Ah, progress photos. The lifeblood of any fitness business, the inspiration for countless folks to start (and stick to) a workout program, and an accurate representation of body transformations that anyone can achieve. If you believe any of these things are true (they’re not), read on.
Progress photos are often called “before and after” photos or “transformation” photos. I don’t use either of these terms. If you’re building a new fitness habit with an end date in mind, you’re setting yourself up for failure. This is why there’s no such thing as “before” and “after” in fitness — there’s only “during” and “during”.
And the word “transformation” reeks of massive, unsustainable, short-term changes, and implies that someone wasn’t awesome or perfect or worthy enough before their so-called “transformation”.
I usually use the term “physique photos”, but when some sort of physical change is implied, especially when photos from two different time periods are compared, I’ll begrudgingly use the term “progress photos”.
Here at K.I. Health & Fitness, my team and I made a deliberate decision not to use physique photos on our website, on social media, or anywhere else in our marketing. And why is that, you may ask? Here are the three main reasons:
1. The comparison trap
You come across a friend’s photos that show major changes in their physique. Apparently they’ve lost 20 pounds in 2 months. So this specific person achieved a certain result in a certain time frame. Does that mean you should be able to achieve the exact same result? If you don’t lose 20 pounds in 2 months, are you “doing it wrong”?
Progress photos normalize a certain pace of seeing results. Reality check: there’s no such thing as a “normal” pace of seeing results. Progress photos give us zero context about the individual who’s achieved those results. Work situation? Family responsibilities? Big life stressors? Amount of time available to dedicate to fitness and nutrition? Chronic conditions? Physical disabilities? Socioeconomic status? Ability to hire help for childminding, cooking, house cleaning, etc.? The variables are endless.
Progress photos invite us to compare ourselves to whoever is in the photos. You’ll always be comparing apples to oranges, however. Even if, in a hypothetical world, all the aforementioned variables were equal, 20 people could go through the exact same fitness and nutrition program, and you’d still get 20 different results.
2. An inaccurate representation of progress as linear
Meaningful progress toward a long-term goal is never linear. “Before and after” photos simplify and misrepresent progress as a simple upward trajectory toward someone’s end goal. They also fuel the “all-or-nothing” mindset that’s very prevalent among fitness-minded folks, and holds them back from getting the results they want. Folks with this mindset are likely to give up and quit working toward making long-term habit changes when they don’t see consistent, short-term results (whatever “results” means to each person).
Here’s James Clear, from his must-read book Atomic Habits:
“We often expect progress to be linear. At the very least, we hope it will come quickly. In reality, the results of our efforts are often delayed. It is not until months or years later that we realize the true value of the previous work we have done. This can result in a "valley of disappointment" where people feel discouraged after putting in weeks or months of hard work without experiencing any results. However, the work was not wasted, it was simply being stored. It is not until much later that the full value of previous efforts is revealed.”
3. “Aesthetics first” is a very limiting scope of progress.
We don’t want to come across as coaches whose main selling point is, “We can help you look better!” Everyone wants to look good and feel good about themselves — that’s just human nature. But if that’s all we’re focusing on, we’re setting ourselves up for failure and disappointment. Also, by the way, you look great as you are now!
Looking good means something completely different to each individual. Progress photos also make health seem secondary, and often conflate body size with health.
In our coaching business, we use client stories instead of client photos. Stories can highlight both struggles and accomplishments, and present a much more well-rounded picture of progress. Here are some examples of achievements that reach far beyond aesthetics:
“I am learning not to deprive myself, to find joy and pleasure in food again, and to find joy and pleasure in movement!”
“In addition to finally nailing a chin-up, I now go the gym on a regular basis, have a love of lifting weights, and honestly, changed my perception of what I’m capable of.”
“I feel strong and ALL of my aches and pains are gone. No more achy knees and back. Truly amazing. I will never quit consistent strength training now that I see what it can do!”
“How I feel about my body has changed significantly. I feel more confident, have more energy, and can feel myself getting stronger.”
These are all very powerful “wins” that our clients have achieved, and none of them would have been communicated in progress photos.
We do still use physique photos in our business (but not anywhere in our marketing)
We do still use physique photos within our coaching programs. But these are used on an individual basis with each client, just for that client, and the photos are never shared anywhere. Photos are one data point that can be useful in tracking progress, along with many other variables, including body weight, body measurements, strength progress, and more.
For some folks, seeing physical change brings motivation and confidence. Each client decides on their own whether (and how often) to do physique photos.
Here’s my colleague Coach Zoe, from a podcast episode in which we discussed f*cked up parts of the fitness industry:
“For some folks who are maybe coming from another coaching situation, or just another space in general, where they were exposed to this rhetoric around the scale being the only marker of success, or for folks who may have a strong, perhaps negative response to something like weight gain, you can then say, “Okay, I acknowledge where this response is coming from. I'd like you to pause. Let's just move over to the visual and observe some of the differences that you can really see.” They can then share the way they think about that weight gain because it's presented in a different way than what the scale may have indicated.”
Responding to clients' physique photos
We as coaches are careful and deliberate about how we respond to a client’s physique photos. Often, we don’t respond at all, other than to acknowledge that a client has decided to take new photos! (These are uploaded into their private profile on our app.) Clients will usually bring their feelings and comments to us.
We often use language that focuses on the consistent work someone has been putting in, since aesthetic results are “outputs” — things you don’t have direct control over. (Variables you can control, like your workouts or what you eat in a day, are “inputs”.) We like focusing on the actions someone has taken to get a specific result, versus commenting on the physical result itself.
Coach Zoe says:
“I think that [not commenting on physique photos] creates a safer space in general because whenever you're making a comment about someone's body, you don't know how it will be received and what that comment will mean for them. The reason that we move away from saying more specific things like, “Your waist is looking super small” or, “Your arms are looking really jacked”, is because maybe for that person having “jacked” arms is not what they want, and it's going to impact them really negatively.”
Also remember that we know each client very well after we’ve worked with them for a while. Building solid relationships with our clients is what sets our coaching far apart from other programs out there! We know what each client is working on, what their goals are, the challenges they’ve faced between sets of physique photos, and much more. A solid relationship with each client also informs us of our individual responses.
If you’re a fitness coach who uses progress photos anywhere in your marketing, we urge you to rethink your approach. If you’re someone who’s inspired by others’ “before” and “after” photos, we’re not urging you to be less inspired. But we are urging you to view them with skepticism, and with the knowledge that what you see doesn’t necessarily translate into your specific situation. And if you use progress photos to document your own fitness journey, all the power to you! Just make sure you’re also tracking other variables, like strength and athletic performance, body measurements, and overall energy.
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