Large social media followings are often dismissed as the domain of sleazy fitness influencers. But like it or not, human brains see following size as a metric of credibility in our world. We have 2 choices. Pointlessly complain about people with large followings who share bad information or learn how reputable fitness professionals built their following and better compete for eyeballs.

Some coaches see social media as time away from coaching and selling out to aim for quick dollars online. Others fall into the classic Aesop’s Fable trap of sour grapes, dismissing a large following as silly or without value because they’ve failed to achieve it or found it too difficult.

Despite the prevalence of these attitudes, some of the most reputable names and respected leaders in the fitness industry have grown large followings without selling out their integrity.  Legendary gym owner and fitness educator Joe DeFranco has 145,000 followers in Instagram, powerlifter and gym equipment engineer Chris Duffin has 281,000, while nutrition and fitness educator Sohee Lee boasts 639,000 followers. Many like Jordan Syatt(970,000) spent years producing long form articles, YouTube videos, podcasts, and otherwise contributing to the fitness industry and mainstream education before seeing a surge in social media following. Onlookers often misattribute success to social media growth, when instead the inverse relationship is most often true. Social media growth results from industry success. (Instagram following totals have been updated to current as of 2024 numbers, as this article was originally published in 2020).

2020 saw the acceleration of the online migration trend. A global pandemic highlighted the value of having a strong online presence. This means not only having a website but an active and engaged social media presence to funnel followers to your long form work and convert them to online clients. Referrals and word of mouth can carry a local in-person business forever. They’re crucial for online success, but a strong social media brand allows exponential access to potential customers.

Here are 6 stories of how successful fitness industry coaches built their Instagram followings, why they did it, how a large following has benefitted them, and their advice to coaches seeking to follow this same path.

Meghan Callaway

Coach, writer, creator of The Ultimate Pull-Up Program, owner of fluffy Erick. 266,000 followers.

Why did you feel it was important to build a social media following?

For several reasons. I wanted a platform where I could share my content, and somewhere where I could educate, empower, and inspire trainees, and also coaches. I wanted to create a very inclusive and safe space for people to learn, and to feel inspired with their own training and/or coaching.

While I only share fitness content on my page, in my Instagram story I also share a LOT of photos and videos of my cats as I love animals, and want to ‘’keep it real.’’

While this was not my initial objective, I also realized that my Instagram audience is a huge source of my business. Whether it’s purchasing my products, or seeking out my online services, my Instagram audience is very loyal, and is a huge part of my business. I value my followers a lot, and I think this is pretty apparent.

Also, something very cool about my audience is that it is very diverse. People of all genders, races, backgrounds, fitness levels, ages, etc., are following me. In terms of ‘’stats,’’ it’s nearly a 50/50 split between women and men. I also have a lot of coaches who follow me. In fact, many of my coaching clients and product customers are coaches.

What common misconceptions do people have about how you grew your following?

I am not sure if there are many common misconceptions. Most people recognize that I grew my following and brand by consistently providing high-quality content, and always taking the time to engage with the people on my page. This is very important to me. I strongly believe that if you put in the time, consistently produce high quality work, and help people realize how important they are, you will be recognized and rewarded. While I am not saying there’s anything wrong with doing this, I would never ask people to promote or share my work. I feel that if my work is worth promoting, people will do so without my having to ask. So I never do.

Did you do anything unconventional in your social media activity that led to growth?

I don’t think so. I don’t have many special secrets. Over the past year, many of my posts exploded and brought me hundreds (some close to a thousand) of new followers at a time. Many of my posts have been saved or shared thousands of times. So this certainly helps.

Also, some people with huge audiences recognized the quality of my content, and shared my posts. Others made posts where they told people to follow me. This definitely led to a surge in new followers.

I guess one of my ‘’secrets’’ is to get people to feel REALLY excited about training. I want people to love training, and to feel excited and empowered. I think this is a talent and gift I possess, and is something that sets me apart from many others in the industry. As a result, I am constantly being tagged in videos, photos, and people are constantly talking about my exercises, and also my products. This leads to a tremendous amount of free marketing, and people will keep hearing about me even if they don’t want to 😂.

How have you benefitted from and leveraged your larger social media following?

My online business has dramatically improved, especially during the pandemic, and I largely attribute this to my very loyal and awesome audience on Instagram. All of my products are doing amazingly well, and my online coaching business has grown a lot. I am working with the most amazing clients, and many found me via Instagram as they’d been following me, and they decided they wanted to work with me.

Whether my audience was at 5k followers, and now close to 50k followers, I have not done anything differently. Really, it is just more of the same. Being consistent with my content, caring about people, getting people excited about training, and creating a safe and inclusive space for everybody. This is my formula.

What would you say to someone who wants to build following but has been struggling?

