We can’t handle the facts if we can’t define our terms. A frequent mode of bullshit in the fitness and wellness industry is shifting definitions and plastic terms. A term that morphs depending on the whim of a speaker is not a very useful one. Here, we are dealing with semantics.
Language can be so subtle it’s downright frustrating. So frustrating, in fact, that there comes a point where we just don’t want to be bothered by its nuances. We want broad, sweeping definitions. Hence, the origin of such phrases as “that’s just semantics,” or “you’re arguing semantics.”
When engaged in debates or arguments with members of the fitness and wellness industry, I’ve often had a hard time getting my opponent to agree on a definition for a key term. Without this agreement, fruitful discussion is impossible. They didn’t want to be “bothered” with semantics.
Semantics deals with the meaning of language. Many people would argue that disagreements over the definition of a term, i.e. a semantic argument, is beside the point, off the subject, nitpicking or what have you. If you’re discussing the weather forecast with your next-door neighbor than I’d say semantic arguments are indeed a waste of time. But if you are the person producing that forecast you’d better be precise.
The word semantic comes from the Greek word semantikos, meaning “significant,” which comes from semainos meaning “to signify or indicate.” S,o with semantics we are concerned with the interpretation of symbols. Words are symbols.
A good example of a semantic problem is a favorite word of the health and wellness industries: stress.
While gathering some definitions of stress, I came across the American Institute of Stress website where I encountered a little snafu with the language:
“If you were to ask a dozen people to define stress, or explain what causes stress for them, or how stress affects them, you would likely get 12 different answers to each of these requests. The reason for this is that there is no definition of stress that everyone agrees on, what is stressful for one person may be pleasurable or have little effect on others and we all react to stress differently.“
We Know What Stress Is. As if language weren’t confusing enough, I was shocked by such a claim. We can’t define stress because we can’t agree on what is stressful? I don’t think I could find a more perfect example of grappling with semantics.
It would be difficult to know what led to this confusion, but at a guess, I’d say it is because they were conflating two aspects of stress and trying to stress by stressors.
For some people, a walk in the park is just a walk in the park. For others, it is an invitation to hay fever and an opportunity to deal with a mortal fear of bees. The walk in the park, therefore, becomes a negative stressor. But it is not stress itself. In other words, the bees may cause stress, but they are not themselves stress.
The same semantic quagmire happens in discussions of fitness training. We are told our training is a stress when it is instead a stressor. That is, it is something with which you must deal and the way you deal with it depends on your resources, attitudes, innate capacities, experience, etc. The better your resources, the less stress you encounter.
The idea that we cannot define stress is silly. We know what stress is. It’s the degree of stress and its effect we can’t always pin down.
The problem in the above quote becomes apparent in the last line: “…what is stressful for one person may be pleasurable or have little effect on others and we all react to stress differently.”
No, our reaction to a stressor is itself the stress. We can also react to different kinds of stress so that the stress itself becomes a stressor.
This may sound like “just semantics” but by understanding your training is a stressor you can begin to understand how the way it affects you can be changed or moderated. Rest periods between sets of exercise, for instance, change the stressor. I have read many articles discussing rest periods in a very clinical way depending on the goals of the training. It is true that goals of the training do help determine the appropriate rest periods.
The big factor that is often missing, however, is the recovery. The problem is the misguided notion that you only begin to recover after the workout is over. Understanding that the amount of stress depends on your innate resources for dealing with it should help you to understand that different people have different capacities for immediate metabolic recovery between bouts of strenuous exercise but also that for this to be true recovery must begin immediately and be on-going. The first few seconds after your set you are recovering from that set. How long you rest between sets determines how much recovery between sets. This further determines how “stressful” the training is as well and so how you will recover over the next few days after the workout. This has important implications and it all started with bit of attention to semantics.
We can take this further. Stress is not only caused by physical stressors but by psychological ones and rest periods change our psychological experience of a workout and thus our perception of effort and whether the experience is positive or negative.
When someone accuses you of “arguing semantics” it often indicates their own inability to converse sensibly in a given domain. A semantic argument can often be a very important argument to make. The statement “that’s just semantics” is one of those get-out-of-jail-free cards people use when they find themselves on the run in an argument.
