Modern 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 strength training or bodybuilding article (or YouTube video) that claims to be science-based. I highly doubt the average person understands the difference between the terms ‘science-based’ and ‘evidence-based,’ especially when they are used interchangeably by the fitness industry at large.
Let’s say I fancy myself an expert on the “science of building the chest.” Using some supposedly basic kinesiology knowledge, which may or may not be based on established fact, I come up with 3 or 4 exercises for the chest and say, this is the only 3 or 4 exercises you need. No, 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.
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 dogma. 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.
It would be improper of me not to mention nutrition and fat loss dogma. After all proper nutrition is essential to your strength training success and nutrition is subject to as many, if not more, dogmatic beliefs as training. Anything you eat after 7 or 8 PM turns to fat. Dogma. You must eat multiple meals throughout the day and many small meals every few hours is better than three big ones. Dogma. Limit your salt intake because salt will give you high blood pressure (and if you’re a bodybuilder “bloat” you). Dogma.
Here’s a big one. Don’t eat too many egg yolks because it will raise your cholesterol. This one is so big that Jamie Hale chose the subject to put in the title of his new book: “Should I Eat the Yolk? Separating Facts from Myths to Get You Lean, Fit, and Healthy”
How about bananas cure muscle cramps? That’s right. Dogma. The only way to get big is to “bulk” and then “cut”. Dogma. You shouldn’t deadlift more 1×5 reps a week. Dogma!!!!
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.
My mission in this blog, if I were to call it a mission, is not only to provide strength training ideas and instruction but to help you learn to recognize false science. And also to help you spot what I would call “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. Of course, successful training will be grounded in science, but labelling your training science-based will not make it successful.