What Are the Most Common Lies in Fitness?

I should be untruthful did I follow the example of certain strong men who have made it their business to say they are weakly invalids at the commencement of their training, but, by the secret method, made themselves into strong men …

Arthur Saxon, The Development of Physical Power (London, 1905), 3.

I’m hurt, I’m old, I’m tired… And I work with f**king children.

C.M. Punk, AEW media scrum, 2022.

Arthur Saxon, as is well documented on this website, was one of the strongest men of the early 1900s. He beat Eugen Sandow in a weightlifting completion, set world records which still exist today and, unlike many of his contemporaries, never lied about his physical strength. He explained to readers of his books that he was always strong and, through training, had gotten stronger. In this way he attempted to provide balance to all of the outlandish claims made by others about how the systems and products they sold could transform anyone’s physique into pure perfection.

C.M. Punk is a current professional wrestler who made his fame with the WWE before taking a long hiatus from the business after falling out of love with the pursuit. He returned to a heroes welcome in 2021 with AEW, a rival company to the WWE. What began so well turned sour after Punk publicly criticized his co-workers following an AEW PPV event. He has since returned but his quote about being tired and beat up accurately sums up my feelings on how fitness entrepreneurs and influencers have marketed their products over the past century.

Put simply, we need more Arthur Saxons in the world and the absence of such figures makes me feel very ‘punky’ about the industry. So like all good people, I take to the internet to vent my rage…

More seriously this annoyance got me thinking about lies in fitness marketing. So today I’m going to discuss the longevity of these lies in the fitness industry, discuss some of the most common tropes and finish by pondering the implications of truth-telling for fitness figures. Buckle up.

Lies, Damn Lies and…More Lies

Historians have studied the marketing of fitness beginning in the nineteenth-century and continuing to the present day. Some, such as Dominic Morais and John Fair, have examined the ‘brand community’ which exists around certain products. Put simply, this is the idea that individuals develop loyalty to certain brands, above others, and feel a bond to a product or service. This could take the form of only using Rogue dumbbells, or only doing CrossFit and religiously attacking other training modalities online. Before you ask, yes I am still the person who thinks ‘everyone slams on CrossFit’ jokes are funny well past their sell-by date.

The other brand of research, done by Kim Beckwith, Jan Todd, Ben Pollack, David Chapman and several others, has examined the impact that certain entrepreneurs have had in helping to create, or revise, the design of training implements, nutritional supplements, and training ideas. A smaller but equally important group, like Jason Shirley, discusses how these ideas and products make their way into sport. Incidentally, Jan Todd, Terry Todd, and Iron Game History feature across all three worlds I’ve artificially created.

Using these studies, as well as my own experience, I’m going to detail five common fitness tropes which have existed for well over a century. In case anyone was wondering, I was tempted to create a Buzzfeed list (topical reference number two checked off) but went with something more traditional instead.

The Before and After Image

Terry Todd and John Hoberman’s excellent article on the human fascination with strength, briefly noted an American physical culturist ‘Professor’ David L. Dowd whose 1889 book Physical Culture featured an image highlighting his progress since beginning his training. This way one of the first, widely circulated before and after images found in the fitness industry to ‘prove’ the effectiveness of a training system.

Previously in the 1850s, Archibald Maclaren, the man who revolutionized Britain’s military training, used actual photographs to illustrate the transformations his system could bring. Given Maclaren’s images were locked away, we will give Dowd some credit. Likewise, where Sim D. Kehoe‘s Indian Club book did use illustrations to stress the changes club swinging could bring, Dowd’s was easily the first conventional before/after image.

This trope is particularly easy to spot. Here I was before I used this workout/supplement/company and here I was afterwards. Typically the after image shows someone who looks visibly leaner, more muscular and bizarrely younger at times. Before anyone says that photoshop has changed the game, fascinating work by Rachel Ozerkevich, has shown that Edmond Desbonnet, altered cover images on his French fitness magazine La Culture Physique, in the early 1900s.

What has changed, I suppose, is the ease with which people can now manipulate images. Whereas you used to have to be a good poser to hide weaknesss, individuals can now add shade, airbrush and generally beautify themselves using a smartphone. Trope number one is undoubtedly then, the before and after image used to promote a product.

Why this is problematic is another article but I’ll just leave my favorite argument against them here

I Was Just Like You… Even Worse!

The next trope is that of the reformed ‘weakling.’ This story is relatively simple – before embarking on a particular workout, diet, or supplement regimen, I was sickly, weak, tired all the time etc. But, through the magic of this one change, I turned my life around. Admittedly I’m not renowned for my sentimental side and yes I do acknowledge that sometimes one change can dramatically impact your life. I, for example, decided to lift weights at 14 and did so consistently closing in on two decades (and counting!). Not a quick fix but something that changed my life.

