Q&A with Kat Whitfield, personal trainer and debunker of fitness myths

kat-whitfield

I first became aware of Kat Whitfield’s work several months ago when her collection of modified fitspo began making the rounds.  Since then I’ve been following – and loving! – her blog, which mostly features careful, entertaining takedowns of a lot of the nonsense that passes for modern fitness media.  A disturbing amount of misinformation is passed along by health-and-fitness gurus – running will give you fat calves! sugar will kill you dead! these moves can make your legs longer! try this one weird trick to melt belly fat! DIABEETUS EVERYWHERE!!!1 – and so I appreciate when professionals like Kat use evidence and research to point out just why and how these so-called facts are anything but factual.

Kat recently released a digital guidebook called “Let’s Sharpen Our Bullshit Detectors” and it’s aimed at equipping the average person with the tools necessary to wade through the bombastic claims, the misinformation, the marketing ploys and the barely-disguised click grabs.  I got a chance to look at it and I found it really informative and useful, so I wanted to promote it on my blog in hopes of getting it in the hands of more people.  After all, the more we inoculate ourselves with skepticism and critical thinking, the less susceptible we’ll be to the magical thinking, the woo and the bro science that characterizes so much of popular fitness media these days.

Kat did a quick Q&A with me about her guidebook.  Read on to hear her thoughts on weight training, fitness myths and which high-profile fitness guru she thinks is doing things right.

F&F: Why did you decide to put out this guidebook?

Kat: It all started out with my falling in love with weightlifting. I experienced such amazing positive benefits from it, not just physically but mentally as well. I wanted to share that with friends and was often greeted with responses of “aren’t you afraid of getting bulky?” or “that sounds dangerous.”

I was so dismayed that my friends were turned away from the confidence and strength that weightlifting could give, all because they’d been misinformed by popular fitness media.

From there everything has sort of escalated – I was a crusader for women’s strength training, which in turn inspired me to combat fitness and wellness bullshit wherever I saw it. I thought a guidebook would be a great, concise way to detail tactics marketers use to try and sway people’s opinions, and why misinformation is so profitable.

F&F: Did you have any specific experiences during your work as a personal trainer that inspired you to put this together?

Kat: Absolutely! With most every new client I get I have to work around a fear of bulking up, the idea that they need to completely change their entire diet right now to see results, or why they don’t need to go on a detox or cleanse. Sometimes it means I have to delay effective training methods until we can get over the fear of weights. Sometimes it means I have to wait for them to not see weight loss results on whatever diet they’re on.

If there weren’t these false ideas out there in the first place – that women shouldn’t lift heavy, or that the only good diet is a ‘perfect’ diet and anything else is a waste of time – it’d certainly make my job easier, and would probably make the experience more relaxed and enjoyable for clients as well.

Though I wrote the book for more reasons than that, it was certainly a continuing source of motivation for me.

F&F: How have your clients reacted when you work with them to get away from the myths surrounding women and strength training?

Kat: It’s usually fairly easy to get my clients turned onto strength training. Once we try a few times, I think just the confidence, strength and overall bad-assery they feel from it overrules any pre-existing fears. Which really makes me very optimistic – once they give their bodies a chance to be amazing and they really feel how their muscles work and how strong they can be, thoughts of their appearance tend to be minimized. It’s a really rewarding experience.

F&F: Why do you think these myths continue to endure the way they have? Like, why does it seem like they are so often repeated as gospel truth by trainers and fitness media professionals, who really ought to know better?

Kat: Well, at this point I think it’s just trying to appeal to what people already believe to be true. Challenging people’s deeply-held beliefs about something such as diet or how they should train can turn off a lot of potential customers. I think that the idea of women needing to train differently from men probably just started as a “gender separation” marketing tactic, one of seven tactics I outline in the book. If women need to buy tiny weights and men need to buy big weights, well that’s twice as many weights you just bought.

And I know that you would think a really popular trainer who promotes tiny weights for women or any other fitness myth should “know better,” but you’d probably be surprised that there are a lot of trainers out there who got their information from the same places as laypeople get theirs.

F&F: Do you think there are any high-profile trainers who have built their careers on disseminating good information? On your blog, which I love by the way, you regularly dismantle the training plans and diet books promoted by some really big names, like Tracy Anderson and Bob Harper. Is there anyone at that level of exposure who is operating from a more evidence-based approach to fitness?

