Modern fitness, bodybuilding and strength training has, in recent times, aligned itself with science more than ever in the past. Unfortunately the majority of the industry has no clear knowledge of the scientific process and in fact, doesn’t really know what science is. Most strength trainers who use science tend to point to science as if it is a thing. However, although we use the word as if it means a concrete thing it is rather a practice or system of acquiring knowledge. When we ask “what’s the science on this?” what we really should be asking is “what is the state of knowledge on this?”
And yet, every day, I come across another article or YouTube video) that claims to be science-based. Does the average person understand the difference between the terms ‘science-based’ and ‘evidence-based,’ especially when they are used interchangeably by the fitness industry at large? I think it’s safe to say they do not.
The other day, someone told me that a friend’s son wanted to go to college because he didn’t think anyone would take him seriously otherwise. I was not surprised, but I was mildly dismayed. Of all the reasons to attend a college, this is perhaps the most unfortunate. Nobody should take you more seriously because you’ve earned an academic degree unless you’ve proven you should be taken seriously. And yet, my friend’s son wasn’t wrong in his thinking. Not at all. In the fitness world, sometimes all it takes to be taken seriously is a credential. Any credential. A favorite is a degree in kinesiology.
Kinesiology can be called the study of movement. It is concerned with how the body initiates and controls movements. As such a primary concern of kinesiology is how the muscle’s work. Does a degree in kinesiology make you an expert in fitness or muscle building? Does such a degree mean that your advice is science-based? If so, what does this mean?
I fancy myself as having more than a passing knowledge of kinesiology. I’m even pretty good at inventing exercises based on my knowledge of how the muscles work. However, how do I know that these exercises work? If my goal is to make a certain muscle group grow larger, is my knowledge of muscle roles enough to ensure my success?
Well, it’s not hard to understand. If your biceps muscle (along with the brachialis) is an elbow flexor, meaning it bends the elbow, then it stands to reason that a good way to work the muscle is through biceps curls of all kinds. So, if I tell you to do curls I can claim my advice is based on kinesiological knowledge! Also, I can claim it’s science-based! It is based, after all, on scientific explanations and underpinnings. Suddenly, such a claim seems less impressive, doesn’t it? Anyone who has ever tried to build bigger arms knows that just knowing what exercises to do is only part of the recipe.
Let’s say I fancy myself an expert on the “science of building the chest.” Using some supposedly basic kinesiology knowledge I come up with 3 or 4 exercises for the chest and say, this is the only 3 or 4 exercises you need. I tell you that most people can’t build a big chest by only bench pressing, but neither do you need an elaborate routine with dozens of exercises. Just do these 3 or 4.
What have I proven with my “science?” That I’m not a trainer and have never actually dealt with the needs of real people. Why? Because, it won’t take long, in the trenches, to figure out that not everybody can do the exact same exercises! They may have equipment constraints or they may have, for instance, shoulder problems that make it difficult to do one or more of these exercises or to do them consistently over time with progression.
I’ve also proven that I think training is a matter of finding the least of everything. The least number of exercises. The least complicated routine. It’s not. Its a matter of finding what works for YOU. This may be, sometimes, gulp, something that seems more complicated, depending on your perspective, while your buddy just hits wide grip bench every day and grows huge pecs like they are weeds.
If the same thing worked like gangbusters for everyone, then we’d have solved the “how to grow a massive chest” problem long ago. Expand that to how to grow any other muscle or muscle group to massive proportions. We know what works in general, but this is not the same as knowing what specifically will work for you, how long, and in what dose!
And yet, I have every right to claim that my methods are science-based if they are based on scientific kinesiological information. But, can I claim that I have evidence that my methods are superior because they are science-based? NO. To claim this I would need to compare them to another method in a scientific setting. I would need empirical data, not background explanations.
So, science-based is not the same thing as evidence-based. Furthermore, in regards to fitness, strength training, and bodybuilding, evidence-based usually does not mean based on direct evidence but based on the existence of what seems to be “better” evidence than something that could otherwise be called science-based. This usually means that a person has come across a single, non-replicated study that vaguely aligns with their claims.
You may be shocked to learn that it has never been established that so-called evidence-based training is superior to conventional methods.
Science is not a static entity. It’s not an encyclopedia of knowledge, but rather a way of gaining knowledge. Facts are not science. Science seeks the truth but never claims to have found the ultimate truth. Science informs but it is not the only guide, as we also must rely on our own experience and that of others, and, even more, we must rely on the feedback we get from our own training results.
