Over the past few years, social media and online interactions have been one of the main drivers in the fitness, personal training and coaching industry. The general population now have access to the most knowledgeable coaches, the best training advice and the most informative articles with just a click of a button. Trainers and coaches from all around the world also get to discuss the latest training and dieting protocols and sell their services to others.
However, with any good thing, come the negatives. Call-out culture, trolling, underqualified trainers and coaches, lies and accusations about other trainers, over-saturation of information, I'm sure we've seen it some of these to an extent. With that said, is this new age of fitness and personal training really a good thing.
This article is a reflection of the current state of the fitness industry and my opinion on the most commonly debated topics.
I've only been in the game for 5 years, but I'm lucky to be connected with the most brilliant minds in the fitness, nutrition and strength & conditioning realm. Our industry is special in that training methods, diets, and expert opinions can all be criticized and scrutinized on an open platform, Facebook, without much anonymity. Despite the stereotype that Facebook can't be used for serious and civil conversations about any complex topic, it's surprising that trainers and coaches around the world can participate in scientific discourse about all things related to human fitness. Anything you say or post will be read by your peers and can be criticized and improved on; so long that you're connected to the right people and not committing cases of confirmation bias on the daily basis (avoiding criticism or change, always seeking out people and information who agree with you).
I also remember when this was not the case. I remember when Facebook was just a platform to share your fitness routines and update your friends on your latest physique or strength progress. Over the years Facebook has become a vehicle for distributing truthful, evidence-backed fitness and nutrition advice. At the same time, a tool for trainers and coaches to market and sell their services and information. I don't understand fully how this came to be, but I have a few theories:
Fitness is a personal pursuit, but has a big social impact.
Improving health, fitness and looking great naked is a personal pursuit. YOU have to put in the time in and YOU have to put in the hard work to benefit YOURSELF. However, humans are social creatures. Some post pictures of themselves to motivate others, some workout to show off their bodies, some want validation and approval from others. Whatever the intentions are, sharing your fitness journey on Facebook has a huge impact on your circle of friends on Facebook. This is akin to foodies posting pictures of great local meals or car enthusiasts showing off their newest car mod; there's something positive and gratifying about being able to share your own experiences with others.
Social media is the perfect platform for marketing personal training services and, but can be very dangerous.
Social media can also be a platform for marketing personal training services and diet plans. Often paired with paragraphs about why and how your methods are scientifically proven to be effective or the best. I do this, many other trainers and coaches I know do this. It's an effective way to reach an audience you've already built through friendships in high schools or a way to acquire clientele through the acquaintances you've crossed paths with from work or weekend-hobbies.
Marketing on social media can also be very dangerous. It's easy to subscribe to too many different trainers with different view points, or at worse, subscribe to someone who teaches ineffective training methods and gives out dangerous nutrition advice. This results in an over-saturation of information for the general trainee and trainer, leading to something many people call "paralysis by analysis": over-thinking fitness and nutrition to the point where the trainee or trainer fails to stick with the basics or is confused to what steps to take to reach a goal.
Related to this topic: I've written about fitness and nutrition pyramids, and why they're so useful for trainees and trainers. Sticking to the basics and prioritizing certain training and dieting principles is the best way to avoid "paralysis by analysis".
Peer-reviewed scientific papers do not have the same reach and impact as a evidence-based coach that can effectively communicate to the masses.
Scientific journals and papers are made for scientists and researchers to communicate with each other, using statistics and logic to come to a consensus about a particular topic. The use of complex scientific terms is crucial for maintaining consistency in the field, but might not be the best for communicating with the masses on Facebook. Using scientific jargon and anatomical terms may be valid, but the average trainee or local personal trainer that don't possess the same vocabulary will be lost in the forest.
Share a breakthrough scientific article on carbohydrates and weight loss. You might get 100 views.
Read a breakthrough scientific article on carbohydrates and weight loss, dissecting the main points and communicating those points using both scientific and lay-man terms so the masses can understand and put to practice? Watch your view count go through the roof and your social impact increase.
This is what is so great about podcasts like Danny Lennon's Sigma Nutrition Podcast and research reviews like Alan Aragon's Research Review. They speak with respected researchers in the field and are able to package information in a way most people can understand.
