just sort of, like, "Oh fun, I'm gonna try this." And like, "Well, I tried it, and like, now I'm gonna move on with my life." Where I'm like, "This didn't deliver on the things that I feel like it promised me."

But the thing that I don't like about it is I feel like it often is working our guilt about not looking good enough or being small enough, weighing little enough, that we need to always be sort of focused on hemming ourselves in in those ways.

And in ways that are often not only impossible to achieve in the long term, but can long term undermine our ability to feel good in our bodies. It's like, to bring this back to muscle, when you diet very aggressively you will lose body fat as well as muscle.

When your diet inevitably doesn't work, you regain only body fat. And by doing that you chip away at your muscle. You're losing your sort of good metabolism that you would've had when you had your initial amount of muscle, and this cycle is doing long-term damage to you that you might not realize because all of the fitness stuff that you hear is all focused on just losing weight, losing weight, losing weight. And I think that's very destructive.

Chris Hayes: I think it's hard for people to turn away from the weight question. You know? Like, that is, in some ways, unlocking something huge and deep I think in all of us in American culture. Again, I think sort of cis, straight men probably have it the least bad in the categories of people in terms of the cultural messages they get about this.

I think other groups of people, I'm very aware of that, but it does get to everyone. I mean, I think that the messages about, you know, weight and, you know, perceptions of weight and losing weight, I mean, it is amazing how, it's like the cultural air you breathe.

Like, the things (LAUGH) that people are doing in every moment to, quote, stay in shape as an activity is so omnipresent. And I think it's also, like, very omnipresent among certain cohorts, in certain spaces, in certain times. But finding a way to feel healthy about that thing is the trick to me, that I think weightlifting is helping with.

That, like, it is good. That's the sort of nice edge. It's like, it is good to get some physical activity in your life. It is good to have some discipline around that, you know, to do it routinely, to see progress. Like, these are all good things. But then the flip side of that is, like, guilt and, you know, vanity, and also insecurity about how we look.

Casey Johnston: It's very hard to have, like, a pure experience with food or with exercise, or with your body.

Chris Hayes: Some people have it, and I'm so jealous of them. (LAUGH)

Casey Johnston: But do they really? I think many people are--

Chris Hayes: Maybe, maybe that's true.

Casey Johnston: --who we think are happy are--

Chris Hayes: Right, yeah. (LAUGH)

Casey Johnston: --lying.

Chris Hayes: All liars.

Casey Johnston: Even myself, I feel like I'm in a much better place than I was seven years ago, but I still have my own struggles. It's like, I really don't feel perfect in that regard, or like, I'm, like, have totally achieved peace--

Chris Hayes: Oh no, I'm totally psycho about all of that.

Casey Johnston: But (LAUGH) I think it's important to not kind of beat, I mean, you can get down a real therapy path here, but it's like, you do have to live in the world ultimately too. And that's, like, a difficult thing to fully reject.

Chris Hayes: But that's the thing that I like, to come back to, like, the thing that I've liked about strength training is I like feeling powerful. Like, I like feeling that, like, in an elemental way that is, like, feeling powerful is a different thing than, like, feeling thin or feeling, like, swole. (LAUGH)

Or, like, there are external aspects, which is like, "Oh, I like the way that, like, my traps look in that photo, so I'm gonna, like, post that to Instagram." (LAUGH) Like, and like, you know, so there's that. There's like, you know, there's a certain amount of vanity.

And I think particularly in my line of work that you have to work through how you're being perceived by the world and on camera. But the deeper thing that I like is feeling powerful. Like, I like the feeling of strength and strong, and like, that I feel good and strong in my body as an internal truth has been a very gratifying thing to find, which is distinct, I think, from a lot of the, like, more external-derived reasons that drive fitness culture, and the reason that, like, everyone goes to, you know, join the gym on January 2nd.

Casey Johnston: Yes. It's like a much better core to sort of build your health world around, and it really does just pay off. It's like, every time I go to, like, pick up a box of cat food and it's, like, 40 pounds, and I can just do it. And I'm like, "Yes." This is, like, the moment that I love (LAUGH) to stay prepared for in order to--

Chris Hayes: Feeding my cat.

