If you’ve ever watched the show Big Bang Theory you might know that it is an entertaining and funny show, but you may not realize that some of the ways in which science and scientists are characterized on the show are not very accurate. One of the main comedic elements of the show is between the character of Sheldon, a socially inept theoretical physicist, and Howard, an engineer. Sheldon arrogantly dismisses engineering as nothing more than the tinkering of those who aren’t intelligent enough to do real science. Basically, to him, physicists do the work and engineers are not much more than glorified grease monkeys. Now, it is possible that many physicists feel this way but it shows a basic mistake in how the scientific process is perceived. So, for students of strength training or human performance, this is actually a good illustration of a common misconception about science, and it can serve to illustrate some of the misunderstandings of how science and scientific evidence can be used to inform training for increased human performance.
What is Doing Science?
Do engineers do science, or do they just build things? Let’s say automotive engineers are designing a car. They might draw on the science of aerodynamics and materials science, for example. In fact, they draw from diverse areas of scientific knowledge, including many mathematical calculations, to help them predict how their design will perform. Since they have all this science to help them come up with a new car design and to predict how that design will perform, they are now ready to build the new car. Right? Wrong. No matter how many cars have been designed and put on the road, the engineers would not find their scientific predictions to be enough. They would want to test their design. Testing of predictions by experimental methods is a fundamental part of the scientific process. The engineers might build a scale model, for example, and place this model in a wind tunnel to test its aerodynamics. Although they have a great deal of evidence, and previous experience as to how to go about designing a well-performing car, they still must test this design scientifically, and compare its performance to previous models of cars. So, we can see that an engineer is a type of scientist, and much more than a tinkerer. But engineers do what is usually called applied science. The scientific knowledge they use to inform their design process is basic science.
So, what is the difference between basic science and applied science? Well, the fact is that when we use basic science to derive training methods or concepts, we are doing a kind of applied science. Now, these are just convenient labels, but another word for basic science is fundamental science, and that is, really, science with a capital S. The simplest way to define basic science is that it is science that seeks to understand and describe the world. But let’s look at the Wikipedia definition because it is very well stated:
Fundamental science is either fundamental physics or basic science. To the phenomena or explanations of certain sciences, the term fundamental science attributes a causal or conceptual priority according to either of two, differing distinctions. More commonly, fundamental science is fundamental physics, held to underlie special sciences. Less commonly, fundamental science is basic science, distinguished from applied science.
Viewed as the fundamental science, fundamental physics underlies all other sciences—the special sciences—that rest upon, and in principle are derivable from, or conversely are reducible to, the objects and laws of fundamental physics. Less commonly, fundamental science is a synonym for basic science, also termed pure science—principally physics, chemistry, and biology—held apart from applied sciences like engineering and biomedicine, which develop technology or techniques through translating portions of basic science.
As you can see, fundamental physics as basic science is the Sheldon version of basic science, where every other science is subservient to, and subsumed by physics. For the purpose of strength training and furthering our performance in that arena, the second definition is the one that makes the most sense for us to use. From that viewpoint, the basic sciences that inform our training can really be quite diverse, but they are primarily anatomy, physiology, biomechanics (and its related domains like kinesiology), motor learning theory, and even exercise psychology, nutrition, and science of human health. Of course, other people might have slightly different lists, and we could expand this greatly to include all sorts of useful fields. Social psychology, for one. So, basic science is not a negative label. Here, we mean, foundational science. These sciences seek to explain things about humans, to put it in a simple way.They are differentiated from “applied science” and this is why we can state that when we use basic science to inform our training practices, we are doing a type of applied science.
Training Programs are a Type of Applied Science
When we, for instance, create a new training program based on basic scientific theory, we are creating a scientific artifact. The word artifact might sound like nothing more than fancy jargon, but it can be a convenient way to differentiate something we create, using what we’ve learned from basic science, versus, something that we have just learned, but have not applied. Here is use it in a different way than it is often used in science, as an extension of the way it is used in studies such as archeaology: Something designed and shaped by humans. The word artifact is often used in science to mean an error: a misleading or confusing alteration in data or observation, commonly in experimental science, resulting from flaws in technique or equipment.
