The Dark Side of Fitness

Fitness Gone Wrong: 7 Experts Discuss

Being lean, strong, and muscular is awesome. But can the pursuit of fitness take a bad turn down a dark path? Yep. Watch for these signs.

The Question

How do you know if you’ve taken fitness too far and it has turned into something detrimental or negative?

Paul Carter – Strength and Bodybuilding Coach

Here are several examples of “Fitness” gone too far:

For Drug Guys

If you’re sporting a nice shade of magenta all the time and rocking a tomato face, your dose is detrimental.

Also, count the number of bodybuilding drugs you’re taking. Now count the number of other drugs you’re taking to stop the side effects of those bodybuilding drugs. If the second number is greater than the first, that’s detrimental.

For Drug-Using Females

If you have facial hair and there are parts of your body that are enlarged that you don’t flex on stage… that’s detrimental.

For Powerlifters

If you refuse to date someone because they don’t total a certain amount, emotionally it’s become detrimental.

For Everyone

If you’re into anything fitness related that causes you to abstain from sex or withhold it from your partner for any and all reasons, it’s become beyond detrimental. This includes avoiding certain sexual positions because you believe that it will widen your waist, taking away from your V-taper. If you won’t perform in the missionary position because “it’s bench day tomorrow” it’s become detrimental.

Likewise, if you create body image disorders in your kids because you obsess too much over what you look like, it’s become detrimental.

And if the only time you can have any semblance of control over your eating habits is when you’re preparing for a show, seek help.

If you find you’ve sacrificed friendships, romantic partners, or jobs because they interfered with training or competing, it’s become detrimental.

Finally, if you end up believing that your worth as a man or woman somehow lies in the makings of a plastic trophy, or believe that your identity revolves around a powerlifting total or arm measurement… you suck at life. No really, you suck at life.

Fitness, training, competing, dieting, whatever. All of it can be done while still finding balance in the rest of your life. Most of the time these things become detrimental when people can’t find an identity outside of it. They have lost all logical ability to keep these things in perspective. Virtually every aspect of their lives revolve around it.

When I give seminars I usually end them by talking about balance. I relate a story once told to me by a very experienced lifter who was about to walk out of the house to go squat. His young daughter came up to him and said, “Daddy, would you have a tea party with me?” He said, “I dropped my bag and missed that squat session because in twenty years I’d never remember that workout. But I’d always remember the tea party with my little girl.”

Chris Shugart – T Nation CCO

When you knowingly begin to compromise your health.

It’s ironic, don’t you think? You adopt a training or diet plan to lose fat, build muscle, get strong, or extend your life, then things go sideways and your fitness plan begins to wreck your fitness.

For dedicated folks, it’s actually an easy trap to fall into. Some examples:

  1. A fat loss diet turns into borderline anorexia. This is often associated with an obsession with scale weight. The desired outcome gets twisted: the goal becomes a smaller number on the scale instead of the sexy look of a healthy reflection in the mirror.

  2. Your pursuit of abs leaves you looking like a malnourished meth addict. There’s even something called “exercise induced bulimia.” That’s where the person doesn’t purge by throwing up food, but instead tries to purge every calorie he or she eats through excess exercise, usually cardio. (Yeah, that ends badly.)

  3. The obsessive pursuit of PRs leaves you busted up and unable to do real-life things, like walking up stairs or getting out of the car without psyching up first. Strength is awesome, but true 1RM attempts are largely unnecessary outside of a competition.

  4. The pursuit of size leaves you fat or playing a reckless game with bodybuilding drugs.

  5. A love of running leaves you beat up and constantly hurt instead of feeling good.

  6. When a trendy diet starts doing you more harm than good. The key to this one is that you KNOW deep down it’s not working for you anymore, but the idea of it is so compelling, so “scientifically backed,” or is such an ego-inflating virtue signal that you can’t give it up.

The lesson here? Health first. Whenever health falls down to the number two or number three spot, or disappears altogether, your fitness plan, well, isn’t about fitness anymore.

TC Luoma – T Nation Editor

Joe Weider, That Bastard.

I started lifting weights during the era of Joe Weider, that bastard. (Sorry, but I can’t help but add “that bastard” any time I mention Joe Weider… that bastard.)

