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Fitness professionals often complain about fitness “influencers” with large social media followings who peddle “T&A—and abs” all over their social media. This almost always leads to the inevitable discussion of how to differentiate a skilled and reputable coach from someone who only wants to separate you from your money? It’s nowhere near as simple as glaring red flags.
What are our real problems here? Some fitness professionals are distracted from the mission of helping people. The everyday person just wants to feel better, feel healthy, lose the weight, and get strong, and that person is being misled or confused into inaction.
Let’s look at the not so cut and dry ways to tell the good information from the bad marketing from the ugly scams.
Some coaches like to malign other coaches who show their abs and a**es in their media. But is this really a red flag? It’s better to just file this under “fitness marketing” and take a deeper look at the other qualities of the brand of individual. And while there are plenty of individuals and companies who photoshop unrealistic images with false promises of results or overly sexualize their media, there are many more qualified and ethical coaches who make their lean, muscular, attractive physiques a core part of their brand.
Don Saladino, a New York-based coach, is as legendary for his ripped physique gracing the cover of Muscle and Fitness as he is for getting Hollywood superheroes like Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman in movie shape. Saladino is also among the most caring and evidence-based coaches in the game. His programs and challenges have helped thousands of people.
Tamara Watkins has abs, glutes, and her intense training regimen on fully display as she guides clients and inspires women to embrace active lifestyle.
Verdict: Be skeptical, trust your instincts, but take a deeper look at other signs of integrity and quality.
This question is a topic of endless debate among coaches. The fitness extremists tend to sometimes miss the mark on this one. Being physically fit certainly matters, but it’s not the most important element. For starters just because someone is jacked and ripped doesn’t mean they have the slightest clue how to guide someone else to results. But success leaves clues so being ripped isn’t a disqualifier either.
While appearance or demonstration of proficiency aren’t the same as having the knowledge to coach someone to success, on average the person seeking help is likely to gravitate toward someone who’s walked the walk. Most skilled powerlifting coaches will be strong. Most skilled bodybuilding or bikini coaches will have competed in aesthetic competition. Most fat loss coaches will be fairly lean or have demonstrated personal transformation.
Eve Guzman is a nutrition coach and mentor who’s walked the walk. Eve took control of her own life and went from struggling with her weight to competing in a figure competition, to being featured in People magazine, to living a balanced life where she looks and feels great. She’s built a legacy through her coaching and the coaches she mentors to have helped thousands of women lose the weight, feel healthy, and develop a better relationship with their bodies, all while avoiding extreme trends.
Verdict: How a coach looks is no guarantee they’re qualified but it’s a piece of a more complex puzzle. Dig deeper into their skills and knowledge.
This is another example of trainers worrying too much about what the competition is doing. But does competing in a fitness show qualify someone to coach others? The short answer is no, at least not on its own. What really matters here is skill, knowledge, and a passion to help others.
As a teen in Brazil, Nathalia Melo-Wilson spent her allowance to train every second month at a gym. She loved working out and sacrificed to make it work. She eventually moved to the United States with little money and a love of fitness. Nathalia’s dedication led her to success as a bikini competitor where she won her pro card then won the 2012 Miss Bikini Olympia. Instead of pushing hard into coaching competitors, Nathalia set out on a lifelong quest to learn and has built a successful business helping every day women with her expertise and no-nonsense tough love.
For all the newly minted competitors who believe this is all the qualification they ever need, there are many competitors dedicated to learning the ins and outs of nutrition and strength training who aspire to be world class coaches.
Verdict: Unless you want to compete, look deeper than a coach’s competitive background. Even then, it’s wise to look for signs of integrity—as well as skill.
The basics work. They always have and always will. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for innovation and novelty in training or branding. However, oftentimes creativity descends into absolute rubbish with more effort to create new (and sometimes dangerous) circus trickery to sell programs and e-books, than to help people get strong and lose fat. Trying to stand out this way is an easy trap coaches can be lured into. However, some brilliant coaches with proven track records have dominated their niches with innovative displays of strength and skill that have practical application.
Vancouver-based strength coach Meghan Callaway has helped hundreds of people perform their first pullup or learn landmine training with her programs, all while showcasing a consistent stream of feats of calisthenics strength and skill on her media.
Adriell Mayes is a kettlebell specialist who blends innovative workouts with accessible basics to introduce more lifters to the benefits and fun of kettlebell training.
A recent trend to approach with caution is the branding around reinvention of basic biomechanics principles, especially by individuals without advanced post secondary education. For every Dr. Jordan Shallow and Dr. Pat Davidson, there seem to be dozens of new biomechanics experts invading TikTok.
Verdict: It’s important to do what you enjoy and keep training fun. If you enjoy a coach’s creativity and it’s based upon a solid foundation of fundamentals, give it a shot. Meanwhile keep you spidey-senses alert to media that feels more smoke and mirrors than it does substance.
