YouTube Workouts: Are Viral Fitness Challenges Safe?

A six-pack isn’t the same as a certification

Photo: thianchai sitthikongsak/Getty Images

When the pandemic forced Americans to hunker down at home and stay out of the gym, at-home workouts surged in popularity. But even as gyms reopen throughout the country, most people say they aren’t hurrying back — and many fitness influencers have seen massive, persistent boosts in subscribers. YouTubers like Chloe Ting, Maddie Lymburner (aka MadFit), and Pamela Reif promise homebound viewers slim thighs, round booties, and flat bellies. Over the month of May alone, Ting gained more than three million subscribers while Reif and Lymburner each gained more than half a million.

So who are these influencers doling out exercise advice? If you glance at YouTube search results for at-home workouts, the algorithm commonly features fit young women performing exercises focused more on slimming and toning than strength and functionality. Like any other vlogger, many of them design videos with the best marketing practices in mind. Viral fitness videos therefore often play off of socially constructed ideal body types: While male influencers commonly come from bodybuilding backgrounds and emphasize exaggerated muscle, these female-oriented viral workouts often claim to banish supposed flaws like love handles and muffin tops.

“Healthy women who are extremely fit sell,” says Jill Thein-Nissenbaum, PT, DSc, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Physical Therapy Program.

While plenty of fitness YouTubers clearly display legitimate qualifications, fans curious about the fitness backgrounds and education of some ultra-popular influencers will find little public information. (Neither Lymburner, Ting, nor Reif responded to Elemental’s requests for comment.) Lymburner’s LinkedIn notes that she’s a former dance teacher but doesn’t indicate any exercise credentials. Ting previously worked as a corporate statistician, as reported by the Daily Mail, and affirms in her video descriptions that she isn’t certified. As for Reif, there’s little indication that she has received any official certifications.

“If you need help or you’re not seeing results, I suggest seeing a health and fitness professional to give you tailored advice on your exercise form and dietary needs,” Ting writes. “I am not a medical professional and what I share on my channel are my views and what has worked for myself.”

It’s an important disclaimer — one that credentialed experts hope users manage to notice because these viral routines can actually be hazardous for beginners, Thein-Nissenbaum says. The one-size-fits-all approach can create a mismatch between viewer skill level and routine difficulty, particularly for those embracing frequent exercise for the first time (or the first time in a long time) during quarantine.

Even when online routines offer easier modifications, a YouTube video can’t correct your form or account for past injuries, Thein-Nissenbaum says. Though this is true of any virtual workout, popular ones often move quickly between moves, with mere seconds dedicated to modifications — perhaps because these would distract from the viral-friendly swift pacing. Some omit vocal instructions altogether; German fitness model Reif uploads completely silent videos backed by punchy pop songs. Experts also say the videos sometimes show poor form that could lead to injury or at least make the move less effective.

Another issue that concerns experts is the unrealistic time-bound challenges these influencers often promote: One high-intensity workout promoted by the Goal Guys allegedly sheds 8% of body fat in merely 30 days (the Goal Guys clarified to Elemental that their videos are intended to share their personal experience and not to give fitness advice), and in one of the internet’s most popular fitness challenges, Ting offers a program to produce abs in two weeks. She does acknowledge in the video description that she can’t guarantee you a six-pack in such a short time; rather, Ting says she titles workouts “according to SEO best practices for content discoverability.”

“Unless you already have abs, you’re not gonna get them in two weeks no matter what you’re trying.”

Regardless of disclaimers, viral challenges can set unrealistic expectations; YouTubers frequently share impressive viewer results, yet these may be deceiving. It’s essential to consider the context behind before-and-after photos, says Tim Vidale, DPT, CSCS, the founder of Momentous Sports Medicine in Washington, D.C., and a physical therapist for the USA softball team. Some subscribers may already supplement with vigorous daily routines, which could certainly affect their progress.

“Unless you already have abs, you’re not gonna get them in two weeks no matter what you’re trying,” Vidale says.

Both Vidale and Thein-Nissenbaum say they have previously treated clients with injuries resulting from online workouts. They still encourage physical activity during quarantine, but it’s important to choose your routines carefully. Here are their tips to safely get fit at home:

If you’re completely new to exercise, Thein-Nissenbaum suggests starting with a walking program before moving on to strength training. Generally, the American College of Sports medicine recommends 150 minutes of exercise per week; try incorporating 30-minute spurts of activity, like brisk walking or jogging, over five days. Eventually, you can work your way up to resistance training at least twice per week to hit the major muscle groups.

Make sure to research content creators to find evidence of fitness certifications and where exactly their expertise lies. If an instructor offers typical resistance-training routines, it’s important to check if they have received a certified personal trainer (CPT) certification from a respected body like the National Academy of Sports Medicine, the American Council on Exercise, or the American College of Sports Medicine. Even better, a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) is specifically qualified to work with athletes. For specialties like yoga and Pilates, look for thorough certifications approved by professional associations like the Yoga Alliance and the Pilates Method Alliance.

To avoid injuries, don’t fixate on a single muscle group; it’s crucial to alternate workouts and let your body recover. That’s why a weeklong daily glutes challenge, for example, may not be ideal. You should regularly switch up exercises to work your muscles in different ways, Thein-Nissenbaum says, including your cardio routines.

There are plenty of apps and online platforms that come preloaded with a variety of expert-designed workouts, which may be free or require paid monthly subscriptions (usually cheaper than a gym membership). There’s something for every specific interest: Yoga lovers can download comprehensive apps like Alo Moves while the choreography-inclined might turn to DanceBody for some high-impact cardio. You can also find nearly every type of routine on apps like Daily Burn, which has a built-in social network to keep you motivated.

Consider your fitness goals and remember that, while they’re a great resource for quarantine, online workouts can’t compare with in-person group classes and individualized trainer sessions. Even if you can’t afford personal training long term, consider paying for a professional session or two over FaceTime. This will allow you to perfect your form and build a weekly plan you can stick to.

— to elemental.medium.com

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