Fitness if full of common sense approaches. What people call common sense produces much of the world’s bullshit.
Common sense, itself, is hard to define. It may not actually exist in the way we think it does. Yet, since most people think rational thought and indeed, critical thinking is just applying a healthy dose of common sense to everything, we have to deal with it. Let’s use a working definition: Common sense is what most people understand by virtue of having grown to adulthood and having experienced their world.
Given this definition, we can certainly defend common sense! Don’t play in traffic. Don’t run toward the sound of gunfire. Don’t touch a hot stove. Common sense tells you all of that. Common sense may also tell you that in order to run the longest distance possible, you have to slowly add distance to your run.
Here’s the problem. Common sense may also tell you to just suck it up and run twenty miles. After all, stick-to-it-ness and perseverance are also based on common sense.
As well, common sense should tell you that giant metal tubes weighing 50 tons should not be able to fly through the sky. It should also tell you that if something were harmful, they wouldn’t allow it to be sold. That giant airliners can fly seems improbable. Yet it is not. That those pills you are taking are actually poison also seems improbable. It is, although not impossible.
Values are at the heart of the majority of debates in the fitness industry. One difference between the scientific world and the fitness world is that science deals with facts and evidence. The fitness world deals not only with facts but with values. Let me explain.
When we discuss fitness practices, nutrition, fat loss, and anything in the greater fitness world, there are many different kinds of statements we can make. But two basic kinds of statements we can make are factual statements and value statements.
If I define what a calorie is, I am making a factual statement about calories. If I tell you what you should or should not eat, I am making a value statement. This value statement is also known as a prescriptive statement. It is also a non-empirical statement, meaning it cannot be tested empirically.
Many circles in the fitness industry have norms of behaviors. These are practices that most members of these circles see as acceptable. Prescriptive statements are statements about what you should do, or what you ought to do. Many non-empirical statements take this form. Think also of statements about “what the government should do.”
We assign negative or positive values to every practice. This means we are saying that they are good or bad, right or wrong.
Here is the problem. We normally do NOT verify these statements in the same way as statements of fact.
Let’s say you are shopping for a car. We can say that car A is better than car B because of reliability and gas mileage. But, we have just revealed that we value gas mileage and reliability. Are there other factors or characteristics we can use to evaluate whether one car is better than another? Of course. And if we switch to those values, another car becomes a better choice, and we are still dealing with a prescriptive (though non-moral) statement.
So, in order to “verify” or accept the non-empirical statement, “you should buy this car” we use certain over-riding non-empirical premises such as “a car with lower gas mileage is better,” or “reliability is very important.”
So, again, the problem is that we do not assess these statements in the same way as we assess statements of fact. We start with our norms, or standards, which are based on values as much as anything else, and we end up there again, with values. Now, you’ll begin to realize how few factual statements typical fitness information actually contains!
Common sense will tend to tell you one of two things: Something is improbable or something is likely. Here’s the problem: Common sense tends to always tell us one or the other of these extremes. It is not hard to understand conspiracy theorists when you think of it that way. While common sense is pulling us toward one or another extreme, critical thinking is how we learn to achieve balance. This requires a conscious investment of time and effort. Moreover, this effort must be properly focused. Remember, conspiracy theorists put a lot of time and effort into investigating their pet theories. They are not, however, engaging in critical thought.
The other problem with common sense is that it often seems more profound and sage than it is. One person I can always depend on to dispense what seems to be common sense is Coach Scott Abell. For this passage, I took a glance at his Facebook page and used the first post I came across, which says, “Proactive is always better than reactive.”
Doesn’t that seem sensible? It’s common sense! It’s always better to be prepared and to plan for things before they happen. What sage advice!
Or is it? Is being proactive always better than reactive? Can we actually plan for everything? Do we, in fact, have enough data to do so? If proactive was always better, where would that leave us? Couldn’t it be debilitative and restricting to always be proactive?
Let’s consider performance training of any kind, including strength training. Can you plan out all your training in advance, without actually engaging in training so that you have data and feedback to react to? If you are going for a personal record in the weight room, how do you know how much to put on the bar? That is, can you always be proactive? NO, you cannot because you are not clairvoyant. If you try to plan for things with no data, your plan will likely fail. Sometimes, reactive is better. I’ve often said that good training is always somewhat reactive.
