Your favorite athlete’s everyday life, according to Instagram:
Wake up, enjoy @sponsor-brand coffee and @sponsor-brand supplements, PR my snatch by 25 lb. thanks to @weightliftingcoach, lunch break with @preparedfoodbrand, head back to the gym for a “lil sesh” of four CrossFit benchmark workouts back-to-back for time, complete one hour of #accessorywork with the @brandeddevice, then “for fun,” do 30 backflip ring muscle-ups to inverted crosses in 1:37. Finally, celebrate with eight donuts and an ice cream sundae because #IIFYM. Flexed pic to prove that you can eat a #carb and still have #abzzz, and by the way thanks to @mynutritioncoach.
This is not what it takes to progress from average to elite fitness. And it’s far from how CrossFit Games athletes actually train, eat and live in real life.
Novel vs. #Basic
Instagram filters real life, and not just with #Clarendon and #Juno. It also filters reality by selecting for the posts that will get the most clicks. Social media is a machine for generating attention. It selects for novel, surprising and exciting content. On Instagram, “basic” is an insult. Yet if you watch longer, documentary-form videos of athletes training, you see a lot of emphasis on the “basics,” and very few PR celebrations or massive cheat meals. If you base your perception of fitness on social media, you’re not getting an accurate picture of what it takes to get fit.
Six Social Media Biases
Keep this in mind next time you’re scrolling through your feed:
- PR bias: no one wants to see the 20 weeks spent beforehand slowly developing mechanics, consistency and intensity. So you’re more likely to see a PR video than the weeks, months or years of relatively mundane training it took to get there.
- Strength bias: Lifting gets likes. No one wants to watch a video of minute 22 in a four-mile run, or round 31 of Cindy, or even a 400-meter repeat workout.
- Brevity bias: longer workouts don’t even fit within the time constraint. Even if they did, almost no one would watch them. Yet if you watch actual documentaries of athletes training, they regularly train long, mixed-modal, metabolic conditioning workouts.
- Cheat meal bias: donuts get 10,000 times more attention than four ounces of chicken breast, a bowl of rice and six stems of broccoli. Yet most devout practitioners of “If It Fits Your Macros” will admit that the majority of their eating in real life is relatively clean. You won’t hit any reasonable macronutrient breakdown living off of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and root beer.
- Sponsor bias: many athletes earn a living off of sponsorship deals for supplements, exercise equipment, etc. Would they still use @supplementX if the company wasn’t paying them to or giving it away for free? Maybe. Maybe not. Would they still use @coachY if they had to pay the going rate for his or her services? Maybe. Maybe not.
- Novel movement bias: why not try one-leg/one-arm overhead squats with an Atlas stone? It will get way more reposts than working on your squat form with low or no weight.
This barrage of biased content can mislead and even disappoint those who consume it, as Emily Beers recently explored in the CrossFit Journal. Compare what you normally see on social media with this longer video of CrossFit Games champion Mat Fraser training. Look at his schedule for the day:
No incredible PR lifts or metcon performances here. Those power snatches are at less than 66 percent of his reported 315-lb. snatch. And those back squats at 365 lb. are roughly 75 percent of his reported 485-lb. max. Now look at the conditioning. Two simple three-round couplets, one combining a metabolic conditioning movement with a basic body-weight movement, and another pairing a basic body-weight movement with a weighted movement. Finally, note the combination of rowing and higher-repetition, lighter-load weightlifting. Even the fittest man on earth can get fitter doing sets of 10 at 115 lb.
Watch any other documentary of a CrossFit Games athlete training and you’ll almost certainly notice the same pattern: relentless work on the basics. Think about it–if it were possible to PR every day, or even every week, they would all have 600-lb. snatches and 2:45 miles. But Mat Fraser doesn’t post every time he performs a basic couplet for the same reason you don’t post every time you brush your teeth.
Social media is not all bad though. In fact, I think it may have made us fitter. Before YouTube and even Facebook, exercise videos were a rarity. We used to spend most of our time on websites and discussion boards, not scrolling through social media feeds. Back then, there were few CrossFit affiliates. We had to teach ourselves new movements such as overhead squats by reading instructional text and maybe perusing a few low-quality photographs, if we were lucky. Now anyone with internet has access to 400-lb. overhead squats, high-rep 25-lb. weighted strict muscle-ups, freestanding strict handstand push-ups, etc. New athletes can see how complex movements should be performed. Social media also raises the standard of performance: “If that guy can deadlift 500 lb. for 18 reps, surely I can do 19.”
What It Really Takes to Get Fit
And that’s all great. Just don’t believe that the road to fitness is constant PRs, stupid human tricks and daily cheat meals. The real way to develop fitness is very different: hard work on the fundamental movements and disciplined nutrition based on real food, repeated 5-6 days a week for years, with PRs and cheat meals serving as occasional rewards for your sustained dedication to the basics.
Instagram may filter #basic away, but that does not change how effective it is. As the founder of this all once said,
“Stick to the basics and when you feel you’ve mastered them, it’s time to start all over again, begin anew, again with the basics, this time paying closer attention.”