Casey Johnston: --not feel like, yes. (LAUGH) Just trying to keep my cat in cans of cat food.

Chris Hayes: So what are the things that you write about when you write about fitness culture? There's one piece you had about, like, which I really liked which is about, like, the unattainability of the, you know, there are all these bodies that are presented to us in Hollywood, and particularly, like, bodily transformations that are presented to us, which is, like, a thing now.

I mean, I'm very obsessed with Kumail Nanjiani in this way, because it's like, one of the most striking bodily transformations. Which, for those that don't know, Kumail Nanjiani is a very, very funny, very talented comedian who, like, started working out a few years ago.

He showed up on a talk show. I remember seeing him on a talk show about working out. You could tell he was, like, swole. He'd, like, gotten pretty big. But, like, big in a, like, normal human way. Like, oh, he looked like a comedian who'd really been hitting the gym. And then he went from that to, like, Marvel superhero. He's now in the latest Marvel movie.

Casey Johnston: Yes, totally shredded. Not just big and muscular, but like, his body fat is super low.

Chris Hayes: There's, like, no body fat. Like, when he takes his shirt off he looks like a comic, like, literally a comic book figure. The only closest thing I could come to it which is, like, the image of male physique perfection is Michael B. Jordan in the Black Panther movie.

Which like, I definitely got out of that movie (LAUGH) and, like, before I even got home, like, pulled out my phone and looked up, like, "Michael B. Jordan Black Panther workout regimen." And, of course, there were 15 articles with his trainer about, like, what he had done to get in that kind of shape for the movie.

Because it's like, again, it's like, from a dumb, aesthetic, vacuous standpoint, like, the perfect (LAUGH) male physique. It's like, unbelievably strong with, like, 2% body fat. You could see, like, every line, every ripple, every muscle. But like, what do we do with that?

Like, again, I'm talking about male bodies here, and again, this is like, it's like 1/100th of the cultural insanity is put on men and male bodies. But it's been wild to watch this transformation and the conversation about it, particularly with Kumail who, like, is very proud of it.

Casey Johnston: I mean, I really felt for Kumail in that moment, because he was very proud of what he did. From what I know of strength training and weight and bodybuilding, it's like, he would've had to work pretty hard to have done that. He has his own body insecurities, but he's also sort of, like, into the process.

Like, it seems like he did kind of enjoy it and likes at least certain aspects of it, but now has a lot of conflict about it because it was received so poorly in a kind of surprising way, when you know, Chris Hemsworth has been doing this for--

Chris Hayes: Right, this is like--

Casey Johnston: --I don't even know how long now. And he's (LAUGH) even bigger and way more shredded.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. It was a transformation. It was the sort of line crossing of his archetype from, like, wisecracking, like--

Casey Johnston: Yes.

Chris Hayes: The wisecracking programmer on Silicon Valley to the, like, super-shredded kinda alpha.

Casey Johnston: But here we're kind of getting into what we started this conversation with, which is, like, why--

Chris Hayes: Yes. Yes, right--

Casey Johnston: --is it not allowed for somebody who has, quote unquote, has a brain or, like, has a personality? Like, it's only allowed to these people who exist as, like, abstract, beautiful creatures.

Chris Hayes: Well, and I think that one of the things that has been interesting to me about working out pretty consistently and pretty hard for the last, like, several years is that it's also given me a sense, it's actually kind of given me a way to think about bodies that I see in the world, celebrities, which is like, "Oh, that's, like, that's the product of two 90 minute sessions a day, six days a week, with a professional, for six months, counting calories, at 1,500 calories a day." (LAUGH) Like, I know, like--

Casey Johnston: Yes.

Chris Hayes: I now understand, because I work out pretty hard and, like, have, like, a normal (LAUGH) body that's, like, stronger than it used to be. Like, I now understand when I see, and I think it's true also with, I mean, more with men and, like, weight lifting, but also with women too, where it's like, I get now at a level I didn't before of, like, oh, that's not, like, that's not a normal thing.