What I am referring to is the fitness equivalent of a ‘get rich quick scheme’. One of the most famous examples is, of course, Charles Atlas‘ ‘Insult that Made a Man Out of Mac’ advertisement from the 1930s. One of the most influential fitness advertisements of all time, the story was simple. Young Mac was bullied on the beach in front of a lady friend, he ran home in shame, spent several weeks training with Atlas’ workout course, and returned to the beach to defeat the bully and get the girl. The message was obvious – Atlas’ system will turn you from meek to mighty in 30 days.

Was Atlas the first to use this approach? Absolutely not. In 1897 Eugen Sandow’s Strength and How to Obtain It claimed that Sandow – by then referring to himself as the World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man – was a weak and sickly child. He transformed himself through his patented brand of physical culture into the strongman he became. Again, a simple message – if you are weak and sickly, my workout course will cure all your ills. Amazingly Sandow’s previous 1894 book on physical culture gave the impression that he was just a normal, if not quite athletic, child. Go figure eh?

Situating this trope in the late nineteenth century, we can see that just like the before/after image it is again something that seems to appeal to people’s desires to believe in the magic of a particular product. This is also something that REALLY comes into its own when people discuss diets. Think about how the carnivore, keto and paleo diets have all come in and out of vogue with fantastical stories about how they transformed individual lives were near miraculous results.

Again, not saying some changes don’t make a big difference but that when big claims are combined with someone selling you something, be very skeptical. One hundred years of marketing taught me that.

Better Than Steroids/Steroid-Like Results

Can this protein powder add 20 pounds of muscle seemingly overnight? What about a creatine supplement or pre-workout that is going to get you jacked? Or some esoteric herbal blend that uses ‘ancient secrets’ to build muscle? Supplements are, truthfully, a place where decency often dies. Much like the snake oil and dubious remedies sold in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, supplements seem to get away with fantastical claims, especially in the United States.

While marketing has somewhat calmed down from the mid-twentieth century when it was so bad the federal government in the United States had to intervene, the rise of social media has allowed people to hype pretty much every product they sell to their followers. The underlying message is often the same, even if it is poorly articulated, ‘this is like steroids … or will produce steroid like effects.’

Image of needle and pillsI don’t blame them. Honestly, I don’t (okay genuinely I do and sometimes their claims infuriate me to the point that I agree with those who want supplements sold as medicines, and thus subject to actually stringent testing etc. etc.). But the reason why I sometimes don’t begrude them stems from the origins of supplement selling.

While I have discussed earlier supplements elsewhere, I want to hone in here on the 1960s and 1970s, especially in the United States. As John Fair and Danial Hall have found, protein and other muscle-building supplements were often presented as near miraculous. They could add twenty to thirty pounds of muscle easily and quickly. Or, they could strip away far and add hefty improvements to one’s strength numbers. What distinguished this time from the modern age was anabolic steroids. Specifically, just how new steroids were.

John Fair has, to my mind, provided the definitive account of how steroids came to the United States and how they spread from weightlifting to all other sports. In the late 1950s, the coach to the US Olympic Weightlifting Team, Dr. John Zeiglar, was alerted to anabolic drugs being used by Russian weightlifters. Seeking to gain a similar edge, Zeiglar returned to the United States and, developed Dianabol. Some of the first steroid using guinea pigs were members of the American weightlifting team.

Further mudding the waters, Bob Hoffman of York Barbell oversaw the training of many of these individuals. He also reported on their training in his magazine Strength and Health. During the 1960s, Strength and Health began to report on the miraculous results achieved by Hoffman’s athletes, either through his patented training systems, or his new lines of supplements. What wasn’t reported was that these results were largely due to anabolic steroids.

Hoffman wasn’t alone here either. Joe Weider, Rheo H. Blair and my beloved Vince Gironda all trained or promoted athletes who used anabolic steroids during this period. These new, freakish and chiselled bodies, were used to sell supplements and other products. The messaging was usually outlandish but it was outlandish because the bodies associated with them were now outlandish. It is no surprise that steroids and supplements emerged at roughly the same time in the fitness industry.

The claims that supplements could produce huge transformations were validated because the bodybuilders and weightlifters using them were experiencing transformations thanks to steroids. This pattern has continued to the present day were enhanced athletes continue to dupe us into believing in the power of the supplement.

