Is the Fitness Summit a Circlejerk?

I’m not sure why, but I get pensive and analytical at the end of these conferences. Whether it’s the physiological impact of alcohol withdrawal trickling into my mood or the fact that I overanalyze human interactions (sometimes I think I may be a high-functioning sociopath…) is anyone’s guess.

Last year, immediately after the summit, I wrote about my analysis of the fitness industry and why it’s broken. This year, a few comments about “The Fitness Summit” being a circle jerk, coupled with a Facebook post by my brilliant friend Clifton Harski (this guy totally gets it, by the way) left me wondering the same thing.

On a scale of 1 to Judy, Clifton’s post is somewhat judgy (he admits so himself), but I always respect a bold opinion. It’s interesting that I would be open to agreeing with Clifton’s overall sentiment, because I absolutely adore everyone who spoke and all of the people that I met. Echoing Clifton’s sentiment, at the atomic level, everything was great, and I truly enjoyed (if not idolize) almost all of the presenters. Something, however, also gave me pause.

So… is The Fitness Summit a circle jerk? To answer this question, let’s look at some characteristics of the fitness industry.

The Fitness Industry as Political Factions

In politics, factions appeal to particular user bases in order to garner their vote. Politicians position themselves along divisive issues in order to appeal to a specific group of people.

Many of those issues, such as gun control, are emotionally rooted in nature; people have firm opinions that rarely change, no matter how much information is presented. The voter density of these niches (which we can think of as market sizes) behind these issues will vary. For example, you won’t find many African American Jews who are pro-life. Market sizes will additionally dictate the ways that politicians position their brand. Obviously, you want to be where the voters are.

Also relevant is the fact that relationships are central to politics. There is a barter economy where politicians trade favors and endorsements. Alliances are strategically formed for the purpose of strengthening one’s political brand. Conversely, politicians mudsling simply as a marketing tool in order to garner attention and position their brand far away from their targets.

If you’re familiar with the fitness industry, this should sound eerily familiar. Have you ever heard Gary Taubes making his media rounds in order to promote Paleo? It literally sounds like he’s hitting the campaign trail making his stump speech.

Like politics, the fitness industry is comprised of various camps. You have a Paleo camp, a vegan camp, an evidence-based fitness camp, a running camp, a functional strength camp, Lyle McDonald a̶n̶d̶ ̶f̶r̶i̶e̶n̶d̶s̶, and so on and so on.

Some of these camps play well together. For example, there’s a high degree of overlap between the CrossFit camp and the Paleo camp.

Some don’t. Belonging to the Paleo camp automatically means that you are mort enemies with the vegan camp. (By the way if vegans like animals so much, why the hell are they eating all their food?)

Relationships are arguably more integral to the fitness industry because of the way that digital product economy works. Barter economies exist between fitness pros leveraging each other’s email lists. The larger your network, the more people you can reach with your product. On the flip side, calling yourself a friend of Lyle McDonald means a necessary trip to the psychiatric ward.

I’d like to note that the formation of these systems in both politics and fitness is completely natural. I’m not judging in any way, because they organically evolved this way for a few reasons:

  1. Within domains that tie strongly to their sense of self, such as politics and religion, people are highly susceptible to marketing. And the only other domain that I’ve seen right up there with politics and religion is – you guessed it – fitness.
  2. Within these domains, people look to personalities in order to make their decisions. I’m not exactly sure why. (Probably has something to do with being much simpler to default to an authority figure when there’s so much information.) If you are a fitness persona, people will look to you for their health. This is a huge responsibility.
  3. Within these domains, people will follow these personalities first, evidence second. We’re more susceptible to this than we think. People often backwards rationalize their favorite fitness persona’s beliefs and recommendations. For example, if Alan Aragon told me that consuming semen would raise my testosterone 1000% and I didn’t think he were trolling, then… well… I’ll leave this PG.

Ok, now that I’ve neckbearded enough about this, let’s talk about The Fitness Summit.

The Fitness Summit

The Fitness Summit contains all of my fitness crushes (to borrow the term from my friend Kevin Packer), and this is no coincidence. Like-minded people who approach fitness like me (geeky autodidacts who are always trying to improve their mental models) inevitably end up following guys like Alan, Brad, Mike Nelson, etc. That’s why we feel a bond whenever we discover someone in real life follows them as well; it’s like finding a kindred spirit.

