Jargon and all the behaviors associated with it are not the only way that ‘mere words’ are elevated and lent a profound air. Another frequent behavior, perhaps related, is sloganizing. To sloganize means simply to express as a slogan. It is a tool of propaganda. Slogans are a big part of the fitness culture. Fitness pros borrow them and repeat them over and over, almost always out of context and without any practical value. They do not impart anything other than a warm glow of appreciation to their receivers.
Slogans are sometimes associated with ‘weasel-words.’ The idea is that a weasel sucks the contents out of eggs, leaving behind an empty shell. Sloganizing is always an attempt to reduce complex things to simple formulas of good and bad.
Some slogans are obvious, such as those used in marketing. Just do it! Impossible is nothing. Used by Nike and Reebok, respectively, we know their purpose and are not likely to be overly influenced by them. But sloganizing goes far beyond marketing, It has even entered the academic world. The fitness industry is a slogan machine.
Do NOT assume that a bullshitter is easily recognized by their command of the facts! Many people think that a bullshitter is someone who gets the facts wrong or outright lies about the facts. A bullshitter may well get all his or her “facts” technically correct. They do not need to deceive you with facts. Being a bullshitter is more about fakery or phoniness.
A bullshitter may well be in command of the facts, but does not care about them, per se. It is what we think of the bullshitter that is important to the bullshitter. Many of the most accomplished (and successful bullshitters) hide behind a wall of facts analogous to the curtain of the humbug Wizard of Oz.
Sloganizing can begin with jargon. It is fashionable, today, to refer to exercises as movements. We see this used in much of the writing about general fitness, muscle building, and strength training. The deadlift becomes a “movement.” We are no longer lifting weights it’s “just a movement.” Therefore: Train movements, not muscles. Or, train movements, not lifts. The idea that we train movements, not muscles or lifts or even exercises has become a favorite slogan of the corrective exercise crowd and has pervaded strength coaching and fitness at large.
The frequent sloganzing in the fitness industry about corrective or functional exercise has done a disservice not only to those looking to get strong or big but to even to those looking to get fit. Train movements, not muscles sounds great but has no physiological or biomechanical basis. When we exercise, we are always, in a sense, training muscles. We are also training motor patterns.
When we move, our muscles are always under some kind of load. The Earth’s gravity is exerting a load on your body right now. And, your body is subject even to the pressure of the atmosphere! We aren’t moving in a weightless environment or a vacuum. We need our muscles to be able to withstand forces and overcome resistance. Add an external load to all this and you can see that your body is not just moving, it is overcoming a myriad of forces. So, train movements not muscles is nothing more than a slogan with no meaning on its own. Like the empty shell the weasel leaves behind, it seems like something, but contains nothing.
People share hundreds of articles a day about how to fix some problem they do not have.
I once saw an article pop up in my news feed about “our broken food system” and “7 ways to fix it.” The greater public, until they see this headline, will have had no thought whatsoever about how the food system is broken. After all, they have an abundance of food of all sorts. They post pictures of the food they eat on Instagram!
Yet, this article, claiming to solve this big problem, and giving seven ways to do it was a popular one, shared thousands of times. Nobody wants to do anything about fixing a problem that does not impact their lives, and they will probably not consider whether there really is a problem at all. They will simply react to “how to fix a problem.”
The best kind of problem for a fitness pro to talk about is a similar problem, the kind you can convince people is important but which has little impact on their lives, fitness, exercise regimen, etc. except in vague abstract ways that only exist in their imagination, which you stimulated.
Ironically, people are more hesitant to share articles or interventions that actually involve a true personal problem that they themselves needed to solve. You won’t see many people sharing “how to fix your athlete’s foot!” The most successful bullshitters know this.
A typical testimonial to the amazing prowess of some problem-solving internet training wizard is “I’m so glad I found this, I may have done everything wrong. Now I feel confident that I can achieve my goals.”
I may have.
I feel confident.
