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A former beginner on sports training: why 99% of us don’t have the right role models

Today, I’m going to talk about sports training. Although I don’t mention it on social media, sports have been part of my daily life for many years. Like many practitioners, I see that their impact on physical and mental health can be beneficial or harmful, depending on how they are practiced. In this post, I wonder about certain practices related to sports. Especially fitness and bodybuilding, which are more and more in vogue with YouTube and Instagram, the role they can play in the construction and propagation of standards in the amateur sports world.

Preamble

At the time I started, blogs and YouTube didn’t exist or were just the prerogative of some nerds rather than sports coaches. My parents had books from the 70s-80s on the biomechanics of sport, human anatomy, and a book titled simply Le Grand Livre du Culturisme, which was a bit of a precursor. I started bodybuilding with free weights, did a lot of full-body for a year, before moving on to a split program. At the same time, my interest in nutrition came. It allowed me to achieve results I never thought were possible, adding to my body frame 40% of lean mass. Beyond my measurements, I also felt a change in my personality and my cognitive abilities. An increased capacity to concentrate, higher resistance to effort, and the learning to push and respect my limits.

Not bad for sports seen as a simple cult of appearance.

I’ve been doing regular sports training for 15 years now: bodybuilding, fitness, but also running and swimming. The fact that I do not have, unlike a sports coach, programs or products for sale, allows me to share my experience with great freedom, on important issues that sports enthusiasts encounter.

What social media have changed in sports training

In many sports, we build our practice around models and standards that we dream one day to reach and even surpass. Body-building, for example, is built on the idea of going beyond the average physique to achieve a better physique: highly developed back muscles giving a V-shape, hypertrophied arms, huge pecs, round glutes, oversized thighs… But before dreaming of an ideal shape, how can a beginner possibly know which goal is reasonable to set?

Sport in the popular imagination

In popular culture, when we talk about bodybuilding, it usually happens a few seconds before the name Arnold Schwarzenegger is mentioned. The Austrian Oak was, before being the actor and the politician that we know, a legend of bodybuilding. A living legend that still endures among practitioners with 5 titles of Mr. Universe, 7 titles of Mr. Olympia, and the record of the youngest Mr. Olympia in history.

But the history of bodybuilding, more than a century old, also retains names like Eugen Sandow, Charles Atlas, John Grimek, Steve Reeves, Frank Zane, Dorian Yates, Ronnie Coleman, Jay Cutler, and Phil Heath.

Benjamin J. Falk (1853-1925), Portrait of strongman Eugen Sandow (1867-1925) in 1894. Here Sandow wears the medal he had just won in Italy.
IFBB athlete Phil Heath pictured here during a bodybuildnig contest in the 2010s.

And what we see is that these role models, from Eugen Sandow to Phil Heath, reflect a different image of bodybuilding, through the ages, with extraordinary bodies that have never ceased to evolve. But, if a beginner is spontaneously interested in contemporary athletes, are they really the references to be surpassed or even reached?

Widespread doping in competition over the last 50 years

Already in the 70s, the golden age of bodybuilding, people were using AAS and other PEDs. Anabolic steroids are an open secret, in the world of high-level sport, bodybuilding and beyond. Laws prohibiting their sale and possession have had the effect of making doping invisible, although omnipresent. Doping is never put forward as the most obvious factor of success, even if it is the key to understanding the extraordinary bodies we can see nowadays. And the phenomenon is growing with Internet.

The cult of hyper-muscular bodies and easy fame on Instagram and YouTube

Due to e-commerce and lax or very permissive legislation in some countries, it is possible to get steroids in just a few clicks. Besides, on YouTube and Instagram, many accounts are showcasing the disproportionate bodies of zealous bodybuilders.

If before, these bodies were only visible in Flex or Muscle & Fitness-like magazines, associated with professional competitors, social media have allowed complete nobodies to show off their prominent muscles, and to create a community around their performances. A community of amateurs, sometimes very young. The minimum legal age on most social platforms being 13 years old.

Jeff Seid, famous bodybuilder and social media influencer. At 24 years old, Jeff Seid has amassed over 1 million YouTube subscribers and 3.9 million Instagram followers. The bodybuilder has created a fitness empire and even has his own fitness clothing line.

Encouraged by hundreds of thousands, or even millions of followers, some accounts promote totally unbridled bodybuilding, without necessarily admitting taking doping products, often to sell programs, sometimes completely scammy, to people who have no idea of the risks.

Thanks to algorithms these sensational contents become highly viral, making it impossible to miss. With similar transformation experienced by Hollywood actors like The Rock, Jason Momoa, Chris Hemsworth, the once-marginalized bulky, over-muscled, body becomes a new norm in the minds of young sports enthusiasts.

