The Secret Tricks Behind Misleading Images Of Fitness Success

You, too, could look like the pictures for gym ads–without any Photoshop. All it takes is a few of these little tricks of light and perspective. Or we could just agree to not feel bad about ourselves.

We’ve all seen the ads for diets, exercise equipment, or new fitness routines. An overweight, sad looking person transformed in just a few months into a gleaming, smiling and skinny pile of muscle. We all know something is at work in these photos, either a lot of Photoshop or, at the very least, a lot more time than the ad claims passed between sad picture A and amazing picture B. But still, they’re effective propaganda: Someone somewhere got in shape and perhaps you should, too. And, what do you know, you just happen to be watching an ad for Bowflex!


The truth is actually potentially more insidious than just a case of Photoshopping on a set of abs. As you can see in this graphic from, the people in these ads didn’t magically become fit–they were already fit.

As you can see in the image above, trainer Jason Barnett shows what you can do with just a change of shorts, some better lighting, and better angles. Melanie Ventura, who you can see in the slide show above, does it even faster, with just a change of outfit and angle. I’ll have what she’s having!

An even sneakier example is competitive eater and bodybuilder Furious Pete, who posted a video explaining some of these techniques last year. Already looking as ripped as anyone might want to be after a session in the gym, Pete takes a glistening “after” photo. He then spends five hours making himself look worse: bloating himself with chips, diet soda, and milk. He then sticks out his stomach as far as he can. Voila. There’s your before picture, taken a few hours after the alleged “result” picture. You can see it all in this video here:

If this is what you can do without the help of computers, imagine how much we can change people with digital editing. You can see an example of that power in these videos we recently posted of a woman being transformed into an entirely different looking woman on a computer screen.

If you see something that claims it can make your body look different quickly and easily, remember that there is nothing in life that doesn’t require time and hard work. Be fit, but you can be fit without looking like this. In fact, let’s remind ourselves that that six-packs and big biceps are “beach muscles” and have very little to do with how strong you are.

But most crucially, don’t miss the larger point of these examples: Not that you can take a better picture with some simple lighting tricks (though, please, update your Facebook). Rather: that what we see in the media shouldn’t be driving our ideals of beauty and fitness, because what we see mostly isn’t real–it’s a trick.


Here’s the full graphic:

About the author

Morgan is a senior editor at Fast Company. He edits the Ideas section, formerly