It's a Trap!
The pattern just keeps repeating itself. A "new" exercise or diet trend comes along, the mainstream crowd jumps on it, eventually gets bored, and moves on to the next big thing. Even trainers and coaches can fall into the trend trap.
We need to avoid getting caught up in these fitness and nutrition trends. We need to focus instead on the basic principles that always work and will never go out of style. To do that, let's look back and see what lessons we've learned so far.
In the 70's and 80's there was an explosion in isolation exercises and bodybuilding-style training among men. And while actual women bodybuilders existed, it was fairly uncommon for the average woman to want to build muscle. Nautilus machines made their debut in 1970 and isolating muscle groups became a trend.
Aerobics like jogging, Jazzercise, and step classes took off. Many of these introduced small dumbbells, but their emphasis stayed on cardio. Some of these programs made their way to video cassette by the late 80's and early 90's (Buns of Steel, The Firm) and people began "toning up" in the privacy of their living room.
In the late 90's exercising on stability balls or wobbly boards became known as the hot new thing celebrities did with their expensive personal trainers. This gained mass appeal and the trend trickled into the masses by the 2000's. Somehow it became known as "functional" training.
Group fitness classes like Les Mills Body Pump (which required a lightly-loaded barbell and hundreds of reps to get a "burn") also began to take off in the late 90's and early 2000's.
In the 2000's group circuit training and boot camp-style workouts blew up. Some were called "MMA workouts" or "hardcore" or "underground" workouts. These classes emphasized getting you extremely fatigued, sometimes to the point of feeling pukish.
Then in the 2010's we saw another variant of group interval conditioning classes explode promising super intense, calorie-torching workouts – think Spin classes, Orange Theory, and 9-Round.
In the weight room, the focus has shifted toward powerlifting (standard barbell movements) and bodyweight exercises.
Are these trends bad? Of course not. But recognize your bias. You probably believe that what you're doing right now is the superior way to work out... because that's what every generation thinks.
Workout trends fall in and out of favor like clothing styles. And it's often thought that every new wave is better than the previous one. However, history proves otherwise.
Every era has its fans and its great-looking celebrities. They're on board with the hot fitness methods of their respective time. So you can't look at whatever methods athletes and celebrities are using as the "secret" to their success. Because in a different era they'd be doing something else.
The last thing you need to do is see what others are doing and feel like that's exactly how you need to exercise in order to get their look or athleticism. It's okay to not be on-trend.
What all the successful fitness fans from each generation have in common is that they stayed dedicated to exercising regularly and eating well. And this should tell us that a lot of exercise methods can work if done with effort and consistency.
So, find a form of exercise (or a few) that you're interested in because you're much more likely to stay consistent if you do.
If you think about it, when people fail to get fit, it's not because they didn't try to change their lifestyle; it's because the lifestyle changes they made were unrealistic or misguided. For example, when beginning to exercise, many otherwise intelligent adults ignore the universal life lesson of taking things one step at a time, and instead think, "I've never exercised before, so why don't I begin like a Navy SEAL?" That's just not realistic or sustainable for most people.
So it's no surprise that trend-chasers will often think that to get into better shape, they must either be a gym rat or do extreme routines like the ones we see athletes and models doing in the media. It's simply not true.
Sure, if you're trying to become a bodybuilder or a high-level athlete, you have to exercise like one. However, if you're someone who's interested in simply getting into shape, you certainly don't need to organize your entire life around kitchens and gyms.
You just need to improve your eating habits in a realistic way that fits your lifestyle, and make sure you're getting regular exercise (in forms you enjoy) on most days of the week. That's how you ensure consistency, and consistency is the common thread that runs between athletes and the great-looking celebrities from each era.
In 1972 the Atkins diet was created and variations of it have continued to make a comeback every decade since. (Believe it or not, before it became a hit among the masses, the extremely low-carb diet was first administered by a doctor named William Banting in the 1800's.)
In the 1960's Weight Watchers was founded, but it wasn't the only one. If you were a member of the baby boomer generation, you might've tried the Slim Fast diet, the grapefruit diet, or the "sleeping beauty diet" which had people taking sedatives and sacking out in place of eating food.
In the 80's and 90's there was Jenny Craig, the cabbage soup diet, and general eating styles (like the Ornish Diet) that encouraged cutting back on fat. Vegetarian diets rose in popularity too.