Back then, Joe (that bastard) put out the flashiest magazines and all the best bodybuilders had contracts with him. When newbies like me wanted to learn about lifting, we read his mags, but we were incredibly naive back then.

Hardly any one knew or believed that pro bodybuilders used steroids. In fact, it wasn’t until later when one of the magazines I worked for started talking about steroid use among the pros that people wised up. All over the country, bubbles loudly burst. Joe – that bastard – even called me up at home once to complain about how I was destroying the image of health he’d so carefully tried to construct.

But prior to that, the rest of us poor schlubs in Kansas, or wherever, thought that we too could look like all those “natural” pros, if we just trained the same way they did.

Oh, and Joe Weider, that bastard, was really magnanimous in divulging the training programs used by the top bodybuilders. The trouble was, their steroid-fueled routines lasted at least two hours and they trained like that 6 days a week. So we all thought that we had to train two hours a day, 6 days a week, never realizing that that kind of program, without the aid of steroids, would do more to tear us down than build us up.

And that’s how I took fitness too far. I virtually lived in the gym. I turned down social event after social event because I had to train. I missed weddings, funerals, concerts, and multiple movies and dinners with friends. When I got married, my wife and I went straight to the gym.

It wasn’t until a few years later that all of us realized the charade he’d pulled on us. We then realized that we didn’t need to live in the gym, that shorter, less frequent workouts would serve us all much better.

But it was too late. We all lost big chunks of our lives because of Joe Weider, that bastard, and for no reason.

Luckily, I was able to de-program myself, but I still find myself missing big life events because I “have” to go to the gym. What I’m occasionally able to do, though, is say something ridiculous to myself to knock me out of that mindset. For instance, I might say, “Oh well, I’ll come in third instead of second at this year’s Mr. Olympia contest,” and then go do whatever it was I planned on doing or was invited to do and try to enjoy the hell out of myself, without any guilt.

Tom Morrison – Weightlifting Coach, Martial Artist, CrossFit Trainer

Competing with others in the gym or box… To your detriment.

CrossFit training: A friendly push or competitive nightmare? Well, one of the best things that CrossFit brought to the table was a friendly community. Within that community, however, there are little mini-communities. Some are encouraging and help each other stay accountable, but some like to literally drive themselves into the ground. They will not be outdone by anyone else and will tease anyone that doesn’t “beat their time.”

This is okay as long as others are enjoying the banter. Some of the best training sessions I’ve had involved a bit of friendly competition. Often these types of CrossFitters are highly consistent with their training, and when they bunch together you get a group of hardcore fitness enthusiasts that want to destroy every workout. Every session has to leave them gasping for air and sore for days.

This seems great at first, but long term this isn’t good for someone that trains 5-plus days a week. Accumulated volume with that highly competitive mindset will start to break the body down. Under-recovering, training through pain, and even becoming sick are all symptoms. It’s a recipe for injury.

If you’re not a Crossfitter and aren’t sure how it works, CrossFit workouts have a prescribed movement standard and weight to be used. A CrossFit coach writes the workouts for the fittest and strongest person in the gym, then scales back the movements to the individual’s level. If you complete a workout to the prescribed standard it’s called “RX,” and in a CrossFit setting an RX score beats any scaled score.


One of the most annoying things as a coach is when people refuse to scale movements down to their level because it will affect their “score on the board.” When the whiteboard starts to influence how you work out, that’s your first warning sign.

More than once I’ve changed what was written on the board to benefit the individual more than generic class programming, trying to demonstrate that RX isn’t a real thing. Bodyweight lunges and push-ups can be RX. Just because the board says 100kg cleans for reps doesn’t mean you should snap your spine to get two letters beside your name. Failure to accept that you’re “not that good yet” is dangerous and unproductive.

If you’re spending your workout time worrying about what people will think if you don’t perform well, you’re on a slippery slope. Pushing yourself is great, but if you’re genuinely in pain or feel like some part of you is niggling, you must talk to your coach. You don’t get any prizes for being a “trooper” in CrossFit. You just get hurt.

If you’re not training for a competition, you should never put yourself in a position that leaves you open to hurting yourself. It’s just not sensible. Even if you are training for competition, if all you’re doing is racking up injuries coming up to it, you should pull out. It’s supposed to be fun, not break you.

