I did a video last year covering charlatans in the lifting/performance/fitness industry. My main focus was Joel Seedman, somebody who’s gained quite a bit of notoriety by peppering his Instagram with videos of his clients doing ridiculously complex exercises. Seedman is known for gems like “ squatting to 90 degree knee angle is superior to squatting to depth” and likes to insist on his very carefully branded method of training, which primarily consists of training conflicting movement patterns within the same exercise and often in a massively destabilized setting. Do a curl with one arm and a press with the other, stand in a split squat, control the eccentric and try to resist external band tension pulling you out of position. Seriously, that’s an exercise.
Now, in his case it’s one thing to argue the efficacy of any one movement. Of course A movement can’t be evaluated until you have a specific goal to apply it against; NFL players, for instance. Seedman often uses Pro players to prop up his methodologies, which is a compelling sales tactic. Understand that these athletes need to be strong but also fast, reactive and coordinated more so than they need to be big. So it stands to reason that standard hypertrophy work is going to be a smaller piece of the puzzle than things that might lend themselves to sports specific performance. You wouldn’t evaluate a program for an NFL player the same way you would a powerlifting or general fitness program for the average Joe.
Seedman doesn’t get a pass because, even for athletic training, it turns out that confusing and destabilizing people in the middle of a set and labeling it “chaos training” doesn’t really improve athletic performance. Not even if you label it the “hardest exercise you’ll ever do!”. And it’s funny because he often throws around “sports-specific” as a term to justify his incorporation of these nontraditional methods. It shows a pretty astonishing lack of understanding of what sports specific means. His assumption is that by being destabilized and in an unfamiliar position that he’s better training people to be adaptable to the different variables that they will experience out in the field.
It’s actually the exact opposite. All of the movements that you will execute in a football game can be boiled down to a few predictable patterns. Athletes even practice their steps so that they can cut and change direction the same way every time and in the most efficient way possible. Bottom line is to be effective in a sport that involves continuously pushing against a hard stable surface, you need to develop high force and rate of force production. That is literally Impossible on an unstable surface (your body inhibits force production when you are unstable so you don’t break yourself). If you were training to walk a tightrope, okay maybe. But the amount of force needed to get a 240 lb man to stop and accelerate in a different direction on a dime requires physical traits you don’t get from this nonsense. “Sports specific” training is important but this ain’t it.
But it gets attention because people like visual novelties and there are enough different triggers for growth that lead to general increases in strength and stability that people come under the impression that anything you do that is challengingmust work. There’s a lot of things that work but they all have their own set of rules. And Seedman’s charlatanry doesn’t fit in with any of them.
Now he does his best to be reasonable when he’s called out. He will back track and say that a small percentage of his training programs are made up of these unique exercises. In reality 80% and more of his programs are comprised of the fundamentals, according to him. Funny, since literally 100% of his Instagram page are these supposedly lower-priority movements and they are filled with extremely long write-ups about all of the benefits. They use plenty of convoluted jargon that is designed to go over the heads of his audience and features links back to his book, which cost $300. From a marketing standpoint, it’s brilliant. Any car salesperson would agree.
You’re creating an air of mystery by presenting something new, you’re using pro athletes the best responders alive who have already made their careers by the time they’ve gotten to him the prop up your methods and you’re telling people that for them to unlock the secret they need to spend a ridiculous amount of money for a book so that they can do this thing that, while stimulating for a session or two, I won’t actually get them closer to their goals (unless their goal is in Cirque du Soleil).
This is where the charlatanry comes in. It’s not just going against the grain and it’s not just trying to sell people something. It’s being duplicitous. Best practices for athletic development have existed for a very long time and they haven’t seen any big paradigm shifts in the last several decades. That doesn’t stop people from trying to stand out by reinventing the wheel. Now, it’s not doing something different that makes you a fraud. It’s starting with “how can I be different” and then immediately selling it to people with every bit of sensationalist language you can use to convince potential customers that the new thing is actually what they need. It’s putting your ability to stand out in the crowd above getting the best possible result.
General fitness culture has been heavily influenced recently by more established fields. You can walk into any corporate gym and see attempts to represent CrossFit boxes. You can see specialty powerlifting bars, bumper plates and Olympic lifting platforms lined up next to the machines and the dumbbells. The popularity of these sports have dramatically influenced general training culture and it’s all for the better. Like them or not, these are all established methods of training that have their own set of rules which, if followed, give a very predictable outcome.
What doesn’t give a predictable outcome is a coach who’s trying to make his name by insisting that building up your toe strength is key to being the next standout at the NFL combine. Anyone who’s been around in the field of strength and conditioning/athletic performance for a period of time will know that gimmicky stuff like this abounds more so than it does probably in any other field. In pro sports, recruiting talent is much more important than whatever training program you throw at your athlete. So people are desperate to validate their careers by insisting that they have some secret sauce that the other team doesn’t have. It’s a good way to justify your salary and get attention and, as people’s ears perk up, you’re more likely to garner more clients and better job offers if for no other reason than pure curiosity.
