As I was saying in the last section, I once read an article about Romanian deadlifts written by a particularly influential fat loss and fitness internet fitness personality with a reputation for very detailed and scientific explanations. I was bowled over by how useless the article would be for anyone looking to learn the Romanian deadlift. It was not just over-coaching, but akin to a data-dump (more on that later). Not only did this author attempt to cover how to do the exercise, but when and how to use it. He tried to cover every possible scenario imaginable. The result was more complex than some books on physics from the popular press.
Hopefully, this example is jarring. Why is this bullshit? The article may be difficult to understand, but isn’t the author just trying to be thorough? A valid assumption, and a good starting point for challenging yours.
A good fitness article must make assumptions. There, I’ll bet that threw at least some of you. I mean, aren’t the best fitness writers omniscient?
Many members of the fitness industry passionately defend science against anything seen as nonscience, including not only fad diets or dangerous fitness trends, but the practices of seasoned bodybuilders.
There is a tendency to equate critical thinking with single-minded moralizing. Those who vividly express outrage over what they see as wrong actions, in colorful and expressive language, are often mistaken for demonstrating critical thought, when in fact they have entirely failed to think critically at all.
If you have trouble spotting this, just know that such a “thinker” will almost always fail to consider any and all opposing viewpoints, dismissing them out of hand with no logical rebuttal.
Do not mistake moral outrage for critical thinking or scientific thinking.
Refusing to make assumptions but instead trying to cover all the bases can actually do more harm than good. Many writers tend to construct different scenarios in their articles in an effort to discuss every independent variable they can imagine. They seek to achieve impossible perfection and instead of moving from the complex to the simple they make ever more complications! Although this may please the author as an intellectual exercise, to the reader the result is a hodgepodge of intellectual posturing and confusing details.
Let’s suppose that we are answering a direct question. “When should I do my deadlifts? At the beginning of the week or later?”
A good answer would be “It depends.”
I mentioned above independent variables. An independent variable is the one variable that is not dependent on any other variable. And there is only ever one to consider in any discussion.
To answer the question about deadlifts we say it depends. Well, it depends on all the dependent variables. However, the dependent variables depend on what the independent variable is. We decide, in any one discussion, what that will be. The independent variable may be the deadlift. That is the one thing that we control and does not change.
However, by making the deadlift an independent variable we are making an assumption! This is not a controlled scientific experiment, this is a training discussion. What if I asked, “What is your priority?”
You answer, “I really want to bring up my squat.”
At that point, the squat becomes the independent variable. Everything changes.
See how muddy this all gets? What’s more, the dependents do not assume a neat and direct relationship to only the squat. Everything affects everything. Try to follow all the threads and you will not make progress. You will suffer “paralysis by analysis.”
But the key is understanding what assumptions really are. Most people tend to think that assumptions are dogmatic beliefs or expectations based on past experience. The word assume itself is often pejorative. The idea is that we should be aware of our assumptions.
Nothing of the sort. Assumptions are critical. And they are a part of critical thinking. Just about any reasoning must start somewhere! The most oft-stated example is in the Declaration of Independence, by Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
What Jefferson was doing (actually he was paraphrasing another work) was stating a claim without argument. In other words, he held it as reasonable to assert, without any support, that all men are created equal, etc. Notice, though, that he explicitly stated this assumption. The danger is not in making assumptions, but in hiding them, or never being aware of them in the first place.
So, the failure in fitness articles is not making assumptions but failing to name them. And, our assumption is must be reasonable. Someone can reject our assumptions and so reject our entire argument but that does not mean we do not make them in the first place.
The above statement could easily manipulate you. It could, in fact, be bullshit. Language can be used to manipulate, or simply to confuse, in very subtle ways.
Consider the following statement:
“It’s nice and warm outside.”
By saying, “it’s nice outside” we have already made the statement we wish to make. By adding “and warm” we are placing emphasis on our statement, and saying that warm has the connotation of nice. We are not saying that it is nice, and it is also warm. Notice, however, we never say “it is warm and nice outside.”
This is an innocent enough usage and we do it because it is a common idiomatic expression. But…
Now, consider the statement “Let’s get strong, fit, and healthy!”
Think of the different ways this statement can be interpreted, given the first example. How will it most likely be interpreted?
The authors who refuse to make assumptions are authors who simply want you to believe that they know everything that must be known. I think that we can all agree that such a pretense is clearly bullshit. The rub is that in attempting to cover everything that they know, they show how unknown things can be. You do not need to know everything to move toward an answer. You must simply have realistic expectations and take them into account.
For instance, I once wrote a long article on how to achieve your first pullup. Even though the article is long I had to make assumptions to write it. Failing to make those assumptions would have resulted in a very hard to use article and an even longer one as well.
My main assumption in that article was that those using the method were not severely overweight. I mentioned that excessive body-weight was, of course, a big stumbling block for pullups. But I assumed that those attempting to achieve their first pull-up were either not overweight or would be attempting to lose weight. The alternative would be to write a fat loss article. But I was writing an article about how to do your first pull-up from a simple methodological perspective. The other variables that need to be considered to be able to handle your own body-weight are for other articles.
