Are Social Media Stars the Real Stars of Today’s Fitness Industry?

Bodybuilding B.S.M. (Before Social Media)

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was only one way for bodybuilders to become famous and develop a fan base. They had to be photographed by a handful of name photographers who provided images to a handful of bodybuilding and fitness publications, nearly all of whom were based in Los Angeles. These photographers didn’t shoot just anybody. Their main subjects were winners of major contests like the Mr. America, the Mr. Universe, the Mr. USA, and the Mr. Olympia. Top placers would also be featured, especially if they had a marketable look, a freaky bodypart or two, or showed tremendous future potential. These photos would then be used to illustrate training articles, interviews, and profile pieces. The very best shots were selected for the most coveted of all positions: the cover! Bodybuilders dreamed of getting covers, because that meant your face and physique would be on display on newsstands and bookstores all over the country. Many of them would either move to Los Angeles, or spend weeks out of the year there, training at Gold’s or World Gym and hoping to get noticed and ‘discovered.’

It should be said, especially for those of you who grew up with the Internet, that until the new millennium dawned, magazines were truly the only outlet for a bodybuilder to achieve recognition and fame. They were the only connection between the athletes and the fans, who eagerly awaited every new issue to be inspired by photos and learn all about their favorite stars: how they trained, how they ate, their hobbies and interests, and their unique outlooks and personalities. Unless the fans traveled to contests or attended seminars the stars would give, fans never saw their favorite bodybuilders in real life, only in the pages of the magazines. You can see why it was so critical to be featured in the magazines. If you weren’t in them, it was as if you didn’t exist.

Along came the Internet
To say that the Internet changed the landscape of the industry would be a massive understatement. Finally, bodybuilders and other fit people who aspired to be famous and make a living at what they loved no longer had to rely on the whims of magazine editors and photographers. Now, the tools for self-promotion were emerging. The first of these was the website. Anyone with a few hundred bucks or some computer savvy could build their own personal website. On it, they could post photos, blogs, even video clips, as well as sell their own merchandise like T-shirts, hats, signed 8X10 photos, books, and videos. They could even charge monthly ‘membership fees’ for access to content. While magazines came out just once a month, a web site could be updated with fresh new content every day, and it would be current as opposed to the 4-6-week lag time of print magazines. Discussion forums could be included to encourage interaction, and to keep people coming back to the site every day.

Social media – the real game-changer
Websites were an innovation that created opportunities for athletes, but they still required time, effort, and money for a webmaster to maintain and update them. That all changed with the advent of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube. Not only could you have your own pages or accounts for free, but they were all user-friendly and thus easy and convenient ways to post photos, videos, training and nutrition tips, blogs and vlogs. It was now possible to see exactly how many ‘likes’ your page or photo/video got, how many people ‘followed you,’ and how many views your videos had.
YouTube took it a step further and made it possible to monetize your videos with ads, being paid per-view. A whole new crop of social media stars emerged, many of them making a handsome living from advertising and sponsors. You could now create your own fame. If you had a look that drew people to you, or a dynamic personality that made people want to watch your videos, you could be just as famous as the men and women on the covers of the magazines and held top titles. Eventually, some of the social media stars would grow to eclipse the conventional champions in terms of fame, recognition, and income. Take a look at the following table to see how some of the established pro’s compare to some top social media fitness celebrities on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Pro Bodybuilders IG FB TW
Phil Heath 2.1m 3.5m 314k
Kai Greene 2.7m 4.7m 235k
Dexter Jackson 583k 399k 125k
Shawn Rhoden 568k 143k 50k
Big Ramy 961k 240k <1k
Hide Yamagishi 178k 1.3m 55k
Social Media Stars IG FB TW
Jen Selter 11.2m 8.9m 1.06m
Michelle Lewin 10.6m 8.8m 402k
Joey Swoll 1.9m 234k 52k
Rich Piana 1.1m 1.2m 13k
Paige Hathaway 3.9m 5.7m 217k
Jeff Seid 2.8m 2.6m 107k
Devin Physique 1.7m 107k 29k

Eye-opening, isn’t it?

