Edited Jan 28th: Added a note about Michael Cazayoux’s instruction in TRAIN magazine.
The first of January is to the fitness industry what Valentine’s day is to the business of selling greeting cards. Each year, following a combination of tradition and commercial messaging, untold numbers of couch-potatoes and binge eaters swear off bad habits and commit to a regular fitness routine. But where does the average person go when looking for information on how to make these changes?
Like it or not, millions of people get their fitness and nutritional advice from one of the dozens of fitness-related magazines in circulation. Men’s Health, for example, sold an average of 196 thousand magazines per month in 2014. In principle, this sounds like a good thing. Even names like “Men’s Health” and “Men’s Fitness” sound perfectly suited to the novice trainee. Who could be against men being healthy and fit?
Unfortunately, bad information about fitness grows like black mold in the traditional fitness industry, and it is thriving between the pages of many popular fitness magazines. With this in mind, we decided to hit the local book store and purchase a copy of every fitness magazine on the shelf, grade it, and report the results. You might be surprised by what we found. It turns out that even with the best new-year intentions, where we go for fitness information is just as important as pouring that December Gatorade and Coca-Cola down the drain.
Outside Magazine: 1 / 10
Given all the hype surrounding new years resolutions, the January issue of a fitness magazine is a great tool for assessing its worth, and Outside Magazine comes in as the worst overall purchase for fitness advice. This is because Outside magazine isn’t a fitness magazine, it’s a massive advertisement for expensive outdoor equipment, laced with a variety of outdoor-themed lifestyle articles.
This point becomes particularly obvious in its January “Health & Fitness Special.” While the issue also features an interesting interview with Pro-surfer-turned-CrossFitter Kelly Slater, and the customary article on Mark Divine’s Kokoro camp, the magazine as a whole contains virtually no fitness advice. The one exception to this observation is a few paragraphs on “Fitness mistakes” and “how to fix them.” These tips are scattered like easter-eggs throughout the magazine, and offer little practical value to someone looking to improve his or her fitness.
Despite this, Outside continues to try to cash-in on the fitness market, simultaneously publishing articles critical of CrossFit and embarrassing themselves with tweets attributing Rich Froning’s fitness to triathlon training.
While a copy of Outside Magazine on your kitchen table might tell guests “I am affluent and enjoy the outdoors,” it’s not going to help you get in better shape. If you want a fitness magazine, look elsewhere.
Sports Illustrated: 1.5 / 10
Sports Illustrated ranks as the second most worthless fitness-related magazine on the stand. How is Sports Illustrated even related to fitness? That’s the same question we asked ourselves when they announced a “breakdown of the fittest 50 male athletes in sports.” If you think that authoring such a list would require you to have a measurable definition of fitness, think again.
In the late 1990’s, Outside magazine crowned triathlete Mark Allen “the fittest man on earth.” For years since then, CrossFit’s founder and CEO Greg Glassman has used this example to highlight the abysmal failure of popular fitness magazines to define the term fitness. Though Allen is one of the most successful triathletes in history, an early exposure to CrossFit left him trapped under his first rep of a 95-pound bench-press.
Since Glassman’s revolutionary article “What is Fitness” CrossFit’s definition of the term as a measure of human work capacity has been steadily infiltrating culture. Success in a single sport, abdominal definition, and popularity are no longer excusable measures of fitness.
It is comical that in 2015, magazines like Sports Illustrated would attempt to crown “the fittest athletes” based on an ambiguous and and unquantified definition of fitness. While they may be attempting to cash in on the fitness market with their top 50 list, Sports Illustrated remains a sports magazine, completely devoid of any fitness-related advice or practical instruction. Save your money for the swimsuit edition, unless you’re just into football.
Men’s Health: 2 /10
Men’s Health Magazine is touted as the largest men’s lifestyle brand in the world. A glimpse at any Men’s Health cover shows that at least part of their target audience is those seeking fitness advice. At a sizeable 146 pages, roughly 37% of which consist of advertisements, Men’s Health seems to contain a lot of original content. Unfortunately, very little of that content has anything to do with health or fitness, and the few pages that did attempt to promote training advice leave much to be desired.
In their January 2015 Issue, Men’s Health has a decent half-page illustration of how to use an indoor rowing machine, with a few instructions from Concept2’s Greg Hammond. This was the one high-point of the entire magazine. Further into the issue, readers are treated to a three-page fold-out featuring bodyweight exercise demonstrations by Insanity Founder “Shaun T.” These consisted of combinations of jumps, punches, and yoga-like movements. Finally, the issue included a two-page feature of a bodybuilding-style circuit including a variety of dumbbell isolation movements, and the dumbbell goblet squat.
