It was this “obsessive” pattern of thinking about food and fitness that led her to a thread on Reddit documenting a woman’s progress over six months of lifting. The physical results were appealing, but what stopped her in her tracks was the program itself: Three workouts a week, plenty of rest, and lots of food. This led her to Starting Strength and the bare-bones gym.
“I found it extremely gratifying and validating and illuminating, that all I had to do was just show up, do this very precisely circumscribed amount of work, rest the next day, and eat my food,” she said. “It felt almost magical.”
Lots of people feel this way about running or yoga or rock climbing or any number of physical pursuits, but lifting clicked for her—and she couldn’t stop talking about it. After she delivered a version of this story to the editor of The Hairpin, she started writing about it with the zeal of the converted. “I’m not a personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, lawyer, nutritionist, dietician, CEO, gym owner, Pokemon gym owner, or anything,” she wrote in the first post. “But I like working out, and think it’d be cool if other people liked working out, too. If we all make sick gains and get stronger (musculoskeletally, emotionally) in the process, good.”
When The Hairpin shut down, “Ask a Swole Woman” moved to Self and then to Vice. (Self, like GQ, is owned by Condé Nast.) Then after a mid-pandemic layoff, Johnston went independent, and now her newsletter has around 10,000 subscribers on the free list and enough paid subscribers to support her “and then some” when compared to her last staff job. She’s removed one title she didn’t have from her original disclaimer—she got a personal-training certification last year—though the overall tone has remained that of an enthusiastic amateur with an eye for bullshit.
While there are plenty of posts auditing the too-good-to-be-true claims of fitness influencers and the weight-loss industry, the core message of her project has been metronome-consistent: demystifying weight training for people who aren’t in the conventional meathead demographic, and then convincing them to train (and eat) like a bit of a meathead anyway.
This means compound barbell lifts—squats, rows, deadlifts, bench and overhead presses—with high weight and low reps. It means avoiding the on-rails strength machines that clutter most mass-market gyms. It means getting lots of protein. And crucially, it means tracking and systematically increasing exactly how much you’re lifting. This is a foundational principle of most serious weightlifting programs, but is usually missing from muscle magazine plans or high-rep, low weight schemes that are supposed to “tone.” When Johnston talks about “getting stronger,” she means literally moving more weight.
Her most recent big project was a self-published book, Liftoff: Couch to Barbell, a program designed to bring anyone with “zero familiarity with lifting weights” up to speed. It addresses the pitfall she faced when just getting started: not being strong enough to start getting stronger. (In demonstrations for the first, no-weight phase, she’s lifting the handle of a Swiffer.) Johnston says she wrote the book for, anyone who “feels alienated by the burden of their physical self and their body that’s never hot enough, always in too much pain, and never able to show up when it counts.”
The idea, as ever, is that every single person could gain something by getting stronger. Johnston envisions a future in which serious weightlifting is seen in this light, as a source of growth that’s accessible to anyone, instead of as the domain of Cro-Magnon narcissists. “There should be free gyms with dozens of squat racks, everywhere,” she told me. “We’re not there yet.”