The dark side of it all – bad advice and influences
YouTube has spawned a whole cadre of fitness celebrities who blend information and entertainment. Some of the better-know stars include C.T. Fletcher, Mike Rashid, Kali Muscle, Rich Piana, the Hodge Twins, and Bostin Loyd. They often have well over a million subscribers to their ‘channel,’ and their videos generate millions upon millions of views. Having a great physique along with a vibrant and captivating personality and delivery style is typically their formula for mass appeal, and this success.

They may have never done well in competition, or never have competed at all. They may be educated in the subjects they speak to their fans about, such as training, nutrition, supplementation, and drugs, or the knowledge they impart may be questionable at best. And therein lies the problem. Anyone can present him or herself as an expert online and dispense advice or recommendations, whether they be an actual expert, or masquerading as such. Their viewers usually don’t know the difference, and in many cases, don’t care. This is especially true when it comes to the matter of performance-enhancing drugs.

Most top amateur and professional competitors shy away from discussing drugs at all, much less how they use them or how they suggest they be used. Many of the YouTube stars capitalize on that by making it their most frequent topic for videos. They know that the fans are hungry for firsthand accounts and ‘inside’ information, aka ‘secrets,’ so they lap up these videos and beg for more, applauding the honesty and how the YouTube stars aren’t afraid to ‘tell the truth’ about drugs. Yet not one of these men is a medical doctor or even a pharmacist. The information they dispense is often simply based on their own experiences and that of their friends and associates, as well as rumors and speculation. Some of the drug combinations and doses they discuss and advocate are outrageous, and it’s likely that much of this is inflated or exaggerated for shock value.

An example of this, what is going to get more views and discussions going, talking about moderate, responsible use of PED’s, or talking about ingesting a staggering cocktail of drugs that would kill an elephant? Certain results are also often promised, with no basis for the claims other than the aforementioned personal experiences using certain items. I hope you can see the intrinsic dangers here! It wouldn’t be such an issue if there wasn’t the very real possibility that the people listening to this information could wind up with serious health problems, or even in extreme cases, die.

Be very careful who and what you listen to when it comes to putting powerful and potentially damaging drugs into your body. Just because someone is huge and swears a lot does not make them an expert, and they may be woefully ignorant of the myriad of health risks involved in what they are talking about. They could also simply be in denial, or worse, totally unconcerned about the dangers as long as they get big and ripped. Think twice before you mimic their regimens.

Are they even real?
The final major difference between established and accomplished athletes and some of these social media stars is that one group goes on stage in front of judges and audiences, while the other presents him or herself only through photos and videos posted online and on their social media. Photos are often taken only in carefully chosen lighting and from the most flattering angles. There have even been notorious cases where stars have been exposed as using programs like Photoshop to make muscles appear bigger and fuller, waists appear much smaller, and with women in particular, to make breasts and butts look bigger. When fans have met some of their favorite social media fitness celebrities, they have been shocked and disappointed to find that they look nothing like what they portray themselves to be. Actual athletes that compete can’t do this, of course. You don’t have Photoshop on stage, though sometimes, many wish they could!

While it may be true that social media has created a new generation of celebrities that have more fans and followers than bodybuilding champions, they may not always be the best role models. You can certainly draw inspiration and motivation from them if it helps, but don’t assume they are legitimate and reliable sources of information to guide you on your own personal fitness journey. For that, look to those with actual credentials and accomplishments in the field.


Rich Gaspari
Considered to be one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time, Rich Gaspari is the winner of the Weider Lifetime Acheivement Award, and IFBB Hall of Fame & Muscle Beach Walk of Fame recipient. In a recent video, Rich talks about his success story as well as the history of Gaspari Nutrition.

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