You may recognise fitness YouTuber and Instagram influencer Lilly Sabri thanks to a surge in her popularity over the past year during lockdown; but she's no overnight sensation. After four years of what she describes as the 'biggest graft of her life', Lilly's YouTube subscriber count has just hit three million but the journey has been anything but straightforward.
When COVID hit, Gym bunnies suddenly found themselves in the same boat as home fitness freaks; and of course, there are always people like me who are keenly aware they should probably do some measure of exercise to prevent dropping dead earlier than necessary. Casting about for online workout videos, I discovered Lilly last summer when a friend recommended her eight week plan. And so did everyone else apparently, because since then, her following has grown exponentially from around 30k subscribers to three million strong.
Lilly just recently launched an app – a dream she's nurtured for years – and thanks to her newfound internet fame and support of her loyal followers and fanbase (dubbed 'the Familia') she's been able to expand her brand to offer fitness supplements and home workout equipment, ticking off another entry on her bucket list.
I connected with Lilly to delve into her journey, her Lean app, and what she has in store for the Familia and herself in the future. And there was a lot to talk about! So we've split our chat into a profile on Lilly for those wanting to know more about what it's taken the North Londoner to get where she's at, and an interview that gets into the nitty gritty of the app, which you can find out more about in my Lean app review.
Lilly graduated with a BCS in physiotherapy from Manchester, volunteering at Everton Academy during her time at uni. Despite the multidisciplinary nature of the practice, Lilly quickly found her calling in the world of sport and athleticism, saying she wanted to help people become "the best versions of themselves through sport and athleticism and rehabilitation."
When she talks about 'the graft', Lilly's not messing around, maintaining an exhausting routine of 8am - 5pm shifts at University Hospital Lewisham in London, and spending her evenings working at football clubs in the area, including Barnet F.C. Ladies, and Barnet F.C. But her first break came with Watford F.C. who were in the Championship playoff final at the time and on the cusp of breaking into the Premier League.
"That was amazing and it all started to fall into place there that I wanted to work in elite sport and help people on their sport and fitness journey," Lilly recalls.
She found her calling long before her student days though, with her love of athleticism and drive to help others taking hold years prior. Lilly was a national level swimmer growing up, and around the age of 14, discussed her options for the future with her mum – who was a nurse in the NHS at the time. It was her mum who suggested physiotherapy as a career, saying the physios walking the corridors of the hospital all seemed to be young and happy; a picture perfect job.
Lilly recounts the conversation, which brought about the realisation that she didn't see herself on the side-lines. "I don’t want to be the person that runs on the pitch. I want to be the player on the pitch," she told her mum. "[I've] always had the battle between the athlete and the helper of the athlete. But then my passion lies in helping people so it was kind of that fusion in the middle of ‘how can I help people but still I guess be more centre stage’, is a way of describing it, or [being] a ‘personality’.”
After graduation, Lilly went on to take a specialist course in Pilates for physiotherapists that she describes as "science-based" and very "different" to the standard fare you'd expect to see in a normal class.
“Pilates is slow and controlled and I love that, but I wanted to put a twist on it where you target and draw in people who would typically think Pilates is boring, [but it's] more athletic and [you] still get an epic burn from it.”
Having taken a few of these 'boring' Pilates classes, and followed Lilly's YouTube Pilates workouts, I can testify that her videos are gruelling but fun by comparison, and your body will most definitely be on fire at the end. Ablaze, even. Happily, her style of motivation and positivity should get most people through the ordeal, and while you'll be a sweaty pile of goo at the end of it, hearing a chirpy "you smashed it! I'm so proud of you!" will help mollify you. Slightly.
Starting out on social media
Social media and workout gear-clad selfies weren't always Lilly's strong suit. In fact, she didn't even think that avenue was worth pursuing, given her already jam-packed schedule. When she first launched her Pilates classes, she ordered 500 flyers and distributed them in just 30 minutes. When she went to the football club the next day, feeling pleased as punch, her bubble was burst when her friends told her that's just not how you advertise anymore, and directed her to social media.
