It can be hard to sieve through all the fitness information on the Internet. Picking out the wheat from the chaff is tough, and to make it worse, even a lot of the good information out there is misunderstood and misused by those who access it. The issue is that we are obsessed with content, what the information is saying, but rarely give any thought to the context in which the information is being given.
Context is extremely important, as it helps a reader analyze how useful a piece of information is TO HIM/HER SPECIFICALLY. We all have our own sets of circumstances and factors that make our needs very individually specific. This means when we look at information, we need to ask ourselves: “How well does the context of this article apply to me and my life specifically,” before deciding how useful that information is.
To give an example, two individuals read an article recommending the brutal Smolov squat routine. The article raves about its ability to increase your squat numbers massively, add size to your legs, and make you potentially faster and more explosive on the sports field.
Person 1 is a 22-year-old, semi-pro rugby player in his off-season looking to get bigger and stronger. He is experienced in the gym, and he lives at home with his parents with no other commitments other than a part-time job on the reception desk at a local gym.
Person 2 is a 32-year-old, full-time electrician, spending anywhere from 6-12 hours per day doing some form of manual labor, including regular work trips away from home for a few nights. He is also experienced in the gym, but has two young children who limit his sleep and free time. He also has a partner he would ideally like to spend time with.
These two individuals are very different in terms of what they can recover from in the gym. Performing four long, intense squat workouts may be achievable for Person 1, who has little in the way of outside stressors and plenty of time to commit to the gym and recovery. Person 2, however, is performing manual labor five days a week on less-than-optimal sleep. He has time constraints, and his recovery capacity won’t be as robust due to the workload he is also placing on his body.
There’s no doubt the Smolov squat routine can do what the article claims, but does that mean both Person 1 and Person 2 would benefit from such a taxing routine? Person 1 may get the massive gains as advertised. But for Person 2, the workload and stress would probably be too much for his already-taxed recovery abilities and would lead to little or no progress.
This article was probably written with people such as Person 1 in mind – someone who has the ability to push themselves in the gym, unlike Person 2. The content of the articles has not changed, but the context is very different. This affects results.
Within the fitness industry, things are rarely as cut-and-dry as they may seem within articles and videos. Assessing how well certain information applies to you is crucial for accumulating the information that will have a positive effect. With that in mind, here are some typical situations I see in which people fail to analyze the context of information – usually to their detriment.
Elite bodybuilders/powerlifters/athletes and their training programs
We love to idolize those who have achieved what we are trying to achieve. As a result, we try to find out what those individuals are doing so we can copy them. The idea being, “Hey, he looks just like how I want to look, so I should train how he trains.” The issue here is that what that elite athlete is doing now is rarely, if ever, what they did to get to the elite level in the first place.
Once you reach a certain level, you need to work harder and harder to keep progressing. This means these elite athletes have to work very hard to squeeze out a minimal amount of progress. They are likely doing something a lot more extreme than you need to do to progress. Not only that, but these athletes – through experience – know exactly what their bodies are capable of. They know how hard they can push their bodies without crashing and burning. On top of this, most of these individuals will have no other work commitments (being strong/muscular is part of their job), might be monitored by experienced coaches, and may even be using chemical assistance to reach their goals.
So what they’re doing now is not necessarily good for you. What you would be better off doing is finding out how that individual trained when they were like you. What he/she did to get from being like you to the next level is a lot more applicable to you than what they’re doing now that they are at the elite level. Remember, most athletes spent a long time working hard at doing the basics before complicating things.
You MUST perform these exercises if you ever want to be strong/jacked/awesome in any way
Before I delve in to this point, I want to add some context. I am a powerlifter; therefore, I’m pretty fond of the squat, bench, and deadlift. Together, they make up probably 80-90% of my training volume, BUT they are by no means the be-all and end-all of exercises. You so often see authors raving about these exercises like they can cure cancer. God forbid if you can’t or don’t want to back squat; sorry, you are doomed to being small and weak and will likely be hunted down and eaten by larger humans who can squat heavy.
Can the squat, bench, and deadlift get you big and strong?
But the truth is there is nothing inherently special about the Big 3, and if you have no aspiration of competing in powerlifting (or your goal isn’t to squat/bench/deadlift X lbs), you don’t HAVE to perform them at all. There is no secret exercise or secret combination of exercises that leads to massive gains. Compound/multi-joint exercises ARE your best bet for improving your performance, but by no means does that mean you have to do the Big 3.
We are not all the same, and some may have issues performing exercises due to: body proportions, flexibility, injuries (existing/past), equipment limitations, etc. (Further Reading). Remember, staying healthy and injury-free is very important for longevity in this endeavour. Furthermore, always keep your goals in mind. If there’s an exercise that will help you reach your goals better than one you’re already using, then use it – even if the powers-that-be dictate it is a second-class exercise.
I generally like to choose 4-6 multi-joint compound movements that will help meet an individual’s goals. This sometimes doesn’t involve any of the typical “go-to” exercises. Here are two examples:
- Viper Press (Military Press sat on the floor with legs out in front)
- Power Clean
- Front Squat
- Floor Press
- Weighted Dips
- Snatch-grip High Pull
- Push Press
- Trap-bar Deadlift (starting with low hips)
- Farmers Walks
Don’t do *place exercise name here* – IT’S DANGEROUS!