That's not a thing you get from, like, exercising a little more. That's, like, on a level of, like, crash training that just doesn't exist in the world of human beings. And I can now understand that, because like, I work out pretty (LAUGH) routinely and I know what, like, normal progressions look like, and what bodies look like after you work out for a while.

Casey Johnston: Yes. Yes, this was another, like, big mental aspect of it for me was, like, I spent my whole life, like, wanting to look like these celebrities. Well, most of my adult life. And then I finally got to this point where I was trying strength training, it was kind of like, okay, this is it. Like, if I can't do any more than this, like, this is my limit in terms of time and attention and resources.

Like, that's gonna be it. And that sort of just reaching the ceiling sort of was like, oh, they are (LAUGH) putting so much more into this, not just because they're, like, more determined than I am, but like, they have personal chefs. They have trainers. They have time to work out that much. And it's like, I don't have that much time. I have a few times a week for, like, an hour. And that's it. It's not, I don't have this--

Chris Hayes: Well, it's also--

Casey Johnston: --unlimited time.

Chris Hayes: --it's literally their jobs. And I mean, this is such an obvious point to make about it, but like, it's literally their job. You know, this is my job, talking to you right now, and then I'm gonna go make a show tonight. Like, I mean, if my job were just to work out, (LAUGH) and like, people would pay me a lot of money to work out and give me a bunch of resources, like, I guess I could probably work out four hours every day, or whatever. You know, I mean, like--

Casey Johnston: Right.

Chris Hayes: I mean, no one works out, two 90 minute sessions is, like, the sort of most that anyone's doing, even if you're in the, like, I'm Michael B. Jordan in, you know, Black Panther. But, like, that aspect to it, like, the time that it takes and what it actually takes to become these sort of, like, cartoonish figures.

But again, it is, like, I mean, this is, like, the most un-novel point in the world. But like, it is a psychotic thing about America, which is that, you know, the gap between the normal level of fitness and the normal kinds of bodies that we have (LAUGH) as Americans and those that are presented to us as models is like, the delta between them is truly ludicrous. I mean, truly, truly, truly ludicrous.

Casey Johnston: Yes. I mean, to go back to the sort of idea of, like, looking up the Michael B. Jordan workout, quote unquote, I wish trainers would be more honest about this. They'll say something in magazines like, "Oh, well, if someone wanted to get a body like Michael Jordan's they could start out (LAUGH) by doing, like, three sets of ten bear crawls and, like, three sets of planks."

And, like, these things that, like, no, it's like, Michael B. Jordan can probably, like, bench 225 pounds and, like, he didn't do that, he didn't, like, walk in and do that. He trained for many months, maybe years, to get to that point. It's like, people need more information.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I actually, what I weirdly found satisfying, what I find satisfying about the genre of, like, trainer talks about their workout regime for X movie, it often is pretty honest. Like, that one was, like, you know, like, there were six months before the movie started.

He was going twice a day. We've had him on a calorie count. You know, it was six days a week. There was, like, one (LAUGH) day off. And, like, he was doing road work. He was boxing. It was, like, you know, it's like, he was gonna be in the Olympics. You know, and that's, I actually find the reality of that, like, sort of fascinating.

Casey Johnston: I mean, I think that's great. But they often don't bring that honesty to women's workouts. It'll be like, "Oh yeah, (LAUGH) like, Gal Gadot did, she did, like, three sets of 12 curtsy lunges and she did some, like, little triceps extension, then she did deadlifts." And then, like, it's very, like, small italic text at the bottom.

Chris Hayes: Kate always mentions this quote, and I'm gonna mangle it. But there was a Beyoncé quote once, and I think it was her role in Dreamgirls if I'm not mistaken, in which she looks extremely waifish in that movie. And where someone, like, asked her, like, "Well, what was your," it was either that or it was an awards dinner.

I forget. It was one of the two, where it was like, someone asked her, like, "Well, what was your, how did you diet?" And she was like, "I didn't eat anything for a month." Which is just, like, it was just, like, weirdly, like, and sort of refreshingly honest, as opposed to, like, "Well, I cut out the fries," or whatever. It was just this, like, I starved myself because that is what--

Casey Johnston: Yes.

