We've all fallen victim to false advertising a time or two, whether it's a pair of fake Apple AirPods on eBay (come to think of it, the $45 price tag was too good to be true) or a pair of pricey sneakers that never arrived in the mail.
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Over time, it becomes easier to tell a good deal from a fraud. But online workout programs, e-books and Instagram or TikTok routines can be trickier. Typically, there's no physical product involved, so you can't scroll through customers' photos — if there are even any reviews to browse at all.
Workout e-books can be a great resource and, though costly at times, are generally cheaper than hiring a personal trainer. (And, social media sites are free!) But before you get swayed by a social media influencer's promises of a bubble butt or washboard abs, look for these warning sings.
Always consider the source of any fitness program you're interested in. To make sure you're getting a safe, well-planned product, check that the person writing and offering the program is a qualified and relevant professional, says April Whitney, certified personal trainer.
First, make sure they're a trainer certified with a reputable company (ACE, NASM, ACSM and ISSA are four of the most common) or certified strength and conditioning specialist (they'll have CSCS after their name).
Next, check that their qualifications are relevant. If you're purchasing a yoga program, you'll want to buy it from a certified yoga instructor (RYT). Or if you're buying a CrossFit manual, confirm that it's written by a trainer with a CrossFit certification (CFL-1, CFL-2, CCFT or CCFC).
"Just because they have a lot of followers on Instagram has absolutely no correlation to the quality of the trainer, their education, their experience or their know-how," says Holly Perkins, CSCS, author of Lift To Get Lean and creator of The GLUTES Project ACTIVATE.
Even if the author is a certified trainer, you'll want to know if they've ever worked with clients in person, Perkins says. Typically, a trainer who has worked with people hands-on will be more experienced and knowledgeable.
Also, if there's a nutrition or meal plan portion of the program, you'll want it to be either written or reviewed by a registered dietitian (RD or RDN), Whitney says. Before you try any new diet, though, it's best to confirm (with your doctor or RD) that the plan is safe, especially if you have any health conditions.
What to Look For
An author who has a current professional certification in the relevant field, which may require doing some outside research. You should also check that their certification has been confirmed by a third party, like the NCCA.
2. Doesn't Include Workout Variety
A well-written workout program will also include exercise variety, Whitney says. Even if you're buying a running program, make sure the plan includes some cross-training elements. Or if you're buying a strength-training e-book, make sure that the trainer includes some cardio or HIIT days, too.
Another sign of a poorly planned program is a lack of rest or recovery days. If the plan entails seven-days-a-week workouts or two-a-day training sessions, you should be skeptical, Whitney says. A safe workout scheme will involve a rest day or two each week to ensure your muscles are recovering and you're staying injury-free.
What to Look For
Find a program that includes a variety of training types, including appropriate cross-training. Also, make sure the author includes at least one or two rest days each week.
3. Provides No Exercise Progression
There's one method that's guaranteed to get you stronger: progressive overload. If your goal is to gain strength or build muscle, your workout program should include some element of progressive overload, which involves gradually increasing the weight, sets or reps of the exercises you do.
Workout e-books need to program your routine this way, too. Whitney suggests you look for a program that includes different phases or progressions. A good workout program involves a few key movements that are repeated week to week with progressive overload.
"It's important that programs include repetition and progress exercises over time in intensity (either by increasing the difficultly of the exercise or increasing the load), in order to be an effective program that provides a specific, desired result," she says.
What to Look For
Exercise progressions or phases over time. Look for key exercises that repeat week to week with either increased load, sets, reps or duration.
4. Uses Unhealthy Practices and Language
Even if you're purchasing a program to lose fat with a weight loss goal in mind, you don't want a plan that uses discouraging or unhealthy language, Whitney says.
More specifically, avoid plans that encourage exercise to burn off meals or "undo" unhealthy eating. Any plan that encourages avoiding or eliminating food groups, restricting food categories or drastically cutting calories usually does more harm than good.
Also, be on the lookout for derogatory language, Whitney says. You don't want to follow a program that uses colloquial or stigmatizing words, like "skinny fat," for instance. If you wouldn't say the phrase to a friend, don't follow a program that says it to you.
What to Look For
Language and dialogue that meets you where you are with no judgment or unhealthy motivation. You want to feel motivated and encouraged, not ashamed of your starting point.
5. Presents Unprofessional Demo Videos
You shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but if a fitness professional is demonstrating exercises in their bare feet, Perkins says, "run the other direction. That right there is the sign of a fitness expert who isn't really well educated."
"If you are doing anything and moving with your body, you should always be wearing shoes unless you are super advanced and you're in the gym practicing the technique of something like a squat or a deadlift in your socks — that's a different situation," she says. "But to be performing HIIT workouts or running or jumping in your bare feet is just bad, bad business."
Speaking of technique, it's important to pay attention to the trainer's form in their demo videos. Are they rounding their back during a deadlift? Are their knees over their toes when squatting? These are signs their form is off, and it may be best to pass on them.
At the same time, top-of-the-line equipment or flashy workout clothing doesn't automatically make a good workout plan. But a trainer exercising without proper footwear, wearing inappropriate non-exercise clothing and demonstrating improper form should raise some red flags. After all, why should you consider purchasing their product if they don't take it seriously enough to wear proper clothing or know how to do the exercise correctly?
What to Look For
Videos or images that are taken professionally in an appropriate setting, wearing appropriate exercise clothing and gear.