When most people think of fitness, they don’t think of Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Transformers, Superman, The Lost Boys, or Star Wars. One person who does? Sam Yo, a fitness instructor for Peloton—you know, that widely talked about fitness brand. Yo uses music and quotes from all of those properties (and more) to help make his Peloton classes nostalgic, unique, and motivating. But it’s not some well-thought-out strategy—it’s just who he is. Speaking on a video call from London, Yo explained to io9 why this strategy works.
“We associate with another time and we kind of switch out,” Yo said. “[At first] it’s, ‘This is burning, this is burning,’ but then as soon as a track comes on like ‘The Power of Love’ from Back to the Future, you switch to that time when you first heard it and how it made you feel. It gives you that adrenaline to keep pushing.” Yo is Thai-Chinese and grew up in London, which is where he fell in love with pop culture. He cites his family’s weekly ritual of going to the video store as a particular influence. “Friday night! The excitement! The new releases!” he reminisced.
Watching tons of movies built up his passion for all genres and mediums of entertainment, which he then turned into a career as an actor, appearing in various movies, shows, and stage productions. From there, he spent almost a year as a monk (which is a whole other story), then came back to acting, all the while getting more and more into fitness. In late 2019, he was hired by Peloton and knew his long-lasting love of pop culture would be a part of it. “It’s nice that I can bring that to my teaching style,” he told io9. “[For example], I said it by accident for the first time, but when we pedal you’ve got to make sure that both legs are nice and even. So I said, ‘Make sure you bring balance to the Force... of your pedal strokes.’ It just came out naturally and it’s something I always say now.” He’s also been known to summon the Power of Grayskull on occasion.
Even if you don’t know any of this about Yo, when you clip in for one of his Peloton rides, his fandom is obvious very quickly. He wears it on his sleeve—his right arm to be exact, which is almost always facing the camera. He has a prominent Superman tattoo, which he got on his 18th birthday as part of a promise he and a friend made years earlier for the other to get a Batman tattoo. “We grew up loving comics, Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica. We were nerds,” Yo said. In the years since he feels like the ink has become a part of him. “It’s part of my character, it’s part of what I love, and it’s always a good conversation starter. When I first did my first Peloton ride I literally said like, ‘Hi. What’s up Peloton? You’re probably wondering who is this British guy with a shaved head who talks like the queen with a Superman tattoo? Well, these 20 minutes you’re going to find out.’”
Talking to Yo, it’s obvious his passion for these things is absolutely pure and genuine. When discussing Superman, he immediately references Red Son as something that deepened his appreciation and love of the character. When asked if he’s more DC or Marvel, he says he prefers the current Marvel movies but thinks the shared universe DC animation did many years ago is right up there with it. (On a Peloton ride a few months back, he even mentioned his excitement about the Snyder Cut.) In the course of our conversation, he talks about playing the Ghostbusters theme song at his birthday parties growing up and an obsession with Lego—none of which is anything you’d expect to hear out of a man who looks like he could rip your head off. That’s because another thing most people carry from the 1980s and 1990s are stereotypes that muscle-bound people are “big dumb jocks” and only pimple-faced nerds read comic books. Yo doesn’t believe that at all.
“Everyone has an internal geek when you get to know them,” he said. “It’s like an alter ego, isn’t it? Those two sides but evidently they’re one person. Especially when I teach, I just try to bring who I am.” Yo does dozens of rides per month and while not all of them are geeky, when they are, they really are. For example, he did a 1980s ride that played the themes to The Lost Boys, Beverly Hills Cop, and St Elmo’s Fire back to back to back. Another time he included “The Power of Love” from Back to the Future and “Footloose” from Footloose. Earlier this year, it was “Danger Zone” from Top Gun, “Fame” from Fame, and “Hearts on Fire” from Rocky IV. Last year, Yo went extra with “Don’t You Forget About Me” from The Breakfast Club, “You’re the Best” from The Karate Kid, and the title theme songs from both Ghostbusters and The NeverEnding Story.
Oh, and Yo doesn’t just do cycling classes, he does strength classes too and he tries to keep people motivated in the same way in those. He utilizes music from famous montages in films and shows like Top Gun, Scarface, The A-Team, and, of course, all the Rocky movies. (If you’re a subscriber looking to find them: Clicking these links should do the trick.) “What’s not to love?” Yo said when asked what he loves about montages. “I find when I’m working out, my workout playlist, it’s very random, [going] from my musical stuff to pop stuff to rock stuff. Then, whenever that 1980s montage, you know, Survivor [who did the song “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky III] comes on, it just... I don’t know. It just takes you to that place that elevates you. It feels like I’m like running on the beach with Rocky and Apollo.”
One ride in particular that Yo calls out as ultra geeky took place on December 14, 2020; he did his intro to Queen’s Flash Gordon song, played music from Footloose, Fame, Dirty Dancing, Rocky III, and then a true wild card. “I put in the Transformers theme,” he said. “I said, ‘This is either genius or crazy, but you’re gonna laugh and you’re going to push.’ And it was like [goes into singing the song] ‘Transformers!’” (Personal note, after Yo told me this ride existed, I did it myself and got my personal best on a 45-minute ride so his technique certainly works for me.)
Yo also enjoys geeky Peloton leaderboard names and admits that having a catchy one makes it more likely he’ll give a rider a shout-out during a live class. During a ride, you’ll see him smile and laugh when he sees a clever one, especially if it’s pop culture themed. “The Star Wars ones I would always catch,” Yo said. “[For example] There was [a Star Wars one] yesterday and I said, ‘The Force is strong... 500 rides!”
It’s also worth noting that he’s far from the only person with geeky interests who works for the company; instructor Emma Lovewell has done multiple Disney-themed rides; Kendall Toole has a whole “Movie Buff” series, which takes riders on a journey through a specific theme or genre; Robin Arzon has done rides themed around Hamilton and The Greatest Showman; and others like Cody Rigsby, Leanne Hainsby, and Hannah Corbin have been known to drop in movie theme song or two in there as well. (Not to mention seemingly every instructor having a huge appreciation for pop music of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, which is pretty nostalgic on its own.) And while all the instructors have access to a huge library of songs that Peleton’s music department gets rights to through the record companies, Yo certainly goes deeper than most and takes his obsessions to another level.
On our call, he revealed a home filled with autographed posters from films like Lord of the Rings and Superman. He mentioned he’s running out of room for all his Lego and admitted to jealousy that I, not he, had worked at a video store growing up. There’s something about him that just makes you feel like you could be his best friend, which, depending on your interests and personalities, can basically be said for almost every instructor on the platform—it’s part of what helps keep you coming back for more workouts. “The great thing at Peloton is that all the instructors put in our own personality as individuals,” Yo said. “So if you did a 1980s ride with me and did a 1980s ride with someone else, even if the playlists were exactly the same, the delivery would be slightly different. And that’s just from our experiences and what we’ve done ... We bring so much of what we did before we were on this platform to the table.” And for Sam Yo, that means a kid growing up watching movies and hoping one day he could be Superman. Which, let’s face it, he kind of is.
To ride with Yo, you have to sign up for Peloton, which you can do in a few ways. Yes, it’s wildly expensive and a huge investment—especially the equipment itself—but as someone who found the platform and is approaching 500 cycling classes in a little over a year, the huge selection of classes, both live and on-demand, various instructors, and different forms of exercise (plus the health tracking, monthly badges, and occasional Transformers song) makes the price worth it for me.
Correction 7/6/2021, 2:45 p.m. ET: A previous version of this incorrectly identified Mr. Yo’s ethnicity. It’s been updated to Thai-Chinese.
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