When you start becoming obsessed with what everyone else is doing, and wanting to beat everyone around you, you have an overtraining issue. Just because you’re the big fish in your little gym, there are always other people out there stronger than you.

Feeling like you’re gonna die every workout can become addictive, but training should make you feel good, look good, and give you an awesome buzz. When you start putting pressure on yourself to win at working out, you’re missing the point and your body will hate you for it.

If you really love to push yourself, set frequent goals and sessions for that, but never forget the bigger picture. Longevity leads to more gains long term. You can’t cheat that.

Mark Dugdale – IFBB Pro Bodybuilder

You know you’ve taken fitness too far when it kills your relationships.

That’s the end result of a good thing becoming a “god” thing. What I mean is that something intended for good becomes an object of worship – a little “g” god or idol. You then sacrifice your time, talent, and treasure in worship and pursuit of pleasing your idol.

It’s not a quick plunge to your detriment, but a gradual decline. Telltale signs exist along the path to fitness gone wrong. Things like the avoidance of blood work because you don’t want to know if your insides are dying a slow death because, “Hey! I’m sporting a nice six pack and 20 inch arms!”

Or your social media accounts read like the picture storybooks of the world’s greatest narcissist. You begin to obsess over likes and followers. You begin trading relational time for things like working a booth – for free – at a fitness expo under the justification that it provides “exposure.” You’re just marketing yourself anyway, right? (Wrong.)

Long-term thinking goes out the window for short-term gratification. And before you know it, those relationships you once valued vanish. The remaining common denominator is you and your physique idol.

Tony Gentilcore – Strength Coach and Performance Expert

Fitness is a hard word to define, if not altogether murky and ubiquitous.

If you look up the definition of fitness the two most popular are:

  1. The condition of being physically fit and active.
  2. The quality of being suitable to fulfill a particular role or task.

See what I mean? Those definitions can mean anything to anyone.

For some people, “fitness” means being able to squat or deadlift 3x bodyweight. For others it means having six-pack abs year round. I don’t feel people’s personal definitions of fitness deserve any belaboring. Truth be told, any time someone is doing something positive for their health and well-being it’s a good thing.

But we all know the joke:

“How do you know someone is a vegan?”
Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.

Now, don’t get me wrong: we can just as easily substitute “yogi, powerlifter, bodybuilder, CrossFitter, or early 90’s Mariah Carey aficionado” in there as well. All are fine things to be into and, without any hesitation from me, make you a very cool person to hang around with.

However, I’m sure you get the gist and can commiserate: it’s annoying when someone you know – friend, colleague, family member, significant other – turns something they’re passionate about into something that defines them.

They’re the person who refrains from social get-togethers or even vacations because the idea of missing or skipping a training session is apocalyptic. They’re someone whose nutritional neurosis dictate they bring their own cooler of pre-packaged grass-fed beef and organic, unicorn tear filtered acai berries everywhere they go in lieu of having the audacity of enjoying a slice of pizza.

This isn’t to disparage people who take their health and “fitness” more seriously. Anyone who reads this site recognizes there are innumerable day-to-day sacrifices we make to not be average.

But when said sacrifices come at the expense of deteriorating interpersonal relationships, exceedingly more and more incidences of negative self-talk, or even decreased self-worth for doing something off plan, fitness is no longer fitness. It’s a problem.

Akash Vaghela – Strength and Bodybuilding Coach

Fitness brings a myriad of benefits to your life.

Better health, better body composition, higher levels of confidence, and improved mental clarity, to name a few.

However, with the growing rise of social media and the bombardment of so-called “perfect physiques” everywhere, more and more issues are arising that are not so positive. Here are a few examples that may suggest you’ve taken fitness too far:

  • Outside of a strict deadline (bodybuilding shows, photo shoot etc.), you’re turning down social invitations.
  • When you let fitness define you and it’s all you have going for you (unless you’re making money out of it or it’s your career).
  • Comparing yourself to others and letting it negatively affect you mentally.
  • Not being able to exercise moderation when it comes to food.
  • Feeling incredibly guilty if you missed a workout or ate something off plan.

If any of these resonate with you, chances are you may need to dial it back a little. Take time to reestablish your goals, think about why you initially started training, and most importantly, remember why you enjoy paying attention to your health and fitness.