I just wrote a blog post titled: Get Better Results On Instagram: 10 Common Sense Tricks That Are Often Overlooked. I plan on releasing this blog once I hit 50k followers.

In short, people need to produce high quality content that works for their audience, and they need to do so consistently (no, you don’t need to share 3 posts per day). Quality trumps quantity, but the content needs to be delivered at least several days per week (don’t worry if you can’t post daily). Also, people need to realize the results won’t happen overnight. It will likely take months, or even years of hard work. Many people are impatient and give up prematurely.

Susan Niebergall

Online weight loss coach, co-coach of The Inner Circle, strong and shredded at 60 years old. 176,000 followers

Why did you feel it was important to build a social media following?

For someone like me, social media can be an intimidating place. It’s not something I grew up with, and it seems to be packed with people substantially younger than me. But I also saw very quickly that it was a great place to connect and help more people, which has been my objective all along.

Building a social media presence has allowed me to spread the message that it’s never too late to change your life in whatever way you want.

What common misconceptions do people have about how you grew your following?

I think there are people who think I must have bought most of my following. There are many companies that will be happy to help build your following with fake followers for a price, but I had no interest in that, nor did I even understand how that would even work.

I think so many people who are trying to build their following get frustrated because it doesn’t happen fast enough. They expect posting fairly regularly a few times a week should bring substantial growth. It’s very similar to how people feel about losing weight. A few good days and the scale hasn’t moved. WTH? But the reality is, it took me years of consistent effort to build my following.

Did you do anything unconventional in your social media activity that led to growth?

I have not done anything unconventional to grow my following. Just hard work day in and day out for years. The unsexy truth.

What were the major reasons you were able to build your following? 

Posting every day, sometimes 2-3 times a day with content that will help people. Not booty pics, or anything similar, just posting content that will help people solve a problem. Interacting in the comments of my posts, answering DMs, using IG Stories (and now REELS) has also been helpful in growing an audience. I feel like this is how you build trust within your audience.

How have you benefitted from and leveraged your larger social media following

The benefit for me has always been about spreading a message. The larger the following, the more people can benefit from my message of It’s “Never Too Late”, and the more people can change their life for the better, which is my ultimate goal.

Matthew Ibrahim

Co-owner and director of strength and conditioning at TD Athletes Edge, Adjunct Professor, Ph.D. student, prolific content creator. 32,800 followers.

Why did you feel it was important to build a social media following?

Education. Nothing trumps simple and digestible education that gets spread out to the masses for better health and performance results. I noticed a gap in the field on social media, especially on Instagram, where millions of people around the world were on there but weren’t sure how to properly navigate. There are tons of “fitness influencers” flashing a six-pack, a big butt, or even a 21-day detox. Unfortunately, the majority of these folks are snake oil salesmen. However, there aren’t many social media accounts out there pumping out simple and digestible content for free that is both educational and informative on a consistent basis. My intent was to become a part of this positive change.

What common misconceptions do people have about how you grew your following?

Everyone assumes that people with a solid following and audience used a cheat code to get there. Sure, do these type of people exist? Of course. However, there still are good, honest people out there who do their best to come across as real and authentic. There are professionals in our field whose growth occurs organically and naturally because what they have to say is important and people believe in their message.

Did you do anything unconventional in your social media activity that led to growth?

Adapt. Similar to the weight room and in the kitchen, we all must adapt if the goal is to see results. I follow and study people who are doing great things on social media because success leaves clues. I take notice of trends and patterns and do my best to continually keep my content and message clear. Making changes over time is simply a part of the process. Knowing your audience is crucial as well. You must know who you’re speaking to if your goal is to gather their attention.

What were the major reasons you were able to build your following?

I would attribute this to keeping it simple. My ultimate goal is to provide educational content in small, bite-sized pieces to my audience. In doing so, this increases the likelihood of people coming back since the content is digestible, and most importantly, applicable. Training and exercise are simple. However, the application of them is not. Knowing the ‘why’ and the ‘when’ is just as important, if not more important, than the ‘what’. The hope is that my content hits on all three areas: what it is; why I should be doing it; and when it would be best to do.

How have you benefitted from and leveraged your larger social media following?

The only benefit I can see is that my message is viewed by a larger audience that grows each day. However, I don’t see this as an ego-booster. If you’re someone with an ego, I suggest you switch fields. Rather, I view this as an opportunity to win you (the consumer) over with my message and my delivery. I want you to become a better, stronger overall version of yourself. If even one of my posts helps you at some point along your training journey, then that would ultimately make my day.

What would you say to someone who wants to build a following but has been struggling?

Keep your head down and keep working. Overnight success doesn’t exist, regardless of your field of work. Ask any successful business owner, entrepreneur, or strength coach how long they’ve been in the game, and it’s likely that their response is much longer than you think. I started coaching in 2008. I spent 5 years learning, growing, and developing. Then, 5 years later I joined Instagram on June 29, 2013. It’s now been 7+ years on here, and I’m still struggling, learning, and evolving. Let all of that sink in.

