Is Social Media Changing The Face Of Fitness?
From CrossFit to Influencer Gyms & Where this is all going
We are beginning to see conversations in fitness spaces around ideas of “optimal” training practices vs. “suboptimal.” This is in large part due to the pendulum finally started to swing back away from The Big Three and more towards hypertrophy focused training.
I get into why the way we use social media, through widespread access to cameras and smartphones, has fundamentally shifted the goals of millions in the gym.
By taking a look back at the popularization of CrossFit, we can track the rise of The Big Three (squats, deadlifts, and bench press) and understand why this moment has been a long time coming and where this is all going.
The Big Three Renaissance & The Rise of CrossFit
In 2000, CrossFit came onto the scene and would later revolutionized the way we looked at fitness and training. CrossFit reached its peak popularity in 2013. CrossFit revolutionized American fitness training by introducing a new approach to exercise that emphasizes high-intensity, functional movements and varied workouts, as opposed to traditional, isolated exercises performed at a moderate intensity. This new approach emphasizes the benefits of constantly varied, functional movements performed at a high intensity, which leads to improved overall fitness. It also re-introduced The Big Three.
Google analytics show a steep jump in the google searches for Squats & Deadlifts around this time while the bench press remained as popular as ever.
The way I see it, the American public seeing CrossFit athletes on television & streaming on the internet, debuting peak athleticism while drawing in large a viewership, changed how we viewed fitness and especially, weight training. Before CrossFit, The Worlds Strongest Man competitions were the closest thing we had to seeing strength performed with any skill on television, outside of the Olympics. Only with CrossFit athletes, we had more aesthetically aspirational athletes…
For all of its faults, CrossFit revolutionized fitness training by introducing the olympic lifts into the consciousness of the American public. A good thing as far as I’m concerned. They did this all while enticing the viewer with aesthetics that were aspirational and made people want to lift. Soon, we would see gyms adapting to the trends in the fitness community or be left in the dust. Functional training areas would replaced movie theatre cycling, squat racks would expand beyond the one previously used for dumbbell curls, and your worth would be decided by how much you deadlift replacing the size of your bicep.
The Rise of Powerlifting
As the years moved on from CrossFit’s peak popularity, one thing remained as popular as ever. Movements like the squat, deadlift, and bench were deemed the king movements in the overall consciousness of the average weightlifter. It was around this time that USA Power Lifting Meets spiked.
Google searches for “powerlifting near me” has been on a major upward trajectory with a blip in searches at the start of COVID in 2019 and are as popular still, as ever.
The Influencer Revolution
Social media has played a significant role in shaping fitness trends and preferences in recent years. The fitness influencers have brought about a new wave of hypertrophy/bodybuilding focused training, taking advantage of the incentive structures of modern social media trends.
Instagram (and most recently TikTok) have provided the kind of platform for gym enthusiasts to gain notoriety without the need of institutions like CrossFit to promote them to godlike status to the public. Today, the average person can do that with a smartphone, Young LA sweatpants, and some good lighting.
These influencers largely promote a physique-oriented approach to fitness, with an emphasis on building muscle size and definition. This is a large departure from the approach to lifting say, CrossFit legend Mat Fraser was known for.
None of this is to say that there is a dichotomy in one’s approach to training. Nor is anyone really saying that. The point rather is that what we consume, what we watch, what get’s promoted and makes money, often becomes what we follow/want/pursue. In other words, the meteoric rise of the 15 second TikTok videos of massive, shirtless bodybuilders performing machine chest presses, flexing into a $5,000 camera is bound to have an effect.
Below is the Google trend data for the search term “Fitness Influencer” since 2011. The end of 2021 was the first time “Fitness Influencer” significantly out-searched “Powerlifting near me” and is trending towards overtaking the search altogether going into 2023.
Pushback from followers of The Big Three
The belief among some Big Three enthusiasts is that these machines are less effective for building functional strength, as they rely on stability from other muscle groups, rather than relying on the targeted muscle group alone. This has led to a perception that these machines are less useful and less worthy of space in the gym, leading to a tendency to avoid or ignore them. This wouldn’t be a problem if there wasn’t a wide-scale misunderstanding that The Big Three were “BEST” for hypertrophy training.