At the time, Lilly had zero social media accounts, and between working for the NHS, the football club, and taking private clients, said she didn't "have time to be taking selfies." But on their advice, she started up a Twitter account which she used to advertise classes, and was her first foray into the world of 'fitness influencer'. Her following began to grow, with her Twitter account sitting at 12.7k followers right now, but it's been inactive since 2019 as Lilly began to migrate to Instagram and YouTube, sharing workout videos, and her journey so far. “It was all for the classes, to get them in," she says of her social media accounts, "but I didn’t realise ‘oh, you can actually make a living out of social media.'”
Eventually, Lilly found herself with an Instagram following of 50k and was on panels talking about her work in physiotherapy. It was during one such speaking engagement that she met Alex Tyrwhitt, her partner in every sense of the word. The pair met at Be:Fit (now Women’s Health Live) back in 2017. Alex was an architecture student studying in London at the time, and after seeing Lilly present onstage, immediately asked if she was on YouTube. Still thinking she didn't have the time to commit to yet another platform, Lilly was talked around by Alex's insistence that her personality and energy would make her a perfect fit.
YouTube and self-acceptance
Lilly's workout videos include both pre-recorded content, as well as live workouts both on Instagram and YouTube, and Alex is usually off-camera providing a soundtrack while their dog Teddy is tucked away in his dog bed to the side of the matt, or excitedly trying to get involved. And none of it is edited out, whether it's Teddy climbing over Lilly, or sound difficulties that are resolved with a lot of playful shouting back and forth between the couple.
"I’m a camera person. I love talking to people, engaging with people, exchanging energy – whether it's in real life, or through a forum, or whatever it might be... You kind of work out what your strengths are but with lives you have zero room to perfect. You have to be unapologetically yourself, and people will either love you for it, or hate you for it.
"[My style] is...very unique.. and you need to learn to not be apologetic about who you are, and what your body looks like in every angle, and dripping with sweat, and struggling. Because that’s the way you start to connect with people." Lilly says she's created friendships within her community of followers, saying "we’re nearly 3 million but I know so any of them by name, and by DMs, and I’ll shout out to people while we’re doing a live if I see that certain people are there. It was probably one of the biggest breakthroughs for me on social media, but also as a person, to accept myself, and all of that.
"Before, I used to think everything had to be perfect, and we’d re-film videos if I’d done stuff wrong. But now it's that ‘this is me, this is my family’. Teddy will come and jump on me and lick sweat off the matt and that's just part of our life. And I think the reason why it’s worked is we have a huge mummy audience, and also just people who want to know that I look very sweaty, and my vein will pop out halfway through a workout as well [gestures to forehead and laughs].
"It's just that being real, and I think people have kind of fallen in love with Teds, because number one, he’s cute, and secondly, he’s just mischievous and all over the place - unless he’s sleeping!" In fact Teddy fans might be intrigued to know that some kind of limited edition product, and collaboration could be on the cards for Teds, although Lilly didn't give the game away completely.
But it wasn't an easy feat, by any means. Lilly admits that her YouTube journey has been "the biggest graft of my life. YouTube Is unapologetically hardcore to crack.”
Getting hacked and a harsh level in diversification
In 2017, Lilly's Instagram account was hacked, and while it was a hugely stressful and upsetting experience, it taught her some harsh lessons which she's capitalised on to ensure her independence from the platform and subsequent success.
"Yeah, that was really scary," Lilly reflects. "I think the biggest lesson learnt there actually was to diversify across platforms," she says, before adding, "the biggest lesson learnt actually is ‘I don’t own Instagram’.
"This was obviously an unfortunate circumstance, but Instagram could choose at any point whether an algorithm changes...whether your following grows or becomes stagnant, whether people see what you're putting out there. So I learnt two things.