Someone who wanted to cast doubt on my method could, instead of discrediting the method itself, attempt to force me to address further and further variables. This is sometimes called moving the goalpost. The idea here is not to actually answer any questions but to move further away from the central point, ask ever more complex questions and eventually stymie me by reaching a point where my knowledge fails. And on the subject of fat loss, my knowledge would fail sooner rather than later. However, this would in no way discredit my instruction on how to achieve a pullup!
So we must break this down to simple ways to spot bad fitness articles:
1. Author refuses to make assumptions but rather moves a simple question or subject to ever more complex areas of investigations.
2. Author makes assumptions but fails to clearly name them in the article.
3. Author makes unreasonable assumptions.
The last needs a bit more explanation. Unreasonable assumptions are those that the author, nor anybody else can garner from past experience or knowledge. Unreasonable assumptions, at their extreme, are just ridiculous statements. In an article, they become like the pink elephant in the room. Learn to be the first person to acknowledge them.
A great example comes from Pavel Tsatsouline. I’ve mentioned this one several times because it is such an outrageous assumption. Pavel said everybody has the strength to lift a car; their muscles just don’t know it yet. After a statement like that, it really doesn’t matter what follows.
Another gem comes from Charles Poliquin when he stated that women with belly button piercings will not be able to lose weight because the piercings interfere with electrical signals in their bodies! Now that is an unreasonable assumption! An assumption, of course, may also be considered a premise. We’ll get into that later.
So, our assumptions, of course, must be reasonable. In regards to written information about fitness and its related domains, our assumptions are often about our intended audience. For example, in Fitness For Dummies, the broad assumption of the authors is that “you want to get fit.” 1Schlosberg, Suzanne, and Liz Neporent. Fitness for Dummies. Wiley, 2011. Examining this assumption could help us figure out whether the book is right for us or not. Sure, you may want to get fit, but are their other valid assumptions the authors could have made about you? Are you a complete novice? Do you have particular interests concerning fitness? If so, such a book may be too basic for you. I’ve made assumptions about my intended audience for this book, as well. I assume that you have some basic knowledge of fitness, for instance. After all, this would be a very different book if I assumed my readers had no knowledge of fitness at all.
The above example about the Romanian deadlift article may come down to overcomplicating the subject. Therefore, I think this is a good time to think of as elegant solutions.
A very complex and wordy solution to a problem may appear to be elegant but it is in fact the opposite. We often hear that we should “keep it simple.” That is good advice. It really is. As you read this, it may seem to come down to a fancy way of saying keep it simple. Well, many of today’s “simple” strength training or fitness programs have scooted past simple and sat down hard on simplistic. So, I want to say before I even begin, that elegant solutions, which I am talking about here, are not the same thing as simplistic solutions! We’re trying to take out the complications, not to prove how very simple it all is.
Physicists often talk about “elegant theories.” What is an elegant theory? It is often defined as a theory that contains the least number of basic concepts but still “works.” It has been compared to a computer program: The most elegant program is the one that contains the least bits, but still produces the desired output.
Although we certainly couldn’t and don’t need to ever know for sure our “theories” are elegant, we should learn from this concept. The more basic concepts you need to bring into the “equation” to help someone with fat loss, strength training, etc. the less elegant it becomes. If, instead, all these other related concepts can be said to be important only in how they relate to this…this may be unclear. Let me try to illustrate:
What if you had a problem in your deadlift and I gave you a long set of instructions to correct this? Every one of these instructions is designed to address a certain distinct (seeming) problem or concept and correct it. Would this be of help to you? What if the problem was a simple-seeming problem with your deadlift set-up or execution? And so, to solve this, I gave you a complex set of instructions. Let’s call these instructions a program that, when executed by you, should produce the desired output. Usually, these programs contain lists of things not only TO do but also things NOT to do. Such a program is very long and contains a lot of information. It is much MORE information than is necessary and thus makes solving your problem by running this program a very inefficient process.
What should I have done? I should have sought a more elegant solution. The elegant solution would contain very little instruction. A very clear, easily executed, and simple, program. But when this was done, all the seemingly separate problems would iron themselves out.
Fitness trainer Randy Gruezo, who gave me an example of a very simple and elegant “program” that he might use to help with squats: “I say I can’t see the emblem on your shirt. Pretend you have a mirror in front of you and you want to see the emblem.”
I cannot attest to how well this program works, simply because it is not one of my programs, and I can only attest to what I have seen at work (this is called intellectual honesty if you want to know), but what he is doing is giving the simplest cue he can to provide the biggest output possible. THIS is good strength training instruction. This is how coaching really works. Often we see fitness or strength articles that start with a very simple question or problem and move ever outwards towards more and more complexity. The best information tends to take the other direction. Start with the problem, examine all the complexities (and discuss them, hopefully), and move towards the simplest, and therefore most elegant, solution. Some of the biggest bullshiters in fitness, on the other hand, depend on what many would consider, as I mentioned above, a data dump.
Resources [ + ]
|1.||↲||Schlosberg, Suzanne, and Liz Neporent. Fitness for Dummies. Wiley, 2011.|