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March 21, 2023

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

Screenshot 2023-03-19 at 5.24.11 PM

Up top is the headline over Lauren Michele Jackson's March 3, 2023 New Yorker story, which follows.

Exrx.net is little changed since the days of Yahoo GeoCities and dial-up and saying 'www' aloud. Yet beneath its bare-bones interface is a deep physiological compendium.

In twelve years of lifting weights, I can't say that I've ever attempted a sissy squat. Yet the name intrigues me, like a tickle in my brain. I know that it is an exercise of some kind, working out some lower portion of the body. I know, too, where I can go to be filled in on every detail of the sissy squat, should I wish to learn more. Not the nearest personal trainer nor her virtual equivalent — not YouTube, not Instagram. Lord only knows what TikTok would proffer. No. Instead, I fire up my browser, ignore my million other open tabs, and type the following: "exrx.net."

What you'll find if you do the same is a Web site that by all appearances has been forgotten by the wider Internet. Exrx.net, which bills itself as an online "exercise prescription," launched in 1999, and indeed, were it not for the updated copyright notice at the bottom of its pages, new visitors would think they've happened upon a site of antiquity, abandoned in the rush toward a brave new Web 2.0. The home page is an anticlimax of a greeting, stale and still except for the bare-bones gif of a small, perpetually running blue figure that serves as the site's logo.
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Below it is a most perfunctory choose-your-own-adventure: twenty-four squares denoting twenty-four destinations ("Weight Training," "Injury Management," "Nutrition"), displayed in a thick, nondescript font and accompanied by what look like stock images. The site's hyperlinks glow in the brilliant default shade of blue; there are banner ads. All of it suggests an amateur HTML from the days of Yahoo GeoCities and dial-up and saying "www" aloud. It is my favorite fitness resource on the Internet.
Exrx.net's seeming lack of sophistication belies a physiological compendium that is sourced by professors, physical therapists, physicians, coaches, and military personnel, and endorsed by the American College of Sports Medicine. The site has granted use of its materials to NASA and the N.Y.P.D. Among its listed contributors and editorial-board members are Ph.D.s and M.D.s and M.S.s, including the site's creator and publisher, James Griffing, who received his master's in exercise physiology and psychology from Kansas State University, in 1996, after winning the bodybuilding title Mr. Kansas. ExRx began as a master’s thesis, "An Interactive Multimedia Computer Database of 250 Weight Training Exercises and Muscular Analyses," which Griffing started translating to the Web the year that he graduated. ExRx went live "using 10 MB of free webspace provided by a local internet provider," the site explains. At its height, between 2008 and 2018, it received more than a million unique visitors per month. "Nowadays," the About Us page reads, "we maintain approximately one third our past peak traffic," which is no small thing, given the many higher-production alternatives that fitness enthusiasts can find online today.
Web sites, at least in their earliest iterations, were mere directories miraculously made virtual, accessible. Transparency was a virtue. Accordingly, ExRx makes its organizational logic plain. Its pages adopt the structure of unordered lists — uniform and sturdy. Sections on weight management or weight-training mistakes unfurl as dispassionately as those on academic journals and aerobic conditioning. The site is primed for spelunking — you might happen upon a page dedicated to, say, cervical lateral flexion — but, unlike elsewhere on the modern Internet, on ExRx you are never lost.
Lack of décor doesn't equal lack of mediation — I am not so naïve as to think that ExRx is without its own intentions. But the site's plain face lends it a certain authority. In a fitness ecosystem dominated by new- and old-school flash, from personal trainers on the hard sell to influencers with soft power, exrx.net treats me like an adult. If Instagram Reels and TikTok videos are the solicitous pusher on commission, ExRx is a librarian — or, better yet, the library itself.
Admittedly, in my many years using the site I've trawled through only a fraction of what exrx.net has to offer. My infatuation with it began and remains centered upon its holy grail: the exercise directory. It is a bodybuilder/physical-therapist hog heaven, for who else would concern herself not only with chest and back muscles but with the serratus anterior and the upper fibres of the trapezius? Who else needs to know nearly twenty modifications for tricep dips, or that weighted dips "recruit" the biceps brachii as a dynamic stabilizer, which may "assist in joint stabilization by countering the rotator force of an agonist," whatever that means? I am neither a bodybuilder nor a medical professional, as perhaps goes without saying, but I'll consult ExRx to fill out new workout regimens, insuring that the movements I've chosen are strengthening the intended areas. Mostly, though, I visit exrx.net to know way too much about exercise.
Searching the site for "sissy squat," for instance, yields a page with info on how it's classified (utility: auxiliary; mechanics: isolated; force: push), how it's executed, how to increase or reduce its difficulty, and, of course, the muscles (target, synergists, stabilizers) that it recruits. But I'll be honest: none of those are the main attraction. One of the more wondrous features of ExRx is that nearly every exercise in its directory (nearly two thousand and counting, according to the site) comes with a looping gif demonstration. The gif for the sissy squat shows something like a standard squat on hard mode: a ponytailed woman stands on the tips of her toes and leans far backward with a stiff upper body while her knees bend toward the floor, then rises and does it again and again. At first glance, the footage appears seamless, but no — we can gather, from a bus that passes by the window behind her, that she does three real-time reps before the loop starts over.
The only thing we don't learn on ExRx's "Sissy Squat" page is why the exercise has that name. Per some old-fashioned Googling, the appellation is said to be a nod to Sisyphus, whose interminable push workout surely earned him a pair of massive yams. But during fact checking for this piece Griffing said that this explanation was absent from his site because it "was not substantiated" with sufficient "academic scrutiny." ExRx may be old, but it remains tough about its standards. Both my inner scholar and my inner meathead genuflect.

March 21, 2023 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


"double-you double-you double-you"
Hee hee.
I still hear that on phone menu recordings
when they want you just hang up and go to their useless website.

Posted by: Luke | Mar 24, 2023 9:29:25 AM

Correct, you can find mentions of it in the forums, but it is not to be found in the Exercise Directory

Posted by: Chris | Mar 22, 2023 7:29:01 PM

Pallof Press

Pallof Press

Posted by: bookofjoe | Mar 22, 2023 1:01:07 PM

The article made it sound like this site has cataloged every exercise you could think of, but the first thing I searched -- "Pallof Press" -- was nowhere to be found in the exercise compendium. This is not a terribly obscure exercise, so colour me unimpressed

Posted by: Chris | Mar 22, 2023 11:31:37 AM

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