Sometimes, people with deep anxiety issues are so proactive that it becomes unhealthy. Obsessive-compulsive disorders with conditions like germophobia, for example, are accompanied by a host of proactive behaviors!
Oddly enough, this quote from Abell could teach us a lesson about common sense. If common sense, as I stated, is something learned from experience, then what happens when someone is faced with a brand new situation? Common sense would fail in such a situation. In order to adapt, we must react sensibly, and this entails being able to view information critically, rather than based on common sense rules-of-thumb. We cannot prepare fully prepare for experiences we have never encountered. If you’ve never run twenty miles, no matter how much you plan, it is a new experience with its own unique challenges. Let’s say you have planned, proactively, how to pace yourself during the run. Likely, if you were unable to adapt and change your pace properly based on how you felt during the actual run, you may fail to reach your target distance.
For another example, let’s suppose you are engaged in a grueling session of resistance training where you planned to only rest 1:30 minutes after each set. After your next to last set, you are so fatigued you are afraid you might hurt yourself during the last set. Common sense will not tell you what to do and your proactive plan has no contingency. You will have to quickly think through your choices. You could rest a bit longer or you could do fewer reps, for example. If you were too fatigued, you could choose to skip the last set altogether. No amount of planning can ever replace thinking on your feet!
I often have to face such decisions during heavy lifts because of my lower back issues. If my lower back starts “acting up” if have to rely on previous experience to decide how to proceed and whether to proceed. I’ve developed my own common sense about these incidents, and this would absolutely of no value to another person! At times, the condition of my back is not always so clear-cut. There exist gray areas where I may or may not be able to work through the pain or discomfort and forge ahead without further aggravating my back or being faced with a few days of discomfort afterward.
Although my lower back injury has been much worse in the past, it’s been with me for decades in some form. If I wish to get stronger on the deadlift or squat, I have to do it knowing that my back will continue to be an issue. I have to think critically in order to make sound decisions concerning this problem. I can plan for certain things, and I can react to certain things, but in both cases, common sense is of no value.
Those who know me and my approach to my own training are sometimes amazed at my objectivity. Although this itself is a skill that requires hard work to achieve, part of it is because I refuse to be a part-time skeptic. I am skeptical even about my conclusions concerning my own training! In order to truly think skeptically, we must learn to think objectively.
An online fitness forum user asks: “Should I start with overhead squats or back squats.”
Answer from an influential forum member: “They’re essentially the same. Just bar position is different. Start with back squats to learn the movement.”
Question from OP: “Do you do overhead squats?”
Answer from an influential forum member: “No.”
The term ‘bar position’ in strength training and bodybuilding circles, sounds fancy enough and technical enough to lend status to the answer. The bullshit should be clear, however, the person answering the question had no experience with overhead squats. Just one further question should have exposed the BS to the OP.
Just because different exercises seem the same superficially doesn’t mean they are the same. Experienced coaches know that the back squat will not prepare one for overhead squats, although the overhead squat will help prepare you for back (barbell) squats. It’s a LITTLE bit more than bar-position. But to a novice that is a new term and it seems knowledgeable.
Bar position, as lingo, refers primarily to the barbell back squat. The bar can rest in slightly different positions based on your shoulders based on preference or other criteria. If the bar is high up in the shoulders, against the neck, this is called a ‘high bar’ squat. If it is lower down, closer to the spine of the scapula (but still on the shoulders) this is a low bar squat. Most people will tend to squat with the bar somewhere between these two extremes. These seemingly small differences can create significant changes mechanically. A low bar squat causes a trainee to squat with more forward torso lean, while a high bar squat causes a more upright squat. This is caused by the interplay between the body’s center of gravity (or mass) and the lever arm created between the hips and the weight, together with the load on the bar. Many people do not realize that increasing load also changes the mechanics of a lift!
The mistake the forum guru made in the above exchange was in thinking that ‘bar position’ was a more powerful explanatory term than it is. Ignored was the huge increase in the ‘lever arm’ and the added challenge of stabilizing the weight in an overhead position while squatting, not to mention the challenge of bringing the bar to the correct position in the first place, and keeping it there. All squats are a delicate interplay between stability and mobility. The overhead squat, even more so. The only way to really know and understand the overhead squat, other than a shallow intellectual way, is to have experienced it and coached it.