And yet those who claim to train scientifically tend to view science as a static entity. Viewing science as a static entity gives rise to the greatest strength training enemy of all: Dogma.
Many of the unquestionable beliefs that are repeated as “absolute truth” borrow scientific-sounding terms and claim scientific foundations. We call these beliefs “dogma” or “dogmatic”. Disparagingly. One example of such a widespread dogmatic belief is that of “neural fatigue.” Many statements circulate about the effects of strength training on the CNS as if they are absolute scientific fact when in fact this is one of the least understood areas of strength. You may hear statements like “too much maximal strength training will burn out your CNS” and most will take this as gospel. Yet there is no standard definition for what actually constitutes “neural fatigue” (which is probably not even an accurate term) let alone just what it means to “burn out your CNS”. There is nothing in this area that can be stated with absolute certainty and little that can be stated even with a degree of assurance. What’s more, and perhaps more importantly, you cannot measure this ‘fatigue’ or react to it in the gym. Believing in the concept of neural fatigue is faith-based. I, for one, base my training on things I can actually observe. I can observe fatigue, but I cannot separate out one source of fatigue from another (i.e. metabolic or CNS). I can observe results or lack of results. I can observe recovery time. I can observe muscle growth. I can observe a big, successful, lift!
Here is a common belief I’ll bet you didn’t know was dogmatic: The hook lift is stronger than the alternating “over-under” grip. Dogma. There is no scientific reason to suggest that the hook lift has any special efficacy as compared to the alternating grip. This belief probably comes from the use of the hook grip by Olympic lifters, who are unable to use an alternating grip and would be unwise to resort to lifting straps. However, besides “safety for safety’s sake” there is not even a reason to think that the use of the hook grip results in “more kilos lifted” for the average O lifter of average grip strength. Regardless, proponents of the hook grip for deadlifting explain their reasoning in scientific terms.
The simple fact is that deadlifters have much more need of special grips than Olympic lifters for a variety of reasons but there is no reason for a deadlifter to think that the hook grip has an advantage over the alternated grip.
You might make the point that dogma isn’t necessarily wrong. And you’d be right. Many of the established doctrines of any discipline, although they seem to be based on a stubborn belief system rather than any real science, may still have solid underpinnings and be valid as far as our understanding of the world at this time.
The dogma we are talking about, however, is part of a system of belief and attitude. Any stubborn clinging to “absolutes” is, at its heart, unscientific. The concept of absolute truth itself, as a matter of fact, is unscientific. So remember that dogma is more a way of thinking than it is a certain position or belief.
Proof only exists in mathematics. So when you hear the phrase, “it’s been proven that”, your dogma radar should ping.
In the physics world, theoretical physicists often make fun of experimental physicists, and vice versa. But, without the experimental physicists, the theoretical ones would never know if they were right, and without the theoretical physicists, the experimental ones would never have anything on which to experiment.
The theoretical physicists were more excited than anybody when the data started coming out of CERN. Imagine how Peter Higgs felt?
The question is, does this “theorist and experimenter” relationship exist in other domains that use science? Of course, to some extent. Yet, it is rarely recognized.
In the fitness, health, and wellness world, there are many “theorists” who are never asked to put their theories to the test. But often, it goes beyond this.
A fitness program, when based on scientific exercise principles, could be thought of as a scientific artifact. We use principles to build a program, just as we use principles to build a bridge. But, the evidence we tap to build this artifact cannot, in itself, verify the effectiveness of it. It still must be tested and compared with existing methods. Look at it this way. No matter how many scientific underpinnings your bridge design has, this does not prove that the bridge you build is better than any existing bridge.
Once you learn to recognize BS you may begin to also recognize false science. Both are “tricks of the trade”. These are methods of persuasion that are used to help lend a sense of authority not to the information, but to the person providing it.
Persuasion itself is not a bad thing. We all must persuade others to accept our ideas. I am trying to persuade you right now as you are reading this.
I think the problem may be in thinking that you must always persuade yourself to one side or another. There actually exists an attitude that says you cannot criticize a concept unless you have an alternative. That, to me, is like saying we must accept vinegar unless we can come up with a bottle of wine. There isn’t always an acceptable answer and the argument that says we must either take a side or provide an alternative is a false one. It is better to say “I don’t know” sometimes.
No matter how important science is to fitness, labeling your training science-based will not make it successful.