Some trainers have a bug up their butts about the word “toned.” “Toned isn’t a thing!” they’ll scream to their audience. Except, however, it is and we damn well know what someone means when they meet with us with the goals of not wanting “to get too bulky, I just want to tone up.” This is ultimately about helping people, and if we want to really help, we have to meet them where they are and speak their language. Does this mean everyone who talks about getting ripped or toned has your best interests at heart? Not even close. Fitness industry grifters will use every tactic possible to separate you from your hard earned money, so as with everything else, look deeper into the skill and integrity of the brand and coach.
Kelsey and Dennis Heenan, of TheDailyKelsey and Hiitburn, are a power couple of the smartest, most skilled, and highest integrity coaches in the industry. Not only do they let their super fit physiques show as they have fun on their media, they are masters of choosing just the right words and message to better market their programs. Because they know they can help you get results and have an experience you want to keep returning to, all while attracting the very type of person who may be misled by flashier overblown promises by individuals or brands without their integrity.
Verdict: Take a deeper look at people who speak your language, but always look for signs of integrity. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Short answer: no, however, a solid amount of followers doesn’t disqualify them either. One of the best ways to sift through this question is to understand where someone’s following came from? Is their following the byproduct of being a great coach and educator like Sohee Lee, Jordan Syatt, Molly Galbraith, or Susan Niebergall, who all just happen to be savvy about social media on top of all their other great work? Or is it someone who bought their following(massive red flag) or built it mainly off selfies without a body of credible work? Sometimes a “fitness influencer” blows up on social media because of their appearance then decides to leverage this by offering programs or meal plans. While smart and caring people have done this, this is a good place to exercise caution unless you can otherwise verify quality.
Beth Feraco and Eric Roberts have built successful businesses and helped hundreds of people by mastering social media. But they started and skilled coaches and learned to translate their knowledge into resonant, entertaining, and engaging social media. As their media exploded they had the skills to create client success.
Verdict: Our industry is full of brilliant coaches who’ve built massive followings. It’s also full of influencers with less than stellar track records of skill or integrity. Look deeper.
Social proof is one of the best ways to tell if a coach or program is worth your money. Sadly transformation photos can be digitally altered, stolen and repurposed, or manipulated with lighting and posing. One of the most reputable, highly educated, and evidence based brands in the industry, Renaissance Periodization, helmed by Dr. Mike Israetel, Nick Shaw , and their team, uses a lot of before and after photos in their marketing. They’ve also see their photos stolen and used to market and mislead around the world. New York based coach and destroyer of “shitfluencers” John “Goob” Dorsey calls out people who photoshop their images and has helped catch people who’ve tried to win transformation competitions by editing their images. Goob calls out some of the industry’s worst offenders you’ll want to avoid hiring, often for reasons much worse than editing photos.
Verdict: Before and after photos are an excellent resource if the brand or coach is known for integrity.
A Ph.D., or Medical degree is no guarantee of expertise in nutrition or fitness. A common fallacy is to believe someone with Dr. in their name is knowledgeable or credible outside their specific area of education. For every medical doctor like Dr. Spencer Nadolsky or Dr. Gabrielle Lyon (who has expertise and integrity when educating on nutrition, there are dozens of doctors, medical or otherwise, who’ve sold out and written books on popular diet trends loaded with rubbish and pseudoscience. This extends from riding the popular waves of carnivore, to paleo, to intermittent fasting, and beyond. For a better handle on evidence-based nutrition, immerse yourself in Dr. Layne Norton’s legacy of education paired with myth busting. Layne holds a Ph.D. in nutritional sciences.
The same pitfalls apply to training. For every credible expert like Dr. Mike Israetel, Dr. Sam Spinelli, Dr. Andy Galpin, there are “Dr’s” who effectively bought their doctorate’s from “diploma mills” to create the appearance of credibility, all while marketing circus training programs intent on profiting from your gullibility.
Verdict: Look for independent verification that a doctor is a qualified expert in their field. Approach mainstream books on nutrition by medical doctors with extreme caution.
There are some true red flags to run from. Ignore people who photoshop images or peddle pseudoscience like suntanning genitals or eating bull testicles. Beyond the most obvious and egregious infractions, it’s caveat emptor(buyer beware). You do need to take full responsibility for doing homework on who you hire. The choice to improve your health and fitness shouldn’t be taken lightly, so be willing to ask people you trust for good resources and referrals. Learn who is respected and trusted in the fitness industry. Patiently follow their media. Ask questions and see how people respond and interact. If you’re met with kindness, empathy, and helpfulness all married to sound practical advice, green light. If you’re met with pushy sales tactics, proceed with caution. Sometimes we have to expose ourselves to more ideas and info, invest in learning enough to make a qualified decision, and trust our intuition. Meanwhile I’ve shared with you several great people I encourage you to follow, who I trust as evidence based and having integrity. Happy hunting.