I can achieve my goals.
Notice that nothing whatsoever has been actually accomplished, except in the mind of the follower. Sure a positive attitude may help, but attitude alone will not help you solve your actual problems when you are sidetracked by irrelevancies.
When we look beyond the slogan, we see the obvious problems. A bodyweight squat is not the same exercise as a back squat with a heavy weight on the bar. Moving your body in a way that resembles a deadlift has nothing to do with actually deadlifting a heavy load, especially not the heaviest load possible. And yet, many people are taught squat or deadlift “movements” with no bar or resistance at all. While this may be helpful in a motor learning sense, they are not as preparatory as you may think. A 45-pound bar will make a difference to the mechanics of the ‘movement’ and thus, will make a difference to how you respond to it. Either way, you are training muscles and movement, two sides of the same coin.
Superficial observations, however, may lead many to think that mimicking a deadlift motion over and over again will allow you to be a better deadlifter, since both look superficially similar.
The actual condition of any exercise is drastically different than “just a movement.” And, when you apply resistance, you are, in essence performing a different exercise, albeit a related one.
Exercise is ALWAYS about whether or not you apply enough force to overcome some force. If you have your hand on your thigh right now, in a relaxed condition, it is subject to the force of gravity. Moving your arm up is not “just a movement” but the intention to apply enough force, via the muscles, to overcome the resistance of gravity and thus cause the arm to move. So, you see, talking about movement as if it is some beautiful and spiritual thing is mere woo. All movement is about an application of force, even if that force results in no movement. We can only apply force in one way, via muscle contraction.
What is funny is how easy this is to accept given that it would sound absurd in so many other regards. What if I said, “running is just a movement.” Does that mean running very fast is not a completely different goal than running a very long distance? One is even much faster than the other! A sprinter’s perfect technique or perfect movement, as it were, does not matter if it cannot be transferred to the actual condition of performing the fastest sprint.
Fitness personalities, fitness trainers, strength coaches, and bodybuilding coaches are always inventing little aphorisms and catchphrases designed to get across some central philosophy or concept inherent to their way of viewing fitness or training. The problem catchphrases, slogans, and aphorisms, is that they are designed to sell a concept rather than to teach a concept. An aphorism is only as good as the qualifications you give it when you explain its underlying rationale. With most of these statements, it is the style that sells them, more than the content. My good friend Phil Buchiero Jr. once called this type of thing a fallacy by slogan and this is an apt way to put it. A good aphorism is catchy like an infectious rash: Everybody spreads it around and it does more harm than good. You’d do well to immunize yourself.
When you encounter these statements, the question must be answered: Does this change our perspective towards fitness, strength training or its components? If so, how? Also, there must be one central criterion met. Call it the validity/fact criteria. If the slogan or aphorism is not an absolute statement of fact about the physical world, then the underlying premises that lead to the statement must make it a valid statement. In other words, you need a good reason for saying it, as I explained above. Otherwise, only create confusion. If, however, your statement can be taken as a statement of fact about the physical world or our biological makeup and functioning, it needs to be in line with our knowledge of those things. You can’t just make stuff up to suit your agenda because it sounds cool. Yet, it’s done all the time.
For instance, to sell the idea that strength training was so very superior to say, jogging, Fred Hatfield, aka, Dr. Squat said that “Life is NOT aerobic.” Now, should this be taken as a statement of fact concerning human metabolism, or simply a clever turn of phrase? Well, it is misleading and based on a personal value system rather than a message about fitness. As a statement of fact, we could assume that he meant that a good portion of your life is spent operating in a mode of anaerobic metabolism. Is this true? Absolutely, positively, not! We work very well and the most efficiently in an aerobic mode. In fact, given proper fueling, human beings can go on moving at a low intensity, “aerobically” for an astounding period of time. Right now, as you read this, your life is definitely aerobic and you cannot operate at intensities that require anaerobic respiration for very long at all, comparatively, no matter how hard you train in this fashion. The statement, as one of fact, would liken us to some bacterium living under a pile of dung, in an oxygen scarce environment. We, as human beings, obviously favor an oxygen-rich environment and life, therefore, is very aerobic. So, as a statement of fact, Hatfield’s statement is absurd.
