The (Stupid) Secret About Secrets
I've had just about enough of these type of headlines:
"Top Pros Reveal 7 Secrets to Unrelenting Success"
“The Secret fix to your low back pain”
Or, better yet,
"The Secret Food You Never Knew You Needed To Burn Your Way To Your 6-pack"
Mother of Pearl I'm already annoyed, even if these are fake headlines. I’ve seen teasers like these about subjects ranging anywhere from weight loss to financial gain and everything in between. For our purposes, though, I’m going to generally keep this to the secret world of fitness.
Part I: What's It All About?
So...What is a secret? A secret, according to Webster's, is "something that is kept or meant to be kept unknown or unseen by others." Meant to be kept. Hm. I wonder (insert pondering emoji here). So, a secret is meant to be kept, you say? “Now why,” you might ask, “do these experts and pros want to keep these success secrets from me? But wait a second,” you catch yourself saying, “they're going to SHARE IT with me?! Lucky day!”
Fitness marketing seeks the latter part of that reaction, and generally, they get it. Below I've come up with a few reasons why this tactic of secret hyping has become so popular... and inevitably why I have grown so annoyed with it. But more than that, I’ll tell you why it might behoove you to see through the ruse.
But before the reasoning, the most important truth:
There are no secrets...
Seriously? No secrets? Aw, dude!
...But talking about secrets sure is juicy (remember, we're talking fitness here, not Gossip Girl or Area 51).
You heard me. There are no secrets in fitness. There is simply what you know, and what you do not know (yet). There is what has been proven to work (for a few, some, most, or nearly all), and what has been proven to not work as well. Period. But what you don't know can indeed be known by others. Your ignorance does not imply all else’s ignorance.
There is no “secret technique” in performing any given lift. There is simply a way to do that lift that might yield greater results, or might lead to less injury, etc. than other ways of performing that lift. There is no “secret rule” to fat-burning that no one has known until now.
Sure, newer, more efficient methods of exercise have been discovered as our technology, brains, and knowledge of the human body and our universe (woah, deep man) have all improved over the course of our evolution. That is why we experiment, and that is why science has come so far.
But let’s circle back and ask what would make any of these discoveries a "secret for success". Here are two (count ‘em!) pretty standard requirements:
This knowledge/discovery would genuinely have to lead to success. Then;
This knowledge/discovery would have to be meant to be kept unseen or unknown.
Earth-shattering, I know. If this were truly useful, effective information, the only thing making it a secret would be if it was meant to be kept unknown or unseen. In other words, it's only a secret if the people with the knowledge act like third graders (“Na na na boo boo” and all that).
But let's get deeper here, man: if there was some "secret" principle or key to life that no one knew about, would it really necessarily be a secret? Or would it just be yet-undiscovered knowledge? Was gravity really a secret before we were able to understand it as a natural law through critical observation? Or was it just something we didn't understand yet?
Part II: The Reasons for Secrets
Reason One: The Power Play
The secret to secrets, if I may be so regretfully cliche and admittedly idiotic, is that they are simply tactics to be divisive. "Knowing" secrets and proclaiming it loudly plays on our natural tendency to want to be included. (This likely began as a necessary evolutionary tactic as the first humans recognized the principle of “strength in numbers”. Today, we call this FOMO.) Subsequently, it creates exclusivity. If we are "in on" the secret, we all of a sudden hold ourselves, and often are held by others, in a higher light.
But this light casts shadows of resentment, deceit, and vanity. It creates an imbalanced power dynamic, where those in the know have the power, and those on the outside desperately wish to have their share of the power. (You remember the saying "secrets, secrets are no fun, unless they're shared with everyone!" for a reason... even kids recognize the power of holding secrets over others). So, again, why would those in the fitness industry claim to have these secrets? Power is one reason. It’s a feel-good drug. Slightly addictive. It also boosts the credibility of the fitness guru who appears to know something that no one else has come to figure out yet. Pretty cool, huh?