That is because this particular faction of fitness is the evidence-based faction. Like the Starks in Game of Thrones, they are the good guys. They’re the guys you root for. You want to see them win the throne.

How do you position yourself as being part of the evidence-based camp? It’s simple. You do so by paying little attention to marketing yourself as evidence-based at all.

You simply do whatever you can to help people. Actions, not words. That’s what makes you a good guy that people are rooting for. Ok, one last time, because this is what leads to the circle jerk phenomenon.

You position yourself as being part of the evidence-based camp by paying little attention to marketing yourself as evidence-based at all.

And that’s where the circle jerk is prone to happen.

Whenever someone aligns themselves with one of the good guys (or positions themselves by bashing the “bad guys”) purely for the sake of personal brand, social capital, or any other personal gain, they are circle jerking.

This includes agreeing for the sake of agreeing or trying to build rapport, asking questions for the purposes of making yourself sound smart, or bashing Kiefer because it’s the cool thing to do.

This, of course, isn’t unique to The Summit. You’ll see this phenomenon at all conferences. To occur at The Summit, however, is particularly nefarious, because of an implicit, unspoken, understanding by folks in the evidence-based camp.

The understanding is that if you are in the evidence-based camp, your main purpose is to seek and disperse knowledge, thereby helping others in their fitness endeavors. They are not willing to make the same tradeoffs that other camps make for marketing purposes. It’s an unspoken oath.

Positioning yourself as “evidence based” for the purpose of winning over a crowd or a relationship, breaks this oath. It becomes circle jerking.

To clarify, I am not saying it’s wrong to get down and drink/network all weekend with cool, smart peeps (i.e. why I went). That’s different. The key characteristic that determines circle jerking is motive.

Now, all that being said, I didn’t catch who was engaging in such behavior. Nor do I care. I just wanted to discuss the reasons that it exists and it’s inevitable, given the industry and the conference’s positioning. Frankly, I was drunk the whole time, so I probably wouldn’t trust my own recollection.

But I want to shift the topic to something that I do care about.

We Are Asking the Wrong Question

The biggest thing that stood out to me is this – We, as fitness professionals, are asking the wrong questions.

Too many people ask “What should my client’s macros be?”

Not enough people ask “How do I get my client to adhere to his/her macros?” And that is the question that needs to get asked more.

Questions like… How do we maximize adherence for Average Joe, who is undoubtedly not like us? How do we help clients identify habit loops? How do we help a client who is working 80 hours/week develop a positive feedback loop around fitness and teach them that fitness is a skill.

These are the questions that need to be asked in 90% of cases, because 90% of clients are Average Joe.

In one of the seminars, Brad and Alan asked the question “Is there an anabolic window?” This is a great question to ask, as it has amazing implications for ROI based on the client’s fitness level (Brad actually started talking about this but was low on time) and therefore, a chance to improve client adherence.

But this is only one piece of the puzzle. The second piece of the puzzle is to ask “So what?”

We need to learn how to take these concepts and package them into a gummy vitamin, something that people will want to consume. (Metaphor coincidentally stolen from Clifton)

We also need to stop asking the wrong questions, such as whether walking on a treadmill is superior to walking outside. This is circle jerking, and here’s why. As evidence-based fitness professionals, our goal is to seek and disperse knowledge to help others in their fitness endeavors.

Knowledge for any other reason is mental masturbation (or neckbearding) and equally nefarious in nature, because it ignores the main mission – helping others – in favor of sounding smart. The question above is akin to asking how to maximize MPS for an obese 500 lb male. We don’t need to figure out the solutions to third order problems.

So is The Fitness Summit a circle jerk? No, it’s not, because motive is important. The overall motive was overwhelmingly good. As were all of the speakers and attendees.

But we need do need to start figuring out how to take the brilliant insights that were discussed by the experts and distribute them to the mainstream; we need to learn how to create a gummy vitamin. Otherwise the evidence-based camp relying on evidence alone to compete with the other factions will truly lead to the same fate as The Starks.

And I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my head chopped off by some asshole who puts butter in his coffee.

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