'I was going to be a PE teacher, and didn't have any ambition to be on TV, but I love it'
He's the brains, and brawn, behind the million-euro Body Coach brand. Vicki Notaro meets Joe Wicks, to talk work outs, carbs, and how he justifies eating a cheeky burger
The last thing I expected as I'm talking to Joe Wicks - the personal trainer turned fitness superstar - is for a waiter to deposit a burger and chips in front of him. Wicks notices my cocked eyebrow, but assures me he doesn't often eat like that. "This is just a treat because I'm here today. If I hadn't trained today, I wouldn't have ordered this, I'd have had a steak," he says, when we meet.
"You can have fun, but you have to keep training, and getting in to good habits with food. I mean, you can go out and get p***ed on a Saturday night, but you can't let it drag out all weekend, eating thousands of calories and feeling awful come Monday morning. If you're having a blow-out all weekend, you'll undo any good work you did during the week."
While you may not be familiar with the name Joe Wicks, it's likely you've heard of The Body Coach and his Lean in 15 brand. The Surrey-born fitness entrepreneur's business model of online personal training and Instagram recipe videos have become nothing short of a phenomenon in the digital world - leading to cookbooks, workout DVDs, and his own Channel 4 show.
His latest book, his third in two years, was published in December. Stealing a march on the January diet-book demand, Lean in 15: The Sustain Plan, made an appearance in thousands of Christmas stockings across the country. It all adds up to a monthly paycheck of more than €1m, according to the man himself - not too shabby, when you consider the fact that Wicks (31) started it all on a whim from his living room in 2014.
"It was never a vision I had, or a decision I made really," he says. "I didn't have an ambition to be on TV or to release books, it's just happened, but obviously I love it now.
"It all came about when I was in my flat with my mate, and he told me I should get on Instagram. I thought it was just a social network for girls taking selfies, and I didn't even know how to use it, but I soon got the hang of it. Within nine months I'd amassed about 70,000 followers, and that's when the publishers approached me."
His three cookbooks each cover one part of his 90-day Shift, Shape and Sustain fitness plan, which is, if you'll forgive the phrase, the bread and butter of his health enterprise online. Volume one, The Shift Plan, has sold over a million copies in the UK alone. Each book is divided into reduced carbohydrate recipes for weight loss, refuelling post-workout recipes, and treats, as well as detailed HIIT (high-intensity interval training) plans and exercises.
He credits the success of the books to the fact that his fans like to buy merchandise. "Online I sort of shout the recipe ingredients and don't write them down, so I guess that's what people want from the books - the exact measurements from recipes, and the fact that it's all gathered together.
"But we never ever predicted the success of these books. To sell a million physical copies of the first book - some books will never do that in 10 years. In publishing terms it's a bit of a phenomenon."
However, the books are only one string to his bow, and it's the online personal coaching that really kick-started his empire. With his mop of bouncy curls, a can-do attitude, and some knowingly cheesy phrases (he refers to broccoli as "midget trees") he's something of an endearing cross between Jamie Oliver and Game of Thrones' Jon Snow. Noisy, upbeat, approachable and accessible, his online training plans and social media channels quickly gathered a loyal following.
"I saw online training happening and thought 'how can I do that better?' And to me, that was to be more flexible, and make it more enjoyable. The difference with my plan is that it's tailored to the person - you can choose your own meals, it's tasty and quick, and the workouts are quick and intense."
How might one train online, you might wonder? Well, after signing up, filling in a detailed questionnaire about your diet and lifestyle, and sending in photos of yourself in swimwear or underwear, you receive a tailored plan from your own personal Body Coach. It includes recipes rich in protein and good fats, and advice on everything from supplements to getting active. The onus is on the client to complete the prescribed exercise plan and to stay motivated, but your coach is always an email away if you need them.
"In my experience, people are bored of diets, they're bored of starving themselves," Wicks says. "I don't tell my clients that you can eat these high-calorie meals and do no exercise - that's naïve.