Lee Boyce, trainer

Internationally published writer, adjunct professor, speaker, not an influencer. 43,600 followers

Why did you feel it was important to build a social media following?

I think it was important to build a social media “following” because this is the clear direction that fitness  (and many other forms of business) seems to be taking. Staying abreast with technology and making sure your message lands where the eyes and ears are is paramount.

What common misconceptions do people have about how you grew your following?

As far as misconceptions go, most people likely think that my following on social media came from me putting myself in people’s faces. I grew my following organically, and very carefully too. I am a bit fastidious when it comes to making sure my content is consumed by the right people, and few robots or trolls.

Did you do anything unconventional in your social media activity that led to growth?

My social media is about as raw as it gets – nothing unconventional really contributed to my growth. I will say, making weekly recurring posts for consistency helped (like my Tall Guy Tuesdays), and also the articles I share on social media, not only for my own blog, but also for big publications definitely helps drive traffic my way.

What were the major reasons you were able to build your following?

The most major reason I was able to build my following comes from the fact that I put my head down and grind – I focus on quality content in the form of my articles and media, and let people decide for themselves if it’s worth the follow. It’s paying off now, but especially on Twitter and Facebook, it took a number of years to grow without forcing it.

How have you benefitted from and leveraged your larger social media following?

I haven’t leveraged my following in any way so far, as I haven’t released any products. It has, however, helped put my name out there in a virtual space – there are only select audiences who read articles, especially depending on the publication. But everyone uses instagram. That presence is a game changer and has even led to some opportunities in the spaces of speaking, more writing, and collaborations.

What would you say to someone who wants to build a following but has been struggling?

For those struggling, I’d encourage them to stay focused on creating and sharing quality content, CONSISTENTLY. If a viewer begins to rely on you as a source of these things, your credibility will improve, and people will pay attention. You can’t take hiatuses from doing so. Stay focused and be intent on getting something substantive out each day.

Gareth Sapstead

The Fitness Maverick, trainer, author, 108,000 followers.

Why did you feel it was important to build a social media following?

Truth be told I didn’t. Relative to how long the likes of Facebook and instagram have been around I’ve been an extremely late adopter. In fact, I’d had a research paper and my first book deal all published before I even had a Facebook account. At that point Facebook had already been around for about 6-7 years. Then instagram I got in 2014.

My biggest mistake was NOT adopting social media and underestimating its importance. It was only when a friend almost had me in a James Bond-like torture chair scene that I finally got on social media.

It all boils down to this for me: You have to follow the attention to be seen and gain credibility. Since a lot of people’s attention is on social media right now then you need to be producing great content to put in front of them.

What common misconceptions do people have about how you grew your following?

That I know what I’m doing. Any large periods in growth on my instagram account especially have been during periods of time where I’ve not concerned myself with things like “hacking the algorithm”. The more time you spend thinking about this stuff the more you realize there are no “secrets”. Sure, good PR companies help celebrities boost their followings fast, but as coaches and trainers we just need to focus on the skills and people we do have access to. Just create good content that people like, save and share with their friends and you’ll gain their attention.

Did you do anything unconventional in your social media activity that led to growth?

Nothing unconventional per se. But the simple act of adding ONE call to action on a post makes a big difference. Just give people one thing you want them to do at the start or finish of your post. Don’t get them to do a bunch of things (“like, share, subscribe and then check out my website”) or they won’t do any.

What were the major reasons you were able to build your following?

The more I gradually transitioned into the online training space the more time I had to create content. As my content was recognized by some accounts with large followings and shared, I then gained some of those followers. Again, just create good content. Even better if that content is directed towards a certain person. 

How have you benefitted from and leveraged your larger social media following?

I largely use social media as the beginning of my “funnel”. If folks like what they see then they get the more in depth information off my website. Or, if they find my information helped them and they want more direct and personal help from me then they’ll visit one of my coaching or products pages.

What would you say to someone who wants to build following but has been struggling?

Quality over quantity. The video or picture captures the attention but it’s your writing that pulls them in – Learn how to write to get your message across, and build a (quality) audience that know, like and trust you.

Sam Spinelli

Dr. Physical Therapy, certified strength and conditioning coach, cofounder of Citizen Athletics, cofounder of E3Rehab, husband and father. 400,000 followers

Why did you feel it was important to build a social media following?

I started sharing content online to connect with other coaches at first. It was a way to discuss exercises, methods, principles and grow my network. Over time I realized the potential it had for business growth and started to work more towards development than just networking.

What common misconceptions do people have about how you grew your following?

Three big misconceptions are the rate of growth, the technology for content creation, and concern for sharing content.

