Social media may have democratised expertise but is following fitness advice from TikTok putting us in harm’s way?
Sometimes, all you need to motivate you to put on your workout gear and head to the gym is a short clip of someone else crushing it and reaching their goals. There’s nothing like seeing someone else getting in the grind to inspire you to seize the day too.
For 25-year-old Riannon Palmer, TikTok has become her go-to app for fitness inspiration. “I’ve been an avid fitness fan and gym-goer for a good few years, but I’ve recently been taking my regime up a notch, ensuring that I’m doing the right things to see improvements,” she tells Stylist. “TikTok has been a great source of inspiration for ways to improve my fitness and strength.”
TikTok’s #fitnessmotivation tag is packed with stimulating speeches, workout hacks and muscle-building progress videos – all of which have been condensed into snappy highlight reels that are usually no longer than a minute. Given that the tag currently sits at over 4 billion views, it’s hardly surprising that so many accounts are jumping on the wellbeing trend in an attempt to grow their followings and cement their position as a FitTok influencer.
“TikTok is a great place to find some inspiration for new workouts as I, like many others I’m sure, can get stuck doing the same exercises,” says Palmer. “As TikTok is a video format, you’re able to easily watch and copy the exercises rather than simply reading about them or seeing still images. It’s a very effective way to learn new exercises.”
But despite these benefits, there are some significant drawbacks when it comes to relying too heavily on platforms like TikTok for fitness advice.
Tiktok videos are short and sharp – so how can they be thorough?
One of the key issues with TikTok videos is that they are often so short that it is impossible to explain how an exercise should be performed, and which muscle it is targeting. And because TikTok videos are designed to take up your entire phone screen, it’s easy to forget to check who is making the video, and whether they are a credible source of information. This issue is exacerbated by TikTok’s algorithm, which encourages us to watch whatever pops up on our For You Page (FYP), instead of following specific reputable professionals.
“The trouble with TikTok is the ‘fitness advice’ trends so quickly, the video clips are so short and people then try to recreate them at home,” explains Jacqui Ward, a certified personal trainer based in Kent. “Listening to unqualified influencers can cause problems as they aren’t catering to the individual’s needs, such as any medical issues, injuries or personal limitations.”
Trends over evidence-based tips
If you’ve spent any time at all on fitness TikTok, you probably know the kind of ‘fitness advice’ trends Ward is talking about. Last year, there was the hype over weighted hula hoops and the viral trend of eating a Rice Krispies bar before your workout. Right now, we are in the age of the 12-3-30 treadmill walking workout.
One type of content that has remained constant over the years, and is still doing the rounds on TikTok today, involves fitness influencers and trainers warning viewers of the ‘wrong way’ to do an exercise, then demonstrating the ‘right way’.
The comment sections under these videos are often filled with viewers arguing between themselves over which technique is correct. Instead of piling in on the chat under these two posts, I decided to go to Katherine Grace, the founder of Grace Fitness, to get some advice on which piece of advice offered in them – if any – we should be following.
“The first video is with a more qualified coach and the second video shows an exercise performed by an influencer,” Grace explains.
“The woman in the first video is showing the correct technique for using the abduction machine, without putting your back in a dangerous position. The second video shows a guy putting his arms in front of the machine and not supporting his back on the chair, which can easily create an injury – especially in the lower lumbar of your spine. This is highly unadvised and potentially dangerous.”
Abduction machines like the ones in these videos are designed to work the abductor muscles in your hips (they’re the muscles in the inside of the thighs that help your legs move away from the body and test at the hip joint). By strengthening this part of the lower body, you can increase balance and stability, which makes you less prone to injury and better able to perform single-leg exercises.
While we’re here to discuss the quality of the advice given on TikTok, it’s probably worth mentioning that these abductor exercises, even when done correctly, aren’t that functional, according to Grace. “The machine takes away the need for you to engage core strength and stabilising muscles. For a fully functional abductor exercise, try wide-leg stands, such as warrior I and II in yoga, stretching the outer thighs, opening the hips, and strengthening the legs.”
Controversy for the sake of views
While polarising videos like these might not be entirely accurate, they do succeed at one thing very well: getting more views.
“I think that these kinds of videos get more engagement from social media. It’s worrying because a lot of this content is designed to get the person who posted them more likes rather than actually help those who need it,” says personal trainer Sam Hall. “If you are a recreational gym goer trying to get a stronger bum, the most important thing is to remember the basics. Be consistent, use progressive overload principles and over time you will get great results. Be patient.”
When it comes to taking any kind of advice from TikTok, the most important thing to do is to check the credentials of the person that has made the video. Instead of assuming that they know better than you just because they’re making videos and publishing them online, find out how qualified they are to be giving advice.
“Be wary of fitness trends you see on social media that promise you results in unrealistic time frames,” says Ward. “It really is simple: if you want to achieve your goals and maintain them – which is just as hard, if not harder than reaching them in the first place – then you need to work hard, have discipline and be patient.”
Stylist has reached out to TikTok for comment.
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