If you’re not one of the 447k Instagrammers who follow James Smith, we’ll catch you up to speed. The British-born, Bondi-based personal trainer has been likened to the ‘Gordon Ramsay of the fitness world’ – amassing a significant social media following for his expletive-laden take downs of everything from dodgy fitness influencers to unhelpful health fads. Hell, even Men’s Health has been on the receiving end of the self-proclaimed fitness industry disrupter.
We spoke to the 30-year-old to find out where he thinks we could improve, the bits of wellness BS that piss him off the most and what we can expect from his upcoming speaking tour.
When did you get into the health and fitness industry and why?
I got into becoming a PT when I was 24, so about six years ago. It was something that… You know everyone always has their kind of little teen fitness phase, where they’re like, “Oh my God, if I count my calories I can be less fat. Oh my God, I’m starting to build muscle.” And I really enjoyed that, but I realised on my little journey, that so much of what I was reading and so much of what I was learning about wasn’t really true. And I was like, hold on a second, these were all promising quite a lot, like a tub of branched-chain amino acids promising that I’d get amazing gains.
I started to see some discrepancies between what people were saying and as I discovered – in the two years before becoming a PT – it kind of pissed me off a bit. I developed a bit of a chip on my shoulder, I’d say, because I really could have done with the information in a no nonsense fashion when I was a bit younger. And I then remember being a kid and at school, being in the canteen and asking the dinner ladies what was fattening and what wasn’t and no one could give me a definitive answer. So being a slightly overweight child as well, I think I kind of developed a bit of a chip on my shoulder to misinformation quite early on.
So did you enter the industry with that attitude or did it get stronger over time?
Yes, it probably did get a bit stronger over time. A lot of what I portray now… for the majority of my time as a personal trainer, I was just the PT on the gym floor. So I’ve been only online for about two, two and a half years. I spent nearly four years teaching people in person. There never was that approach, if that makes sense. So I was a friendly personal trainer, where I’d motivate my clients and try and drum things into their heads. But the kind of approach that people are now exposed to on social… I’ve only really started putting stuff out there for the last two years. I’ve not been there with my clients, shouting at them or anything (laughs).
Yeah, good to know (laughs). Leading to that, you’re pretty well known for calling out BS advice and weight loss concepts. When did you start voicing your opinions on that and what prompted it?
Probably about two years ago. It would’ve started off just posting good, informative content and then drilling into people when things were daft. I’ve often jokingly said in some of my videos, if you wouldn’t get your dog doing it I don’t think you should do it. People are going to subject themselves to all these detox teas and I said, “Hold on, if your dog or your nan’s dog wouldn’t, you wouldn’t do it yourself.” Having and developing a bit of a following, it means you get some kind of weight behind what you say. So it was using that while I was like, hold on a second, a lot of other branded influencers can’t say what they want and because I just run my account, I’ve got my own business, I don’t have to keep any sponsors happy. I don’t have to keep any brands happy. I’m not going to have Adidas calling me saying, “All right, take that down.”
I was like, do you know what? I’ve got a voice that’s loud enough now to call out misinformation and literally point the finger to these companies that I feel have got malicious intentions. It wasn’t so much an agenda where I was going, “I can’t wait to get a big following so I can call them out.” It’s more so that I’m in a position now where potentially saying to people, this doesn’t work or this isn’t going to help you, I could reach more people with that message than the company or the product could with theirs.
Are there posts or opinions that have copped the most heat or pushback that you can recall?
I am a bit of a feminist at heart and sometimes I get a bit of pushback where people go, “What do you know? You’re a man.” So sometimes I feel like some people, that rubs them the wrong way, but really as far as getting heat, there’s not one that I can think of in particular. They don’t seem to really get that much negative feedback as what people would think.
What are the myths, misconceptions, or fads that piss you off the most?
Everyone’s got an agenda, whether it’s keto, veganism, fasting protocols, and what annoys me is that there should be enough of a reason to do these things without having to lie to people about it. So, the ketogenic diet, its promise that it’s going to get superior results in a short period of time just factually isn’t true. Or, fasting for certain hours is going to allow you to live longer, now I’ve seen so much mainstream stuff saying, intermittent fasting can help you live longer and that’s not factually correct. Health as a whole is such a subjective thing, it annoys me that people now are saying, “Give up meat and you’ll be healthier.” No one’s asking the questions, “How’s your sleep? How’s your stress? How’s your relationship? How much sunlight do you get? When was the last time you ate vegetables?” If we eradicate meat from someone’s diet, we don’t then actually intrude to the parts that are important, like the sleep and the vegetables. We just eradicate something that wasn’t a problem. When people are like, oh, you need to go keto, you’re taking away carbohydrates that aren’t inherently bad for that person. They’re probably the main ones.
What are the basics you would like men to understand about transforming their bodies?
Well, the first thing would be about setting a realistic expectation. Now, I said this in my interview with Men’s Health before (Ed’s Note: stay tuned for an upcoming feature), is that one of the biggest criticisms I have about Men’s Health is the glorification of physiques that are unobtainable. My first thing, my first conversation I have with men is to set an objective to have an attainable physique. Because unfortunately, without having a dig at 99 per cent of your cover models, most men aren’t going to be able to obtain that because they’ve got real jobs and they don’t get all their meals sent to them for free and they don’t have the external pressures of not getting paid should they not be in shape. That’s my first thing, because taking someone from nought to seven is ultimately going to be better than taking them from nought to 20.
Then, just being active, weight training and monitoring food intake, should they need to. We’re very proactive in balancing our books after we have a big night out or, when we wake up the next day are we’re hungover, we check our balance, what we spent during the night, but we don’t ever think it’s rational to check the amount of calories that we consumed for that week period or whatever, so keeping calories in check, setting protein target, weight training and being active.
What can we expect from your new book and tour?
The reason I call it Not a Diet Book is that I think that there are enough of those out there and I don’t think they’re really helping anyone. The main objective of the book is for everyone to understand that all diets work the same way – by creating a calorie deficit.
Now, I don’t think that people eat too much because they’re gluttonous or they’re lazy or they just love being overweight. I don’t think that’s true. I think there’s a lot of underlying causes that need to be openly discussed. So, sleep and relationships and generally just being happy in your work life. The book really delves into those things and it’s more of a self-help book. It’s more of a self development book on these aspects and is built across all the conversations that I’ve had with clients over the years, but weren’t to do with their lifting. And it wasn’t to do with the vegetable intake or their protein targets. It’s about how they were with their partner at home, how their relationship is. It talks about sex, it talks about the importance of sleep and how that plays into then your sex life and then your muscle mass and then all these areas that people don’t think about but need to be discussed.
James Smith’s debut book ‘Not a Diet Book’ is out January 20, 2020 via Harper Collins Australia. Head to MJRpresents.com for more information about his speaking tour.