It seems like the anti-science backlash is beginning.
(warning: this is a 2100 word post about the scientific process. for a TL;DR, jump to “Is there really a conflict” at the bottom.)
The old-guard of strength coaches sat quiet long enough. For these people, science is useful insofar as it verifies things they already believe, but can be dismissed if it counters their own opinions and observations. Apparently, the relatively new trend of evidence-based coaches and writers questioning their claims and eroding their credibility has made them uncomfortable enough that they feel the need to start pushing back. And each time one of their articles gets published, it gets shared around and praised by a lot of very intelligent lifters and athletes, so clearly their position still broad appeal.
I feel like this position still has such a following because most folks like me suck at explaining how science works and both when it is and isn’t useful. We are stereotyped as nerds who are out of touch with the real world and in-the-trenches coaching, and boy do we deliver in spades.
So, I want to use this article as a defense of exercise science, only insofar as it’s actually defensible. I’ll do this by rebutting the most common anti-science claims made by opponents.
1. The studies done in the exercise science literature don’t have much relevance to the athletic population
Often, this is the case. For every study that gets done about how to further elite athletic performance, 10 are done examining how to help obese people lose weight, or help old people maintain a reasonable standard of living. Why? Because, quite frankly, it ultimately matters a lot more that we reduce our society’s waistline, or that the elderly can live independent, happy lives than it is for you to take your squat from 500 to 600. Therefore, the more valuable studies are the ones that get funded.
You may see a study looking at changes in strength and bone mass due to training on a vibration plate and think “dumb scientists, why not just make the people squat?!” Well, they’re probably more interested in outcomes for people unable to perform traditional strength training programs (i.e. the elderly or diseased), or for women developing osteoporosis. Scientists aren’t idiots. If you see a study and think “the entire premise of this study does not seem to relate to my goals in any meaningful way” then it’s because…. that study probably wasn’t conducted with people like you in mind.
HOWEVER, the fact that a preponderance of studies aren’t relevant to athletic performance does not mean that those studies that ARE performed on trained subjects and ARE relevant to athletic performance don’t have merit.
Rejecting the relevant exercise science literature because the bulk of the literature isn’t aimed at elite athletics is like dismissing mathematics because most of the math textbooks printed are for grade school classes, not Ph.D. level mathematicians.
2. Exercise scientists are dumb and design experiments to answer obvious questions
This critique is based on a misunderstanding of how science works. Something that *seems* self-evident can’t be assumed to be true if it’s a testable hypothesis.
For example, let’s say you see a study that says “hamstring curls increase EMG readings in the hamstrings, and heavier loads increase EMG readings more so than lighter loads.”
Those scientists probably knew they were going to get those results before they performed the experiment. However, if they wanted to do further research on the hamstrings (maybe something related to hypertrophy, strength, sprint performance, etc.), they need to establish the basics first.
It may seem like a tedious process, but it’s the only way to make sure you don’t have faulty assumptions that affect your outcomes and conclusions.
For example – dehydration causes cramping, right? Well, not so fast (example 1 and example 2). That’s an example of something everyone assumed to be true, but was found to be a faulty assumption when it was studied rigorously. One of the strengths of the scientific method is that it doesn’t take anything for granted. Studies about topics that SHOULD be obvious are just part of that process. They may seem pedantic, but they do occasionally find that things we all assumed to be true are, in fact, false assumptions.
3. Too many studies on untrained subjects
Refer to #1. Most people ARE untrained!
A study on untrained subjects is less relevant to the trained population, but it doesn’t affect the relevance of the literature as a whole, or whether applying science to the training process is a worthwhile endeavor.
4. Science says “such and such” is wrong, but we all know it’s true
I love this one (“love” as in, it makes me want to ram my head through a wall).
This criticism carries with it the assumption that you’re more likely to be right than the entirety of the scientific literature.
One of my favorites is hamstring involvement in the squat. Numerous coaches have hailed the squat as a hamstring developer, and have scoffed at scientists who have found (repeatedly) that squats really don’t train the hamstrings very well at all.
Do these coaches have EMG studies they’re hiding? Have they taken MRI or DEXA scans to assess hamstring hypertrophy utilizing squats vs. RDLs/GHRs/etc.
As my mother was fond of saying, “the truth has nothing to hide.”
“The barbell squat exercise causes substantial increases in hamstring activation, strength, and hypertrophy relative to (insert here any hamstring dominant exercise, such as deadlift variations)” is a testable hypothesis. If they think that’s true, they can test it and publish it, and then it will BE a part of the scientific literature. If all they’re saying is that the hamstrings do something in the squat, then they’re really not making a statement that’s at odds with the science at all.
Now, in some cases (the original steroid research prior to Bashin et Al comes to mind), science will come to poor conclusions because of poor study design, but that’s a question of context, and the correct response is to critique the methodology of the studies rather than to turn your back on the scientific process itself.