If we come up with a training program based on the knowledge we’ve gleaned from basic sciences, we are creating an artifact and the purpose of that artifact is to change something about a human being. As well, when we change that training practice based on direct evidence from an applicable study, we would still be using applied science. We are specifically seeking to increase a certain aspect of a person’s performance. So, a strength training program designed to increase maximum strength is a type of applied science: a scientific artifact.
But let’s back up. Let us suppose that you had a previous training program that you had been using and honing for many years, but you didn’t really use much basic scientific knowledge to develop it. Despite this, it had worked for you very well, especially since you had tweaked it based on feedback from trainees over the years. It worked, but all your evidence that it worked was anecdotal evidence. Therefore, you were not being scientific. Only training programs based on scientific evidence can be said to be scientific.
If a Program Works, It is Because It Obeys Natural Laws (Physiology, etc)
We have just uncovered another misconception about applied science. If a training program works, or if any scientific artifact accomplishes what we intend it to accomplish, it is because it fits in with natural laws. It doesn’t matter where our “artifact” comes from, and whether we were aware of basic science when we built it. When we compare it with other methods and test its results, we are seeking evidence of its usefulness.
Apply the same kind of thinking to the ancient buildings or bridges that are still standing in Rome. Many of these structures were built before the Romans had a good understanding of physical laws. The designs were improved over time based on the performance of each new generation of building techniques. A scientific process was definitely used. The difference is that this was done without benefit of much of the fundamental science we now take for granted. However, those structures must obey physical laws. They are not supernatural. What if the Romans had had more knowledge of physical laws? Would this have led to the perfect bridge? Of course not. The idea that understanding basic fundamental science is all you need to design a functioning scientific artifact is not scientific thinking, it is miraculous thinking. Designs must be tested, researched, compared. They must be run through the wringer: Wash, rinse, repeat: research, application, more research, and more application. Now, we’ve uncovered the central misconception in much of the evidence based training movement. That is that science stops once applied science begins.
Now, let’s take this thinking a bit further. Say you tell me that you are going to study the forest. And I say, “That’s silly, you need to study trees, and soil formation, insects, etc.” In other words, I am saying that a forest is made up of segments or layers, so to understand it you must peel away each layer, then put it all back together. Once you’re done with that, you will understand the forest. Much of the time, this is how scientifically minded people approach training for physical performance. They think that if they understand all the individual parts, then this knowledge will miraculously coalesce into an understanding of the entire process of training for physical performance. Yet, no matter how much you study trees, and soil, and plant life, you will not ever be able to understand the forest as a system if you cannot observe how all those parts interact: How one influences the other, and how the parts influence the whole. There is still a need to study the forest!
This cold, hard, reality is how so-called evidence-based training often falls apart: The evidence is viewed in a vacuum with no consideration of how the resulting application will interact with all the other aspects of training. Often, other sound reasons for a certain practice are ignored. This is another problem when we seek evidence to refute a certain practice. We base this on a commonly assumed reason for the practice, without knowing that others may have good reasons of their own, and those reasons could well be founded not in the practice itself, but in the practices that surround it.
Training Theories and Testable Predictions
If your training theory is correct, then you should be able to make testable predictions about what the evidence will show. The evidence, then, should help confirm your theory. However, the evidence-based training movement does not make predictions, instead, they simply assert that since their evaluation of the evidence led them to a certain conclusion, then it is scientifically confirmed! This is like saying that “rocks fall because they are magnetic and invisible people with unseen magnets pull them down.” This, after all, is a conclusion that fits the observations of how rocks fall. But, there is no evidence to support the theory! First, there is no evidence that all rocks are magnetic. Second, there is no evidence that these invisible people with magnets exist. Third, and this is kind of important, it does not explain why everything else falls! A theory that requires a whole pile of related theories to explain what seems to be one phenomenon, is a pretty poor theory.