Let’s keep perspective. It’s a great thing to see someone encouraged to start regularly training for the first time, but treating this as valuable fitness advice for the average person undermines any claim Men’s Health has to authority on the topic. Why would Men’s Health push mediocre workout routines and novelty movements on readers rather than supplying timeless, practical training advice? Why is the squat featured only once in 146 pages, yet the Men’s Health branded gyms and Men’s Health DVD workout series receive multiple mentions? One blogger has a pretty good theory: “The primary purpose of these health magazines is to sell you routines that don’t work, so when the next issue comes out you’ll be all pumped about the next revolutionary routine …”
Fitness Rx: 3.5 / 10
Fitness RX, and it’s sister magazine, Fitness Rx “for Women” are published by Advanced Research Media LLC. The magazine contains roughly 35% ads, the majority of which are for supplements. Within the first 10 pages, Fitness Rx highlights the “Best of 2014,” a section that includes gems like “An ongoing controversy in strength training is the relative benefit of free weights versus weight machines.”
The reader is then treated to a review of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), a term inaccurately treated as a synonym for CrossFit. In this section, Fitness Rx cites both the fraudulent NSCA CrossFit study authored by Mike Smith and Steven Devor, and Dr. William Kraemer’s “Linda” study, from which Fitness Rx concludes that “squat biomechanics deteriorated during a 55-rep squat workout decreased, which placed greater loads on the knee joint and spine.”
Not only is Kraemer’s study so deeply flawed that his data literally shows the opposite of his conclusion, but a more upright torso angle in the squat indicates a reduction in forces on the spine. It doesn’t get much better from here. Fitness Rx twice mentions that rhabdomyolysis incidence has “increased alarmingly,” due to “cross trainers.”Not surprisingly, no specific data or citations are provided (See: weaslewords).
The fitness information included in Fitness Rx is almost entirely focused on isolation movements and aesthetic gain, usually with mention of supplementation. Out of 84 pages, the squat is mentioned three times and the deadlift and strict press are both mentioned twice. Despite their limited presence, these functional movements are depicted poorly, and ways appear adjacent to isolation lifts like the barbell bicep curl and the lying triceps extension. The instruction on both is either absent or poor quality, with one caption encouraging a parallel-depth squat.
Shape Magazine: 3.5 / 10
Despite interviewing Camille Leblanc Bazinet on “How she became The Fittest Woman on Earth,” Shape Magazine’s fitness advice is some of the worst we could find. The January 2015 issue includes instructions on movements like punching the air while holding 2 lb. dumbbells, resistance band curls, and what looks like something from ballet. At 207 pages, you would be better off squatting this magazine than reading it.
Men’s Fitness: 3.7 / 10
Given its name, you might think Men’s Fitness would be a great source for fitness information. Unfortunately the majority of the magazine focuses on aesthetically-based training, muscle isolation, and getting you to buy stuff. Specifically, Men’s Fitness contains detailed instructions on performing movements like cable-pushdowns and calf-raises, interspersed with reviews of 3000$ e-bikes and plugs for a new diet book written by one of the magazine’s editors.
Pay attention to Men’s Fitness online, however, and you will see an endless stream of CrossFit-related articles. While this is also a trend among Men’s Health and Outside magazine, it seems to have had no positive impact on the quality of information found within these magazines. Of its 128 pages, 5 depict and describe movements to be used in training. Only three of these, the goblet squat, dumbbell press, and dumbbell deadlift would be considered functional movements, and readers are encouraged to use these movements in a bodybuilding-style circuit of not more than 4 reps at a time.
Muscle and Fitness: 4 / 10
With 50% of its pages taken by advertisements, the January 2015 issue of Muscle and Fitness contains the most fluff of any magazine we reviewed. The majority of Muscle and Fitness’s training content is bodybuilding programs, complete with pictures of big shirtless dudes curling dumbbells. One notable exception to this is a one-page instructional on the log clean and press, featuring Rob Orlando. Another page includes instruction from a CrossFit L1 Trainer on how to perform the burpee box jump-over. While seeing quality instruction on these movements was a breath of fresh air, the vast majority of Muscle and Fitness is dedicated to isolation movements.
One of the largest training-related articles in the issue outlines the bodybuilding routine of Muscle and Fitness’s own editor, Shawn Perine. In a sidebar titled “5 Rules of Training” Perine states “I’m convinced that my knee pain can be attributed to all those years of heavy squatting, so I’ve cut [squats] out… I don’t believe I absolutely need [squats], despite what others may say.” While this may be in line with Perine’s personal bodybuilding goals, the average person picking up this magazine for fitness advice would be easily mislead. Most would be unprepared to sift through Muscle and Fitness’s supplement and physique-driven nonsense to find the few gems it contains.
Women’s Health: 4 /10
Despite scoring poorly overall, it’s worth noting that the training advice in Women’s Health surpassed that found in Men’s Health. Like its male counterpart, the vast majority of Women’s Health has little to do with physical training. Of the few pages that did include fitness advice, Women’s Health includes a variety of information, some of which is great, and some of which is useless. Like most fitness magazines of this type, Women’s Health fails to make any useful judgements on what fitness advice is good or bad. Instead, readers are left to fend for themselves.
On one page, pseudo-yoga workouts promise to tone and sculpt abs. A few pages later, functional movements like the air-squat, lunge, and pull-up are featured, but no instruction on how to perform these movements is provided. The highlight of the issue is a five-page feature on CrossFit L1 Trainer Emily Schromm. The section features high-quality images and instructions on performing the push-up, a modified pistol, wall-walks, the dumbbell thruster, the deadlift-row, and the hollow rock.