If you think you’re right and the science is wrong, and you can’t find major design flaws in the studies you dispute, you’re either arrogant and lacking a leg to stand on, or you’re in the position of needing to “put up or shut up.”
5. Science flip flops, changes positions, or isn’t reliable
Changing positions in the face of new evidence isn’t a weakness. That’s a sign of humility. Science doesn’t claim to have Truth (notice the capital T). Science merely tries to move closer and closer to what is actually true and verifiable. If something is found to be false, it should be discarded. That’s not wishy-washy-ness. That’s epistemological honesty.
6. You can find a study that says anything
This is another fundamental misunderstanding of how science works. Applying science isn’t about finding a single study to support your position. It’s about looking to see what the bulk of the literature says. Science is consensus-driven.
For example, if you have 2 poorly-controlled studies saying GMOs are going to cause cancer and kill you, and 15 major, well-controlled studies saying they’re fine and carry no significant long-term risk of disease, you go where the best and most numerous studies are leading. The fact that there are dissent and conflicting studies doesn’t mean science isn’t useful – it just means you need to examine the literature as a whole and not try to cherry-pick studies to make a point.
Reviews and meta-analyses are good places to start for an overview of a topic.
1. prescription vs. principles
Scientific studies don’t write training programs for you. They teach you about mechanisms and principles that you can then apply to your own training or to how you train athletes.
Science will never remove the importance of the strength coach. Science may give you the ingredients, but the trainer or coach is still the master chef. Training and program design will always be equal parts art and science.
2. individual variation
As I’ve harped on before, science deals with averages. It doesn’t (at least yet) account for individual variability. As such, it can help give you a starting point for programming, but a smart coach or athlete still needs to make adjustments to account for individual differences that can’t show up in a study that has to deal with means and standard deviations.
3. insufficient literature
This is a point the critics are 100% right about – right now, the scientific literature about training for elite level athletic endeavors is pretty thin gruel.
However, some would assert that the logical implication is we need to forget about exercise science.
I couldn’t disagree more. The best way to fix bad science or insufficient science is with more science! It is a self-correcting process.
For example, prior to the germ theory of disease, it was often thought that disease was caused by ill humors in the air, or by “bad blood.” Doctors weren’t held in particularly high esteem, and many were skeptical of the medical profession as a whole. However, Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch helped demonstrate that infectious diseases were actually caused by microorganisms, and thus modern medicine was born, and doctors were actually able to treat disease well and reliably get positive results from their treatments.
Just because the exercise science literature is insufficient for many questions an athlete or coach will wrestle with, that does not mean the process as a whole is unsound – it just means more research needs to be done to expand the knowledge in the field.
Luckily, I think we’re on the cusp of some really exciting times in strength science. Jacob Wilson, Alan Aragon, Brad Schoenfeld (who has literally a dozen studies in review right now – I’m sure mostly on trained athletes!), and many others are pumping out research almost every week that’s relevant to most of us on subjects like the effectiveness of post-workout protein supplements, whether high or low reps are better for muscle hypertrophy and strength, and the effects of blood flow restriction training on hypertrophy.
I think the critics are going to be amazed at the relevance and quality of studies that are coming down the pike in the next couple of years.
Is there really a conflict?
Or, to state it another way, why would a coach be critical of applying the scientific method to training athletes.
To reiterate – the truth has nothing to hide.
Honestly, I can only think of two reasons why someone would oppose exercise science.
a) they don’t understand how it works, and come to conclusions about its usefulness based on bad assumptions.
b) they don’t want to find themselves in a position of having to admit they’re wrong if the evidence comes out against them.
The best coaches (even once who aren’t explicitly citing scientific studies) are already using the scientific process every day.
Science isn’t complicated or reserved for the elites. It’s a simple process
1. make an observation
2. make a hypothesis (prediction) based on that observation
3. think of a way to test your prediction
4. run the test (experiment)
5. ask yourself if the outcome of the experiment supported your prediction, or called it into question.
Any good coach should always be trying to figure out better and better ways to improve their athletes’ performance. When they observe that something could be improved upon, attempt a fix, and then check to see if the changes had the desired effect, they are doing science. That is how good coaches became good coaches, and continue to become better coaches.
The only coaches not doing science, on some level, are the ones that say there’s only one way of doing things and refuse to change in the face of new evidence. They don’t realize that just because something works, it could still work better. Instead of innovation and improvement, this approach represents stagnation. It belies a stronger desire to assert that “I’m right, and have been right this whole time” than the desire to improve training outcomes for their athletes.
There is no true conflict between evidence-based coaches and in-the-trenches coaches. Evidence-based coaches start with the literature, and refine their approach based on in-the-trenches experience. In-the-trenches coaches start with experience, and apply the scientific method to their training programs to continue improving them. In my opinion, both are legitimate ways to learn and improve, and both camps should listen to what the other has to say.