In the mid 90's The Zone Diet made its debut, as one of the first which required dieters to consider specific macro percentages. It lead the way to low-sugar and low processed-carb diets like The South Beach Diet.
Then in the 2000's, with the help of the internet, all sorts of diets blew up from Mediterranean, to paleo, to gluten free, to Whole30, to vegan, to intermittent fasting, to the alkaline diet, to once again, a very low carb diet... but this time called keto (something bodybuilders learned about from Dan Duchaine's Body Opus plan back in 1996).
In every diet trend there's always some specific enemy. In many diets, it's not a type of nutrient (fat, carbohydrate, etc.) that's the enemy, but a specific type of food or foods.
Many of these diets take foods that a small portion of the population are allergic to, like gluten or dairy, and advise everyone to avoid them as well, which is like saying that since some people are allergic to dogs, no one should get a dog.
Other diets demand that you eliminate a whole host of common foods they claim are the cause of sickness and disease. Interestingly, these diets often make mutually incompatible claims as to which foods cause disease and which they claim to "prevent" disease.
The same foods on the "no-no" list in one diet might be the magic-bullet cure-all foods in another diet. If this alone isn't enough to highlight why these miracle diets are based more on great marketing than on good science, keep in mind that every few years there seems to be a new perfect diet that claims to be better than the last.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) has provided a list of conclusions and recommendations in their position stand paper on diets and body composition. Here are a few of major takeaways (1):
- There are many diet types and eating styles. The various diet archetypes are wide-ranging in total energy and macronutrient distribution. Each type carries varying degrees of supporting data and unfounded claims.
- A wide range of dietary approaches (low-fat to low-carb/ketogenic and all points between) can be similarly effective for improving body comp, and this allows flexibility with program design. To date, no controlled, inpatient isocaloric (calories matched) diet comparison, where protein is matched between groups, has reported a clinically meaningful fat loss or thermic (metabolic) advantage to the lower-carbohydrate or ketogenic diet.
- Common threads run through the diets in terms of the mechanism of action for weight loss and weight gain, but there are also potentially unique means by which certain diets achieve their intended objectives – factors that facilitate greater satiety, ease of compliance, support of training demands.
- Diets focused primarily on fat loss – and weight loss beyond initial reductions in body water – operate under the fundamental mechanism of a sustained caloric deficit. This net hypocaloric (reduced calorie) balance can either be imposed daily or over the course of the week.
- The collective body of research about intermittent caloric restriction (intermittent fasting) demonstrates no significant advantage over daily caloric restriction for improving body composition.
- Increasing dietary protein to levels significantly beyond current recommendations for athletic populations may improve body composition. The ISSN's original 2007 position on protein intake (1.4-2.0 g/kg) has gained further support from subsequent investigations arriving at similar requirements in athletic populations. Higher protein intakes (2.3-3.1 g/kg Fat Free Mass) may be required to maximize muscle retention in lean, resistance-trained subjects in hypocaloric conditions. Emerging research on very high protein intakes (>3 g/kg) has demonstrated that the known thermic, satiating, and lean mass-preserving effects of dietary protein might be amplified in resistance training subjects.
- Most existing research showing adaptive thermogenesis (a slowing of metabolism) has involved diets that combine aggressive caloric restriction with low protein intakes and an absence of resistance training, essentially creating a perfect storm for slowing metabolism. Research that has mindfully included resistance training and adequate protein has circumvented the problem of adaptive thermogenesis and muscle loss, despite very low-calorie intakes.
- The long-term success of a diet depends on compliance.
As you can see, the relationship of how many calories you consume per day to the number you expend per day is the single most important factor when it comes to determining whether you lose fat.
Now, whenever someone says this, someone else tries to refute it by bringing up the fact that the quality or composition of the calories you eat matters. They present it as an either/or proposition. But this relationship doesn't discount that some calories are more nutrient dense than others.
You can be both well-nourished and overfed. Food quality and food quantity are important factors that should be considered together. As important as it is to eat high-quality, nutrient-dense foods for general health, you can still gain fat from eating healthfully if you eat too many calories relative to what you're expending.
Multiple dietary approaches will result in fat loss if you're in a caloric deficit and protein intake is sufficient. The most effective strategies state that diets should be individualized and take into account lifestyle, habits, medical history, dietary history, and food preferences. Above all, the most important factor that'll help a person lose fat and improve health is adherence.
