The blare of the alarm startles me. It is dark inside the East Brunswick, New Jersey, home of Kevin Hejnas, an online fitness coach and influencer known to his 188,000 Instagram followers as @Hejnasty. I stayed in Hejnas’s guest room overnight so that I can spend a day—an entire day—watching him pump and flex and hashtag his way to Internet fame. It is early and I am tired, but Hejnas is wide awake.
It is impossible to say how many fitness influencers (okay, fine: fitfluencers) are trying to pump and flex and hash their way to fame on social media—you could tell me there are 1,000 or 10,000 or 100,000 andI would believe you, since an untold number of people start their own “fit” account every day. I first came across Hejnas on Instagram earlier this year, when he had 140,000 followers. A lot of the men and women who work out on Instagram have no idea what they’re doing or have no business in front of a camera, but at 25, Hejnas radiates competence and possesses a shine that reads as star power on a smartphone.
He has no formal fitness certification and has no plans to get any, and he’s never worked in a gym. He doesn’t have any clients he actually trains in person. Instead, he relies solely on teleconference consultations and pre-made workout programs he sells directly through his website. And to promote that website, he creates content for social media: two posts a day on Instagram and one or two a week on YouTube showing his workouts, diet plan, gratuitous flexing, and videos of the two Pomsky puppies he shares with his girlfriend, Nicole.
–5:15 am: Hejnas trains six days a week, usually before anyone else is awake.
To keep his six-foot-two physique so ripped it wouldn’t look out of place in a superhero flick, he rises early (4:01 a.m., to be exact) six days a week to train for two hours before the rest of the world gets up. (His early wakeup time is partly influenced by hustle-porn icons like Elon Musk and Gary Vaynerchuk, who preach break-of-dawn productivity, and he’s even named one of his pups Elon.) When I enter his kitchen, Hejnas is scarfing down some cereal with protein powder, and he tosses me a snack bar from one of the many boxes he keeps on hand. We make small talk, and he apologizes for the fact that we’ll have to drive his nondescript Toyota for the short ride over to his local Crunch. His tricked-out new Tesla Model S is in the shop getting a custom space-gray wrap job. (Yes, he drives an S. Yes, the one that costs about a hundred grand, even without the custom work. More on that in a minute.)
Today’s an upper-body day. Aman Purba, a senior at nearby Rutgers University and Hejnas’s part-time videographer, meets us to record the entire workout for YouTube. Purba’s a gangly kid who latched on to Hejnas through connections to theRutgers powerlifting team, which Hejnas helped form as an undergraduate. Purba wants to get into video production full-time, so he volunteered to shoot workouts and edit Hejnas’s YouTube clips. He’s got a compact handheld Sony with a mic attachment, and during the training session, Hejnas tosses quips straight to the camera, a mix of service-minded tips and anecdotes highlighting why he performed a move a certain way—“Grab the bar tightly and bend it outward on an incline bench,” for example, or “Drive your elbow back while doing rows to engage your lats.” Purba does not give any formal cues for action, cuts, or pauses, and Hejnas doesn’t really need them. He never misses a beat or bungles his lines. These aren’t just gimme reps for the camera, but there’s no grunting or sputtering while Hejnas pushes through the sets. Even though there are no clients in sight, it’s clear that he’s thinking like a coach—anyone who winds up watching the video online could turn into a client.
After the workout, Hejnas scans the gym for better lighting for still shots. It’s now 7:45, and the mirror-lined room is filling up with people who are patting themselves on the back for waking up early to work out. Hejnas finds a corner to the right of the dumbbell racks, free of fluorescent washout. Together we pop a biceps flex and ash a smile for the ’Gram. He won’t upload the pic until later, since he keeps a consistent, twice-daily sharing schedule on IG and it’s too early for his first post. But when he eventually does so, it’s complete with a long caption and a string of hashtags. Result: more than 5,800 likes, the most popular post I’ve ever been tagged in.
Without that photo for Instagram and a 20-minute video for YouTube, the trip to the gym would have been a wasted opportunity for Hejnas to attract more followers to his pages, the ultimate motivation behind just about everything he hopes to accomplish. He graduated from Rutgers with a Pharm.D. in May 2018, but he’s hitched his star to his virtual coaching business. “The point of having such a large following is that you are putting a lot of good value out to people,” Hejnas says. “[Having a large following] sets you up as an authority in the space—people look at you: ‘Oh, a lot of people are following you; there must be a reason for that.’ ”
Yes, I thought, there must be a reason for that.
9:15 a.m. #CRUSHINGCALLS
Workout done and documented, Hejnas returns home to start work work. We stand in his small kitchen, eating chicken breast and cauliflower rice, which he recently discovered; he is just as eager to share his thoughts on this as he is on his close-grip bench press form. He’s meticulous about his diet and keeps track of everything he eats, carefully monitoring his macronutrient levels, just as he does for his clients. He’s scheduled individual and small-group consults for the next four hours. We head upstairs to a small office, and soon he’s standing at a tall desk with three monitors resembling a command center.