"Number one, I need to diversify across platforms. And that was the point where it really became apparent I needed to be hitting YouTube and hitting it hard. And also [number two was to create] my own platform, my website; how can I build subscribers onto my mailing list?”
Lilly’s mailing list currently sits at 400k subscribers which she still can't quite believe. But it's allowed her to build her own following which isn't beholden to the whims and algorithms of other websites.
“It was that kind of thinking outside the box – it isn’t just about that one platform, and especially that one platform that you don’t even own. How can I be a full enterprise basically that is collecting a loyal fanbase that will hopefully in the future buy products? Which is where we’re at now.”
Finding success as a woman in her 30s and being unapologetically herself
The success Lilly is enjoying right now, along with Alex and their dog Teddy, has been hard-earned, and she's still pinching herself at how far they've come.
"It’s just gone wild! Pre-COVID, 14 months ago, was when we started to get our break. We were at 30k subscribers. It’s insane. None of it has sunk in. None of this past year, especially the last month has even slightly sunk in. I think I’m still like [Lilly pinches herself] because I’m not with my family at the moment. You know when you feel like you just want to be with loved ones – just sit down and have a cup of tea – and be like ‘what the hell just happened?’ It’s been a weird, a weird and wonderful year.”
The fruits of her labour are all the more precious, given the pressures to be found in the health and fitness industry, which is often the realm of fit, young, twenty-somethings. Now in her 30s, Lily has had her fair share of self doubt and insecurity –something she's refreshingly open about. The app launch and her meteoric rise are both something she says she's "always though of it as so far away" but daunting though it was, her belief in herself and willingness to put in the work have helped turn it into a reality; even if it's come later than she might have hoped.
"You know, I’m 32 now, and I’m not saying I’m old by any means, but my break has come a little bit later than a lot of other people in the fitness industry. A lot of the people who are having the breaks, are younger and they look amazing, and they’re in shape and people are following them because they’re in shape...
"I think there’s more pressures as a woman as you get older. I will continue to graft forever, but you know, say circumstances change and we want to start a family – there are pressures that are there as a businesswoman, as a fitness woman, and as a woman woman," she laughs.
"All these pressures that could come in. So you know, I’m so happy it’s happened now, there are certainly – I don’t feel I’m against the clock, but there’s a lot to do in a short space of time. It's far from ‘oh now [the app has] launched, I can sit back’. It is absolutely relentless," Lilly says, referring to the release of the app, continued development, and ironing out launch bugs. "I will continue grafting until it’s what everyone wants and needs.”
Battling to get recognition outside of social media despite smashing it on a global level
Speaking of pressures, I ask Lilly if she's found it harder to gain a foothold over the years as a female fitness influencer, with the space being saturated already, and a crossover on Instagram with influencers who could easily pass as fitness models but just happen to look stunning. Whether that's down to credibility, misconceptions, or women having a harder time of it, I was curious about her experience.
"Credibility? No. The credibility for me always comes with the physiotherapy. Yes, I am going to be judged by the way I look – I've been judged by the way I look most of my career, from choosing to study physio, through to working in football clubs, through to wanting to be a business woman. And I’ve learnt to not be apologetic for my energy and my bubbly personality when you should maybe be more serious or whatnot. So credibility no.
“Recognition? Yes. This isn’t in comparison to men, this is just my personal experience; I think what I've found very interesting is [I'm] the third fastest growing female at what I do on YouTube in the world. Number one is a girl in Australia, number two is a girl in Germany, then it’s me. To have nearly 3M [followers] is a wild number. It’s absolutely crazy! And the growth has been crazy, and the views are crazy. But I get minimal – outside of social media – recognition, is the word.
“That’s been…” Lilly leans in towards the camera, hands clasped hands, and raises her eyebrows “interesting. And that’s why now we’re also working with Aimee [her newly appointed PR rep] and the team. Because I don’t... I don't know. This is one of the topics and subjects that I just don’t know the answer to.