Perhaps he is just being clever about wonderful it is to train for strength? Well, why should one need to be clever or sell strength training by inventing absurd statements? If it is meant to be clever, and not a direct reflection of “truth” it still overstates greatly the purpose of strength training and the value of it in our lives. Strength training can help you live a more healthy and fit life. But it is NOT life itself. Don’t strength train because of ideals. Strength train because you want to and because it has intrinsic value to you. And because you want to enjoy the external benefits. Not because its the meaning of life. That’s just plain stupid.
That example was a bit philosophic, I know. What about some more specific and applicable ones? Well, I once treated to a link to a Christian Thibadeau video. People are always sending me stuff they know will irritate me! For some reason, I actually clicked on it. I try to avoid this kind of thing because I intentionally avoid things that will only spark a rant. In this case I thought I’d open my mind, relax, and be non-judgmental. The problem is, I’m not a person who can open my mind quite so wide that my brains fall out. So I clicked and lo and behold, the very first statement was:
This sounds catchy enough that many will assume it’s going to lead to all sorts of fascinating insights. Well, to be honest I never got so far as the squat part after hearing the rationale about the deadlifts. Turns out, the deadlift is not a deadlift because there are many different methods and positions to do it.
No, no. He was not referring to deadlift ‘variations’ like the Romanian deadlift and the Stiff-Legged deadlift. For both of those, if you wanted to get be technical, you could support the statement that they are not actually “dead” lifts. But no, he meant that there are various methods and positions for performing the conventional deadlift depending on what part of the body you wanted to emphasize. No, he didn’t emphasize the word dead, as in, the deadlift is not dead, it’s alive and well, rah rah. He meant it, at least somewhat, literally. Okay, I’ll give you a moment to remove your palm from your face and we can move on.
It’s hard to know the thinking behind such a statement. Maybe if you do a “butt down deadlift” you are emphasizing the quadriceps more since it’s more like a squat with the bar in your hands? And maybe a hips up deadlift emphasizes the hamstrings? Anyway, the fact that you can, if you so desire, initiate the deadlift from alternate positions, means that the deadlift is not a deadlift.
Is this meant as a statement of fact? I’d say so, yes. I’d say it is an absolute statement of fact and it means that the deadlift is not a discrete entity. What I mean by a discrete entity? A discrete entity is something that has definite parameters by which we define its existence. That is, it has a measurable beginning and end, and up and a down. You can look at it and say, “there IT is,” as opposed to something else. I don’t know about you, but claiming any lift is not a discrete entity does not seem to me to be conducive to getting strong or fit.
I beg to differ, then, with the statement, the deadlift is not a deadlift. You can quibble about the name if you want but it is most definitely a discrete lift. The fact that you can arbitrarily assign different positions to it, despite their lack of appropriateness, does not make it something else than what it is.
Scratch that. It does make it something else. It makes it a deadlift done wrong. There is ONE most efficient position from which YOU should perform the deadlift. If you are training for absolute strength you will usually not want to emphasize one body part over another. If you do, then you are probably seeking to build muscle or muscular endurance at that point. But let’s be clear, if you want to lift the heaviest weight possible from the floor to waist there is a technique that is the most efficient and if you do not train with that technique you will never be able to perform to the utmost because of the inefficiencies you create. As humans beings, we already have poor leverage for lifting a heavy bar off the floor. You don’t need to make it worse by inventing different positions! So, as far your attempts at the heaviest loads, start from the best mechanical position possible and then train to exert the most muscular force possible within those inherent mechanical limitations.
