Dogma Revisited and the Price of Conformity
Dare to be different. Why? You’ll go viral, that’s why. The world is awash in a sea of conformity. The internet even more so. Anybody who says something contrary to the mainstream will stand out. Regardless of the real value of his or her message. This creates a marketing potential for any idea that is primarily conceived to simply differ from that which is considered mainstream or dogma. I actually received a newsletter about an article that introduced the article by saying this:
“Nobody has ever said this before. I’m going to make waves in this industry”
I did not read the article. Many people would because they would be influenced by the idea that if something is “different” it is better. The author of this newsletter would have done much better with me by giving me some actual information and reason to want to read more. Instead, he tried to manipulate me into believing his marketing hype. He may have actually “believed”, however, that his ideas were better because nobody had ever said them before! Nobody has ever said you can build a cannon out of canned corned beef, either.
I often peruse YouTube videos to get training ideas and come across all sorts of bullshit kinesiology and outright pie in the sky ideas that are not just different but designed to be different than what everybody else is saying. If you want to build massive thighs, for example, and look for videos on the subject, you’ll find that most of those videos have similar content. You will also find some that say something quite unexpected such as box squats being a great way to build your legs (squats alone are a very difficult way to build massive legs, let alone box squats, sorry). Take a look in the comments for those videos. Unlike most videos on YouTube, you might find that they are overwhelmingly positive! Why? Different seems “more correct” to many people. The same old same old can’t be right, can it? Only new ideas are right ideas.
A new fitness gimmick, diet plan, or nutrition article comes up every day based on this strategy. I could do it. I could come up with some half-baked gimmick. The trick is knowing how to create hype and buzz around a product that is crap! That is the real talent.
Everybody is saying that walnuts are good for you. I could flash the headline “Walnuts are Poison: Important Info They do not Want You to Know!”. Not only would it be different it would scream propaganda. And propaganda sells, my friends. But this is blatant and while it may work for a short time just for its controversial nature, you know the saying: You can fool some of the people all of the time but you can’t fool me!
A better strategy is to take more pliable concepts and rely on their plastic nature to appear as if you’ve re-invented the toothbrush. ShaunT’s Max Interval Training is a great example of this. Maybe you’ve seen the commercials or read the 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.”
Do I need to tell you that this is absolute hogwash and there is absolutely nothing magical or ingenious about it? Maybe I don’t need to tell you but there are thousands of others who will buy it 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). Now I know you’ve heard of that. 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.
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. My old glossary at GUS, in fact, defines interval training as 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 a method. Since HIIT is widely known as a style but “interval training” is not well known as a concept, Max Interval Training “looks different” and therefore will probably attract many 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. You have to qualify it. Although it is “more max” in terms of the 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 that 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 milers…your 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.
I explained all that much better, I think, in Programs and Methods Versus Principles: Wave Loading and Interval Training
Then we have more subtle and mysterious methods of appearing to be different and “above it all”. Instead of actually saying something different, some of the best “gurus” out there simply imply that the mainstream is “wrong” and that they are right even without saying anything unique in reality. Pavel Psatsouline uses this method of persuasion almost exclusively. The “mainstream” in his case are “Americans”. Americans stretch wrong! Silly Americans don’t even know how to stretch! We can all be gumby if we do it like the Russians who know the ‘secret’ to everything! It is amazing what some people have done with the mystique of the “Iron Curtain”. Pavel has used it to great advantage. Implying that there is an American method of stretching that is misguided and even dangerous enabled him to very successfully sell a crappy book on static stretching while making a few minor points that are not in themselves unique or even that insightful. It is the tactics of persuasion that do the job, not the information. However, it should be easy to see when persuasion has become the sole purpose of a work rather than information: When the first 4 or 5 pages of a book are taken up with testimonials!
I don’t know how many different ways I can explain this general concept since I’ve talked about this in so many different ways. Maybe it would help to pretend you are part of a jury in a very important trial. Anything other than straightforward “arguments” and “explanations” you should suspect of being jury tampering!
Strength Training is a Hit
Strength training has slowly but surely begun to rise in popularity in the last ten or so years. Strength may even rival “bodybuilding” as a primary goal. Problem is that it’s not actually strength training that has become popular but the idea of strength training. Again, we have this plasticity that enables fitness experts of all persuasions to cash in on the strength craze while rewriting strength to suit their needs. This is not teaching about strength training, this is selling strength training.
The point is not that we are not allowed to pursue our own strength training goals and have our own unique way of viewing physical strength. The point is that there must be some central underlying point of convergence lest “strength training” become nothing more than a marketing term. Yet, choosing which strength training camp to join has become much like buying a car. We are slammed with confusing packages, options, accessories, etc. Do you want aluminum alloy wheels with that? Sunroof? Would you like a Tiptronic transmission? How’s about a Steptronic system? Like ABS with that?
If you’ve ever gotten the feeling that a car salesman doesn’t understand all the terms and options being offered then you know how I feel when I see all the “strength fitness” salesmen who clearly don’t understand all the terms they are throwing around.
Strength Training Implements like Kettlebells and Sandbags
Much like car accessories, most of the strength training “camps” have grown around different strength training implements. All of these have one thing in common: They claim to define and represent “true strength” by some scientific-sounding feature. Kettlebells, sandbags, even Indian Clubs seek to redefine the essence of physical strength by some tiny feature or facet of their training practices. Much ado is made about “destabilizing” weight and “offset” weights, for instance. Functional strength is another muddy concept used to sell the superiority of these different implements.