This is not to say peer-reviewed scientific papers and research studies are not useful, far from it. Rather, we should be mindful of the way we communicate with our audience. Using the right terminology or using communication techniques like analogies can help, and are very important.
Also related to Facebook and social media, I wanted to talk about "call-out culture" in the context of the fitness and nutrition world. This topic came to my mind after a thoughtful coach raised a question on Facebook on what the term "evidence-based" really means in the fitness industry and where to draw the line to divide people who are truly evidence-based away from those people who aren't.
Some trainers, researchers and coaches pride themselves for calling out bullshit they see in the industry, whether it be training methods that aren't scientifically backed or nutrition protocols that are considered fad diets. Some go as far as publicly shaming them on a Facebook status or write a whole article about why someone is wrong.
While I believe trainers who give out shady and dangerous advice should be called out, we have to examine their intentions:
A trainer who is purposely promoting stupid training methods and useless supplements for financial and egotistical gain at the expense of their follower's health and money, is an asshole and should be called out.
A trainer who has good-intentions but has mistakenly spread false information either from a lack of education or lack of carefulness, should not be bashed.
Much of the false information and pseudoscience I see being spread is by the latter group of trainers (I could be wrong...)
The best way to go about this problem is not to fight negativity with negativity, rather smothering them with positivity and giving them a chance to improve their critical thinking skills by providing them with sources (articles, podcasts, videos) that publish good information. Approach the coach or trainer in a respectful manner and challenge their ideas by making sound, logically points as to why they've made a mistake or that their information is outdated. If they fail to acknowledge the new information, your options are to 1) leave them alone, 2) reconsider your own stance and how to approach these types of trainers in the future. Forcing your ideas, or belittling them in a threatening manner benefits no one.
Positivity is something I've picked up from being a business owner. Trainees and potential clients are much more likely to be drawn to you if you're passionate about making a positive change. Constantly shitting on other trainers and failing to provide any useful advice to your own audience is a recipe for failure, something I've learned personally. Spending more time on honing communication skills and having good intentions is the key to making a positive impact you want to see in your clients, athletes and audience.
I understand that a budding scientist that dedicates their life to a particular area of research would be more likely to take offence to a personal trainer online spewing out false information about his/her area of expertise. The said scientist would then be more inclined to participate in call-out culture.
Call-out culture is bad for business and social impact, but may be practical for keeping misinformation and psuedoscience out of scientific discourse. It's all about context.
Stay in your own lane
"Stay in your own lane". The most dangerous, yet best advice any personal trainer and coach can receive.
Dangerous in the sense that this piece of advice can convince a trainer or coach to not branch out of what is currently comfortable to them; suppressing creativity and continuing education.
Best in the sense that trainers should not attempt to use practices and methods they are not fully comfortable with just to make a quick buck or play a know-it-all guru.
I do believe trainers and coaches should go out of their way to learn about topics they're not comfortable or educated on. Well-roundness and adaptability is what every professional should strive for. Learning about areas outside your scope of practice can provide perspective and benefits that "staying in your own lane" cannot achieve. I became a much better strength coach after dabbling in the world of pure endurance training, which lead me to researching about concurrent training theories and methodologies; ultimately improving my program writing abilities. This is just my personal example. I've seen some physiotherapists branch out into the strength training world, integrating strength training principles into their rehabilitation system to better understand and change the lives of their clients. Some have even completely overhauled how they look at the world of physiotherapist after understanding strength training, the adaptability of the human body, and how everything is interconnected.
A more common example would be trainers studying for a nutrition diploma or certificate to better understand how to adjust their clients' diet and dietary habits in order to fully reap in the benefits of fitness training.
So what's wrong with branching out? Why shouldn't trainers and coaches stay in their own lane?
The biggest problem is the self-inflated confidence of trainers and coaches that believe they are experts in areas they have barely scratched the surface of. Obviously this is a grey area. There is no line to draw to know when you're informed enough to give out advice on a particular topic. This part involves a lot of self-reflection and objectivity, so it's no wonder trainers get it "wrong".
