Brian Johnson, better known as fitness influencer Liver King, is a beast of a man. With bulging biceps, rippling abs and a thick beard, he exploded in popularity on social media throughout 2022. He claimed his physique was the result of an “ancestral” diet made up of organs from raw animals, including testicles but especially the liver, hence the name.
Millions of people watched Liver King on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, but Johnson’s impressive physique wasn’t down to his diet. He was taking steroids. A plot of steroids.
Mike Israetel, a competitive bodybuilder with a Ph.D. in sports physiology, was one of the people who countered Johnson’s misinformation about physical fitness. In a video titled Primal is Bullsh*t!, Israelel debunked Johnson’s claims about his ancestral diet.
“Modern is good,” Israetel said in the video. “That’s why ‘primal coaches’ all go to the hospital, use social media and shop at the supermarket.”
Months after the Israelel videos came out, Johnson admitted to using steroids. The Liver King reportedly spent over $11,000 on performance-enhancing drugs.
Israetel says the average person today has more resources than ever to improve their physical condition. However, many still don’t have a filter to discern which approach is scientifically backed and which is “bullshit”.
“I don’t know how many people we converted with this video, but I will say there are a lot of new people getting in shape all the time,” Israetel said in a February interview. “And if they watch our videos sooner rather than later, maybe they can keep themselves from getting too bought into something.”
After being hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, the fitness industry is expected to reach $30.8 billion in 2023. Influencers like Johnson can amass millions of followers, which often translates into significant paychecks from sponsors or income generated from the sale of workout plans. , supplements or merchandise.
A study of 488 fitness influencers found less than 20% had related credentials. On platforms like TikTok and Instagram, popularity isn’t always based on good science. Algorithms can promote bad actors, creating a landscape filled with poor fitness information that, at best, could waste someone’s money and time and, at worst, lead to serious injury.
Countering This Misinformation is a group of social media influencers who use their professional experience and scientific knowledge to debunk bad advice circulating across multiple platforms.
These experts lift heavy weights to build muscle, but they also do intensive reading to deepen their knowledge.
Braydon Barrett, aka @looklikeyoulift on TikTok, has over 287,000 followers. As a strength trainer with over 10 years of experience, Barrett says he’s learned all the “secrets” in fitness. His distaste for influencers selling harmful practices is what led him to leak these secrets for free through social media and Discord.
Barrett began to cut down on fitness disinformation on TikTok when he came across an influencer spouting false claims after receiving an endorsement deal with a supplement company. Barrett used her work experience, background in biochemistry, and various studies to refute what the influencer said.
“There’s a lot of fitness crap on TikTok, and, frankly, I really don’t care,” Barrett said. “I’ll respond and make a video if it’s downright dangerous for people to implement.”
There has always been misinformation in the fitness industry. What has changed is society’s growing emphasis on health and the expansion of social media. As more and more people search for ways to improve their health, the volume of fitness information has exploded. With that growth comes more misinformation, according to Andy Galpin, professor of kinesiology at CSU Fullerton and director of the Center for Sport Performance.
Talking about health gets people’s attention, he says, especially if what’s being said is intentionally bold.
When it comes to health information, Galpin says there are many methods, but few concepts.
“There is no optimal strategy for you,” Galpin said. “There are, in all likelihood, thousands of different strategies that will be equally effective for you. So you don’t have to find that perfect magic strategy. It’s totally useless for the vast majority of people.”
TikTok did not comment on fitness misinformation on its platform. The company previously said its Community Guidelines “make it clear that we do not allow harmful misinformation and will remove it from the platform.”
Hungry for knowledge gains
With all the fitness misinformation on social media, can you find good science-backed data to help you make gains? Experts say yes – if you know what to look for.
When Redain Caije wanted to learn more about bodybuilding, the 22-year-old criminal justice student at Rutgers struggled to find quality information on social media. At the start of the pandemic in 2020, he started surfing TikTok and noticed how much bad information was spreading on the platform. So he started doing his own research on the science behind building muscle.
He started a video series called The Guy with the Tie. He got the idea while he was dressed in a suit for his job in the bank. He would record himself watching a video, and if the influencer started making false claims, Caije would take off his tie.
It was a big success for the young TikToker. He currently has over 191,000 subscribers and posts a steady stream of fitness and nutrition advice while debunking misinformation.
“I want to get correct information out there and give people access to the information that I worked so hard for,” Caije said. “I’m just an educator and content creator.”
Caije knows a lot about weightlifting and answers questions he receives through social media, but there are some things he doesn’t even have an answer for. He will then do what he suggests others do as well: seek out experts.
“I’m human. I don’t know everything in the world, but I help as much as I can to help people improve their lives,” he said.
Israel is one such expert. He says that while sensational claims about building muscle or getting in shape are alluring, it’s the boring, consistent advice that actually ends up working the best.
“It’s a matter of supply and demand. And people are asking to be sensationalized,” he said. “But what you want to do is click on things that aren’t sensational. Click on things that are more measured and balanced. Then you’re more likely to get the truth.”
When it comes to the human body, what works for one person may not work for others. This is a key point that some fitness influencers fail to share with their followers on TikTok. Understanding how and why misinformation spreads can help people recognize bad actors, even early in their journey.
Everyone wants to know if a diet or workout is right for them, but Galpin says it takes time to gauge the results. Allow a minimum of four to six weeks to determine if a fitness program is good and to see changes. The main thing is to find something effective for your purposes and also sustainable.