Chris Hayes: --achieving that body requires is, like, literal starvation for a literal sustained period of time. Like, that's really the only way to get this thing that, like, then shows up on screen this way.

Casey Johnston: Yes. Yes, I remember this. It was, like, very plant-based, maybe vegan, yes, no sugar. And that's very extreme. But I think I would read stuff like that at a certain point in my life and I would be like, "Oh, that's what I should do." Like, the big question was like, why was I getting all that information from magazines instead of, like, doctors?

You know, like, a doctor would never have that conversation with you. They would be like, "You're in the healthy weight range. Like, don't worry about it." And I would be like, "No, you don't understand, I need to look good and I need the tools for that." And, like, the magazines just sort of, like, swoop into that gap for everybody. And it's not safe, really.

Chris Hayes: To bring it around to strength training, the thing I like about the way that it changes your paradigm on this is that you really come to view food, particularly when you're beginning, as, like, the fuel for increased strength as opposed to, like, the enemy to avoid (LAUGH) so that you don't gain weight.

It's like, right, like, and particularly when I started where it's like, where my trainer was like, "You should be trying to get this many grams of protein a day if you really wanna, like, get stronger." And then all of a sudden you have this, like, affirmative target.

And, like, you know, you can't really get there without, like, supplements or, protein shakes and things like that, which I continue to drink. But like, it just changed my conception a little bit. And I've fallen away from a little bit of that because I've gotten into, like, bulk and cutting routines, which are, like, dumb and a little self-destructive and a little, like, disordered. But that's another (LAUGH) story. But like, I'm sharing too much.

Casey Johnston: That's not too, I mean, well, I mean, you have, your experience is valid. I think I also had that experience where it was sort of, like, lifting focused me on, like, what I needed to eat in order to get stronger, which was a very different way of thinking about food from, "I really shouldn't be eating anything"--

Chris Hayes: That's right.

Casey Johnston: --"anything that I eat is, like, too much, and I need to, like, do as little as possible." Yes. So it was like, having this sort of circumscribed, "You need to eat enough," completely changed everything for me.

Chris Hayes: Do you think the world of, like, internet-based fitness, because it's funny that you say, like, you discovered this on Reddit. And like, there are more sources than ever for this kind of thing than there ever were before. It's not just, like, Men's Health or Self Magazine or this, like, narrow range of stuff which used to be, 20 years ago, where all this came from, do you think it's better now basically? Like, that there's more variety and there's more places that people could kind of come to, interesting and healthier ways of thinking about strength and working out?

Casey Johnston: I think it is very slowly moving in the positive direction, I would say. I don't think it's there. I would've hoped, like, it would've come farther by now than where it was when I started, which was, like, a very big, democratizing moment, which you know, when I was in high school, your only option would've been to go up to a bro in a gym and be like, "Please teach me everything you know about lifting weights."

And he might not even really know anything. He might teach you bad stuff that would ultimately get you injured. You wouldn't know. Now we have, like, all of YouTube and, like, some like, really honestly really high quality Reddit threads that have much to teach us.

I have found so many books to read from, like, you know, following different people in Instagram. There's, like, an explosion of information. And I don't think necessarily that's led to, like, oh, there's more information that's good and bad.

I think there is a lot of bad, but I think the good stuff is relatively easy to find. Most of the fitness people who blew up over the pandemic were people who were promising, like, I think there was even like a pandemic bubble butt (LAUGH) transformation, like, trend.

Still the big winners are people who are focused on weight loss, but I do see some of the bigger names, for instance, moving away from before and after weight loss transformation photos, which is very encouraging that used to be, like, the bread and butter of this influencer, Kayla Itsines is I think how you say her last name.

She has an app called Sweat With Kayla. And she initially got popular from these bikini body guides, and she used to only almost exclusively post transformation photos. Now she never does, and I'm kind of, like, "Okay, that's an interesting bellwether of the direction we might be going in."