You want knowledge? I got knowledge!
But that can’t be all, can it? Surely there must be some other motive other than just feeling superior and showing that off to the untrained eye?
Of course, there’s more.
Let’s answer the two-pronged inevitable: What does a secret imply? And why do we buy in?
Reason Two: Can’t I Just Take a Pill?
A secret, at least in the fitness world, predominantly implies one glorious phenomena: A magic fix. Merlin’s Beard! Who wouldn't want a magic fix? One hundred, fifty, or even fifteen years ago, this may have been different. But alas, we live in an insta-world where insta-results are expected, instantly. Weight loss pills; weight gain pills; cosmetic surgeries; diets that claim you can literally eat whatever you want and still lose weight; books, videos and articles with sensationalized titles about “incinerating, blasting, torching, obliterating, and zapping” fat with just-this-one-thing-you've-been-missing-out-on-for-years. The shake weight. They’re all popular. And they likely will continue to be popular, at least in certain ill-informed crowds, for a while. Pretty soon, there will be an app, pill or something in the Cloud that will allow someone or something else to workout for you, claiming you will reap all the fruits of the other’s labor.
"Slow, steady, practical physical fitness improvement over a moderate but reasonable period of time" is just about the least sexy title for anything ever created (so, inevitably, I’m going to use that title one of these days). It makes sense that you have likely never seen anything like that. Who has time for gradual anything anymore?
But you know what? From the point of view of content creation (those cooking what your eating up), it all makes sense. Know why?
Reason Three: We’re Predictable!
Those that buy in to the magic fixes are, at best, fed up with working hard and not seeing anything change. At worst, lazy and unwilling to put in the work. The former is understandable. I’ve been there before myself, more times than I care to share. The latter is, well, a little less laudable. Further, what shouldn’t be a secret (see what I did there?) is the fact that the people that tend to get excited over and invest in “secrets” tend to be less disciplined and critically self-reflective; they tend to jump from one fad to the next and never truly give one theory its fair shake via extensive practical application.
They tend to be excited to start, but rarely committed to follow through.
I, again, have belonged to this crowd and had to learn my lesson to hard way over a long period of time. And guess what? The people creating these headlines of miraculous hysteria know this reality. They know they can get the hook, line and sinker out of desperation, apathy, frivolity, boredom, excitement, etc.
So what the heck does this all mean? Summing up reasons one, two, and three, we come to the inescapable, which doesn’t need any further explanation whatsoever.
Reasons One + Two + Three = Reason 4: Secrets Sell!
Duh. Again, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you’re going to buy “Where Fat Goes To Die: 6-Pack in 6 Days” over “Creating Positive Long-term Habitual Dietary and Fitness Changes for Healthy Weight Loss Over Your Lifetime” (another title I’ll probably use in my martyrdom just to stick it to the man). Because even if the latter is more realistic, it’s boring.
Part III: The reality of why secrets are crap
One: There is no one-size-fits-all for 100% of people 100% of the time
This is not a hat and glove set from Target. Don't you think that, if there really was something that worked so miraculously and consistently, it would be easier to come by and less able to be hidden from the masses? This should sound at least a subtle alarm about anybody claiming they know a secret you don’t. Secrets rarely allow for the individual needs of individual people (think nutrition books promoting certain foods being read by someone with an allergy to that food, or lifestyle change books that promote sleeping before 10 pm being read by someone who works the night shift, etc.).
Two: Secrets are almost always just retooling, reorganizing, or reinterpreting recycled information
How many ways are there, really, to get stronger? You might like Stronglifts 5 x 5, or 5/3/1, or gradually working toward your 1RM, but the same underlying principle applies: Lift heavy things. How about weight loss? Again, underlying principles (take in less than you expend, have a solid balance of macros, eat the “right” kinds of each food, etc.). Cut through the crap and see things for what they are. There is nothing wrong with, and often a lot right with, the reorganizing of knowledge to help people that may have not received the message well enough before. But don’t claim it’s a secret. That’s all we ask.