Easy Results Guaranteed

Last but not least, the ‘easy results’ line. We all know the score here – rather than spending hours of time exerting yourself in the gym, simply use this one product or training trick, and get results in no time at all. I grew up in an era of six minute (or was it five minute?) abs, promises that vibration pads would build muscle and that CellTech Hardcore (24x more powerful than your average creatine!) would build muscle in no time.

I often rag on CellTech but man, teenage Conor loved how over the top their advertising was. I mean, 24 times more powerful. No idea what that means but it’s got to be good right. Incidentally this website is 48 times more powerful than your average history of fitness website and that’s a guarantee you can take to the bank.

Where was I? Yes yes, the easy results guaranteed trope. This one is at least a century old, if not older. Eugen Sandow and an early generation of physical culturists from the 1900s are the best example of this. Sandow and other strongmen built their physique through progressive weight training with heavy weights. Sandow and other strongmen also claimed that to build bodies like them, you didn’t actually need to lift heavy weights. Instead, you could use spring-grip dumbbells and pulleys to build perfect physiques.

The marketing around this was actually pretty genius. The spring grip dumbbell was effectively two metal plates with springs in between them. To use the dumbbell you had to squeeze the plates together so that they touched (thereby compressing the springs). The idea was that in doing so, you would fully concentrate on the muscle and build your ideal body. For anyone who has ever used one of these dumbbells, it’s a neat trick but it’s not going to do anything fantastic.

Illustrative of this is Alan Calvert, the man who founded Milo Barbell in the early 1900s, which was America’s first mainstream barbell manufacturer. Calvert had been inspired by Sandow but, having tried Sandow’s dumbbells for himself, realized that to build muscle he needed to actually lift heavy weights. Thus began a journey which culminated in making barbells.

Sandow, and those who promoted these devices, promised easy and safe results. While something is always better than nothing, the truth was that building lean and muscular bodies is hard work which is less appealing to the general public.

We also see this play out in diets. From the lamb chop and pineapple diet of the 1920s to the current vogue for the carnivore diet, we are told that a simple fix or change will cause instantaneous and permanent benefits. The reality, to quote Ben Goldcare, is often a little more complicated than that. Nevertheless, those who sell fitness and those who buy it continue to look for that quick and easy fix that will solve everything.

I’m hurt, I’m old and I’m tired

Returning to my inner C.M. Punk, there is much to be cynical about in the fitness industry and with good reason. We have been fed the same stories for over a century and we continue to bite. I truly believe in the value of history in helping to temper expectations and raise suspicions about those marketing goods to us. The human body is the site of so much confusion, division and insecurity. We are primed to want to change our bodies by society. History equips us with the ‘Punky’ energy needed to ignore the fantastical in favour of what works.

Eat, lift, and be merry everyone.

3 thoughts on “What Are the Most Common Lies in Fitness?

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  1. What a fun entry on my favorite blog! Long have I mused on the questionable morality of the classic Charles Atlas ad “The Insult That Made a Man out of Mac”: The “bully” is running around having innocent fun playing ball on the beach. He accidentally kicks sand on Mac and his girlfriend. When Mac complains (and evidently in a manner that provoked the bully), the so-called bully magnanimously spares him in light of their physical disparity. [In the presumably older, longer version of the ad, the bully does humiliate Mac by calling him “girlie.”] Mac’s girlfriend then further humiliates him. [What a charmer! In the longer version of the ad, she also declines to date him afterward.] Mac then takes the Charles Atlas course, but his motivation is not building strength and a beautiful, muscular body…no, it is revenge, which he takes by sucker punching the “bully” on the beach without any immediate provocation (something likely to get you an assault and battery charge these days), thereby regaining the favors of his erstwhile girlfriend. Frankly, I have long thought the “bully” was the most sympathetic character in this little drama.

    You have mentioned having been inspired to take up resistance training by the movie “300.” I know the Spartans have been idealized by English public school headmasters in days of yore, the cruel Nazis and many others. My old prep school was often characterized as “spartan.” However, let’s look at them objectively: a caste of professional fighters and killers who sustained themselves through the ruthless oppression of a much larger underclass (the helots). A very strange society it was: From the beginnings of civilization some humans have oppressed others through slavery and serfdom so that they could live more comfortably. The Spartans chose to live uncomfortably so that they could continue to oppress others!

    I can recall that at the very moment President Kennedy was being assassinated, I was reading an essay I had written for my tutor at Balliol on “Spartan Foreign Policy from the Reforms of Lycurgus to the Battle of Marathon.” Little would I have imagined at that time that 31 years later I would be marrying the daughter of Jack Kennedy’s Harvard roommate! It’s been an interesting life, and thanks again for this great website!

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