Chris Hayes: That's interesting. I mean, the before and after pictures are also just such a hilarious genre too, 'cause it's like, you could basically do them before and after a workout.

Casey Johnston: Yeah, or like, morning and evening, and like--

Chris Hayes: Yeah, like, you could do before a workout in, like, bad lighting with, like, sticking your gut out, and then (LAUGH) after a workout with, like, a pump going. And, like, it would look quite different. But it's like, again, I think that working out seriously gives you, to me, has given me a more grounded and realistic set of the parameters of the human body and how it can and can't change that I now know that, like, you can, with consistency, and like, a repeated and targeted program, you really can get quite a bit stronger and quite a bit better at things in a fairly rapid period of time. That is absolutely true and a tangible promise. You cannot transform your body (LAUGH) in this span of such a short period of time.

Casey Johnston: Yes.

Chris Hayes: And to the extent you do, it's not gonna last. Like, the only thing that can last is, like, sustained, iterative investments in your own, like, strength and functional ability.

Casey Johnston: Right. And also more to the point, two things. Like, I think when you go to the sort of top and bottom of the spectrum in this respect, you realize, like, this was the realization I had was that the way I feel about myself is not linearly related to how small I am.

I've been a very high weight and never felt better about myself, I've been a very low weight and been miserable. And the other thing is that, I think I wrote about this in talking about Will Smith's weight loss journey where he says something very insightful about himself, something along the lines of, like, "I have incredibly extreme discipline. I can force myself to do anything.

"I know I could force myself to, like, lose this weight if I wanted to. But I'm not even done with this process and I'm completely miserable, and I'm not actually, like, getting any happiness out of forcing myself to do this." And I think many people, like, wish and wish and wish for the discipline to be able to, like, lose lots of weight or, like, be really shredded. But I think people who get there, if they're being honest, would tell you that (LAUGH) that's not where happiness actually comes from, or like, feeling good about yourself actually comes from.

Chris Hayes: Well, and this is true of people's, when you zoom out to, like, people's talents, it's like, people who are, like, good at math or good at violin or good at dance, in some cases that's the product of, like, you know, psychotic, overbearing parents who, like, make them practice.

But in a lotta cases there's a sort of connection between people liking to play violin and liking (LAUGH) to dance and liking to do math, and then getting good at it because they wanted to do it. And then the more they did it, the better they were.

But you don't usually get good at stuff you hate. (LAUGH) Because to get good at stuff you have to do it a lot, and doing it a lot requires, like, you're getting something out of it. Not all the time. There are people who, like, whose parents make them do stuff or sort of train for complex psychological reasons.

But by and large, like, if you can find something you like doing, that's really the foundational key I think for anything, any advice that we're giving here on our first ever fitness (LAUGH) podcast. Which is, like, if you're finding a thing that you like to do, that you look forward to doing, that gets your body moving, and you can consistently do that, like, that's definitely the thing you should do.

Casey Johnston: Yes. This is one of my top things about strength training is that, like, I think more people would like it than actually give it a chance. So I'm just like, please give it a chance. Like, just try it. Just, like, the style of the workouts, the resting and the sort of intensity and the progress, more people might really connect with it than the number of people who actually do try it.

Chris Hayes: Casey Johnston is a cultural critic, writer, editor. She's a heavyweight lifter who's about to launch You should check that out. She was the editorial director of health and lifestyle coverage at Vice, but now she writes She's a Beast on Substack, which I really, truly enjoy. Casey, that was a delight. Thank you very much.

Casey Johnston: Thank you for having me.

Chris Hayes: Once again, great thanks to Casey Johnston. That was a really fun conversation. It just occurred to me that some people might actually even be listening to this while they, you know, work out, do their thing, particularly during the post-holiday, you know, traditional, annual get back in the gym time.

If you liked that conversation, you might be interested in one we did with a guy named Herman Pontzer, who's an evolutionary biologist who works on studying how the human metabolism works, which is a really interesting conversation we had a while back.

You can always send us feedback, email, tweet us at the hashtag #WITHPod. Why Is This Happening? is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the All In team and features music by Edie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the “All In” team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to