Kat: I am a HUGE fan of Richard Simmons. He does a lot of good work, always has and has continued to do so even after the peak of his popularity ended – this is why he will continue to be a legend, whereas someone like Anderson will likely fade into the background after their time is done.  Sadly, aside from Richard Simmons, I can’t think of too many nationally-recognized figures out there who fit that description.

F&F: If I was a prospective client and I was looking for a trainer, what are some things I should keep my eye out for? I know you talk about this in your book but I was hoping we could touch on it in the Q&A as well.

Kat: This is a question I get a lot and it’s a great one! A good trainer is invaluable. Certifications really don’t mean very much, and even a college degree doesn’t guarantee a good grasp of human movement. (I say this having both.) Typically I tell people to ask lots of questions such as:

  • If I can’t do a squat with proper form, how would you regress the exercise so I could do it properly?
  • I have <insert pain or injury here>. What sorts of things will we do to either alleviate the pain or work around it?
  • What’s your training philosophy?
  • How do you train yourself?
  • How do you keep up to date with fitness information?
  • Do you have any current or previous clients I can talk to?

A good trainer will love answering questions, and probably be impressed that you did your homework beforehand! Once you hire the trainer, some things to look out for would be:

  • Do they really listen to any feedback or questions you have?
  • If you can’t do a particular exercise for whatever reason, do they have a back-up plan?
  • Do they keep records of your workouts, with sets, reps and weights done?
  • Do you have their undivided attention?

If you can get through all that, you’ve probably got a pretty swell trainer.

F&F: I was reading the paper yesterday when I noticed an article that encouraged women to pick up heavier weights. While it’s still not terribly common to see things like this, I still feel like I’m seeing them more often than I did when I got into weight training several years ago. Have you noticed this as well? If you have, have you seen the effects of it showing up at all in your client base?

Kat: I absolutely am noticing this trend! Progress is most certainly being made in that regard. There have been several articles in Women’s Health alone advocating stacking some plates, let alone Oxygen that’s always been a proponent of that. There is still a ways to go, however. For people like you or me, who are fairly up-to-date with trends in the fitness industry, it’s easy to forget that this still is NOT the main message being sent. I’ve found that the Pinterest health & fitness board is a pretty good place to go if you want to get a sense for what the biggest fitness trends in the general public are.

I’ve noticed the effects mostly in my younger clients, those who are about their late twenties. Anyone older than that, I personally haven’t seen it affect their views much, which makes sense as they aren’t the demographics the message is reaching.

F&F: Do you have anything else you’d like to say on this subject?

Kat: I’m cautiously optimistic about the trends in this industry. Although I think it’s an imperfect messenger, Crossfit has been spreading the gospel of strong, badass women far and wide. People seem to be taking a more keen interest in science and evidence, even if every layperson can’t quite yet discern good studies from bad. I think that can evolve with time.

You had mentioned this in an article you put out recently – the use of heavily photoshopped models in marketing is changing because we are demanding it do so. If we can become aware of more of the tactics used, we can demand that those change as well. That’s my hope with this.

—–

Kat blogs over at Making Sense of Modern Fitness.  You can download her guidebook here.

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6 responses to “Q&A with Kat Whitfield, personal trainer and debunker of fitness myths

  1. I LOVE that Kat gives props to Richard Simmons! He’s probably done more to get people – ALL kinds of people – up and moving (and ENJOYING it) than any of the macho boot-campish trainers. Him and Jack LaLanne back in the day. There’s nothing wrong with being hardcore – but there’s nothing wrong with being gentle and fun, either. Credit where it’s due.

    • His kind and accepting approach to fitness is probably what I like best about him. The guy was writing books recommending against restrictive, punishing diets and workouts back in the 80′s!

      The fact that he personally answers many of his own fan emails and letters speaks volumes about his character as well. Could definitely use more fitness professionals like him.

    • Ginger – I completely agree! My mom underwent surgery for breast cancer last year. She’s doing great now, but right after surgery she felt a stronger motivation than ever before to incorporate exercise into her daily life. She has always loved dancing, and once she found Richard Simmons it was like it was meant to be her exercise! For her, his motivational messages throughout “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” are very touching and meaningful. “Dancing with Richard” (as she loves to call it) is her main form of exercise nowdays, and I enjoy both seeing her have fun with exercise AND feel impressed by what her body can do.

  2. I get the same reaction to weight lifting. My mom is always telling me to be careful, which is nice of her to worry, but I wish she would see it more than something that just “sounds dangerous.”

    • My parents are the same way! I try to give it a little context to what I’m doing (I squatted the equivalent of 28 gallons of milk today!), but it doesn’t always help. Guess my next step is to just get them to try it out themselves!

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