And yet, we see these kinds of things happened quite often in fitness. For example, an author (who really should stick to what he knows) stated that since there is no evidence that better lifting technique protects you from injury, that practicing technique should not be needed, and should make no difference. This author was writing about everyday lifting tasks, such as lifting furniture or heavy boxes. If we assume that the only reason for a certain lifting technique is injury-prevention, we might conclude that better technique is pointless. But for those of use who actually lift, better technique, for us, can translate to a better use of our natural leverages. Remember what I said above about biomechanics? This author was seemingly unaware of this related field, or chose to ignore it. So, in order to facilitate his theory of “technique is worthless because it doesn’t protect you from injury” we would have to engage in what is called ‘ad hoc maneuvers’ pinning on conditions in order to keep rescuing the theory when it was backed into a corner.
But what if we assumed that greater strength was protective in its own right? Well, it is. Therefore, practicing a lifting technique that allowed you to advance your lifting ability would require the applicable muscle groups to apply greater and greater force, which should, in turn, result in greater overall strength, which would serve to protect you from injury during everyday lifting tasks. Yet, greater strength, regardless of technique, is always protective. So, if building strength is like building a bridge, we can build a good, functioning, bridge, or we can apply knowledge AND testing to build an even better bridge, one that can be expected to never fail. To do this, we would take into account not only existing conditions but conditions that may occur, such as earthquakes and hurricanes. This is exactly what seasoned professionals in the field learn to do by not only applying theoretical knowledge but experience. And this is just what those who theorize about fitness and strength, but rarely apply this to actual trainees, cannot do.
Can We Test Whether Evidence-Based Training Is Better Than Conventional Training?
For all their talk of evidence and of evidence-based training being superior to conventional training, there is one thing missing: Evidence. That’s right, there is no evidence that anything called “evidence-based” training works better than any other type of training. Notice I didn’t say it doesn’t work, only that there is no evidence it works better. If you ask, you will be told that this is not testable. Well, if it isn’t testable, then what is all the argument about? The idea is that it is impossible to compose an operational definition of evidence-based training. This is one of those “get out of jail free” cards that send you down what Stephen Law called an intellectual black hole.
Citing individual studies and then claiming to be an evidence-based trainer in no way shows you to be superior to other trainers. If your methods are better, you need evidence that your methods are better. So, the explanations of your favorite evidence-based fitness or strength blogger, or book writer, may be scientifically legitimate, although many may claim that they are not. The fact is that the theory and the mechanisms may well show that, if you were to try his method, you’d get good results.
However, what isn’t clear at all is whether you’d get better results or the same results as you would with a competing method! The “proof is in the pudding” is not quite the right aphorism to use in regards to fitness interventions. If something works, it may just join a list with hundreds of similar methods that also work. So, the question is, can we build the perfect training program, just as we can build better and better bridges?
Did you notice the subtle shift? We know we have never built the perfect bridge, or the perfect building, or the perfect car. We know we can improve on all these over time, but we will never know whether any one scientific artifact is a perfect expression of the laws and limitations of nature. Because we do not know enough. With that in mind, you may be able to answer the posed question for yourself. We will never know if our training methods are perfect. We must be willing and able to examine all available data, including the data from our own observations and those of other pros. We must be able to study physical training just like we would study the forest. Not only one piece at a time but as a whole. We must be able to see how all the parts work together. Unfortunately, this realization gives rise to even more vague ideologies than evidence-based training, such as holistic training, functional training, and the like.
There are plenty of good programs and plenty of great training choices out there. Whether you learn to train yourself or you rely on methods generated by others, or by a personal trainer, realize that evidence doesn’t produce results, sound training does. If you get the result you want without undue risk (some risk is inevitable), then your training is sound.