Social media mayhem: Local trainer sees danger in weightlifting stunts on video

The co-owner of the Iron Pit Gym in Bloomington watched the Instagram video montage posted by ESPN's SportsCenter with amusement and just a bit of disdain.

"Nothing like that will ever happen here," Matt Andrews said firmly as images of dangerous weightlifting stunts, mostly by young adult males, flashed across the screen.

Guys holding weights while standing on round weights tilted on their edges, kettle bells and a deadlift bar. Another man walking while carrying a bar full of weights and with someone on his back. On it goes and it’s hardly alone.

“At best, stuff like that leads to feelings of inadequacy in the general public and leads to being scared of going to the gym (because) I can’t do that,” said Bloomington weightlifting coach and North grad Wil Fleming, who works with local athletes as well as some of the world’s best lifters, such as Mary Theisen-Lappen.

“At worst, it leads to injury. There’s a guy balancing on a kettle bell. What’s your bailout plan on that? It’s a broken ankle, broken femur, whatever. That kind of stuff is harmful to the general public in terms of how misleading it is.”

In another video on SportsCenter’s feed, a young man is holding a barbell with a single, thin gray weight on each end and does a backflip while holding onto the bar. Fleming's trained eye spots a bar that probably weighs just five pounds, not the usual 45, and the weights are not much more than 10 pounds either.

Other stunts, he sees thick weights on bars that are actually made of foam. He knows this because he has a stack off to the side, used when he's working with younger or newer lifters on proper form. But most people are not going to notice either, giving the stunt figuratively more weight than it maybe deserves.

“Who’s going to stop and think how much is that?” said Fleming, as weights clang and rattle around him while being used in the usual manner. “Most of that stuff is for impressions and likes, not training. And almost guaranteed, somebody does a trick in the gym, that’s not how they train. That’s likely the outcome and they just happened to do it and made it on the 20th take.

“The work they did was probably simple, stuff that everybody can do in the gym. Like pullups and squats, pretty normal things and they got good at those and then that gave them the capability to do some circus trick in the gym.”

Internet famous

On and on it goes as the anonymous look for a sliver of fame and apps such as Instagram and TikTok make it easy. All it takes is for a big-name account with someone assigned to scour social media for outlandish postings to find their latest video jaw-dropper.

Some of the videos are just supposed feats of strength that could lead to serious injury. One shows a male grabbing seven of what appear to be 25-pound weights off one side of a barbell at once, then turning and dropping them to the floor.

Then there's videos where a degree of difficulty is added to a normal lift, like the one with a guy doing a 600-pound no-hand squat. For what reason, Fleming can't fathom.

Not silly enough? How about a guy grabbing a 100-pound dumbbell and then standing on same turned on its side and doing a one-legged squat before jumping (or falling) off.

“A barbell back-squat, which is a really good movement, which helps you get stronger, helps you build muscle mass, all sorts of great things,” Fleming said. “And somebody decided to stand on one of those big exercise balls and do that and film it and a million views later, people are like, ‘Well, maybe that’s a good idea.’

“In truth, it took something that’s really good and threw away every benefit to it and made it risky. I can’t even imagine doing it.”

Nothing wrong with keeping it traditional. (ie, not doing deadlifts with Legos under bare feet).

“When you evaluate an exercise, it’s what is the benefit to you and what is the risk to you?” Fleming said. “In a lot of cases, the benefit of physical activity and stronger muscles, bigger muscle mass and denser bones is a benefit that far outweighs any risk, like dropping a weight on your toe or a little bit bad form.

“With those sorts of things there is no benefit. So squatting without hands, you don’t gain anything, but you risk more. It’s a simple equation.”

Keeping it safe

Speaking of math, odds are most weightrooms and gyms do not condone nor allow such risky behavior.

“Fortunately, in a lot of good weightrooms with good strength coaches, the local high schools run a pretty tight ship,” Fleming said. “But it’s when the cat’s away, the mice will play sort of thing. Or it’s kids setting up a gym at home who do that.

“A lot of it is just about education. This is not real training. These are influencers, with air quotes around them. You are an athlete or just someone trying to get ready to run a 5k or do a triathlon, or lose 20 pounds. These things are not useful to you. Hopefully, the education and good coaches and personal trainers can put it together for people.”

And there are responsible social media accounts that offer the correct way to lift weights.

Fleming lists Eric Cressey and Jason and Lauren Pak as two good examples.

Getting started (the right way)

The idea of getting started in weightlifting can be intimidating.

“I even coach weightlifters who are insanely strong, and have American records, and it took them a long time to get there,” Fleming said.

It starts with finding someone who can demonstrate proper technique. It can be a certified coach or trainer, maybe even a family member, friend or former high school or college athlete who is an experienced lifter.

“Have them teach you how to use barbells, dumbbells, all that stuff that is readily available in almost every gym,” Fleming said. “Not necessarily the machines because some of those are unique to certain gyms.”

That said, machines can be an easy way to ease people into lifting. But free weights will provide a better workout because of the stabilization they require which results in a core workout.

A place such as Iron Pit can be a place to find coaches for whatever level of lifting an athlete is after, from professional bodybuilders and powerlifting to weekend warriors.

“Training to lose weight and training to lift the most weight you can is much different,” Fleming said.

He offers that a basic set of exercises, that train the legs, mid-section, front side pushing and backside pushing, done consistently, is more important than trying to do dozens of different lifts. And yeah, a bit of soreness is just part of it until the body gets more used to the work.

For kids as young as 11 or 12 or adults in their 60s or 70s, the right coaching is important to figure out what’s best for each individual. Like with any sport, the fundamentals are key, so start with light weights, develop the proper technique, then keep adding weights a little bit at a time.

Even if it may not earn thousands of views on social media.

“The easiest coaching idea I’ve ever used,” Fleming said, is, ‘Let’s use less weight on that, because I know you can do it better that way.’”

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: TikTok, Instagram mayhem: Trainer sees danger in weightlifting stunts