Three: Failure can quickly spiral downward (and failure is common)
What happens when that magic fix doesn't work? The person who invests so much time, energy and hope into that "secret" being the answer to his or her problem becomes downtrodden, discouraged, and resentful at best. This can, and often does, lead to an unjustifiably widespread disillusionment across the entire industry, doctrine, or ideology.
"If this be-all-end-all secret didn't solve my problems," we tell ourselves, "surely the instituition/person/doctrine supporting and purporting it is untrustworthy and faulty."
In another way; “This catch-all secret didn’t work for me. If it didn’t work, nothing will. I quit.”
It leads to our losing faith, giving up, feeling abandoned and helpless, and then once again buying into the next "secret" in the matter of weeks, months or years that it took for us to build the courage to try something new again, only to complete and repeat the cycle.
Part IV: How do we escape this cycle?
Recognize incredible claims (the word “secret” should automatically become a red flag)
Don’t let yourself get caught in the hype of this claim
Read, investigate, and critically analyze what is being claimed
Decide if it seems to good to be true or not
Decide if, depending on your answer to above, it is worth pursuing or not
And how can you tell if there’s a method for you that might work, and is worth giving a shot? Among many other things, ask yourself if it’s realistic. Is there being a claim made that sounds amazing? Maybe too amazing? As in, it’s expected for you to get out much more than you put in? Be wary.
The truth is not always sexy. It is, more likely than not, common sense (given an adequate base of knowledge) and practical. Don’t allow yourself to be caught up in the collective cultural OCD-driven, over-sensationalized, over-excited tidal wave that can sweep one away in our rapidly-changing time. Because it will often lead to feeling both overwhelmed by choices and underwhelmed by results in the long run, concluding with exhaustion and surrender.
However, if you meet a trainer or read a book that is upfront, blunt and honest about your goals and the amount of time, effort and willpower it will take to reach them, you will likely have a much more solid ground to start from. Do your work to find this person or information, and then work. Hard. Thank you for listening, and congratulations on making it this far. You might just be disciplined enough to put the work into creating lasting change!
(This reality sucks. Like you, I want there to be secret fixes to all that ails me. I've lived most of my life wishing there was some little-known special rule or tactic that would immediately catapult me into success. I would love to just finally find the one exotic food I've been missing that is suddenly going to skyrocket my bench press to 450 lbs. Unfortunately, to see big results, you have to put in big work.
But here’s the worst part. Not all of the “secrets” out there are worthless. In fact, many are great new ways of thinking about, creating, designing, or implementing exercise that will work for many people. But we (trainers, coaches, fitness pros in general who create programs to help people) feel like we need to sensationalize, because of the ever-decreasing attention span of our collective world and the fact that there is just so much dang information out there.
Some of the trainers, programs, books, etc that claim to have “secret” knowledge really could be great. But when they have to be sold as quick, secret, magic fixes, they lose their integrity, and to me that's a huge bummer. There are, in all honesty, a few coaches and sources of information I truly believe in that follow this hyped-up, sensationalized model. But I know I can trust this information because behind the marketing shtick, it’s actually accurate, useful stuff. I'm different, though, as I've dedicated my life to this line of work. How is the everyday Joe Gymrat supposed to tell the difference between good and bad?
Now here’s the best part: Earlier I said "unfortunately, to see big results, you have to put in big work." Fortunately, though, putting in big work is actually one of the most gratifying feelings ever imaginable (especially when you start noticing the changes). We’ve been conditioned to be afraid to work hard; to be wary of anything that makes you actually put in effort. Ditch that thought. How do you think our amazing civilization reached this point? We haven’t sat on our hands and twiddled our thumbs for thousands of years: we’ve built, lifted, hauled, thought critically, and worked hard. Continue that tradition and own it, in the gym, the office, at home, and everywhere in between.