Learning about exercise can be overwhelming. One YouTube channel tells you what to do, and you think, OK, I’ve got that. Then you see an Instagram post that tells you something else entirely. Stop by the gym and ask a trainer, and they’ll let you know that both of your sources are overthinking it and instead you should do things their way. Why is it all so complicated? I have some thoughts on that, and some tips for navigating the confusion.
One of the biggest reasons is that there are many good answers for each of your fitness questions. So you don’t have to find the one true correct answer before doing your workout, any more than you’d need to identify the unquestionably best restaurant in town before going out to eat. Let’s dig in to some of the types of confusion that you’re probably running across, and what to do about each.
Not everybody is talking to you
First I’d like to address the biggest reason we see conflicting advice in any subject: Different experts are talking to different audiences. You, the reader or viewer, are not in all of those audiences at once.
For example, if you search for “how to squat,” you’ll find a variety of answers to the question. One expert might have advice for bodybuilders to build as much leg muscle as possible. Another might be telling powerlifters how to get strong and move the most weight in competition. Yet another might be introducing beginners to the idea of exercising at all. It makes sense that they would all say different things, right?
How to navigate this: Decide on a type of advice to follow. If you want to learn the basics of powerlifting, for example, there are books and videos and real life human coaches who will teach it to you. And if you’re a beginner, don’t seek out advice for advanced lifters; it won’t be helpful to you yet.
If you can’t decide what direction you’re doing, it’s fine to check out different sources and see what they each say. But don’t expect them to all agree with each other.
The algorithm rewards pointless debates
The basics of training are pretty simple, even if it may not seem that way when you’re a beginner. You get better at running by putting in time on your feet, and not trying to turn every training run into a race. (See our beginners’ guide here.) You get stronger by lifting heavier weights over time, although that doesn’t have to mean lifting more every single week—best to follow a program that guides you through a sensible path for progress. And if you’re brand new to everything, all you really need is to build a routine and not give up; literally all of the details can wait.
But we like to learn more, and if we’re confused or anxious, we often think the cure is more information. So we visit YouTube (or the information firehose of our choice) and see what it has to say. But here is where the algorithm stands in our way: YouTubers don’t have much of a career if they just put out a few videos with basic information and then sit back and relax.
So we get in-depth debates on things like: Which running shoe might be marginally better than another? Should you do your morning workout before or after breakfast? Should you do dumbbell lateral raises with your hands in a neutral position or with your pinkies pointing slightly upward? (You might think I’m joking with that last one, but it has become a hugely controversial subject.)
Creators also get more engagement if they react to other creators, cultivate rivalries, say that everyone else has it wrong, debate creators with the opposing viewpoint, etc. The algorithm rewards confusion, because it makes people watch more videos. In reality, the direction of your pinkies on lateral raises is going to make, at most, 0.0000001% of the difference in how your shoulders look a year from now. Even if you could get a solid answer on which way is best, it wouldn’t actually matter.
How to navigate this: One day I was typing the word “optimal,” and my phone auto-corrected it to “optional.” That’s a life lesson right there. Optimal is optional. If you’re doing things basically good enough, optimizing the details is going to make very, very little difference. When you are an Olympic athlete and tiny differences in your performance could make or break your chances for a gold medal, you can revisit these questions. For now, just remember that there are many paths toward fitness, and you can take whichever you find simplest or most enjoyable.
Most advice is meant to nudge you in a direction
Let’s step out of the social media algorithm for a moment, and talk about the very reasonable things you might hear from a trainer.
As a trainer is trying to guide your movement, they’ll give you cues. These are not meant to be objective descriptions of exactly what happens in a lift, but rather nudges in a particular direction. For example, if your heels pull off the ground as you are squatting, you might be told to “drive through the heels.”
This can lead to confusion if you hear another trainer say to “keep even pressure on all parts of your foot.” That would be a better cue for somebody who is tipping back onto their heels, but it could work for the person who is getting up on their toes as well. The truth is that both trainers are trying to do the same thing: keep you from rocking too far forward or backward.
Since cues are nudges, they can’t really be right or wrong; they can just be helpful or unhelpful. The cue that works for someone else may not be the right cue for you.
How to navigate this: Ask for clarification if you’re getting the advice in person. If not, try both of the conflicting cues, and see if one of them helps you to feel stronger or do the movement better. You may also want to read our explanations of the cues that tend to confuse people most.
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