[Featured photo: LA-based NerdStrong gym goers strike their best pose]
It’s official: After years of exposure to the wider world of popular culture, the face of the nerd has changed. Increasingly visible on television, in movies, and on the internet, nerds and the things they love have become normal. Star Wars exhibits take over cities around the world; quoting The Lord of the Rings at a friend marks you more a relic of the aughts than a social pariah. The face of nerd has changed. And now, the nerd body may be changing too, thanks to a new trend: Nerd Fitness.
Geek is officially chic; what was once niche and embarrassing is now remarkably mainstream, culturally dominant, and even hot. Marvel movies have dominated the box office for a decade, Game of Thrones leaves all ratings records in the dust, and tickets to Comic-Con are impossible to get. And let’s not forget that Wonder Woman is one of the most successful movies of all time.
From the stringy scientists of The Big Bang Theory to visions of chunky, basement-dwelling gamers, nerds have long been defined as the schlubs and shrimps of popular culture. To put it frankly, weakness has been an integral element of the nerd identity; nerds are defined by their love of fantasy and comic books, stories of musclebound men and powerful women performing deeds of fantastic strength and valor.
But the nerds who love these heroes are weaklings. Right?
“Unfortunately, for a lot of nerds, yes, there is that stigma out there that they’re not supposed to be athletic,” says Andrew Deutsch, founder of the LA-based NerdStrong Gym. “They’re not supposed to move out of their mom’s basement or whatever that horrible stereotype is. I think I know better than a lot of people that that’s frankly not true.”
NerdStrong uses a potent brew of nerdy terminology and imagery (“everyone has an origin story,” the website reads), Deutsch and his trainers re-contextualize strength training, cardiovascular work, and traditional fitness into a nerd-friendly framework: classes lead would-be hobbits through the Mines of Moria, coax hopeful Rebels through the battles of Star Wars, and even offer the chance to bop and squat to the music of Hamilton, sweating their way to fitness goals that may have once seemed like fantasy.
Deutsch, himself a proud geek and gamer, started NerdStrong while trying to encourage a fellow nerd and friend, who was turned off by the atmosphere of traditional gyms and even private CrossFit classes, to get active.
“But then I thought, okay, he’s the Dungeon Master of my D&D group, and so, why don’t I create a dungeon workout?” Deutsch recalls. “Let’s see if I can get him to do the same things that the other workouts were [doing], but let’s put this layer on top of it that is based on imagination and a little gamification.”
Smashing down metaphorical doors and defeating described monsters — all under the threat of a collapsing dungeon — worked magic.
“I got him to do squats, push ups, sit ups and all the normal things,” Deutsch says. “But he seemed to be motivated and he wanted to come back.”
Deutsch continued to create geek-inspired workouts for his friend, and interest quickly grew among fellow nerds with aversions to classic fitness programs.Soon, Sunday sessions were not enough to keep up with the demand; in 2013, Deutsch opened the gym’s official space, and NerdStrong now offers multiple daily classes and community for the needs of Los Angeles’ newly-minted fitness nerds.
Other influencers in the world of geek fitness come straight from the properties embraced by nerdkind.
Ashley Eckstein, the voice of Ahsoka Tano on Star Wars: The Clone Wars and founder of the Her Universe fashion line, realized that costumes and cosplay could only go so far in helping fans embody their favorite characters.
“There was nobody training you how to BE the character,” Eckstein says. “How to fight with the lightsaber, how to use the lasso, how to train like Wonder Woman.” Eckstein, a self-proclaimed lifelong fangirl, intimately recognized the potential of this unfulfilled desire.
“I’ve had this dream for years, [to] not just train others, but me,” she says. “I always felt so awkward holding a lightsaber, or in photoshoots trying to pose like Wonder Woman. I’m like, I want to be tough!”
Eckstein’s inspiration finally took root as she developed a line for her geek fashion brand, Her Universe, with Kohl’s department store. She shifted her pitch from dresses and tops to hero-themed workout videos and corresponding activewear designs.
“It would be so much cooler if you had workout wear inspired by Captain America, so when you’re training to be Captain America, you can actually wear activewear inspired by Captain America,” she recalls saying. “I fully expecting them to tell me I was crazy!”
But Kohl’s was intrigued, and produced Her Universe’s collection of activewear inspired by Marvel heroes Captain America, Iron Man, and Black Widow. A DC line, prominently featuring designs based on Wonder Woman quickly followed, as did a set inspired by Spider-Man.
According to Eckstein, the collections have all sold well; even more gratifying has been the response from fans. Eckstein’s corresponding workout videos fill a similar function. Like her activewear lines, the videos (which include moves like a Wonder Woman block-and-kick, and Spider-Man-esque leaps) have been enthusiastically received. And Eckstein has felt the benefits personally as well.
“That’s how I prefer to work out,” she admits. “I really have to talk myself up to go to the gym and just walk on the treadmill. That is just so boring to me. So I would prefer to go to the gym and do this workout, and train to be Wonder Woman! Like, actually feel like I’m training to be like her, and learning a Wonder Woman move — but oh, by the way, you’re getting a really good workout.”
Eckstein emphasizes health over dress sizes or six packs, a philosophy she feels is being gradually embraced by fellow nerds.
“I think the geek community is stepping up and saying, you know what? This is important to me. It is important that I’m healthy and go to the gym,” she says. “You don’t have to just sit in your basement and read comics, which was the stereotype for so long.”
The work at NerdStrong Gym, too, is at least part mental.
“How can [we] help them achieve their goals?” Deutsch muses about his clients. “Not just physically — how do they talk? How do they define themselves, how do they talk about who they are as a person? Because some people come into our gym and they’ve already had this sort of dialogue with themselves that they can’t do something.”
“I had one girl basically tell me she couldn’t do a sit-up as she was doing a sit-up,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘you just did one.’ And she goes,’Yeah. I guess so!’ And it was this amazing moment, and she’s been a member ever since.”
Deutsch at NerdStrong also emphasizes the aspirational power of superhero figures. Fans, he says, “got into the gym because they were inspired by something they may have seen or experienced,” he observes, “But beyond that,” he observes, “we want them to do workouts that emulate possibly what that character went through to become that hero.They want to go through that montage, go through that sequence of events that allows them to have the hero’s journey.”
“If they can have a hero’s journey on their own, then just think of the other things they can accomplish.”
Eckstein is also determined to play her part in smashing outdated ideas and stereotypes.
“If they say that the geeks are not the athletes and not really in-shape, then you kind of believe, sometimes, the stereotype people put on you,” she observes. “With Her Universe, it almost became a mission — how can we debunk these stereotypes? How can we prove them wrong? And I think once people give you permission to be yourself and be different, all of a sudden people come out of the woodwork. And they’re like, you know what? No. I may not be in shape, but you gotta start somewhere! You’re not going to be Captain America from Day One.”
Neither, after all, was Captain America.
Michal Schick is a writer, podcaster, and pop-culture obsessive based in New York City. She has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and an unbridled obsession with nail polish. You can find her writing about television, feminism, and Star Wars at Hypable.com, and listen to her thoughts on the podcasts Nice Jewish Fangirls, Level 7 Access, and others.