The internet’s richest fitness resource is a site from 1999

The internet's richest fitness resource is a site from 1999

In twelve years of lifting weights, I can’t say I’ve ever attempted a sissy squat. Yet the name intrigues me, like a tickle to the brain. I know it’s an exercise of some sort, training a lower body. I also know where I can go to learn every detail of the sissy squat if I want to know more. Not the closest personal trainer nor its virtual equivalent, not YouTube, not Instagram. God only knows what TikTok would offer. No. Instead, I fire up my browser, ignore my million other open tabs, and type the following: exrx.net.

What you will find if you do the same is a website that has by all appearances been forgotten by the internet at large. Exrx.net, which bills itself as an online exercise prescription, was launched in 1999, and indeed, if it weren’t for the updated copyright notice at the bottom of its pages, new visitors would think they’ve landed on a antiquity, abandoned in running towards a brave new Web 2.0. The home page is an anticlimax of a greeting, stale and firm except for the bare bones GIFs of a small, perpetually running blue figure that serves as the site’s logo. Below that is a very superficial: choose your own adventure: twenty-four squares denoting twenty-four destinations (weight training, injury management, nutrition), displayed in thick, nondescript font and accompanied by what appear to be stock images. Site hyperlinks shine in the default brilliant shade of blue; there are banner ads. This all suggests amateurish HTML from the days of Yahoo GeoCities and dial-up and saying www out loud. It’s my favorite fitness resource on the internet.

Exrx.net’s apparent lack of sophistication belies a physiological compendium provided by professors, physical therapists, physicians, coaches, and military personnel and endorsed by the American College of Sports Medicine. The site has granted the use of its materials to NASA and the NYPD Among its listed contributors and editorial board members are Ph.Ds, MDs, and MSs, including the site’s creator and editor, James Griffing, who holds a master’s degree in exercise physiology and psychology from Kansas State University, in 1996, after winning the Mr. Kansas bodybuilding title. ExRx began life as a dissertation, an interactive multimedia computer database of 250 weight training exercises and muscle analyzes that Griffing began translating onto the Web the year he graduated. ExRx went live using 10MB of free web space provided by a local Internet provider, the site explains. At its peak, between 2008 and 2018, it received more than a million unique visitors a month. Nowadays, the About Us page reads, we maintain about a third of our past peak traffic, which is no small matter given the many higher production alternatives fitness enthusiasts can find online today.

Web sites, at least in their earliest iterations, were mere directories miraculously rendered virtual and accessible. Transparency was a virtue. As a result, ExRx makes its organizational rationale clear. Its pages adopt the structure of uniform and robust unordered lists. Sections on weight management or weight training mistakes roll out as dispassionately as those in academic journals and aerobic conditioning. The site is ready for spelunking, you might come across a page devoted to, say, cervical lateral flexion but unlike other parts of the modern internet, you’re never lost on ExRx.

Lack of decency does not equate to lack of mediation. I am not naïve enough to think that ExRx is devoid of intentions of its own. But the simple facade of the site gives it a certain authority. In a fitness ecosystem dominated by new and old school flash, from hard-selling personal trainers to soft-powered influencers, exrx.net treats me like an adult. If Instagram Reels and TikTok videos are thoughtful hustlers for hire, ExRx is a librarian or, better yet, the library itself.

I have to admit, in my many years of using the site, I’ve only explored a fraction of what exrx.net has to offer. My infatuation with it began and remains centered on its holy grail: the exercise directory. It’s a bodybuilder/physical therapist’s paradise, because who else would target not only the chest and back muscles, but also the serratus anterior and upper trapezius fibers? Who else needs to know nearly twenty modifications for triceps dips, or that weighted dips recruit the biceps brachii as a dynamic stabilizer, which can aid in joint stabilization by counteracting the rotational force of an agonist, whatever that means? I’m neither a bodybuilder nor a medical professional, as perhaps goes without saying, but I will consult ExRx to compile new training regimens, making sure the movements I choose strengthen the intended areas. Mostly though, I visit exrx.net to know too much about exercise.

Searching the site for sissy squats, for example, yields a page with information about how it’s categorized (utility: auxiliary; mechanical: isolated; strength: push), how it’s performed, how to increase or decrease its difficulty, and, of course, the muscles (target, synergists, stabilizers) that recruits. But I’ll be honest: None of these are the main attraction. One of the most wonderful features of ExRx is that almost every exercise in its directory (almost two thousand and counting, according to the site) comes with a cycle GIFs demonstration. THE GIFs why the sissy squat exhibits something similar to a standard squat in hard mode: a ponytailed woman stands on her toes and leans far back with a stiff upper body as her knees bend down floor, then gets up and does it again and again. At first glance, the footage appears seamless, but we can now infer, from a bus passing the window behind her, that it plays three real-time replays before looping again.

The one thing we don’t learn on ExRx’s Sissy Squat page is why the exercise has that name. To some old-fashioned googling, the moniker is said to be a nod to Sisyphus, whose endless thrusting training sure earned him a couple of huge sweet potatoes. But during fact-checking for this piece, Griffing said that this explanation was absent from his site because it hadn’t been substantiated by sufficient academic scrutiny. ExRx may be old, but it remains tough about its standards. Both my inner scholar and inner fool kneel.

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