I’ll preface this piece with some personal history: I’m a certified Exercise Therapist, a qualified Krav Maga instructor, and long time boxing and kick boxing instructor. I worked as a personal trainer to the rich and famous in Los Angeles for several years, taught classes in exclusive gyms, and have worked as a boxing consultant in the video game industry. I have fairly in depth knowledge of the fitness industry and the training and dieting itself, so my opinions do actually count for something. So when I say that the concept of a ‘celebrity trainer’ and the diets they promote are mostly bullshit, I’m saying it with some authority.
I wouldn’t usually spend time writing about this kind of stuff given I no longer work in the industry, but the business has a cultural impact that can be extremely damaging, particularly to those who don’t understand the basics behind diet and exercise.
Which brings me to Tracy Anderson – trainer to stars like Kim Kardashian, Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna and pretty much the epitome of the ‘celebrity trainer’. I respect the fact that Anderson is passionate about bringing fitness to the masses and encourages people to look after themselves (all good things), but that’s about where it ends.
Anderson made a name for herself by claiming she could help clients defy their genetics and ‘re-engineer’ their muscle structure with her unique exercises. On her website, she states that “The overall mission of Tracy’s method is to strengthen the smaller muscle groups so that these muscles can pull in the larger muscles – which results in a lean figure that is not bulky.” Anderson advocates women never lift more than 3lbs in weight for fears of adding too much muscle, and regularly slams exercises like running and biking for developing ‘man like’ butts. In her book, Anderson states that “If you want to look tight and toned, you need to stop every other kind of exercise and only do my workout.” Anderson also offers eating plans with her fitness regimes that drastically reduce calorie intake (sometimes to 1000cal a day) to induce rapid weight loss.
Discarding Anderson’s well reported egotistical behavior, lack of qualifications, and ludicrous gym fees (over $900/month to join her gym in New York), the claims she makes about fitness and what she can do are completely fictitious and should be publicly debunked.
Firstly, it is impossible to ‘re-engineer’ your muscle structure. You can build, strengthen and develop muscle through resistance training and correct nutrition, but the structure itself is genetic. The notion that smaller muscle groups ‘pull in’ larger muscles is also complete nonsense. These smaller groups are often called ‘stabilizer’ muscles that as the American Council on Exercise states, “Act to support the trunk, limit movement in a joint, or control balance.” Muscles don’t ‘pull in’ other muscles – they sometimes assist them with particular movements, or perform functions themselves.
Then there’s the idea that lifting more than 3lbs of weight will add bulk to a woman’s frame. This is again utter garbage. A general rule of thumb (and physiology) is that if you can lift the weight more than 12 times, it won’t really add size to the muscle (and most women can lift a lot more than 3lbs 12 times). Also, the ability to add muscle largely comes down to your levels of testosterone, and given women generally have very low levels of it, it is extremely hard for them to bulk up.
Finally, her diet prescription is also extremely dangerous. Rebecca Wilcox at The Daily Mail followed the Tracy Anderson “Metamorphosis: A Complete Body Transforming System” exercise regime along with the diet that included no bread, potatoes, pasta or rice, no fats, no dairy, no salt, and no red meat.
After dropping 14lb in 30 days, Wilcox looked great but stated that she felt ‘woozy’, couldn’t concentrate, had bad skin and nails, and was always foul tempered. Startled by the results, she took her plan to get analyzed by the principal dietician at St George’s Hospital, in London. Here’s what they found:
She told me I had existed on less than 700 calories a day for the past two months – no wonder I felt terrible. Catherine was extremely concerned.
‘I see patients suffering with anorexia nervosa and now I’m reading their diet in pamphlet form,’ she says. ‘It’s immunosuppressant due to its lack of calcium, iron, carbohydrates, proteins and salt.
‘If you followed the regimen you would risk developing hyponatremia (low sodium levels in the blood). The diet is also very low in iron, which could lead to anaemia and problems with balance, muscle strength and exhaustion.
‘The lack of absorbable calcium (less than 300mg – the body needs 800mg a day) means you risk earlyonset osteoporosis and osteopenia too – something that Gwyneth has been diagnosed with.
What’s more, the protein levels are low – less than 1.7oz per day, which can be dangerous if prolonged.
‘Even the vitamins that are available cannot be absorbed since there is no fat present in the diet to act as an absorption vehicle, so they will just be excreted from the body.’
In short, Wilcox had put herself in serious danger by following the grueling exercise regime and ridiculous diet that stripped her body of essential nutrients. After speaking to Dr Susan Jebb, head of Nutrition and Health Research at the Medical Research Council, Wilcox was told she should have been consuming around 2400 calories per day to maintain a healthy weight.
Gwyneth Paltrow, the most ardent follower of the Tracy Anderson method was recently diagnosed with shockingly low vitamin D levels, and osteopenia, a precursor to the bone thinning osteoporosis. Not exactly a shining endorsement of the Anderson method.
I’m singling out Anderson here because she is a very prominent example of the myths pumped out by the fitness industry that prey on people’s insecurities and lack of knowledge. But the truth is, Anderson is just a symptom of it, and not the cause. Anyone promoting a new method of fitness and revolutionary diet is by definition bullshitting you. As the saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun. Tracy Anderson is glorified aerobics instructors teaching a mixture of pilates movements and dance moves. It’s probably pretty fun and a great workout, but it doesn’t ‘re-engineer’ muscle structure or ‘pull in’ big muscles. Her claim that to look good, “you need to stop every other kind of exercise and only do my workout,” is simply laughable – she’s not doing anything revolutionary at all, and you could get exactly the same benefits from taking classes at the $50/month local YMCA. All the crazes on the market – Zumba, Thaibo, Bikram Yoga etc etc are just derivatives of other workouts that do the same thing – get you moving and losing weight.
I was always asked whether I had any secret workout or diet tips when I worked as a trainer. I didn’t. My advice for people looking for a great workout was as follows: Do an activity that gets your heart rate up and has you using as many muscles as possible. Avoid saturated fats, don’t eat too much white bread/rice, have lots of fruit and vegetables and stay away from ingredients you can’t pronounce. Or put more simply, run, do push ups and eat apples.
Sure there are advanced training techniques and specialized diets that really do work, but those are for full time athletes and rich celebrities who need to look good for their jobs.
Anyone who says otherwise is just trying to take your money.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.