How to Spot Charlatans

I have been passionate about fitness since I was 11 years old, and in my 25 years of training since, I have made pretty much every mistake in the book. I’ve done random workouts with no plan, overtrained, undertrained, chased poor goals, neglected nutrition/recovery/sleep, tried to train too many things simultaneously, etc., all because I didn’t know any better at the time. Having dedicated the last 14 years to understanding and implementing the scientific principles and methods behind strength and conditioning, it’s hard not to wonder how much further along I could be if I had proper guidance during my first decade of training. This was a driving factor for me in becoming coach – to help others avoid the mistakes I’ve made in my own training. It’s easy to push hard in the gym, to make yourself sweat, and to “feel it.” But are you getting better, or just spinning your wheels? I don’t want our members to waste their time and money. And unfortunately, the fitness industry is filled with charlatans [1] that want you to do exactly that.


Everyone is looking for a quick fix, and these snake oil salesmen prey on that. Combating their bullshit was another reason I got into coaching. There’s so much content out there, especially with so-called social media “influencers,” who are trying to make a buck by selling you products and programs that don’t solve any of the problems you’re looking to solve. When the first product doesn’t work, you move on to the next one which offers another empty promise for a quick fix. And so on. Grifters gonna grift.

We want to help you combat this by educating you as you train. It’s easy to tell you WHAT to do, but we want you to understand WHY, and how it’s going to help you achieve your goals. It’s why our coaches give long explanations at the whiteboard, why we maintain this blog, and why we send out our weekly Viking Lore digest. But when you’re on your own consuming content, how can YOU spot charlatans and call them on their bullshit? Look for these red flags:

  • An absolute viewpoint – when someone claims their method/product/whatever is the end all/be all, that’s a big red flag. Health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition are all nuanced. There is no one true path – there are multiple ways to achieve your goals. Do I believe that our staff at Viking Athletics is the best out there to help you get where you want to go? Absolutely. But I’ll be the first to acknowledge that you can be successful with alternatives.
  • Secret knowledge – if someone is claiming they have discovered something no one else knows about, be wary. There is nothing new under the sun – the training principles that worked in the 70’s still apply today. As more research is conducted, our understanding improves. But the fundamental principles remain.
  • Claims of research – this is a big one. If challenged, can the supposed expert provide credible, or any, sources? While we don’t always provide a works cited list for you to ignore here in our blog, we do send articles, studies, and summaries to our members in our weekly Viking Lore digest. And if you want citations for our content, we can provide them.
  • Overreliance on anecdote – in most fields, anecdotal evidence is dismissed as completely worthless. I would argue that there is a time and place for it in the fitness world, since there is still a lot of research to be conducted. However, if someone relies PURELY on anecdotal evidence, it’s because they don’t have any actual studies to back up what they’re saying. A mix is fine, the absence of studies is a red flag.
  • Conspiracy invocation – Phrases like “the secret THEY don’t want you to know,” or “Big pharma/other industry” are good examples of this marketing ploy. Charlatans love to blame some faceless organization for your problems, so they can position themselves as your solution.
  • Avoiding discussion – when questioned, does the individual respond to the questions, or sidestep them completely? Or do they resort to logical fallacies? Common fallacies in the fitness space include:
    • Whataboutism – a type of red herring, the goal is to distract from the issue at hand by introducing a new topic instead of addressing the question.
    • Straw man argument – distorting an original claim to make it easier to attack. This fallacy ignores nuance and fits nicely with an absolute viewpoint.
    • False dichotomies – again, ignoring nuance, and dividing the issue into only 2 points of view, where theirs is correct/right/good, and the opposition is incorrect/wrong/bad.
    • Ad hominem attacks – attacking the person asking the question, trying to undermine their credibility, rather than defending a viewpoint.
    • (For a complete list of fallacies, we recommend this book.)

If you encounter a “fitness guru,” employing any of the above tactics, there’s a good chance they’re not the expert they claim to be. I’ve said it before and it’s a hill I’ll die on – a coach should be able to justify EVERY decision regarding your training. Every movement, set, and rep should have intent behind it. If you’re advised to take a dietary supplement, it should be in YOUR best interest, not that of the person selling it. So be sure to ask questions, it’s our job to help you understand the WHY behind the WHAT. Your time and money are important, and we want to give you the best value for both. Asking questions of any supposed expert is a great way to make sure that that’s what you’re getting. See you in the gym.

[1] See also: Liver King
Dr. Oz
Every nutritional documentary
Programs designed to “give you abs” or spot train

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