There's a spectrum of people who don't stay in their own lane. Trainers who play sport nutritionist only having learned about "if it fits your macros" a few months ago. Personal trainers who play manual or physio-therapist despite not receiving any formal education in the area. Trainers who receive a NKT or cupping certificate over the weekend and think they're rehab gods or have figured out the code to rehabbing injured patients (don't even get me started on this). I could go on and on...
To make a quick buck, or to make themselves look like more of an expert. It doesn't matter. It waters down the field and is completely disrespectful to the professionals that have been in the trenches and have put in years learning the particular area or topic. It's not only stubborn to think that one can learn the in and outs of an area over the weekend, but dangerous to the potential clients, athletes and patients that follow these trainers.
Do some self-reflection on how much you really know of a topic before you decide to sell your services. Learn how to say "I don't know, I'll refer you to someone or I'll try to find out for you" to your clients and athletes. Be curious and sell the best services you can to your clients, but be humble.
The Fitness Industry Moving Forwards
With the rising popularity of celebrity diets, Instagram model-sponsored supplements, squats on bosu balls and all the problems I've been discussing above, is the state of the fitness and personal training industry the worst it's ever been?
I don't believe so. I think it's actually the best it's ever been and is improving a greater rate than ever before.
Availability heuristic is a cognitive bias that causes you to make incorrect assessments and assumptions, making you believe something happens more frequently or is more prevalent than it actually is.
If you ask the majority of people, they'll think poverty, murder and terrorism is much more serious and more prevalent than it was a few years or decades ago. When in fact, poverty and mortality rates have been as low as they've ever been, and other areas like literacy and basic education have been steadily improving (look at the figure below).
The increased exposure to social media, news outlets and daily news has made us believe these problems are more rampant than they actually are. People believe ISIS is the worse group ever in the history of the world, when there have actually been multiple factions of terrorist groups that have carried out the most gruesome massacres and genocides before the popularity of social media and news.
On a less serious note, some people in the fitness and personal training industry suffer from this availability heuristic. You see advice about knees not being allowed to go past your toes while squatting? You might be convinced the majority of trainers still don't know how to teach a proper squat.
Yes, there are still trainers spewing out garbage, big supplement companies are still cashing in money on people gullible enough to buy a plethora of useless supplements. But don't forget about the increased financial awareness of consumers in the age of technology, the ability to read reviews on fitness products, as well as the thoughtful debates and discussions about fitness and nutrition on Facebook (I use the word "thoughtful" loosely haha).
Anecdotally, I also noticed the personal trainers down at the local commercial gym have been improving as the demand for higher quality training from more self-aware consumers has been increasing. It's much harder to get away with heavy squats on a bosu ball nowadays without getting your fitness page and reputation ripped to shreds.
Here's a list of why I think the fitness industry is the best it's ever been:
- The growing skepticism and awareness of consumers drives companies to create higher quality products
- Amalgamation of professionals from different niches (Personal trainers, dieticians, strength & conditioning coaches, sport psychologists, rehabilitation therapists) on Facebook and online forums
- The rise of evidence-based training and nutrition plus the growing demand for these methods
- The benefits of strength training are reaching and influencing a greater number of people
- More women are buying into the benefits of strength training and competing in strength sports
- The pure strength training circle is starting to see the performance and health benefits of including cardio and endurance training
- The biopsychosocial model of pain and rise of pain science is changing the way rehabilitation professionals look at injuries and chronic pain management
- Trainers and coaches are able to help a wider range of clients worldwide through online training
- Evidence-based nutrition recommendations plus knowledge of flexible dieting and intuitive eating are helping people reach their body weight and body transformation goals more effectively; alleviating body image issues and eating disorders
There will always be myths to bust and fad diets to tell people to stay away from, but I believe the fitness industry is improving. Maybe I'm suffering from avaiability heuristic myself, but as a trainer that used to be very vocal and cynical about bro-science and poor advice, I can't help but accept the fact that this industry has improved significantly since I started and can't wait to see what the future holds.
About Me - Geoff C.
I am a strength & conditioning coach and personal trainer. With a heavy interest in periodization, nutrition and all things strength & conditioning, I hope to get people thinking critically and intelligently about exercise and dieting, while helping athletes reach their high performance goals.