Success exacts a price. For Joe Wicks, that price is pain. “Today I’m getting some treatment because I’m just so sore,” he says on a breakfast call from his London home. “I train so much that I just don’t get enough recovery.” Shortly, he’s expecting a knock on the door from a guy trained in acupuncture and osteopathy. “Because, yeah, I’m smashing my body six or seven days a week, you know?”
Well, we could have guessed. Wicks isn’t so much an obsessive trainer as an overworked one. Though he was already thriving pre-pandemic as The Body Coach – an online fitness and nutrition expert whose 90 Day Plan had gone gangbusters alongside eight bestselling cookbooks – it was a masterstroke born of a late-night epiphany that sent his celebrity (and training load) to the next level.
As Wicks tells it, he was lying in bed on March 20 last year, ruminating on the just-announced UK-wide, COVID-forced closure of schools, when three words flashed before him: PE With Joe. Within seconds, the details followed: workouts led by Wicks from his home every weekday at 9am, livestreamed on YouTube.
Word spread like juicy gossip. Three days later, when Wicks filmed his first PE With Joe workout, he had 806,000 live streams. On day two, 955,000 – a world record. After 10 days, the videos had been viewed 28 million times. For a battler who’d grown up with little money and limited prospects, life had just changed forever.
Wicks kept up PE With Joe for four months, stopping only when Britain’s schoolkids returned to their classrooms. He could have trousered about $1 million from YouTube ad revenue and sales of PE With Joe T-shirts, but instead donated every penny to the UK’s National Health Service. The masses voted with their thumbs: Wicks now has 4 million Instagram followers and 2.7 million subscribers to his YouTube channel.
Time to cruise a little? Alas, over the past year, UK schools have been subject to rolling closures, and Wicks has twice rebooted his juggernaut initiative in one form or another. He’s speaking to Men’s Health during his third stint, which he’s doing on a less-onerous three-days-per-week basis.
Even so, those millions of voracious fans in the digital realm need feeding. “My days revolve around shooting content,” he says. “Filming recipes for Instagram and filming workouts for my new Body Coach App [now available in Australia] or my YouTube channel.” That, and caring for his two children with his wife, model Rosie Jones.
As lifestyles go, it’s full-on. But there’s no backing off. Better to control the fire, he reckons, than to risk putting it out. It’s not by taking soft options that Wicks, 35, has made it to where he is.
The Wicks Way is to persevere through adversity, to push on towards whatever it is you’re seeking, all the while holding tight to your values.
Sure, success for Wicks is views, followings and moolah. But more than any of those things, he says, it’s the knowledge that he’s helping people. “That’s what truly motivates me,” he says. “That’s what keeps me going when I’m exhausted.”
Men’s Health: Where did the PE With Joe lightning bolt come from?
JW: I was planning on doing a UK tour. I’d done a couple of these already where I visit about 15-20 schools in a week. I go in, do a workout and interview the head, the teachers and the kids, and I find out how things are in the school: how’s everyone’s mental health? But a few days before I was about to start another one, the first lockdown was announced. I thought, Shit, this changes everything.
But I still wanted to reach people. And I thought, Okay, every single person in the UK is going to be in their house. They can’t go out. So, I thought, Right, why don’t I do a PE lesson? It was really aimed at kids, but I soon realised there were millions of adults watching, too.
After those first few days I had the head of Channel 4 ringing me saying, “Can you stream it on Channel 4?” And I was like, “No. This is global. I need kids in Australia and India and South America doing these workouts”. So, I stuck to my guns and kept it on YouTube, and it was the best decision I ever made.
Except now your muscles and tendons are rebelling?
Yeah. What I’ve realised over the years is that I really do train like an athlete. I train like six days a week, filming sometimes two or three sessions a day. It’s very intense on the body because it’s a lot of high-impact training. So, I’ve been getting acupuncture in the sides of my legs, my quads, my lower back, my glutes, and I’ve found it releases some of that tension deep in my muscles. I’ve also just got into cold-water therapy. My therapist treats a lot of professional athletes and he says, “Look, most of these guys are doing sauna, ice baths – they’ve got hypobaric chambers”.
So, I thought, OK, fuck it, I’m going to order a sauna. So, I’ve now got this lovely outdoor barrel sauna made out of cedar, and in the garden I’ve got a copper bath that I fill with ice. I do 12 minutes in the sauna, then two or three minutes in the ice. I’ve been doing that for a few weeks and I’m really feeling . . . not so much the physical benefits but the mental benefits of ice therapy. I film in the house and then I put down my phone, go down the end of the garden and switch off.
You need some substitute Joes, don’t you?
The thing is, I’m a personality-led brand, so it’s all on me. Before lockdown and before PE With Joe, I used to get two million views a month. Now, I’m getting 10-12 million. There are so many more people waiting for content. So, although I’ve got my business, which is the app and my 90 Day Plan, I still value free content.
I still need to engage and reach that audience. I’m on a hamster wheel, essentially.
How rough was your childhood?
Yeah, I’ve been open about this. I’m not ashamed or embarrassed. I had a chaotic upbringing. We lived in a council flat. We didn’t have nice food – it was all shit: a lot of chocolate, frozen meals and crisps. My mum left home when she was 15. She had my older brother [Nikki] when she was 17 and me at 19.
My dad was a heroin addict. He’s clean today, but through my childhood it was a cycle: he was clean, he was in rehab, he was out, he was relapsing. Yeah, I had a mad childhood. It was a lot of shouting and swearing, a lot of doors getting slammed and holes getting punched in walls.
How did you cope?
Sport. Fitness. They were my therapy. When all my friends were down at the park graffitiing or smoking weed or drinking, I was playing football or I was running or I was doing an after school karate class.
It sounds like your life could have gone either way. Would that be fair to say?
Yeah. When you grow up in a council estate, kids get into petty crime and drugs, and end up in Young Offenders. I could have been that kid
– 100 per cent. If I wasn’t raised right by Mum, I would have been that kid. But I didn’t want to drink or do drugs.
I was scared of becoming an addict. So, I just channelled my energy in a positive direction. And I’m a parent now to two little kids. I’ve got a two-year-old girl [Indie] and a one-year-old boy [Marley], and I just want to be a good dad. I want to be present. I want to be patient. I don’t want to be screaming and shouting.
And again, my exercise: it allows me to be tolerant and calm. On days I don’t exercise, I’m snappier and I don’t like it. So, for me, exercise is all about mental health. It used to be about body image, about being muscly. I used to hate my body because I was super-skinny when I was little. But now my narrative around fitness has changed – for me and for my audience.
When you finished school you weren’t thinking about making fitness your job. Your plan was to teach?
Yeah, but before I went to university I went travelling in Australia for a year. I went up the east coast from Sydney to Cairns and loved it.
I lived in Byron Bay for a while and had the time of my life. Me and my friends, we were so young and we were the first guys in our neighbourhood to travel anywhere. When we landed in Australia, we stayed in a right funny place called Penrith in the western suburbs of Sydney.
We bought this banged-up Nissan and drove all the way up the east coast. I met a girl in Byron, a Swedish girl, in a bar called Cheeky Monkey’s, and we were together for a long time. I had plans to come back to Australia but the bushfires in 2019 stopped me.
I’ve got a lot of love for Australia. I like the sense of humour. Anyway, I came back from that trip, did three years of uni and worked as a teacher’s assistant. I could tell that teaching wasn’t something I could do for life.