“Anime was a mistake” is a meme for a reason. But for some Dragon Ball fans, anime was the best thing that ever happened to them, and to their health.
I was hauling ass on my gym’s recumbent bike the other day when some bald-headed human muscle sat down on the bike next to me. Like everyone does, he took out his iPhone and placed it on the bike’s monitor. I didn’t mean to stare, but it was hard to stop once I noticed he was watching Dragon Ball Z. That’s so cute, I thought. He looks a little like Krillin.
Dragon Ball is a shonen anime about saving the planet. Wildly popular from its after-school slot on Toonami, Dragon Ball involves interplanetary battles, training sequences, power-ups and extended yelling sequences while heroes transform into mega-strong Super Saiyan forms. The show follows Goku, his son Gohan and a cast of other fighters as they defeat increasingly strong villains and, in the process, break every known precedent of strength and endurance.
The show has turned into a big workout incentive among the nerdier fitness community. Check out Instagram’s Dragon Ball hashtag and you’ll see buff dudes and ladies flexing in Dragon Ball outfits. A workout attire company called Just Saiyan cropped up to satisfy the need for Goku-style tank tops and fight shorts. Notable MMA fighter Marcus Brimage once said Dragon Ball Z was the reason why he got into MMA. He regularly, and earnestly, wears Dragon Ball gear to fights. WWE wrestler Brennan Williams is on the record as a huge Dragon Ball Z nerd. YouTube fitness personality Chris Jones told me the show’s emphasis on hard work and consistency drew him into bodybuilding. The list goes on.
There’s even Saiyan Aesthetics, a strength and athletics program that charges $20/Dragon Ball workout session. Their 200,000 subscribers are their “Saiyan army.”
Dragon Ball fitness geeks I spoke with told me that, because of Dragon Ball, they’re on a one-man journeys to be the best they can be—and they want to help others do the same. Several of them became personal trainers, spurred by protagonist Goku’s upbeat approach to getting strong and training others to push their limits.
“I like to tell people that Dragon Ball is essentially one step below my actual religion,” personal trainer Stephen Ross told me. Ross runs a blog called Real Anime Training. On it, he publishes training regimens inspired by his favorite shonen anime—often, Dragon Ball. He’s got at least two dozen Dragon Ball-themed workouts, all of which respect scenes from the actual anime. The “Goku’s Gravity Room Workout” suggests 10 push-ups, 10 sit-ups, 10 “Horse Stance Punches w/2lb weights” and a minute shadowboxing.
Ross is a fitness professional in South Carolina. But he wasn’t always fit. “I was a fat kid,” Ross confided. When he was ten, he weighed 180 pounds. One summer, his dad decided to get him in shape. Back then, Ross could only watch Dragon Ball on bootleg VHS tapes when it wasn’t on Toonami. For him, that was enough to keep him motivated. He says he lost 40 pounds in a summer.
Ross enjoyed the fight scenes and epic transformations, but what made him consider fitness as a lifestyle was Dragon Ball’s Hyperbolic Time Chamber. In it, one year spent training equalled one day in the outside world. Also, gravity within the Hyperbolic Time Chamber is ten times’ heavier than the Earth. Goku’s training sequences in the Time Chamber were brutal.
“We’ll take a little break,” Goku tells his son Gohan after an intense Time Chamber training session. Gohan urges Goku to keep pushing him. Day in and day out, they exercised to the point of complete exhaustion. “I have to get stronger,” Gohan repeats to himself.
The chamber was a place devoted to self-betterment. Ross says it glamorized perseverance and physical accomplishment. “You’re not sure if you can do it, but you’re excited about the challenge of doing it,” Ross explained. “You’ll push yourself until you do it or you fail. And then, get up and do it again.” On his blog and with his clients, Ross repeats the same mantra.
Jordan Downs, another personal trainer and Dragon Ball fan, was also on the chubbier side as a child. At school, he’d wear anime shirts with buff heroes on them, which he says provoked bullies to comment that he was too fat to rep his favorite cartoon characters. He didn’t ever want to get picked on like that again. He wanted to be strong, but also kind and treat others as equals. For that, he saw an idol in Goku.
When he watched the first Dragon Ball episode featuring the Hyperbolic Time Chamber, Jordan tried mimicking Goku’s push-ups. Years later, and pounds lighter, Jordan still pumped himself up for work-outs by rewatching the scene when Goku trains on his way to the planet Namek. “That’s why I learned to do handstand push-ups,” Jordan told me. “I practiced religiously after watching the scene where Goku does them.”
Jordan says that working out isn’t just about becoming strong. It’s about pushing himself to be a better person. He says Dragon Ball directly influenced that work-out philosophy: “People always say, ‘I don’t know why you train like these characters when you know you’ll never be as strong as them.’ That’s not the right mentality. It’s about being the best you can be no matter what,” he said. He explains to his clients that working out will make them feel confident enough to accomplish their goals, like, for example, defeating the villain Cell.
His line: “Hey, if you work with me, I’ll make you super. Just Saiyan.”
Actually, I witnessed a family friend’s budding health obsession while he went through a big Dragon Ball Z phase. It was in 6th grade, at our elementary school in Virginia. I caught up with Brett the other day and asked how Dragon Ball inspired him to become a personal trainer:
“DBZ is filled with bulging muscles and powerful characters. The advent of the Super Saiyan sent every DBZ fan into nerdgasms. You kinda sit there after screaming from the awesomeness and wonder how you can accomplish it yourself. Fortunately, DB includes little snippets of them ‘training’ with either weights, enhanced gravity chambers, running or calisthenics. That was my starting point! I bought a shitty bench, some dumbbells, and started running...
“What initially started as an anime fueled obsession turned into a passion for health and fitness. I carry that with me to this day and have helped many family and friends with their own journeys as well over the years. Nowadays that passion has become further focused into studying for my doctorate in Physical Therapy and returning people to the activities and life that they love. In a way, I like to think I’m making everyone into there [sic] own little Super Saiyans.”
If an anime can get you off the couch and into the weight room, it’s doing something right. Maybe anime wasn’t a mistake. For my part, I’ll be watching Flip Flappers at the gym.