The very rare critical content is not likely to curb the influence of these models on the millions of gym newcomers.

A closer look at factors affecting athletes’ success

Bodybuilding and other sports allow us to take a close look at physical preparation, how the human body works, what its potential is, and how it is possible to stimulate its development. Taking an interest in it is already a way of giving perspective to our own goals.

The 3 determining factors of success in sports

Genetics. Among athletes, we are not equals. Realizing this early enough allows us to overcome our weaknesses with the right approach. In bodybuilding, muscle insertions, arms and legs length, bone density, percentage of lean mass, percentage of body fat, greatly affect the results we can achieve, as well as our testosterone levels or our metabolism. Regarding this, some practitioners will obtain a massive body more easily than others, for equal workouts.

Sport training. This is the point most beginners focus on, forgetting that it is part of a bigger picture. Theoretically speaking, there is enough documentation today, freely available online, to avoid a costly subscription to a sports program, created by who knows who. However, it will be necessary to sort out useful knowledge from bullshit advice. In practice, the main challenge lies in creating a complete training program and sticking to it. It is also important to optimize training parameters such as recovery times or exercise techniques.

Nutrition. This is not the point that sports practitioners are primarily interested in. However, if there is one factor that really differentiates beginners from experienced athletes, it is knowledge of sports nutrition. How to get the right daily dosage of proteins, carbohydrates, and good fats? How to keep a balanced diet, with the right calorie amount? The question of food supplements is also interesting: if it is not useful for the progression of an amateur, it becomes essential for the confirmed one to continue his/her progression. This can be very expensive, and many athletes who become YouTube and Instagram influencers get sponsored for the purchase of their supplements.

The 3 counterproductive things for amateur athletes

Photos and videos of other practitioners on social media. There is nothing more deceptive than a photo taken at a certain angle, with a certain light or pose. Or those videos that always show congested or contracted muscles, never at rest. Not to mention the Instagram filters, Photoshop editing. Nowadays, it is easy to create the illusion of a perfect body. And those who make a living from their image on social media know it. Much of what you see on Instagram is artificial, deceptive, made to sell you a dream. And if you have idols, meet them in person. It will help you put things into perspective.

Doping. Anabolic steroids, which appeared almost 80 years ago and were then used in high-level competition, are at best taboo and at worst illegal. It is debatable for a long time whether it is in the interest of top-level athletes to push human limits regardless of their health, but the fact remains that the use of doping drugs, justified solely by the potential gain in performance, is not compatible with the spirit of a ‘healthy’ body, which is held out to beginners. One can only be alarmed by the fact that more and more beginners are taking PEDs. The problem is that in a society that devotes more and more attention to performance with no regard for health concerns, the younger generations are more and more encouraged to use drugs. The business culture meets with the sports world in many ways. 

Ready-made programs. In itself, the idea of pre-made programs is not a bad idea. It offers to beginners, who do not have the financial resources for personal coaching, nor the desire to learn more, the opportunity of experiencing a development framework, the first step towards a kind of self-discipline in sports and nutrition. That being said, many actors proposing these programs do so without taking into account the specificities of each individual. And a training program that has proven itself on an individual will not necessarily give the same results, despite the same regularity. No exercise and technique are universal. The same goes for food: we all have specific nutritional needs, to which our digestive system and internal biology react differently. The personalization and individualization of training and nutrition programs are the keys to success.

A word in conclusion

A sound mind in a sound body. A phrase that for many nonprofessional athletes should serve as a mantra. Practicing a sport can make someone grow as well as destroy him/her. This is quite sad because I am sure that no practitioner has ever started with the goal of having joint or lower back pain at 35 and a heart attack at 40. When deciding your goals and the way you train, a strong detachment from social media is recommended, as is reading about sports training and nutrition. For those who have already been around for a few years, it is never too late to do well.

I am aware, having been there myself, that there is always in a sport, even at an amateur level, the will to surpass ourselves and to perform better than our peers. It’s only after a while that we realize that to do what we love for as long as possible, we have to train by focusing on ourselves and our own singularities that sport has made us discover. Screw extraordinary bodies and performances. You are unique, you have to discover for yourself the full potential you can reach. Basically, the only model that should matter to you is yourself. Having understood this, you are probably now part of the 1% of practitioners who will really flourish for a long time in their sport. I am barely exaggerating.

The greatest satisfaction is to be able to do what you love throughout your entire lifetime. That’s the best reward, that’s all I wish for you.

Signed, 
A former beginner.

By Max Schleiffer

French entrepreneur. I have grown a marketing consultancy over the decade. Now, I explore new ways of working in the digital age.