Be forewarned; today is a big topic. You may want to grab a cup of joe.
Today we discuss a common mistake that virtually everyone makes when assessing fitness:
We judge the source of fitness information by their physique, not by their actual expertise.
This is perfectly normal, but nonetheless, it can lead us astray. Let me unpack how this happens and offer some frameworks for combatting this thinking error.
First, let me first admit: over the years, I too, have benefited from this bias.
True, I may not look like a bodybuilder. With an unusually small ribcage for my height and gender, my career as a bodybuilder was doomed before it began. Alas, the size of one’s torso is a meaningful constraint on max strength for most full body lifts and upper body muscle mass.
But I also know it’s genetically easier for me than most to stay pretty lean. And for better or worse, having abs well into my 40s is a marker that matters to most people vetting fitness resources.
Now is my physique a function of working my ass off?
Of applying and refining years of training and study?
Of two decades and counting of consistency and discipline?
But there’s no discounting some genetic advantages.
Furthermore, I’m a skilled speaker and a decent writer. Admittedly, a certain percentage of people are turned off by my word choices, polish, and “vibe.” But on the whole, this has been another net positive in building credibility.
With those damaging admissions aside, let me assure you… I actually DO know my shit, I swear!!!
I’ve been studying fitness for over two decades. I’ve read dozens of books on training, and I have a talent for remembering what I read AND synthesizing it into action. I’ve attended more conferences and certifications than I can remember. I’ve been a client of some of the best coaches in the biz. In my role at MFF, I’ve overseen the programs of literally thousands of people who consistently get great results. Finally, the best way to learn is to teach; and my job requires me to constantly distill best practices in a digestible format.
But setting that aside…
Would I be LESS credible if I had different genetics and poorer personal physique results? To most people, yes.
Would I be MORE credible if I had different genetics and better personal physique results? To most people, yes.
Would I be EVEN MORE credible if I had different genetics AND took a modest amount of steroids and had even better personal physique results? To most people, yes.
(And lest you’re rolling your eyes at steroids and assuming they automatically create hulking behemoths, consider this: a not-well-kept-secret of Hollywood and the fitness industry is widespread modest use that merely replicates world-class genetics.)
To be clear, I’m not making any of this wrong.
This is human nature. We all have brains wired this way. If someone looks the part, we’re more likely to listen to what they have to say. I’m just naming this phenomena so we can be critical thinkers together.
So when you see a post on Instagram or TikTok, or you see a book in the bookstore, or you see someone on a talk show…
How do you determine that they’re credible?
It’s not easy!
In general, elite practitioners develop frameworks and systems by:
- Spending years integrating research (usually via proxy networks, most practitioners don’t do research)
- Identifying industry wide consensus on best practices by studying industry leaders
- Experimenting in the real world with real humans and adjusting based on results
But real talk? This is hard to gauge at a glance.
And with the rise of social media, we now have an entire class of influencers who do not pass GO, do not collect $200, and go directly to internet fame based on the genetics of their abs, or ass, or chest, or waist circumference.
And because they look the part, they will ALWAYS be more immediately and intuitively compelling than an expert with poor genetics. This is further exacerbated if said expert with poor genetics is over 40; in spite of a longer track record and more experience, the physique delta widens between the influencer class and the individual with the track record. And all of this is to say nothing of sexism, racism, or any other prejudice that consciously or unconsciously influences our preconceptions of what a fitness expert “should” look like.
So how do we know who actually knows what they’re talking about?
Well, testimonials seem like they could help. But even here, if there’s a large enough sample size, you’ll find many clients with under-utilized genetic gifts who see great results going from doing not much to doing something still pretty subpar. These individuals achieve success IN SPITE of the flawed fitness methodology. But they become even more visual proof that a given expert knows what they’re doing.
SO WHAT DO WE DOOOOO??
Well, if you’re looking to hire someone, I have a whole article laying out how to choose a gym or trainer. So start THERE!
When assessing experts in general, having advanced degrees in the field doesn’t always translate to true expertise. But it’s still the most meaningful signal that this individual has taken their craft seriously enough to spend years of their life and tens of thousands of dollars. So that’s not a bad first step.
(And full disclosure: this is a marker I personally cannot claim, unless you count a BFA in Musical Theatre, which alas, I don’t.)
Another good sign: they say “it depends” a lot. While successful experts know that marketing requires selective assertiveness, in practice, the answers to any question always require nuance and lots of context. Stated inversely, blanket statements that begin with “Always” and “Never” warrant a pause. Most experts develop a lot of humility around the ocean of things we don’t yet know AND the many variables of an individual’s situation.
Here’s one more consideration: what incentives does this individual have?
If a given expert – or social media influencer – is sponsored by a brand or can make money off a claim, it warrants a pause to appreciate what role this might be playing. There’s nothing wrong with making your living in fitness. But incentives can make things weird. So it’s prudent to factor this in when considering an expert and their recommendations.
This is a BIG topic. In part, because it gets to the heart of many of the challenges we’re currently having as a society.
The proliferation of “easy info everywhere and always!” has not democratized access to good information; it’s made it harder to avoid misinformation.
As George Bernard Shaw (pessimistically) said, “All professions are conspiracies against the laity.” This is a bit cynical, but there’s obviously some truth in here. And this challenge predates the interwebz.
My hope is this post prompts you to think critically about the fitness info you consume so you can make even better decisions for your personal goals.
Sorry for the thirst trap photo clickbait but, ya know, psychology,
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