People think my channel exploded quickly, but in reality it took a year of really consistent (almost daily) posting to gain even just a few thousand followers. It was frustrating at times seeing how slow it was growing, but it eventually started to uptick in growth. After being really consistent for three years people started to think it happened over night and I just “got lucky” with an algorithm.

I often get asked about what camera I film with, what software I edit with, what app I use to find hashtags, etc. When I first started I used an old used iPhone 4 when the iPhone 7 was coming out and kept using that phone for the first two years. I edited my videos by using a couple free apps and combing them for what I liked because I had no money to invest in it yet, and I just searched for the hashtags and other possible things to help it grow with my downtime and try to actually learn the app well. Now I have an iPhone 10, a fancy mirrorless camera, lighting and a whole production, but it didn’t come until about until less than a year ago!

Sometimes people think I bought followers, or paid for advertising, but I never went down that road. Similarly people think I only shared my content, but in reality I frequently shared others content (with permission). I started with a huge aim of networking, and I didn’t want it to seem like I was afraid to share others work in fear of them gaining followers, or business. Instead, sharing other people’s work was a great way for me to show my appreciation for others, highlight content that people made that was incredible, and connect with them even further. Over time this lead to me making more and more connections which allowed my business to grow even better.

Did you do anything unconventional in your social media activity that led to growth?

In the last question I mentioned the networking side of things, which I think is really underrated and unfortunately is “unconventional.” People are so worried about “losing” followers to others or not appearing as the sole expert on topics, but in reality that’s not what happens when you share others content.

In the early time of my channel, I started to do series on different topics, such as 28 days of hips, where I connected with a ton of different coaches/clinicians and asked them to contribute content to the project and I’d share it, share their pages, and pump them for helping out with it. That lead to me growing close with many of those people, as well as many sharing the posts and projects to their communities which allowed me to grow even further.

What were the major reasons you were able to build your following?

When I talk to people new to this I tell them the critical factors in growth are: consistency, effort, aesthetics, and time.

If you are haphazard with it, posting once this week, once next month, twice a week after, etc. you’ll get lost in the shuffle. You don’t need to post daily, twice a day, etc but you better be posting 2-3 times a week minimum if you want it to grow.

The effort that goes into your posts shows. You can just put up a random picture and it might do well, but it likely won’t. If you haven’t taken time to plan it out, ensure your video/picture/graphic lines up with your description, market, etc. you’ll drop off. You have to decide if it’s something you want to see grow and invest some sweat equity in, do it, or just hope you get lucky at some point and people randomly decide you’re amazing without any reason to do so.

We live in a world of aesthetics. This doesn’t mean you need to have a 6 pack and post half naked picture, but it does mean you need to consider how our brain functions. The angles you take pictures and videos to show things, the colour schematic of pictures and videos (don’t wear black clothes against a black wall), etc play into whether you stand out in the noise.

The last detail is time. Let’s say you do the above and are crushing them but you give up after a few months, well you may not see it pay off. I mentioned above my first 2-3 years didn’t gain a ton of traction, but that drastically changed in years 3-4. I ground it out and was patient and it paid off. It’s a common trend for other big channels I know.

How have you benefitted from and leveraged your larger social media following?

My business – both in-person and online – has grown fairly steadily along with my social media presence. I’ve moved around every few years due to different in-person work opportunities and life changes across the years and my online presence has made re-starting, building up my coaching roster much easier. Venturing into a new market with a large social media presence has given more “credibility” to the average consumer and more confidence that I’m superior in my knowledge and skill than most coaches.

As well, from having a social media following I’ve been able to gain more traction as a presenter and leader in the field. Over time I’ve been offered speaking opportunities at events and conferences that I had previously attended and dreamed of presenting at.

What would you say to someone who wants to build following but has been struggling?

Evaluate how seriously you’re taking it and if that needs to change. If you decide it’s important, get ready to put in the time and energy to make it grow – otherwise re-evaluate. Network, connect with other coaches, see how you can help them, learn from them, and put in the time and effort to build relationships. Get consistent, learn the aesthetic side of things (there is tons of free content online about it) and chip away at progressing. Finally, set realistic expectations – not everyone will grow a huge following, but you can grow to more than you currently have and increase your business.

Sam, Meghan, Gareth, Susan, Matthew, and Lee are all examples of how to build a large social media following with integrity and high quality information. You’ll notice a lot of common threads melded among unique traits and approaches. There is no dishonour in wanting to build a large following and help as many people as possible with your ideas. Developing a strong social media brand is an excellent exercise in discipline, creativity, consistency, and patience investing in something that will take a long time to manifest. Meanwhile, go follow all 6 of my friends if you want to learn in real time how to grow, engage, and help your following.

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Article by Clare Hudson

First published: May 30 2024

Last updated: July 02 2024