Sports anime have been a pillar of Japanese animation since its earliest days, but very rarely, if ever, have any shows focused specifically on exercise. In comes How Heavy Are the Dumbbells You Lift?, a series that emphasizes actively pursuing fitness, whether it be at the gym, at home, or on the beach.
Dumbbell follows Sakura Hibiki, a high school girl who wants to lose weight and attract guys. Surprisingly, on a visit to a local gym, she runs into her rich classmate, who turns out to be an absolute fitness enthusiast. Together, with the deceptively handsome gym trainer Machio, they go through different exercises and approaches for achieving one’s fitness goals—and learning about the role weightlifting can play.
The series has a clear focus on the girls, and there’s no denying that sex appeal is a fundamental part of Dumbbell. However, there’s an important distinction to make, and the best way is to compare it with another anime that puts focus on exercise: Issho ni Training: Training with Hinako. That short has the viewer watch a lightly dressed girl named Hinako, who goes through her exercise routine as the voyeuristic camera ogles her from multiple angles. But while Training with Hinako uses exercise as an excuse for fanservice, Dumbbell instead uses fanservice to promote exercise. To that end, it actually gives tips on weightlifting and other areas. In fact, the opening theme specifically points out what muscles are worked out by common and popular lifts.
Also, while the body diversity in the series is somewhat limited—the girls don’t have literally the same exact body, but they all fall along conventional ideas of attractiveness—each of them have their own reasons for going to the gym. The main character, Sakura Hibiki, wants to lose weight and look good, i.e. the most expected reason. Soryuin Akemi is obsessed with muscles (both on herself and others) to a fetishistic extent. Uehara Ayaka is the daughter of a retired boxer-turned-coach, and so exercise is as natural to her as breathing. Gina Boyd is a Russian who competes in sambo and arm wrestling, so strength training is just her way of staying fighting fit. Tachibana Satomi, their teacher, is a secret cosplayer who wants to look good for photos and fight the aging process. At the very least, the series promotes the idea that weight loss is not the sole reason to work out.
As one last aside, I once wrote that I’d be interested in a competitive bodybuilding manga because of how the posedown has a heavy psychological element. There is actually a competitive bodybuilding episode of Dumbbell, though it doesn’t quite go as far as I have hoped. Still, it’s forward progress.
How Heavy Are the Dumbbells You Lift? is not going to upend people’s understanding of weight and diet culture, but it also makes a sincere effort to teach people to exercise in ways that fit their specific situations. It’s as if the show is saying, not everyone can do everything, but as long as you’re moving and sweating, it’ll work out.