The wrong fitness advice could waste your time and money or even cause serious injury.
Brian Johnson, better known as the fitness influence Liver King, is a beast of a man. Jacked up with bulging biceps, rippling abs and a thick beard, he exploded in popularity on social media throughout 2022. He claimed his physique was a result of an "ancestral" diet consisting of raw animal organs, including testicles but especially the liver, hence the name.
Millions of people watched Liver King on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, but Johnson's impressive physique wasn't because of his diet. He was taking steroids. A lot of steroids.
Mike Israetel, a competitive bodybuilder with a Ph.D. in sports physiology, was one of the folks who countered Johnson's fitness misinformation. In a video titled Primal is Bullsh*t!, Israetel debunked claims made by Johnson about his ancestral diet.
"Modernity is good," Israetel said in the video. "That's why 'primal coaches' all go to the hospital, use social media and shop at the supermarket."
Months after the release of Israetel's videos, Johnson admitted his use of steroids. The Liver King reportedly spent more than $11,000 on performance-enhancement drugs.
Israetel says the average person today has more resources than ever to improve their fitness. However, many still lack a filter to discern what approach is scientifically backed and what is "bullshit."
"I don't know how many people we converted with that video, but I will say there are lots of new people coming into fitness all the time," Israetel said during an interview in February. "And if they catch our videos earlier than later, they might be able to prevent themselves from being too bought into something."
After taking a big hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, the fitness industry is estimated to grow to $30.8 billion in 2023. Influencers like Johnson can amass millions of followers, and that often translates to large paychecks from sponsors or revenue generated from selling training plans, supplements or merchandise.
One study of 488 fitness influencers found that less than 20% of them had any related credentials. On platforms like TikTok and Instagram, popularity isn't always based on good science. Algorithms can promote bad actors, creating a landscape filled with bad fitness information that, at best, could waste someone's money and time and, at worst, result in serious injury.
Countering this misinformation is a group of social media influencers who use their professional experience and scientific knowledge to debunk bad advice circulating across multiple platforms.
These experts lift heavy weights to build their muscles, but they also do heavy reading to make gains in their knowledge.
Braydon Barrett, aka @looklikeyoulift on TikTok, has more than 287,000 followers. As a strength coach with more than 10 years of experience, Barrett says he's learned all the "secrets" when it comes to fitness. His distaste for influencers selling harmful practices is what led him to give those secrets away for free via social media and Discord.
Barrett began shooting down fitness misinformation on TikTok when he stumbled across an influencer spouting false claims after he had received an endorsement deal with a supplement company. Barrett used his professional experience, his biochemistry background and various studies to disprove what the influencer said.
"There's a lot of fitness bull crap out there on TikTok, and, frankly, I really don't care about much of it," Barrett said. "I will respond and I will make a video if it is downright dangerous for people to be implementing."
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There's always been misinformation in the fitness industry. What's changed is a growing societal emphasis on health and an expansion of social media. As more people search for ways to improve their health, the volume of fitness info has exploded. With that growth comes more misinformation, according to Andy Galpin, a professor of kinesiology at CSU Fullerton and director of the Center for Sport Performance.
Talking about health catches people's attention, he says, especially if what's said is intentionally audacious.
When it comes to health information, Galpin says there are many methods, but the concepts are few.
"There's not one optimal strategy for you," Galpin said. "There are, in all likelihood, thousands of different strategies that will be equally effective for you. So you don't have to find that one perfect magic strategy. That's totally unnecessary for the vast majority of people."
TikTok didn't provide a comment on fitness misinformation on its platform. The company has previously said its community guidelines "make clear that we do not allow harmful misinformation and will remove it from the platform."
With all the fitness misinformation on social media, can you find good, science-backed data to help you make gains? Experts say yes -- if you know what to look out for.
When Redain Caije wanted to learn more about bodybuilding, the 22-year-old criminal justice student at Rutgers struggled to find quality information on social media. At the start of the pandemic in 2020, he began surfing TikTok and noticed how much bad information was being spread on the platform. So he started doing his own research into the science behind building muscle.
He started a video series called The Guy with the Tie. He came up with the idea while dressed in a suit for his banking job. He would record himself watching a video, and if the influencer started doling out false claims, Caije would take off his tie.
It was a big hit for the young TikToker. He currently has more than 191,000 followers and posts a steady stream of fitness and nutrition tips while also debunking misinformation.
"I want to spread correct information and give people access to information that I worked so hard to get," Caije said. "I'm just an educator and a content creator."
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Caije knows a lot about weightlifting and answers questions he receives via social media, but there are some things even he doesn't have answers for. He'll then do what he suggests others do as well: seek out experts.
"I'm human. I don't know everything in the world, but I help out as much as I can to help people better their lives," he said.
Israetel is one of those experts. He says that although sensational claims about building muscle or getting fit are enticing, it's the boring, consistent advice that ends up working the best in reality.
"It's a supply and demand issue. And people demand to be sensationalized," he said. "But what you want to do is click on things that are not sensational. Click on more measured, even-keeled things. Then you're more likely to get the truth."
When it comes to the human body, what works for one person may not work for others. That's a key point some fitness influencers fail to share with their followers on TikTok. An understanding of how and why misinformation is spread can help people recognize bad actors, even at the beginning of their journey.
Everyone wants to know if a diet or workout is best for them, but Galpin says it takes time to evaluate results. Allow a minimum of four to six weeks to determine if a fitness program is right and to see changes. What's key is finding something that's effective for your goals and also sustainable.