Hejnas’s bread and butter is his “Healthy Flex Prescription,” a custom 12-week training program. He tailors it for each client based on his own body-building experience, basic periodization principles (the standard format trainers use with progressive phases to build strength), and up-to-date information from strength-science journals. He also provides an eating plan that emphasizes balanced macros and calorie-intake goals. (He has no nutrition certification and relies on nutritional-science research, podcasts, and books for guidance.)
He’s not reinventing the wheel with his program: You can walk into most gyms and end up with a similar personal-training package. But as Hejnas sees it, people aren’t looking for reinvented wheels—they’re looking for clear, consistent feedback, and they want it from someone they trust and possibly even admire. He says he’s coached more than 140 people through the program over the past year, his first in business, and his clients have collectively dropped “well over 1,000 pounds.”
While virtual coaches like Hejnas might carve out huge followings on social media, they often don’t garner as much respect within the fitness community as a coach working at a
gym. “You can’t fully maximize your impact on your clients without having hands-on experience training people,” says trainer Jay T. Maryniak, NASM (@jtm_fit, 585K Instagram followers), who took a more traditional route to build his persona before expanding to the online model. “There needs to be actual experience working with a variety of different clients to truly become a great trainer.” Hejnas obviously doesn’t agree and believes that he’s been able to get that knowledge without the gym setting. “Having a set of certifications doesn’t make you a good coach; being a good coach makes you a good coach,” he says. “The way we apply [knowledge] to our clients and help them adhere to those principles is where the real coaching aspect comes into play . . . I know that I’m away better coach now, having trained 300 people through an online platform, thanI was when I was just book smart. Now I know the application and I know what my clients need support on.”
Hejnas lets me listen in on his consultations, and he has an easygoing rapport with his charges during his sessions. He asks them how they feel doing the workout program, how closely they stick to their diet, and what challenges they anticipate. He clearly knows the answers to many of the questions, but he gives his clients a chance to verbalize the answers themselves. He sends most of them off laughing at some joke or encouraged to keep up the hard work. He verges on stern with one person who hasn’t met their goals, then he celebrates with another, explaining how they’ll be able to plan their meals so that they can cut loose on an upcoming trip without sacrificing their gains.
He’s on his feet for most of the day, and in between calls he blasts K-pop and takes care of his dogs. The hours pass, and he moves on from consulting to a sales call, trying to persuade someone who finished the 12-week plan to start a more involved 12-month program. Hejnas doesn’t share his rates with me, saying that the amount depends on exactly “what each client needs.” He says his base program gets 100 to 150 applications per month (these come via social media, referrals, and outreach efforts), but he doesn’t take on all of them. He’s even more selective with the 12-month program, only accepting clients if they’re “ready for the commitment.”
Hejnas isn’t alone in recruiting potential clients. He has four employees who work at least part-time for him: Deniz, a sales specialist; Purba, who handles filming and editing; Brandon, another friend from Rutgers who serves as an assistant coach for entry-level clients; and Nicole, who plans to leave her job as an engineer to provide more sales, strategy, and administrative support to the business. But mostly it’s just him, waking up early, recording and posting and hustling. And to achieve more lucrative #fitspo stardom, Hejnas will likely need to at least double his following on IG and quadruple his YouTube subscriber base of around 24,000. That’s when the 4:01 alarm blasts will start to pay off.
1:47 p.m. #HUSTLEHISTORY
If he weren’t being trailed by a journalist, this is the point of the day when Hejnas would take a break to run errands, watch Attack on Titan, or play his Nintendo Switch. Today, though, he wants to talk about motivation.
Hejnas’s backstory is similar to those of many trainers both IRL and Insta-famous. He says that he was a chubby kid who had a bad relationship with his body until he tried the P90X program early in high school. Then he competed in powerlifting and physique (a similar contest more focused on lean mass than huge muscles) in college. He began documenting his training on Instagram, where he experimented with different ways to earn new followers. His biggest success was a total accident. Someone reposted a competition-prep photo of Hejnas flexing shirtless to @thatblue_duck, a thirst-trap account with 400,000 followers. When one of his friends recognized him and tagged him in the post, Hejnas allowed the page to use his picture. After a few more posts there, Hejnas had several thousand followers, and he started to get requests for tips and coaching. As he prepared to graduate from pharmacy school, he had a decision to make: Did he sit for his boards to become a licensed pharmacist or take a risk and concentrate on expanding his social-media profile and business? On the day he finished his pharmacy rotations, he made his choice, spending $5,000 on a business coach to help guide him through the new venture.
Hejnas keeps his profile growing by constantly and carefully curating his brand—determining how technical he should get when he explains his training, how much of his personal life he’ll expose, and exactly how much skin he’s comfortable showing. Some influencers dip into “flex shows,” private pay-per-view video sessions off the platform that skew toward the pornographic. Hejnas says he’s never done one, but someone once set up a fake profile with his photos and attempted to entice his fans to turnover their credit card info in exchange for a trove of lewd content. (He hopes to get a blue check from Instagram soon to prevent any more fraud.) His stuff stays decidedly PG, and his brand can best be described as classic bodybuilding, clean eating, and an earnest and vaguely inspirational documentation of the ceaseless “grind.”