In keeping with the previous point, there always seems to be one exercise condemned by all in the industry. For a few months, everyone in fitness will turn their back on overhead press, for example. People make blanket statements such as, “The overhead press will cause shoulder impingements,” “It has no carry-over to anything,” or even being more extreme and saying “The blood pressure spike caused by heavy pressing overhead will make your eyes explode out of your head.” And so on. So people stop performing overhead press because it’s apparently no good for anything. Again, context is ignored, and people suffer from utilizing bad information.
Let’s stick with the example above. Overhead pressing does lead to shoulder impingements in some individuals. This is because there are three different types of acromion processes that we can have within our shoulder joint. The different types carry high/medium/low risk of impingement (that’s what we’ll call them here for simplicity’s sake). If you have an acromion process that puts you at high risk, then overhead pressing (and possibly bench pressing) will likely cause issues. If you’re at medium risk, overhead pressing may be fine and bench pressing will likely not lead to impingement. If you have the low risk kind of acromion, you can likely do what you like (including even the “evil and deadly” behind-the-neck press!) and you will probably never even know what an impingement is.
Similarly, overhead press is often bashed by powerlifters for not having carryover to bench press. Now if you’re not a powerlifter in the first place, you should ignore this viewpoint, as it is irrelevant to you. Just like an Olympic lifter telling you he/she doesn’t bench press because it can lead to limited shoulder mobility shouldn’t bother you if you don’t want to excel at the Olympic lifts.
Even if you are a powerlifter, you should take this opinion with a pinch of salt. People have different benching styles, upper limb proportions, strengths/weaknesses, muscle attachments, and so on, all of which alter how much of an effect a certain muscle group will have on a certain exercise. For example, if someone has a relatively weak chest and their sticking point is with the bar on the chest, then overhead press will likely not have much carryover because it’s not attacking their specific issue. Decline/Dumbbell/Cambered bar bench press will be a better option for that person.
Likewise, the lifter who benches with a huge arch and the widest possible grip may not have much use for overhead press, as the front delts will contribute less to the movement. This is in contrast to the long-armed guy with a small arch who uses a more regular grip width. He may find overhead press has a great carryover to his sticking point a few inches off his chest.
So again, we have to look at this information and think: “Well, that person may well be correct in some contexts, but he/she may not be correct in relation to EVERYONE including myself.” Next time you read an article that tells you squats will make your knees implode, remember you’ve been squatting for the last five years and your knees definitely haven’t imploded, so maybe you’ll be OK.
This macronutrient/particular food is bad
The human body’s interaction with and use of the nutrients we put in to it is massively complex. Although we have started to learn more and more about optimal nutrition, it often seems like the more we know, the more we discover we don’t know. Simply put, no food on its own is really unhealthy. You can have an unhealthy diet because the majority of your food choices are of poor quality, but no single food alone will mean your whole diet is now unhealthy. There are indeed some things that, even if eaten in small quantities, can have very negative effects on your health; they are called poisons (think cyanide, not gluten), and we generally don’t eat them. So get it out of your head that dietary fat/red meat/eggs/salt or whatever else is the enemy that is single-handedly making your body store all your food as fat, clogging your arteries with plaque, and causing your hairline to recede.
If you are making good food choices the majority of the time (this generally means nutrient-dense foods), then no particular food is going to derail your progress. Likewise, there isn’t a type of macronutrient that should be avoided at all costs and trying to do so will usually have consequences for your performance and health. Even sugars (pre- and post-workout nutrition, glycogen replenishment) and saturated fats (synthesis of hormones) have beneficial roles for an active body when moderation is exercised.¹ When certain foods/nutrients are red-flagged, the underlying issue is usually caused by the person consuming said foods. Inactivity is usually the enemy.
Not only this, but any studies that come out with radical findings and crazy headlines (I.e. “Vegetable oil causes 60% increase in fat storage”) attached to them are almost always either taken completely out of context or are simply bogus (performed the research/experiment 10 times and published the one spurious, out-lying result). Sadly, when it comes to these things, whether it’s in newspapers or on the Internet, the currency of success is how many people look at it. Radical statements grab attention. “Vegetable oil-dominated diet causes 60% increase in enzyme involved in some lipogenetic pathways compared to controls” does not grab attention. In addition, the vast majority of research is performed on lab mice or other non-human mammals (for obvious reasons). While research can and has given us fantastic insights into nutrition, it’s a big jump from these kinds of studies to applications for human beings.
Different people have different requirements, and our requirements change over time as our metabolism adapts.
Just like with training, a great diet guideline for one person may be awful advice for the next person. The low-carb diet seems to be all the rage in the media currently, and it is touted as a cure-all for the Western world’s generally abysmal diet. The trouble is that these low-carb diets are found to have benefits for sedentary individuals, who are very often already overweight to begin with (and rarely if ever outperform higher carb diets when calories and protein are matched anyways). These are individuals with very poor diets to begin so most of the benefits seen during these studies are simply due to a general improvement in diet, including increased protein intake, rather than a low carbohydrate diet having some kind of special effect. When the results of different types of diets on weight loss are compared there is usually no significant difference caused by carbohydrate intake level or macronutrient composition . These individuals have vastly different requirements to Person 2 from earlier on in this article, who is working manual labour 8 hours a day as well as weight training 4/5 times per week. