Lilly Sabri is one of the fastest growing female fitness influencers in the world right now, and after a four year slog, has just hit 3M followers on her YouTube channel. She's also recently launched a fitness app, alongside a growing product line featuring supplements, workout gear, and soon-to-be-unveiled pancakes, protein bars, and oats.
If you're wondering how the app holds up, you can check out my Lean app review, as well as finding out more about her journey in our profile on Lilly. In the meantime, we sat down for a chat to talk about the app's development, how her community's feedback has helped shape it, and how it encourages positive mental health, as well as keeping fit.
How the Lean app started
Launching her own fitness app has been a dream of Lilly's for years now; in fact it's one of "five big goals" that she's already smashing her way through. The app and the supplements line have already been made into a reality, while it looks likely that we'll see a series of themed cook books in the not too distant future.
"[The app has] been a dream, I would say, for about four or five years. I’d look at people like Joe [Wicks] The Body Coach, I’d look at Kayla [Itsines], and be like ‘that’s what I want one day. I want that community.'"
But starting out as a physiotherapist in the NHS, it's not as if she'd had any prior experience with app development, or running a brand. Happily that hasn't stopped the Lean with Lilly empire from taking off, thanks to her indomitable spirit and belief that "if you graft and you keep going, things will happen." She compares her road to success to that of a fitness journey; hard work and consistency will get you everywhere.
There was a moment of panic before launch though, which could've caused quite the wrinkle. Lilly recalls talking to her team in London prior to the app launch (she and her boyfriend Alex, and their dog Teddy, are based in Dubai) and being told she needed to secure the Lean with Lilly domain name. After a brief search online, Alex broke the news that it was already taken, and that they might have to pay over the odds to get hold of it from the owner.
A few days later, and after some more investigating, Alex discovered the name of the domain owner: Elizabeth Sabri. Lilly laughs as she explains that four years ago, her brother-in-law suggested she secure the domain after hearing about her ambition to get her fitness brand off the ground. “I’d complete forgotten!"
It's a funny anecdote but also illustrates Lilly's determination and self-belief that have ultimately made the app a reality.
Lean app development and the Familia
The app development didn't happen in a vacuum. Lilly has amassed quite the following on social media, and her fans even have their own collective name: 'the Familia'. Their support means a great deal to Lilly, which comes across when she talks about them – and the Lean app was very much developed with the Familia in mind. She first broached the idea with them in one of her live workouts, pitching it as a space where everything would be in one place and with a greater focus on personal fitness plans.
"At the time [my YouTube channel] was just random workouts – which are great at keeping you fit during lockdown but people actually wanted a guide that they could follow, that gets harder, and is personalised to them. [It was the] same with the meal plans.
"So we started brain storming it, and when we [presented the idea] they were like ‘oh my god, yes this is what we want!’ and then that idea developed into a conversation over the next year where we got all the feedback. And that's why we say this is an app made for you, with you, and will continue to do that.
"I think that’s something that's very, very rare, based on all the feedback we’re getting of people who are on other apps. The rate at which we’re bringing out new features, and updates, and changing things is unheard of, I think. So [it'll continue] to be a two way conversation where we can make it everything that everyone wants.”
It's a similar story with the Lean product development, which began with resistance and HIIT bands before expanding to the supplements.
“All of the products have been about the Familia and what they want. Of course it will have my input... but ultimately, I will never continue with an idea to develop it until I’ve got clearance from the girls that they want it, and what avenue we’re going to go down."
It's clearly a model that works, because within 24 hours of the app going live, it had 70-80k users, which surged to a massive 350k plus in a month.
How the Lean app tackles disordered eating
When it comes to fitness influencers, there often seems to be a disconnect between their world of positivity and motivation that doesn't take into account the daily battles people face with mental health issues. Whether it's disordered eating, or things like anxiety or ADHD, it's not as simple as springing out of bed every day because you've made a commitment to be healthy and fit. I ask Lilly about how she feels about this blind spot, and what provisions she's taken with the Lean app in terms of mental health.
“For us actually, mental health was a huge part of it. From a mental health point of view we offer the whole section of the app habit tracking and the journaling – which was for the mental health. When we were developing it we were very much considering the holistic approach, so one that comes up a lot – especially with my younger audience – around mental health, and disordered eating, and body dysmorphia.
“I've never suffered with a negative relationship with food myself, but I have learned so much over the past year in particular. And it took one of my best friends who suffered from anorexia to say to me ‘Lilly, you need to show more of your positive relationship with food.’ Because she said ‘for you to have your physique and not count calories, and enjoy food and see food as a celebration is incredibly rare, and you could help so many young girls just by showing that relationship.’
"So that was kind of the turning point where I was like ‘okay, I need to really help these girls and I have a responsibility to’. So I guess around the body dysmorphia [and] disordered eating as well, that was something that I really wanted to home in on in the app."
It was a topic that was also discussed with the Familia. Lilly says the app was initially gong to just feature a recipe library, with no calories, macros, or micros, and no specific meal plan. Just "delicious recipes." But she recognised that a huge swathe of her followers would want to "achieve a certain aesthetic goal," and that requires a meal plan. As Lilly has often said in her earlier blogs, abs are made in the kitchen!
"We discussed it with [the Familia and] we realised that some people wanted to know the calories, [and] some people didn’t want to know the calories, because it could be triggering for them and their mental health... We decided that we would have a toggle system whereby people can choose to protect their mental health, whether they want to see the calories, the macros and micros, or they don’t. They’re still going to get a personalised meal plan to help them achieve their goals but they don’t necessarily have to see those calories or not.
“So that was huge for us, and mental health is absolutely very, very high on my priority list and if you ask me about what do I prefer: working out or food, the food actually comes higher," she laughs. "So that holistic approach is incredibly important."
Lean app and mental health
The journal and habit tracking aspects of the app are also geared towards positive mental health. Lilly says her meteoric rise has given her more insight, and while the past year has been "amazing" it's also had the challenges that comes with being a big YouTuber and facing criticism and scrutiny online, and those are tools she uses in her own life to cope.
"It’s been tough and I’ve had to build a resilience myself around having a bit of a life outside of social media and looking after my own mental health as well as helping other people’s mental and physical health because I’ve nearly killed myself in the process of doing that! A lot of it for me has been around journaling, habit tracking – probably more than journaling if I’m totally honest – so that’s why we developed that side of things. That effectively is our mental health page, and I know so many of the girls are really really benefiting from it."
And there's more to come on that front, with a community section on the way for v2 of the app. I asked if any mental health experts were involved in the Lean app development, as I was curious to know to what extent those struggles have been considered.
"In terms of the professionals we had onboard, [it] was more around the nutrition side of things, Obviously we have the physiotherapist, then we had the wider team. We didn’t have a psychologist involved with this but we have had a sports psychologist involved with the YouTube stuff. We knew that we were launching this app for the Familia so we already knew what they wanted."
Lilly says the motivation provided to her followers is from her style of encouragement during workouts, rather than features of the app. But she does recognise that there are aspects of the app that could have a negative effect on mental health that were overlooked and are in the process of being resolved.
You can find out more about that in our Lean app review, but one of the issues flagged early on was the ticking over of days in the workout guide without any input from the user to say that it had been completed. The turnaround on changing that so that it would only progress once the user had ticked 'complete' was incredibly fast. Lilly is frequently in the comments on social media and in constant communication with the Familia, but even so, her dedication to continuously adapting the app as these problems arise, and taking on feedback is impressive.
How the Lean app meal plans celebrate food
Lilly's love of food and cooking is no secret to those who have been following her journey. Older blogs feature family recipes, and her Instagram stories are full of mouth-watering dishes that are simple, and can be cooked up in bulk batches to make meal prep as easy and enjoyable as possible.
The app meal plans currently feature four dietary categories; standard, pescatarian, vegetarian, and vegan. There's no explicit options for allergies, but there's a good reason for that.
“I had two options when I was setting up the app,” Lilly explains. "Either [go with] a database of recipes, already done – thousands of recipes! Or I had the option of doing all of my own authentic recipes.” To that end, nutritionist Alan Kenny was brought on board to analyse Lilly's recipes and work out the macros, micros, etc in order to build the meal plans; a process which took six months.
“Do we take recipes that are already done, which would give us a bigger library but wouldn’t be authentic? Or do we stick to my own recipes only, which means that effectively we weren't going to build gluten free, dairy free, celiac, etc. Potentially in the future yes, but right now, our priorities have lied in making sure that people are hitting the right calories, and making sure that people are having enough protein,” with the understanding that they can swap out components to accommodate any allergies or additional dietary restrictions.
Lilly was keen to avoid bland, boring meals that are frequently found in some fitness programs. It's easy to hit a specific calorie count when you're just eating boiled rice and a chicken breast, she says. The app recipes are a mix of Lilly's own recipes and 'a la carte' meals created by an appointed chef which feature more ingredients and are a tad more complicated to rustle up.
“Alan said to me when we were developing all the recipes [that] we have a few options. Number one is to go with the very bland recipes where they fit exact calories, and that’s what a lot of other apps do, so it's very easy for rice, chicken, and veggies, and broccoli to fit into a certain amount of calories. [But] we wanted to help create a love for food and being in the kitchen," she enthuses.
“We wanted that love – love, love, love – for food to come into people’s houses through an app, rather than just ‘I’m eating boiled broccoli again’... You can achieve your aesthetic goals and feel amazing without restricting [what you eat] and that’s what the recipe section is all about. And loving it!”
The recipe library will continue to grow as more meals from both Lilly and the app's chef are added, so watch out for those.
Lilly's vision for the future of the Lean app
The Lean app may have just launched, but it's by no mean finished; the features will continue to evolve based on feedback from the community. Users can look forward to live workouts in-app, as well as Q&As with the team. Lilly says there are a few reasons these haven't rolled out yet but her vision for the app sets it apart from the standard fare out there, even in its current form
"Number one is my energy levels," she says, of the live workout portion that has yet to launch. "I can't be jumping on lives every day at the moment," she laughs, alluding to the immense amount of work she and her team have just pulled off to bring the app to fruition. She's very open about her need to take care of herself on social media as well, which is tough when her followers are clamouring for more content, but sets a positive example in boundaries and self care.
"And secondly, it’s a big, big, big build that will take a hell of a lot of tech. There's not many people doing it [to this level]. That’ll be something that’ll be a longer term project.”
Her plans extend to live Q&As with Alan Kenny, as well as physio-based ones which she can field. "And there’ll obviously be the workouts as well, so it’ll be more engaging [and somewhere the Familia] can actually talk to professionals.”
There'll also be new guides and challenges added frequently, with a beginners guide targeted towards people starting their fitness journey (or those who've taken a break from working out) being next on the agenda. That's set to be added this month.
Lilly says the team is also working on a web version of the app. While it wasn't on the cards at launch, feedback from followers who are unable to use the casting feature has lead to its development so stay on the lookout for that.
How the Lean app will affect Lilly's YouTube content
Since launching the Lean app, one frequently asked question from the community is what that means for Lilly's YouTube channel. The good news is that it's not being relegated to the side-lines to funnel people into the app. Lilly's just taking a well-deserved break!
“Yes, 100% we’ll still be uploading to YouTube. It’s probably been our biggest asked question from the wider community… after the app launched, I think I had 10 days off and everyone freaked out!" Both Lilly and Alex have been beavering away with the team to ensure a smooth launch, and she says it's played havoc with her sleep schedule. At points, she's been operating on just a couple of hours of sleep every night.
“I’m still going to be uploading on YouTube. The main difference between the app and YouTube is... it’s more random workouts, and you can pick and choose what you want. It tends to be short workouts, so anything from four minutes to – I think the longest we've ever done is an hour, but that's lives. The pre-recorded [workouts] tend to be four minutes through to 15 to 20 minutes.
“If you’re wanting that more whole approach and the guides, and structured and personalised [goals], that’s on the app.”
The Lean app is available to download from the App Store and Google Play with three subscription models available. You can pay $13.99/ £9.99 / AU$17.99 / 10.99€ for a monthly subscription, $33.99 / £24.49 / AU$43.99 / 27.99€ for quarterly billing and a saving of 15%, or $111.99 / £79.99 / AU$144.99 / 91.99€ for an annual membership plus seven day free trial that offers a saving of 33%.