This article originally appeared in Making It, a newsletter featuring conversations about craft, cash, and compromise, with Emily Gould. Sign up here.
Photo: Molly Matalon
In a TikTok video she made to promote Liftoff, her beginners’ step-by-step weight-lifting manual, fitness writer Casey Johnston demonstrates the way she used to pick up a 40-pound box of kitty litter and carry it into her apartment. In this “before” scene, she goes through a series of painfully familiar contortions, scuttling, scrambling, and finally pushing the box through the door wheelbarrow style, butt in the air. The “after” video is about two seconds long; Johnston simply reaches down, picks up the box, and carries it inside.
The clip is simple but encapsulates what makes Johnston such an effective teacher, one who has convinced her readers that bulking up, not slimming down, is a worthy fitness goal: her willingness to put her imperfections on display to get her message across, her commitment to the quotidian benefits of lifting, and her body, which is, as you would expect from the author of an advice column called Ask a Swole Woman, commendably swole.
Since 2016, when she started writing the column, Johnston has been amassing an army of (presumably somewhat swole) followers. Readers migrated with her from the Hairpin to Self magazine, then to Vice, then to Johnston’s independent newsletter, She’s a Beast. Navigating the world of journalism hasn’t always been easy for Johnston, as you might guess from her column’s four-homes-in-six-years trajectory. In a previous media era, a voice-y expert with an established following might have spent 20 years writing for the same magazine; Johnston has had to be nomadic, then entrepreneurial. In the process, she became a self-publishing success story: Her newsletter has 21,000 subscribers, and Liftoff has sold 11,000 copies at $20 a pop.
No one whom Johnston spoke to in traditional publishing thought the book would sell. Agents and editors couldn’t wrap their heads around how to present the material. “‘Have you thought about making an app?’” Johnston says one of them asked her. “I was like, Good Lord.”
What makes Liftoff different from other books of its genre, besides Johnston’s charming voice and lightly worn expertise, is how she breaks down moves as plainly as possible. “I’ve read textbooks explaining how to lift weights, and it’s brain melting,” she says. So in her book, there’s no exercise physiology, no anatomical diagrams. Instead, there are straightforward descriptions of how to safely move weights from one relationship with gravity to another, plus links to YouTube videos of herself doing the moves.