Popular TikTok workouts may be dangerous or ineffective, experts say

Screengrabs from three different popular #FitTok TikTok workout videos
You may want to think twice before going all in on that workout you saw blowing up on TikTok. Photo credit: TikTok / screengrabs

By Melanie Radzicki McManus of CNN

Today, many people are turning to social media for their fitness routines, with TikTok one of the most popular platforms. Indeed, its fitness category - dubbed FitTok - has some 300 billion views. But are the workouts, exercises and challenges really safe and effective?

Recent studies indicate caution. Nearly two-thirds of the top Instagram "fitspiration" accounts did not contain credible information, according to a 2023 study published in BMC Public Health. An analysis of 1000 TikTok posts relating to food, nutrition and weight loss, published in the journal PLOS One, contained weight-normative content, such as the glorification of weight loss. And while fitness influencers can encourage people to become more physically active, which is a positive, the quality and accuracy of their content is a concern, according to a 2022 review in Frontiers in Public Health.

"There are a lot of unsustainable and unrealistic workouts on TikTok, and even some dangerous advice," said Jess Brown, a certified personal trainer and founder of The Glute Recruit in Westchester, New York. 

What's more, much of the fitness information on TikTok isn't backed by science or posted by fitness professionals, said Monica Jones, a certified personal trainer in Washington, DC.

"The workouts are usually generalised to anyone, too, and don't take into account your health, your family history, your flexibility, your range of motion - the list goes on," Jones said.

Unfortunately, some of the most popular TikTok videos are among the more problematic. These include the raft of challenges promising that you'll lose a certain amount of weight or develop a particular physique in a matter of days or weeks.

"If there is a workout that guarantees results in a short amount of time, that's unrealistic," Brown said. "And if they're targeting a specific body part, like the 'Mom Pouch,' they're often targeting people's insecurities. They're just click-bait workouts to attract money." 

Beware of some TikTok videos

One of the more popular TikTok fitness trends involves developing your abdominal muscles. These "ab-shred" challenges often depict an influencer doing one exercise or series of movements that, if repeated daily for a week or two, is promised to result in a sexy six-pack.

No way, Brown said. "We've proven again and again that spot reduction isn't a thing," she said. "And abs are one of the hardest areas to drop body fat, because we have a lot of fat receptors in our abdomen."

Unfortunately, there will always be trends centred around getting fast results, because those grab people's attention, Jones said. "But it's important to look at your fitness and health as a lifelong journey, not something you can achieve within 10 to 90 days." 

"Dry scooping" was a recent TikTok fitness trend that now appears to be blocked from the website. Before your workout, the theory goes, toss a scoop of pre-workout powder into your mouth and down it, rather than mixing it with water and drinking it, as instructed. This practice supposedly turbocharges your workout because your body absorbs the powder's caffeine and other stimulants more quickly.

But experts say it's dangerous - and possibly even deadly - as it could lead to respiratory or cardiovascular distress.

"This practice is part of the instant gratification culture we've got going on," Jones said. "And if you want a great cardio workout, it's actually going to work against you, because any dry powder that goes through your lungs will cause inflammation."

Finding quality workouts 

There is one TikTok workout fad that experts say might not be harmful or ineffective: the 12-3-30. This workout entails walking 3 miles per hour for 30 minutes on a treadmill set to a 12 percent incline.

"That's one of the better ones being marketed," Jones said, while Brown noted it's a great and accessible way to introduce fitness to a newbie. That being said, the two had some warnings.

Walking on such a steep incline could cause you to hold onto the treadmill's handles, which means you're not bracing your abdominal muscles, Jones said. The result can be tension in the lower back. Even if you don't grasp the handles, a 12 percent incline can put pressure on your joints, Brown said.

How can you separate quality workouts from dangerous fads? First, check the credentials of the posters. They should be certified fitness professionals who have experience working with people. You also want a coach who emphasizes improving strength and cardiovascular health, not one who focuses on body type, Brown said. 

quality influencer should also take a balanced approach to fitness, encouraging mental well-being, self-care and the importance of listening to your body in addition to physical fitness.

If possible, skip social media and work directly with a personal trainer, experts say. Personal trainers will craft workouts based on your specific body and goals, and they're available in person or virtually.

"Nothing beats personal guidance," Jones said. "And you are more than worthy of having a personal coach."

Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer who specialises in hiking, travel and fitness.