The fundamentals of physical fitness could fit into a pretty slim book that would only need to be updated every five to ten years for new discoveries and understanding.
Even the most comprehensive overviews on the subject, like the textbook for the Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist certification (the certification I hold), only clock in at about 850 pages.
Major fitness magazines produce two or three times that on a monthly basis. Major fitness blogs probably post that much content daily. Add to that the nonstop publishing schedule of myriad minor-league “influencers,” and you’ve got a whole lot of content.
So, what do people write about if the fundamentals of fitness largely don’t change? Trivial bullshit, for the most part. Stuff that may be relevant to elite athletes or people with unlimited time and energy, but is somewhere between irrelevant and harmful to someone looking to just increase their activity level for the purposes of general health, longevity, physical aptitude, or just looking a little better when naked.
You’re over here trying to learn how to fish, and most of the fitness industry is producing content about the relative merits of spinning spoon lures, braided nylon versus monofilament, and other uselessly specific or directly useless information. It goes deep for an audience that needs the opposite, because the same boring basics every month wouldn’t sell magazines.
The economic model of a lot of the fitness industry forces this: too much complicated optimization, and not enough fundamentals.
Virtually none of it cares to teach you to think critically or be able to build your own plan for success, because then you wouldn’t keep consuming the content they’re making.
That said, not all of it is bad. Just most. So, rather than just dismiss it all out of hand, let’s go over five and a half big sources of fitness information, when to evaluate critically, and when to not just ignore it entirely.
1. Glossy magazines
Glossy magazines are probably the biggest perpetrators of over-specificity. The problem is not that what they’re saying is wrong (at least not intentionally), it’s just probably not right for you, or not telling the whole truth. They sell aspirational, unreachable goals and impractical ways of getting there, because their goal is magazine sales, not your well-being.
A desire to move units forces them to claim outsized outcomes, like perfect abs in six minutes a day, or to look like Chris Evans did in Captain America, or rapid weight loss with the benefit of one! magical! food!
Yes, you too can have perfect abs in six minutes a day if you already basically had perfect abs, eat flawlessly, and also exercise for another hour a day doing things that aren’t directly abdominal work.
You too can look like Chris Evans if it were also your full-time job to work out and eat well (which would also be necessary if you wanted to follow his diet and workout plan).
You too can lose belly fat by eating acai berries if you also eat at an appropriate caloric deficit.
Imagine asking someone how to check your email at your new job, and getting in response a two hour lecture on David Allen’s Getting Things Done, a bootleg draft of Merlin Mann’s never-published Inbox Zero, an hourlong overview of the email power-user app Superhuman, four recommendations for email-related browser extensions, and a long earful on the intricacies of the Mail Merge feature in Outlook.
They wouldn’t be wrong, exactly, but you would probably leave the conversation more confused than able to respond to correspondence.
Unless you are actually someone who is trying to get from 8% body fat to 4% body fat and are willing to get deep into the world of diminishing returns on time invested, understand that virtually everything in the big-time fitness rags are not for you.
This is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a liberating thing. You don’t need the perfect exercises, you just need ones you can do consistently in a hotel gym, or even better, a hotel room. You don’t need Chris Evans’ two-hour-a-day workout, because you can get 90%+ of that benefit in thirty minutes every other day.
2. “Common Wisdom” and “Bro Science”
These are what happens when glossy magazine advice gets filtered through dozens of locker room conversations, with a healthy confusion between causation and correlation thrown in for good measure.
The basic flow of bro science is: someone who was already mostly doing everything right (maybe by accident) reads something in a glossy magazine. They tell someone who is slightly less along on their fitness journey this information, often without the important caveats or context that it originally came with.
Because the first person is in pretty good shape, it’s believed as unalienable fact, or even the secret to their success. It is repeated again and again until it becomes a skewed version of the truth that is entirely not worth listening to.
Some classic examples include eating protein within 30 minutes of a workout, never deadlifting, constantly deadlifting, eating many small meals a day to “boost your metabolism,” bodyweight work being an ineffective way to gain strength or size, crunches being the best ab exercise, and anything that’s supposed to let you meaningfully “spot reduce” fat 1Spot reduction is the idea that you can get rid of a gut or love handles without just becoming leaner altogether.
Most of these started with a kernel of fact, but none of them are really true.
To elaborate on one of the examples, there’s a common misconception about the “anabolic window,” some magical amount of time that you have to eat after strength training or else risk somehow reaping no benefit from the workout.
Turns out there is some truth to this, but the benefits it provides are very small — in the single percentage points small, maybe slightly more than that if it’s your first meal of the day. It’s advice that’s really only relevant to regionally or nationally-competitive athletes or bodybuilders. BUT: it’s a great line to sell protein powder, so it sticks around.
Feel free to evaluate these things critically (see below) to see if the underlying information might be useful, but don’t be surprised if you don’t end up with much.
3. Gender-specific fitness advice
Man, fuck this bullshit. Gender-specific fitness advice is (almost) universally nonsense. As an example, the entire concept of “toning” is a marketing lie that’s both offensive to women and completely ignorant of their biology.
By convincing women to fear “bulk” and instead desire “tone,” by telling them that the weight room is no place for a woman, and that women respond in dramatically different ways to different training types, the fitness industry effectively doubles the amount of content (and pink dumbbells) they can produce on a monthly basis and turns the gym into yet another unnecessarily gendered space.
There are no major biological or physiological differences between how non-elite men and women should exercise.2And at the elite level, the common wisdom is that women can actually tolerate more total training volume than men, given that volume is mostly at a sub-maximal effort. In layman’s terms: they can and should be doing more, not less, than the boys. If it works, it works for every human.