While these may seem like decent movements for beginning a fitness program, the article recommends doing them in a traditional bi-weekly circuit of 5-10 reps for up to five sets, resting after each movement. As we know, even functional movements quickly become ineffective if they are only used in the same low-intensity routine, over and over. Not surprisingly, Womens’s Health is quick to plug Emily Schromm’s upcoming workout DVD, presumably for those who plateau with her original prescription.
TRAIN: 5 / 10
They write their name in all caps, so you know TRAIN magazine is good. At first glance, TRAIN seems to have a favorable ratio of original content to advertisements (30%). They accomplish this, however, by regularly including plugs for supplements within their content. For example, the January 2015 issue of TRAIN featured seven pages of success stories from men who had transformed their bodies through diet and exercise, featuring dramatic before and after pictures. Unfortunately the series is little more than a thinly-veiled commercial for Bodybuilding.com and a host of protein powders and workout supplements.
Based on this information, you might wonder why TRAIN received such a high score in this evaluation. Interestingly, TRAIN represents the collision of two philosophies of training. While more than half of the magazine is geared towards selling pills and powders to bodybuilders, the last third of the issue included some of the best instruction and analysis of functional movements we have seen in popular magazines. The juxtaposition was almost awkward. In less than three pages the article shifted from bicep curls to a three-page article dedicated to the pistol squat, complete with high-quality images demonstrating each piece of a six-part progression. Tucked-away in the back of the issue is a section titled “CrossFit” (Our legal team will be sending them a C&D shortly). Despite stealing our IP, the section does something no other magazine has- showed high-quality images of correct movement adjacent to poor movement. The section instructs athletes on how to fix basic faults in the air-squat, push-up, pull-up, and handstand push-up. Overall, the instruction is good, with the exception of author Michael Cazayoux suggesting that the key to a faster “Diane” time is improving your 1RM deadlift. Perhaps he’s never seen a powerlifter implode on a CrossFit workout with “light” deadlifts before. (Edit: Michael Cazayoux contacted me to let me know that he did not intend to make an absolute statement of this nature. We seem to agree that part of this was due to the way TRAIN editors altered his words, and part was just my interpretation of the article. Either way, Michael’s article still stands out as some of the best content in the magazine.) While far from perfect, TRAIN’s attempt at cashing in on the CrossFit market boosts its credibility from what would otherwise be an abysmal failure to a magazine we might actually pick up and read.
Box Life: 7.5 / 10
Box Life is a lifestyle magazine aimed at CrossFit affiliates. At roughly 50 pages, the January issue of Box life is short and sweet. The issue features a variety of interviews with top CrossFit Games competitors, as well as recipes, “Tips from the Pros” on how to tackle classic CrossFit benchmark workouts, and even a section on how to prepare for a weightlifting meet.
In terms of practical movement instruction, Box Life included four movements; the Sots press, bent-over barbell row, Box Jump, and Glute-ham raise. While the instruction and depiction on these movements was well executed, these novelty movements hardly represent staples of what should appear in the average gym-goers programming.
As sad as this is to write, simply not including false or inaccurate information makes a fitness magazine good when compared to the likes of Outside or Men’s Health. Box Life goes a step further and provides useful training and nutrition information. Our impression, however, is that Box Life is a lifestyle magazine and is geared far more towards Games enthusiasts and affiliate owners, not necessarily towards the average person looking to get in shape.
Get Into Cross Training: 8 / 10
“Get Into Cross Training” is the worst title of any magazine on this list. They are also possibly committing IP theft of the CrossFit brand. Despite this, the UK-based magazine offers some of the best fitness content of any magazine we read. In the issue we picked up, a section titled “Technique” offered high-quality images and detailed instructions on 24 different functional movements. These included movements as simple as the push-up all the way to those as complex as the barbell snatch. This focus on practical exercise instruction continues through specific sections like swimming, running, flexibility, and Kettelbell training.
But Get Into Cross Training isn’t purely instructional. The issue we analyzed featured an interview with former CrossFit Games champ Sam Briggs, and a number of articles with decent advice on nutrition and training.
One area stopped Get Into Cross Training from scoring higher on our list: Nutrition. The issue we analyzed repeatedly recommended a high-carb (60%) diet akin to the USDA food pyramid. While following this advice would still help many, so would bodybuilding circuits and 30 minutes of cardio per day. That doesn’t make it sound advice.
The Box: 9 / 10
After hours of reading through the aesthetically-driven nonsense in more popular fitness magazines, The Box was a refreshing return to the basics. With an almost exclusively performance-based outlook, The Box covered a variety of basic functional movements. This coverage included a programming article with high-quality images of the back squat, front squat, press, push-press, and deadlift, as well as the burpee and handstand pushup. The Box also featured a two-page spread on the kettlebell swing, describing and demonstrating key points of performance throughout the movement.
Between these instructional articles, The Box also featured interviews with celebrities, recipes, and fairly reasonable training tips. With a minimal amount of fluff and a relatively strong focus on functional movement, variance, and intensity, The Box gets our highest score.