In the last section, I called this a fundamental thinking skill. It may seem trivial at first glass but it is basic to any analysis. Its lack is also fundamental to bullshit: Comparing and contrasting. You should never see one without the other! You may remember having to “compare and contrast” in school. It was an important writing and thinking exercise. Comparing and contrasting is also one of the main focuses of the fitness industry, especially in regards to exercises and programs.
Often, when fitness professionals are trying to sell us their ideas about a superior exercise or program, they pretend to be comparing and contrasting, but they are actually almost exclusively contrasting. Focusing on one or two small differences while ignoring the many similarities between two things is a form of dishonesty. In practice, contrasting is done the majority of the time, and most fitness professionals hardly ever actually compare! Good critical thinking stresses comparison as much as contrasting.
The difference between comparing and contrasting different exercises and programs for fitness is an important consideration when evaluating fitness information. The fitness industry is about the selling of not only gym memberships and equipment, but information, such as programs, books, and articles about getting in shape as well as what exercises to do to achieve your health and fitness goals, and, of course, to lose weight.
Fitness training, strength training, or muscle building is a transaction. In this transaction, you are actually allowed to get what you want. You see, you’re mother may have steered you wrong. She told you to always be able to compromise! The fitness industry steers you wrong as well.
The idea we must always reach a compromise is a common fallacy of thought. People overgeneralize the appropriateness of compromise. Compromise is about what people want and what they get. So when we have a list of wants that differs from what another individual we are involved with wants each of us must be willing to give a little to get a little. In this way, we don’t get everything we want but we come up with a mutually beneficial and fair solution. This is a compromise.
On the other hand, if your buddy wants to throw a rock through your neighbor’s window and you do not, you are not required to reach a compromise whereby you agree to only soap the windows instead. Your buddy is wrong and you need to have the backbone to tell him so and walk away. Don’t let him bully you.
Fitness is a similar transaction. Since many, if not most, members of the fitness industry are not qualified to dispense individualized advice, they blindly misunderstand the nature of compromise and teach their clients that they must make false compromises. This allows a client’s training, and his trainer, to “bully” him and usually, this means that some or several parts of the training run roughshod over the client.
There is no better example than the back squat. Known widely as “the king of lifts,” the back squat has become the proverbial playground bully.
Part of strength training is to prioritize certain lifts at certain times. This means that other lifts may have to be set on maintenance. Maintenance involves cutting down the volume and frequency of those lifts so that maximal ability can be maintained within a certain range. This actually not as complicated as it seems. Most trainees overestimate the amount of training needed to maintain maximal ability. But putting most of your training emphasis into one or two lifts is often seen as extreme. On the other hand, having 20 exercises per workout is the opposite extreme. I’ve done both, joyfully and successfully.
The false compromise says that the middle path must be the correct way to go and that several, but not too many, lifts should be trained with equal emphasis. This is based on the assumption that a middle ground between two perceived extremes is the appropriate course by default. Not analysis is given of the actual viewpoints those extremes represent. The problem with this middle position, however, is that while it says that all the lifts should be trained “up front” at once, each of the lifts is viewed through a different lens, so that certain lifts are viewed as more superior, or more debilitating, etc. depending on who you talk to.
Usually, lifts such as the back squat are viewed as essential at all times. In fact, the purported properties of the lift are downright magical. Many gurus teach that the squat actually helps your deadlift but not vice versa, for instance. With this sort of nonsense at play, strength training becomes squat training.
There IS no essential strength training lift. None. There is no exercise that we cannot do without. It should be easy to see, then, that there is no exercise that cannot be put on the back burner because we choose to focus on another.
You will never make better progress on your deadlift, for instance, than when you back off on the barbell squat. You may find that the reputation of the deadlift being so murderous on the lower back has as much to do with it being viewed through a back squat lens. Why wouldn’t the deadlift seem to be tough on your lower back when it’s surrounded by heavy back squatting at a ratio of six to one or more as is the case with the beloved 5×5 routines?
If you want to make appropriate compromises in your training then you will not allow any lift to be in charge. Considering any one or two lifts superior to all others basically means that you must always make a false compromise. A false compromise means that not only do you not get what you want, not even that oh-so-important lift does! Remember our friend the would-be window breaker? He didn’t get to break any windows, did he? You see, setting lifts like the back squat as superior ultimately means that not even the back squat gets trained appropriately because it is constantly over-trained and then detrained. Like the bully, it is either on the playground bullying or sitting in detention.
This may sound like we should always seek a middle ground with a lift. Not at all! That’s another mistake in itself. Although good training tends toward the middle of two extremes this does not mean that it actually settles in the middle.
Train yourself to spot this kind of thing, and you will be less subject to salesman tactics. See, the problem is that small differences or details may not be as enlightening in terms of human performance or fitness as they are in other areas, such as technology.
For example, two washing machines may do the exact same thing and be alike in more ways than they are different. The ways in which they are similar may be obvious so the only way to choose is to focus on small differences. Mechanical versus electronic switches? Capacity? Reliability?
Additional moves to an exercise sequence or little tweaks in techniques are often sold as if they are the difference between analog and digital, with as much camp loyalty for either side.
I’ve often noticed a fitness trainer putting unfounded emphasis on their addition of difficulty to an exercise, such as by having a trainee kick their knee up in the air at the top of a lunge repetition. The question to ask is not how this is different, but how is it similar to any other way of adding difficulty! This may lead you to ask if adding difficulty to an already effective exercise is any more effective than simply progressing that exercise in terms of volume and external resistance. In truth, you can usually ignore passionate pronouncements as to the superiority of certain exercises over similar ones.
When someone tells you that analog or digital sound is better, such as analog being “warmer,” you may suddenly believe that it sounds better, even though you’ve been quite happy with the way your music sounded up to that point. Similarly, the difference between many exercise variations, and many programs, are as much a product of suggestion as anything else. When things are more similar than they are different, in so many fundamental respects, then, it is easy to see why the fitness industry is about salesmanship as much as effectiveness.