"Yes. it’s incredibly saturated on Instagram, but actually there’s very few people who are at the level that I am, with the numbers that I am on YouTube, that are known as a personality, and I think again that comes down to [things like] I’m talking during the workouts. Even before this conversation, you [knew] I have a dog" she says, referring to an earlier question about Teddy.
"It's not just a posed picture on Instagram. You do know me and my personality. So how do you get to that next level? Honestly, I don’t know. What I do know is if I sell products, they sell. I have an incredibly loyal audience, who are not just an audience. They're part of the family and it's a two-way communication. And I hope it will come – the recognition outside of social media – but that has been tougher to crack actually, which is very interesting. So I don’t know the answer.“
Lilly's family and the Familia
Putting the world at large aside, Lilly has garnered an incredibly loyal following in The Familia, as well as her partner Alex, who came on board the Lean with Lilly brand full-time to offer his support around 16 months ago. The pair initially moved to Dubai for Alex's career, but now they've both gone full-time to work on the brand. Alex had been lending a hand long before then, helping out with the more technical side of things by pointing Lilly in the right direction with regards to editing software, and chipping in with ideas.
"I remember one of my friends saying ‘you’re going to kill each other working in the house'. Our studio is there [points straight up], it’s upstairs. It's not like we even leave the house to film. So that was January, then come March was when we got our big break so Alex thinks it’s all down to him," she jokes.
Lilly describes both herself and Alex as "risk-takers" but it paid off after they made the decision to invest their savings into the first Lean with Lilly resistance and HIIT band drop.
"That was every penny we had pretty much… I remember speaking to my mum and she was like ‘you should be saving for a mortgage’, and I was like ‘nah, we're going to invest in bands’.” The first drop was nearly 16 months ago, and they sold out in just 15 minutes. At the time, Lilly had around 20k subscribers on YouTube, and the drop was announced to her Facebook and YouTube audience only. "That was when I realised the power of it,” she says. Since then, it’s been a journey of constantly reinvesting.
The product drops have been limited and sporadic, but that was down to funds, as opposed to creating buzz for a desirable item amongst her fans that they could never get hold of; although it was an unintended consequence which worked out well for a time. But since her team has expanded, product stock is something that's going to be increased now that the brand is growing.
"We’ve learnt to take more risks; but educated risks. Even with the supplements line, we have slots already booked for every three 3 weeks going forward, because we know with supplements people are going to want to be repeat ordering – whether it’s a subscription or whether it's when they run out of that supplement. So we’re hoping that it's not going to be a problem with most products moving forward. And we're also giving early access for most products to the app users so they’ll get an hour early access to buying.”
Talking about the Familia, Lilly describes her following as "incredibly loyal girls who – anything I bring out they would buy… That’s been the one side of it where I guess anything I was to bring out, they would want, and they would support." But it's not blind support, by any means.
"With the ongoing things, things such as an app, I’ve learn a huge difference – and it’ll be the same with the food line – you’re not just buying a band, that they buy one off. They’re committing to a membership with you whereby they want it to get better and better, and get more and more content, and something that they grow with.
"I would say there has been the fair share of constructive feedback as well. And it’s singly been around developing new features. The bug side of things, when that first happened, that was a steep learning curve for me. I’m a people pleaser and I just want everyone to be happy. And when you’ve grafted so hard – you know, there’s hundreds of hours worth of videos on there and I don’t think people realise really, the difference between a gif based app and a real time workout app.
"I sometimes wish that I had gone down either the no speaking workouts – because there’s so many Youtubers who do the workout and they don’t talk throughout. That would be number one, a hundred times easier because I wouldn't have to be [all] 'come on girls!' while I’m [working out]. You use so much more energy!
“And then the second thing is the gif based one. All you have to do for the app is go 'here’s a squat. Now do it for a minute.' It would be so much easier. I think the really loyal girls who have been following the journey of how much effort and time I've put into the app and filming understand it, because I was teaching four or five lives a week, which were between 30 minutes and an hour long, then I was also filming four or five ones for the app... So they kind of understand the graft and the energy and the determination that's gone behind that."