Many major fitness influencers build their reputation by working at a notable gym with famous clients or by putting a unique spin on training—think of Don Saladino, NASM (@donsaladino, 187K Instagram followers, clients including Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman), as an example of the former and Maryniak as an example of the latter. “I’ve been posting one to three times a day for over six years to get where I am today,” says Maryniak. Even if they didn’t start where Hejnas did, these traditional trainers are online in some capacity too. Like Hejnas, both Saladino and Maryniak offer complete digital workout packages, only without the consultations.
Other influencers simply buy followers to gain clout, a technique that depends on bots, which can be understood as empty accounts run by computer programs. It’d be a tempting shortcut to the front of the line for any would-be fitness star, but Hejnas decided early on that he was going to earn every follow. Though he denies purchasing followers, he does admit to shelling out for shout-outs, which are strategically placed callouts by more influential accounts to highlight smaller ones. “If you are a business, I can see why you might [buy followers],” he says. “But I don’t like how it’s misleading.”
– 3:25 pm: During downtime, he often hits the beach, never missing an opportunity to create content.
Hejnas also spends a significant amount of time strategizing with Purba on how best to package his content for YouTube. The goal is to translate his IG posts and free videos into a larger YouTube audience and more sales of his own product. Microfitfluencers—people with far fewer than 100,000 superloyal followers—can earn $1,500-plus for single stories hawking products from companies eager to curry favor with engaged audiences. Major fitfluencers, those with at least 500,000 followers, can earn $25,000 or more per post.
This influencer industrial complex, if you want to be technical about it, is evolving fast. Kevin Bello, cofounder and COO of Snapbac—a new apparel brand that counts Derek Jeter as a cofounder and investor and works with lower-profile athletes such as Olympic sprinter Mikel Thomas (@mikel_thomas,15K Instagram followers) and MH Top Trainer Gideon Akande (@getfitwithgiddy, 59K Instagram followers)—says that when considering a potential partnership, he focuses on the quality of the fitfluencer’s following, not the quantity. “If every comment is ‘Wow, you look fire,’ we won’t engage,”Bello says. The company’s team is careful to select influencers whose audiences care about more than just smashing “like.”
There are even multiple matchmaker platforms for influencers and brands to come together, like Viral Nation and Open Sponsorship. Ishveen Anand, OpenSponsorship’s CEO, walked me through the five-year-old platform’s setup. While most of the profiles belong to traditional professional athletes, some influencers are in the mix. The platform’s tools allow companies to view just about every conceivable metric about possible partners, including audience-engagement figures (which would ID bot followings immediately) and ROI estimates. “This whole shift to digital means everything should be so trackable,” says Anand. “Now you’re going to have to show the value or the tide will turn.”
Hejnas hasn’t used these platforms to broker deals, as he’s dedicated his efforts to building his training business before expanding his personal profile. He says he was paid $500 for a “one-and-done” deal with an apparel brand he declines to name (he recently posted a video on YouTube showcasing gear from GymShark, a social-media-friendly company popular with fitfluencers) and estimates he’s made “less than $10,000” directly from Instagram, since he’s been selective about brands he’ll shill to his audience. “Ninety-five percent of my income is going to be from coaching and my business,” he says. “Not much is coming from the affiliate stuff.”
As of now, Hejnas’s only sponsorship agreement is with a supplements company, PEScience, but he hopes to land a permanent apparel deal soon. His ideal partner would be a brand like GymShark, because it puts its endorsers in flashy campaigns.
5:05 p.m. #CHEATMEALGOALS
Dinnertime. Almost. We leave the house to run an errand—Hejnas likes to add a personal touch to his services, and today he’s mailing out T-shirts—and then we head to Chipotle. It’s all so jarringly normal; if not for Hejnas’s bulky frame and brightly colored tank top, no one in the place would give our table a second glance. His social media following is most likely double that of everyone else in the building combined. I feel more like I’m hanging out with one of my little brother’s friends than like I’m out on assignment, and I nearly forget that the kid I’m eating with is probably pulling in well over six figures. He drops me off so I can take the bus back to New York City, and we part ways with a bro hug. He’ll go home to take a few more calls from clients, then wind down early.
Most of the time, it’s lights out around 8:00 p.m. After spending the majority of his day working the phones from inside his house, the influencer with 188,000 followers and counting scrolls through the day’s training documentation while in bed and preps and posts his last photo to Instagram. Then he falls asleep before most bars end happy hour. On my ride home, I scroll through my own feed. There are posts from professionals who create shiny #content for a living and posts from friends who share photos for fun. In their look and feel, Hejnas’s posts fall somewhere in between, and if he’s going to break through to the next tier of social-media relevance, he’ll need to put in even more work and more hustle—and he’ll be up at 4:01 a.m. tomorrow to do it.