If we cannot decide on the proper definition of a word, and indeed, someone says to you, as has happened to me, “this is my definition,” we simply cannot communicate effectively or make sense out of anything.
Words have meanings. When it comes to fitness and health topics, some of which are in the scientific domain, these meanings are very important. You can’t choose your own and they are not open to discussion.
At the same time, we often run into something called the nominal fallacy. This is the notion that naming something explains it. Similar to the statement that’s just semantics is “that’s just X,” with X being a technical-sounding term. Naming something does not explain it. But often, folks involved in the fitness and wellness industry can name, but not explain. This brings us back to semantics.
When researching fitness, nutrition, or health, pay attention to how technical terms are used and whether a consistent definition is used. When you are unsure about how a term should be properly defined, do further research. This will frequently lead to the discovery of BS.
Much of what seems to be concrete terms in the fitness industry are used in such muddy ways they may appear to have no real meaning. Bullshit often relies on pliable terms and concepts. Usually, all it takes is a bit of research to uncover the deception.
For example, while interval training is very popular, few people actually understand underlying meaning of the term. Instead, it is defined based on its methods.
ShaunT’s Max Interval Training is a great example of this. Maybe you remember seeing commercials or reading the advertising copy. “Max Interval Training turns interval training “right” side up. Instead of going for short bursts of high intensity with long periods of low intensity, we use long periods of high intensity with short periods of low intensity.”
This is absolute hogwash and there is absolutely nothing magical or ingenious about it. But since the fitness industry does such a poor job of defining its terms, thousands of people buy into this kind of BS hook line and sinker.
This is how it works. The inventors of this “training method” have ignored the definition of interval training in general and instead focused on a type of interval training called High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). Most of my readers will have heard of it. This type of interval training specifically calls for periods of work at near maximal or maximal intensity followed by cool down periods of low intensity. So if you are running you would be doing the 50-yard dash followed by a nice long-distance jog, or something to that effect. Intensity can be based on other factors, of course, such as running up a hill.
Due to the popularity and hype concerning HIIT, it has become the epitome of interval training to most people. However, there is a reason it is called high-intensity interval training and not just interval training. Because it calls for near-maximal intensities. Interval training, in general, does not call for any specific intensity level. It is simply a mix of higher and lower intensities. You can mix it up in many different ways and still be doing interval training. The typical modern treadmill will come with several interval programs that give you a mix of speed and incline settings. A proper definition of interval training, therefore, is “an exercise session where the intensity and duration of exercise are consciously alternated between harder and easier work; often used to improve capacity or endurance.”
Given that definition (and I assure you it’s accurate) it would be hard to invent some newfangled way of interval training and take the world by storm. You can see that it is not a method of training but a type or style of training. HIIT is more of a method based on this style of training. Since HIIT is widely known as a style but interval training is not well known as a concept, Max Interval Training looks different enough to attract plenty of devotees even though the way it is described is complete bunk.
Volume and intensity are inversely related. There is a reason that we don’t normally do very high intensities for five entire minutes during our interval training. Because it’s impossible. You can’t work at a “very high intensity” for that long. The longer the duration the lower the intensity. When we speak of intensity, we have to qualify it. Although Max Interval Training it is “more max” in terms of time period it is “less max” in terms of intensity. This does not mean that the human body cannot be trained to perform at higher intensities for longer periods of time than the norm but that there is always a limit.
The 4-minute mile is a famous boundary for a reason. Think about those few who have managed a 4-minute mile. Now think about yourself doing your high intensity for five minutes. Unless you are one very elite athlete like those few 4-minute miler your actual intensity will be a bit on the low side. In fact, you will only be at maximal intensity for the first half a minute or so! Your body is incapable of fueling your muscles at the highest intensity of work for a full five minutes. What we have then with Max Interval Training is “five minutes of working hard” followed by a short rest. Wow, call the Nobel Prize people.
While some of what you just read may be new to you, much of it may seem like common sense. Beware of common-sense approaches to fitness! Common sense is another tool of bullshit.