Your training regimen will determine if you get strong, powerful, and develop increased stamina, regardless of gender. Your biochemistry3and adequate protein and calories[/mfn (mostly your testosterone levels) will determine if you develop a bunch of muscle given that training regimen. Cis women 3and trans women who have had an orchiectomy or have been on testosterone blockers for a while lack the hormones to put on substantial mass, and “tone” in the magazine sense is nothing more than well-used musculature at low bodyfat. You can certainly get there only using tiny pastel-colored dumbbells4Anything is better than nothing., but you’ll get there a lot faster with some heavy squats and presses.
Now, I’m not telling anyone they have to lift heavy weights. There are more ways than just heavy weights to create an active, healthy body (and even to build muscle), and you still get to choose which path you take.
I’m just telling you to choose on your terms, based on real data, what you enjoy, and what you’re interested in, not what Gwyneth Paltrow or Jillian Michaels are pitching this week.
4. Dr. Oz and similar Scientific-ish “breakthrough of the week” advice.
This is a tough one, because it seems so legitimate, and often sort of is.
They normally start as one or a few studies that show some (potentially small, probably in mice) benefit of a certain compound or food or exercise regime, but by the time they make it to Dr. Oz’ soundstage or a glossy “six foods to burn belly fat” list, the research has been willfully overblown or misinterpreted into something someone can sell, like raspberry ketones or superfood diets.
If they do anything meaningful at all, these breakthroughs are likely just more small optimizations, in the vein of what you’ll see in the glossy magazines, not true “breakthroughs.” Maybe they have statistical significance, but no clinical significance. Often, they’re just bullshit.
In the face of the latest “X is bad for you now!” or “Y will change your life!” claim, there is only one reasonable response: “show me the research.”
Sometimes, you might see something interesting or meaningful enough to try. But if it’s just more junk nutritional epidemiology or mouse studies, maybe don’t worry too much about it.
Basically, until you start seeing multiple practitioners making it a cornerstone of their approach, it’s probably safe to ignore.5For my money, intermittent fasting and a reduced fear of dietary fat are the only big developments from the last decade that come to mind as worth any sort of damn, and even then, they’re really beneficial for their behavioral and psychological ease-of-use just as much as any biological or metabolic advantages they might confer.
5. Anything that claims to be the best or only anything
This should be immediately questioned or even ignored because when it comes to exercise, best and only don’t exist — unless you’re somebody trying to sell something.
The problem we’re trying to tackle is an overload of information, and that overload exists precisely because there are so many paths up the fitness mountain. Even when it comes to a specific individual and a single, explicit goal, there isn’t always a true best.
If I were trying to put on ten pounds of muscle, there are about three hundred training plans that could reasonably get me there. Some might help me do it faster or easier, but normally not dramatically faster or easier.
Too many people spend too much time procrastinating on their goals or stalling their progress jumping from program to program looking for the perfect plan when they’d do much better identifying a decent plan and sticking to it. Don’t be one of these people.
5.5 Personal Trainers and other “experts”
These are the “half”, because in my experience, some of them are highly knowledgeable and very worth listening to, some are completely full of shit (sometimes maliciously, often just because they’re bullshitters6in the Harry Frankfurt sense who don’t care if they’re telling the truth) and the rest are only useful inasmuch as they give you an accountability buddy and someone to count reps for you at the gym.
In the US, “personal trainer” and “health expert” are not licensed or regulated titles, like architect, engineer, or cosmetologist. It requires considerably more training to legally cut someone’s hair for money than it does to become a personal trainer, even one with a certification. And, the certification is options. The only thing you really need to call yourself a personal trainer is a business card or website that says you are one — similarly, dietician is a protected title, but nutritionist and nutritional adviser aren’t.
There are certifying agencies that provide courses of study and the letters you’ll see after some trainers and coaches’ names (like my CSCS), but most of these certificates aren’t even worth the paper they’re printed on.
Only four of these bodies are worth caring about at all, namely the four that are federally accredited as educational bodies. The NSCA, which provides the CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist) and the less-intense NSCA-CPT (Certified Personal Trainer) certifications, is probably the best and most rigorously science-backed, knowledge-intensive and practical-application-focused 7I don’t just say this post-facto because it’s the certification I hold; I specifically chose to get this one because I believed it to be the most rigorous, followed closely by the NASM, who provide the NASM-CPT.
The other two that are lesser but worthwhile are the ACSM (all theory, no practice 8 Kennedy holds this one, and specifically got it because he wasn’t really interested in actually training people and just wanted to get down on some science. and the ACE (considerably less rigorous than the other three).
There are other certifications that provide expertise in specific fields, like HITUni’s HIT-PT and the RRCA’s Marathon Coach, but if someone only has one of these (as opposed to one of these in addition to a foundational cert), it’s likely that they’ll be parroting dogma, not coming from a place of true understanding.
Even past that, some people that have letters after their name are still completely, pseudo-science-spoutingly worthless, and some people that don’t have these letters are brilliant, even without any actual understanding of the underlying science.
Every expert and coach (and thing they say) has to be evaluated for their individual knowledge and expertise. You can do this by asking them one simple question: why the things they recommend or preach are the best for you in particular.
You might get a rigorous research-backed scientific explanation, or a justification that comes from results they’ve seen empirically in their career as a coach, trainer, or athlete. Both are acceptable.
But if they can’t give you an answer at all, it’s probably time to find a new expert.