The fact is, when you strip away the big claims, all the popular diets get people to eat more lower-calorie, nutrient-dense foods while consuming fewer higher-calorie, nutrient-poor junk foods. The reason you can find people who swear by just about every fad diet isn't because of a special eating formula, but because it simply got people to eat nutritious foods more frequently than they were before.
You can commit to a diet and remain skeptical of its seemingly miraculous claims. You can test things out and avoid being taken in by marketing hype. And if you do enough research, you'll probably start to see that the reason why most diets work is because they got people to eat meals that are made up of mostly high-quality meats, eggs, fish (or protein substitutes, for vegetarians and vegans), fruits, and vegetables. And these diets controlled calories by limiting your intake of refined foods, simple sugars, hydrogenated oil, and alcohol.
Trainers like to think that falling for fitness trends is something only the unwashed masses do, but we've fallen for some pretty recognizable trends too.
In the 80's and 90's trainers told people, "Never let your knees go past your toes," on exercises like lunges and squats. And on all rowing movements they said, "Hold your shoulder blades back," (meaning retracted).
In the 2000's and even 2010's they instructed people to, "Draw your belly button in before and during ALL exercises" and to "Keep a vertical shin/tibia during squats and lunges."
We also saw an upswing in trainers recommending "neck packing" (pulling your chin toward the back or your neck) and "shoulder packing" (driving your shoulder blades downwards).
See a pattern here? The vertical tibia is the new "don't let your knees go past your toes." The idea of packing your neck is basically the new drawing your belly in. And shoulder packing before doing things like overhead pressing was the new shoulder retraction cue.
What should strike you is that even the world that top trainers live in has a history of false dawns. We're always being told, "This is it! We've found the one supremely powerful thing!" And then we adopt it and tell our clients to follow along.
And if you're someone who hires a personal trainer on occasion, you might even be able to see whether (or not) yours has been keeping up with the most current information, or if his or her training cues are a little outdated.
All of these previously "this is it" methods sounded amazing when they were being taught to us. They ignited a lot of passion among pros who claimed they had great success using these ideas.
If you want to take it a step further, some of the "this is it" moments weren't even methods – they were tools, like the Bow Flex, the Thigh Master, or more recently, kettlebells, battling ropes, suspension straps, bands, etc.
While many of these things still have value, we should never think of any one particular tool or technique as the panacea. Trainers should be using the tools; the tools shouldn't be using them.
When you look at this rollercoaster of fitness trends, you see that trainers, just like average people, fall for these magic-bullets... but in this case, they're exercise cues and training modalities.
Even trainers who laud themselves for "sticking to the basics" get caught up in trends and find themselves fighting for or against specialized training techniques that either won't be around for long, or won't be hyped up as much.
Some trainers have an exaggerated perception about a particular training modality; it's as if they have some allegiance to a given method or a fanaticism about certain types of exercises (barbell exercises, kettlebell exercises, stability ball exercises, etc.). Can we consider these trends as well? Sure, if they're emphasized as the end-all be-all of exercise modalities.
If a trainer judges a program based on whether or not it uses their pet training modality without first considering your exercise goals, abilities, and interests, then that's a big red flag. A good trainer is an exercise analyzer who holds no such allegiance to a given training method or a fanaticism about certain types of exercises.
Now, there's nothing wrong with a trainer having his own personal exercise hobby he enjoys. However, when you work with these trainers, in many cases you'll get private lessons in their favorite exercise method, not a personalized program of the best exercises for you.
When you have a grasp of universal training principles, you have a clear understanding that...
- Certain training methods are best for certain goals, and not one method is best for all goals.
- Unless you're competing in a weightlifting-oriented sport, there's no particular exercise that any athlete or gym-goer must do in order to improve.
There are training principles (like individuality, specificity, progressive overload, etc.) that must be adhered to, and there's a wide variety of exercise applications and variations that allow people to achieve their goals.
Fitness trends will come and go, and you don't want to get overly caught up in any of them to the point where you're turning down other things that might be of benefit too.
There's no one workout or diet program of the future. Why? Because a great training program or nutritional approach today will have the same foundational qualities as they will have 10, 20, 50 and 100-plus years from now.
Because the universal principles of training and biomechanics never go out of date.
Related: The 15 Strength Training Principles
Related: The Absolute Worst Fitness Trend
- Aragon AA, Schoenfeld BJ, Wildman R, et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: diets and body composition. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:16. doi:10.1186/s12970-017- 0174-y