Pushback from those informed on the subject has resulted in a rift on social media in defense of gym equipment designed to optimize muscle recruitment by isolating specific muscle groups. Machines are, and always have been incredibly useful tools for muscle building. Extremely seasoned and professional bodybuilders have understood this for decades, incorporating the best of both worlds into the training.
Influencer Gym Culture
Influencer gyms have become increasingly popular in recent years as fitness influencers have gained larger and larger followings on social media. You’ll know these gyms by the growing number of camera/phone tripods used to record workouts for social media clout. However annoying an endless sea of recording tripods can be, the effect of these kinds of influencer gyms far exceed the inconvenience they cause to the average gym-goer.
The widespread availability of cameras and smartphones, combined with the widespread use of social media, has created new opportunities for people to get large audiences and make money from going to the gym. With just a few taps on a screen, anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection can document their workouts, share their progress, and build a following.
Social media has made it easier for people to connect with others who share their interests, and the rise of fitness influencers has created a new industry around fitness content creation. Influencers can make money through sponsored posts, brand deals, and product promotions, and by creating their own content and selling it online.
This has also led to the creation of new job opportunities in the fitness industry, such as personal trainers who specialize in online coaching and content creation. With the ability to reach a large audience and monetize their skills, more people are entering the fitness industry and building successful careers as fitness influencers.
The curated aesthetics promoted by these influencers often focus on building a certain type of physique, such as a toned, muscular body with a defined midsection, broad shoulders, and large arms. The popularity of these aesthetics has driven a new wave of interest in weightlifting and bodybuilding and away from The Big Three. Is the pendulum swinging back to the way it was, pre-2013?
Where is this all headed & Concluding Thoughts
The current popularization of social media fitness influencers is a strong cultural trend in the fitness world and is likely to not go away anytime soon. There are some drawbacks to this as we’ve gotten a taste of in recently weeks on social media.
Not to mention the endless sea of tripods to avoid while walking to your next lift at your local gym.
However, I do think the takeaways from the years of The Big Three dominance is likely to last for quite some time. I am quite positive about where we are at in terms of the current trends in the fitness community. Despite the emergence of new machine isolation exercises and a new “optimal training” orthodoxy, the emphasis on strength training and the importance of The Big Three exercises is likely to remain a staple in the fitness community. The focus on these exercises has proven to be effective in building strength and muscle mass, and the benefits they provide will continue to be recognized and valued by fitness enthusiasts for years to come.
The future of training will be in the intelligent design and implementation utilizing the best of both worlds. With all of this being said, here are a few of my predictions of what the future holds for us.
The Church of Optimal Training
Number one on this list has to go to what is most likely going to become the newest orthodoxy in training. Replacing the Big Three clerics will be the “optimal” training guys. Ready to have a 3 day Twitter thread on the stimulus to fatigue ratio of machine leg curls vs. stiff legged deadlifts? Well, be prepared, these guys have done their homework and ready to post their phD thesis for you in the comments of any social media post that goes against the newest religion.
More influencer gyms
A major wave of new gyms including dark paint jobs, bright overhead lighting, and posing rooms are coming to the rest of America in the near future. Some of the benefits of will be that you’ll look better in the gym but it comes with some major drawbacks. With every gym bag comes the tripod carrying case, a $5,000 camera, the freshest Young LA drip, and a perm that would make Darrel flinch.
Your gym will never look better or feel worse…
In reaction to the influencer gyms will come something I’m personally ready for already. Gyms that forbid the use of cameras, tripods or excessive posing will start to pop up... Sort of a planet fitness but for people who want to train seriously without the distraction. I think I speak for everyone when I say we’ve already had enough of this vibe in our gyms…
Rise of “Powerbuilding”
Another thing I’m very optimistic about. Powerbuilding is the combination of powerlifting and bodybuilding. There have been a number of these types of programs built over the years but their widespread popularity I don’t believe has been felt yet. I personally find these programs to be a lot of fun and include the best of both worlds in terms of what I enjoy in my training. Just dont tell the Church of Optimal Training…