Another purported benefit to sandbags and kettlebells is that they work endurance. Endurance is another one of those plastic terms. Anaerobic endurance is an integral part of all strength training. Although our primary goal is to increase force output our ability to do this is bound up with anaerobic endurance. This is basically the ability of the muscles to work at fairly high levels of intensity. Rather than one maximal force output – one contraction – anaerobic endurance is the muscle’s ability to sustain high levels of work for successive contractions.
Do you need anaerobic endurance to lift a very heavy weight one time? No. But you need anaerobic endurance to sustain the training workloads needed to develop the strength to lift that weight one time. But when the word ‘endurance’ is used alone it can become quite meaningless. While endurance may mean your ability to sustain an activity for hours, anaerobic endurance still deals with very short periods of time.
The claim is that sandbags and kettlebells work endurance “better” than traditional fixed weights because they make you continually adjust to their destabilizing effect. In other words, your center of gravity is constantly being slightly adjusted and the continual correction of this makes for a challenge. However, one’s ability to sustain work is still proportional to the load. If you want to throw sandbags around for long periods of time, you’d need lighter sandbags. The purpose of strength training is not “endurance” it is to increase force. Endurance is part of the package but not the goal. The heaviest sandbag or kettlebell you can handle only represents your maximal force output in that condition. If you are working FOR endurance, then there comes a time when you are no longer working for strength, in the strictest sense. Yet, endurance is part of the “sell”.
Every attempt seems to be made to direct the strength trainee’s attention away from any simple and direct understanding of strength training as a stable and defined concept. If we, as strength trainees, wish to lift heavy weights, we must be “fit” to do so. Most fitness experts get this backward.
Aligned with “functional strength” are claims about how these different strength training methods and implements work the “core”. Functional strength is an offshoot term of the “functional training” craze which consists of various balls, bands, plyos and free weight exercises deemed to be more “functional” and healthy because of their effect on the structure of the body and their supposed transfer to everyday activities. These ideas came primarily from physical therapy practices.
Functional strength is a more specific term used to justify certain strength training practices that are variously supposed to be more “real world” or more closely resemble real-world or sporting strength. Most of these practices are aimed at finding one way to training that is more effective than any other, no matter your specific goals. For example, to control a kettlebell takes the whole body and the core working together. So kettlebells represent whole-body fitness. While this is undoubtedly true, it is not unique to kettlebells. It is impossible to lift weight maximally without the whole body and the central core coming into play. Period. While kettlebells are difficult to control, compared to a dumbbell, this does not make it fundamentally different from any form of resistance that is sufficient to represent overload and continued progression. Yet kettlebells are claimed to be more functional than a barbell (for example).
Most of these types of claims come about because of a problem I’ve discussed several times before and in particular in the post specificity and transfer of training effect. It is the “is-ought” problem. This problem abounds in all areas of physical performance pursuit and the trainee must be on guard for it. Is-ought problems start with factual descriptive statements, what is, and then leap to statements about “what ought to be” even though the factual statements in no way support the “ought” conclusion.
In fact, every single statement made about functional strength training is an is-ought problem and this is true whether we are talking about kettlebells, barbells, or heavy stones. What is functional is simply what we want it to be and any effects we assign to certain ways of strength training can be called functional simply because we wish it so.
What’s All This to do with Dogma?
Everything. It has everything to do with dogma. At the beginning of the post, I told you about this newsletter I got and the guy who said: “nobody’s ever said this before”. The idea is that he is busting dogma. Something very important to realize about dogma is that it is a way of believing, not a way of disproving.
There are many strength training concepts that are absolutely believed by many people even though they have never seen any actual scientific evidence to back up those beliefs. What’s important to realize is that just because a lot of people believe something in the absence of evidence does not mean there is no evidence. Or some kernel of truth behind the belief. “Everybody knows” is not proof that something is true. Well likewise “everybody believes” is not proof that something is untrue! This is very important because much of the selling that goes on in the strength training world is based on “going against dogma”.
Going against dogma, in reality, is going against irrational and illogical thinking. It is not going against actual dogmatic statements but against the practice of believing things in the absence of physical evidence. To combat the statements themselves you must disprove them with actual rational arguments. Since not all dogma is the same, some dogma cannot be disproved in this way. In fact, there are some statements against which it is impossible to construct a rational argument. These statements, then, can be safely ignored. We can say that they are not only dogmatic but also proved to be unscientific. It is quite impossible to disprove statements concerning the ‘functional’ nature of kettlebells and sandbags.
But this is not true of all dogmatic beliefs. For example, it is commonly believed that exercise boosts the immune system. One might choose to say the opposite in order to be different and combat dogma. But just because many of those who say that exercise boosts the immune system have never actually seen any scientific evidence, does not make the statement “exercise does not boost the immune system” correct or at least reasonably sure of being correct. We must call on the evidence (this statement, according to the preponderance of the evidence, seems to be true. Exercise does not “boost” the immune system above baseline and moderate exercisers show no difference in immunity to sedentary persons.
Unfortunately, not all statements about strength training and exercise are black and white propositions simply because of all the plastic and malleable terms that have grown up around it, functional being one of them. At the end of the day, exercise either does or does not boost the immune system. Words like functional and corrective, to name a couple, do not lend themselves to black and white interpretation.
If I am told “Deadlifts are functional” or “Deadlifts are corrective” I cannot really construct a logical counter-argument. I cannot disprove these statements because I cannot pin down the words corrective and functional to a distinct scientific definition. To me, this in itself makes the statements somewhat absurd. But to most of the buying public, the very plasticity of these terms make them the kind of unassailable dogma that will stand the test of time. More and more of the strength and fitness “industry” will use these concepts like clay to sell their own brand of fitness. Once again, I warn you, beware of plastic words. Not to be a nonconformist but to be a skeptic and a rational thinker. How different and new something is has nothing to do with how effective or correct it is.