"You will gain body fat if you're not burning energy. But because my workouts are short and intense, you can be a student, a business person or a busy mum and still be able to do it. I haven't got time for excuse-makers that say they haven't got the money or the time, or that they need a personal trainer - it's all b***ocks, you can do this anywhere."
Formerly a teaching assistant, Wicks started working as a personal trainer six years ago. "I was going to be a PE teacher, I always thought I'd do that. I've always been into health and fitness, but growing up I had a really bad diet, the cooking side of it I didn't understand. When I got more into nutrition, I started getting more clients.
"I wasn't the first person to do Instagram recipe videos, but I had the idea to do it in a slightly different way. I started doing 15-second videos and using the hashtag #LeanIn15, and it just picked up momentum.
"I started doing YouTube videos and then came up with the 90-day plan. Then I'd post transformation pictures from clients and it went from there. And even today, it's the same, the structure and format online are identical. The only difference is that the books are available to buy too, but I still post a lot of free content."
I signed up to Joe's plan back in 2014 when he was managing it all by himself. Now he has 44 support staff, and 132,000 clients have come on board. That might not sound very impressive right off the bat, but each one of those people has parted with £150. Add that up, and astoundingly, it's near the £20m mark.
"I was doing it in the early days all on my own. I'd teach bootcamp at 6am, then be training people all day in person, and then on emails until 1am. I used to think it would be great if I had 10 people sign up. Now 132,000 have, but that's nothing compared to the four million people that follow me online."
Wicks says rule number one for a productive lifestyle when feeling demotivated is to get up, exercise, and then eat a healthy breakfast. "If you don't do that, you'll struggle all day, crave sugar and feel lethargic." He's not advocating working out every single day though, as rest is important.
According to Wicks, four to five good sessions is enough each week, and he likes to get clients started doing HIIT.
It's a method of short, sharp and tough bursts of exercise followed by a quick rest period before going again, for a total of about 20 minutes.
"It's a time thing, people are so short on time. Doing an hour of cardio is great, but you can do HIIT in a short time, and burn more calories. I also think people respond to it on an endorphins level, because it's so hard and you hate it when you're doing it, but it's short and when you're done you feel absolutely amazing.
"My theory is fast, healthy, food, fast workouts."
As followers become fitter and more familiar with their body and its abilities, a quick weights routine is added to the HIIT to boost the metabolism and shift stubborn fat even more efficiently. And it seems to work; the client transformation pictures he posts are incredible - so incredible he's often accused of faking them.
"I get a few trolls saying the pictures are altered, but that's just because the before and after photos are so good. I would never Photoshop a picture, because what are you achieving by doing that? Our clients write their testimonies and we tag their social media handle. If they're on the hall of fame, it's because they've really smashed it."
Success doesn't seem to have changed Wicks, or at least it hasn't changed his lifestyle. His 11-year relationship with his childhood sweetheart ended last spring, and he's since been linked to model Rosie Jones. However, he insists that a high-profile relationship is not something he's chasing.
"I haven't had to link myself to a celebrity to get where I am, and I'm not interested in that. I'm more interested in training the average person," he says.
"I love what I do, but even when I'm tired and demotivated, I know one Instagram post or a Snapchat can really make a difference to someone, so I keep doing it.
"I get all the feedback from so many nice people saying they're inspired, so as long as I'm fit and healthy, I'll keep doing it. I have a driven personality, so the more I achieve, the more motivated I become."
He tells me his new found fame and wealth just means he can do more of the things he wants to do in his spare time.
"I love travelling, eating out, going to festivals, and I love to include my friends because if I don't, I'm not getting the most out of it. So all this just means I can do those things without having to wait for months."
Although nobody knows where the online business model will go in the future, or if social influencers are just a flash in the pan, Wicks says he feels like this is all just the beginning for him.
"I feel like I'm at the start of it all. The main core of the business is the 90-day plan. It could fizzle out, or it could become the next Weight Watchers. I'm telling people to eat more food, eat fats and carbs, and to exercise. That message is positive, and it works."