This may all seem a bit too specific. You may not care about the deadlift or about absolute strength. So let’s look at an even more common statement that affects anyone looking for a fitness program of any kind. In fact, this statement is common enough to have entered the general fitness language:
Even highly respected coaches can sometimes coin some less than well thought out quotes. The above quote is from Mike Boyle in “Designing Strength Training Programs and Facilities.” Taken out of context this statement is equivalent to saying “banging your head against the wall well is better than banging it against the wall poorly.” That is, context is EVERYTHING to this attitude about the trainee’s role in the success of a program. You cannot, in reality, perform a bad program well, because it is a bad program. I’ve heard pedantic quibbles such as “it’s about the exercise technique.” This makes no sense because exercise technique is a prerequisite of training, not of programming. You already know how to do the exercises and should know how to monitor your performance. The program tells you what to do with those exercises, and how to progress them. If the program doesn’t fit, no matter how well you do it, it will still suck.
How do you do a program poorly? What exactly does that mean? Is it a failure to follow the rules set forth in the program? Is it a failure to have the right attitude? Is it a failure to bring the right intensity to the workout? At the heart of this idea seems to be nothing technical, but rather a “feel-good” bit of psychobabble about positive attitudes and enthusiasm. It seems primarily to be about your commitment. Why should a trainee commit to a bad program? Why should you commit to a tool at all, but rather be concerned with the results it garners? And, how the heck is a trainee supposed to respond to the demand to do a bad program well? Bad programs make you feel bad on more than one level. You will do them badly because they ARE bad. A good program will not just work, it will bring out the best in the trainee because it fits his/her needs, goals, AND attitude towards training.
This one, obviously, should not be viewed as an absolute statement of fact. What premises, then, could we use to come to this conclusion about bad programs? I can think of none. There are too many variables to consider for such a statement to be valid. If I were to guess, I’d say that these kinds of ideas are an extension of the fat loss world, where the problem with diets is often not the diets themselves but people’s refusal to stick to them. But why do they not stick? Because the diet does not fit. This is circular thinking and if there is one thing I am constantly reminded of, it’s that circular thinking is pervasive in the fitness world.
Let’s break this down a bit further. How much you commit being more important than the program comes down to this: It’s all about commitment. Which is the same thing as saying it’s only commitment. This, furthermore, is saying: It IS commitment. Think further. Even if you consider program to be a word that encompasses all aspects of training, this quote is claiming that proper motivation is more important than the actual training undertaken. Why would someone want to think about an aspect of performance enhancement that is more important than another (broad) aspect? Well, the fitness and strength training world is bent on reductive thinking. Reductive thinking, related to the fallacy of reduction, is the need to boil things down to that one missing ingredient or, more precisely, to find their origin or essence. The statements that come out of this thinking, once you boil THEM down, usually become some sort of circular definitional statement. Notice, in all three of the examples I have given, a definitional statement is implied, but one or more very important rules of a good definition are not adhered to.
- The deadlift is not a deadlift: We do not know what the state of “not being a deadlift” means in this context. Once we do know what it means, is it acceptable to us?
- Life is not aerobic: Although we should not take this statement seriously, defining something by what it is NOT, like above, is quite a useless exercise.
- Strength training is commitment: If you try the inverse, does it still work? Commitment is strength training. No, that sounds like a bad definition.
I am exaggerating the motivations for making the statements, sure. But I am not exaggerating the effect. Such statements by those perceived as experts are passed around in the fitness and strength training world as if they are gospel.
Trying to boil things down to one really cool sounding statement always results in the same type of really uncool implications. Yet this reductive thinking is ubiquitous in the strength and conditioning world. I could never say why exactly this happens but I have it on one reason that may explain the phenomenon. I think that some people have a need to reduce things down to an “irreducible simplicity” because they somehow believe that if this is not possible, the thing itself just makes no sense. This need is irrational but it does seem to be a common cognitive trap.
Now, let’s take a break from the bullshit lesson and talk about dinosaurs. Fitness dinosaurs, that is.