Now here’s where things get tricky. I can spend decades figuring out what makes strength training protocols tick and evaluate people honestly according to their biases when they go against that grainn. But not everyone is going to have 2 decades of experience to be able to do that well. Trying to establish what programs for sale are valid and which ones are bunk is often not possible unless you’ve been around for a while. As important as it is to be vigilant against people who are outright frauds, you also have to be careful to not throw around the word to describe everybody you disagree with. Identifying somebody as a true charlatan is not any more straightforward then, pardon my phrasing, telling people to ‘follow the science’. In any scientific discipline that involves the variability that comes with studying a human population, solutions don’t fall into neat, binary “yes or no” boxes. We are ultimately left with a ton of data and limited ways to analyze it, so we leave the interpretation of professionals. And, folks, professionals are often on different pages.
Given all that, how do I tell you guys to keep an open mind while also being vigilant? I don’t know the answer to that. Any attempt to carry out that contradiction in real life will still likely lead to you emptying your pockets for a garbage course anyways. There’s really no way around that. But as long as you have your eyes open and your paying attention, every bit of information you get will help you sharpen the saw so you can more easily cut away the branches of bullshit that makes up the sales pitch of the common charlatan. There really is no trick to sniffing out B.S. other than getting some amount of expertise yourself.
This is where skepticism comes in. Instead of being eager to believe, be eager to disbelieve and attempt to prove it wrong. That might be trial and error, using yourself as a guinea pig (which so many of us have to do in this field anyways). It might be doing the hard work of getting reviews, reaching out to other people and seeking out multiple opinions from other authorities. If that sounds like too much, remember that people actually had to get up and go talk to other people at one point in history. All you have to do is send a direct message.
Aside from that, these 3 steps are the best I can do:
- Convoluted methods.
If it seems more complex than it should be, it might be that way by design. If somebody’s trying to swindle you, they’re not going to do it with an easy method that could be understood by everybody. They need their product to look like only an expert could get a handle on it and you need to pay them in order to get the secrets of how it works. It needs to be confusing. The most effective methodologies in diet and fitness boil down to some really simple principles and, if a lot of bells and whistles and unnecessary complexity is being added, I can almost guarantee it’s really just to serve the purpose of building up the coach as the necessary authority that you need.
- Unfamiliar approaches, especially those that go against the grain.
In the video, the second point was ‘being misleading with methods and results’. I pointed to the fact that Seedman only focuses on his elaborate movements while still trying to claim that this is a small chunk of what he does in an entire training session. I also pointed to the constant use of pro athletes, even though these methods were not directly responsible for making them pro athletes in the first place. These points are a little harder to sink your teeth into, so instead I’ll replace that with an easier one: they use message you haven’t seen before.
Certain aspects of society are constantly evolving and we live on the cutting edge. Continuous change is norma with technology that’s always advancing. When it comes to fitness, nutrition and performance, the exact opposite is true. What has worked for the best lifters on the planet hasn’t changed in some 50 odd years. We don’t have better or more effective methods, we have not reinvented that wheel and as best as we can tell we aren’t going to. We have exercises that work predictably well. We have the ranges of weight sets and repetitions that seem to yield the best results. We have seemingly complex charts for organizing your training over time to keep yourself progressing (which really aren’t that complex when you understand them from a conceptual level).
None of this has changed. So if somebody’s pitching a sale at you that goes against the grain of what lifters, athletes, bodybuilders, Olympians and recreational lifters have done for half a century, you can be reasonably sure that this is not in fact a winning lottery ticket. You are being sold.
3.) Marketing versus teaching.
This is probably the easiest one to sniff out. We live in a sales-driven society and and the methods that keep business alive have not gotten more gentle or subtle. The business of sales is aggressive and it’s that way because it works. The upside is that you should be sensitive to it so that you know when the primary objective of the person communicating to you is to get you to buy rather than to improve your own knowledge or understanding.
People that work from a point of principle want to give you as much knowledge and information and insight as they possibly can. If they found a way to do that effectively, they will be itching to give away that knowledge and information for free. Even in the sphere of podcasts, blogs and YouTube channels for people who built multimillion-dollar consulting empires, the model is still give as much away for free as possible so your truest fans come knocking on your door. Charlatans won’t have a lot to teach you.
In Seedman’s case, there is no underlying concept or principle that he’s trying to get you to grasp. There is no thread that connects all of his nonsense movements. There’s so many because he makes them up as he goes and they don’t fit some grander model of training that he can teach. His course isn’t “I’ll teach you how to come up with the most effective movements based on evidence”, it’s an encyclopedia of gibberish he came up with on the fly that has never been established to do what he claims it can. There’s no teaching going on here. It’s novelty, newness, shiny object syndrome. The fact is the people that are really really good at what they do don’t have to sell you. They are overflowing with praise from the people that have taught them and those lessons will speak for themselves.