What's in store for the future and Lilly's 5 big goals
Speaking of determination, Lilly says she has “five big goals” in life and she's already achieved a couple with the the Lean app and Lean supplements range. The third is a book, and the other two are tightly under wraps for now.
“They’ve always been goals, and I think it’s a journey where I do believe in myself. I really do, and I know that if you graft and you keep going, things will happen. I strongly believe in that. And that’s why I think we’ve developed such a strong community because it’s the same as a fitness journey. I believe in the girls; if they are consistent, it’s going to happen. You will get health and happiness.
“But there has been periods where you know – I am a physiotherapist. And I’ve risked a lot leaving physio, and leaving a full time job, and taking things online permanently [going from] a nice stable salary to absolutely zero. It’s a risk and it’s scary, but I’m so glad I’ve done it!"
I ask Lilly if one of her secret goals is apparel. She's currently a brand ambassador for Gymshark – or a Gymshark athlete as the brand calls it – and has been since October last year. There are no plans for fitness gear just yet, she says, but it's not been ruled out altogether.
“Would it be a lifelong dream? Yes. And I've said that – I've said that many a time.“ We speculate what that dream might look like; maybe a Gymshark collaboration, or branching off on her own, she doesn't know. For now, Lilly is under contract with the brand and says she loves their clothes and the way they make you feel.
"It's really good stuff! Gymshark is the only brand I work with outside of my own brand now, which is a big, big step. That feels so weird! ‘I only work for my own brand’,“ she laughs, as the words sink in.
“It would be a dream. I'd be lying if I said it wouldn't. I am so passionate about clothing full stop. Especially fitness clothing – and the way it looks, but also the way it makes you feel during a workout… I've worn some really bad outfits that I've tried and been sent in the past, and you know when you do a squat jump and you're like ‘that is not supporting me whatsoever, in any shape or form!”
A book seems like it's next on the list, with an entire series potentially being considered.
"A book would also a dream. What I'd like to do is go down the line of a book collection around the recipes side of things. I'm not at all interested in the more autobiography side of things. I don't know why people would care about my life! But I am interested in changing people's lives through recipes and following themes.
"So I won’t give it all away, but certainly having themes to suit different types of people – whether its quick meals for one, or whether its sharing’s caring meals, or meals for the family. A lot of the stuff that I've learned recently has been the way that people like to prepare food, and share food even down to the example I was giving you before with the teenager who's cooking for her family [using the meal plan and recipes in the Lean app].
"It's happened a lot. A lot of mums are messaging me who [say they] have the most picky children and they’re actually enjoying [my] meals. There's so many opportunities there... I have some ideas! But a book would be a big one.”
It's no surprise Lilly is already brimming with ideas for multiple recipe books. The Lean supplement line has only just launched but there are already plans for more than just pre-workout and protein powder.
“I am so proud of the [supplements] and that line is growing very quickly. We have the bars, we have the oats, we have the pancakes.”
I ask Lilly about the gorgeous exercise mat she's been working on, which we've had a peek at in some of her videos while it's been in development.
“They taken so long! Oh my god! I feel like they've taken longer than the bloody app, seriously! They've been a journey, to find the right materials, and the designs and all of that but they will be coming.”
It feels like Lilly is only just beginning to find her footing after slogging away for three years on YouTube with 30k subscribers. Her channel may have surged to 3M subs in just 14 months but it's down to hard graft, as she would say. She compares her rise to that of music artists who smash into the charts with a hit single seemingly overnight.
"Then you look back and you’re like ‘wow, they’ve got 10 years worth of songs that just weren’t discovered. That’s how I feel with YouTube." With nearly 700 videos on her channel, Lilly says she feels like, for her first three years on the platform, she was 'undiscovered'.
"Suddenly we got our break and now.. it’s rolling!”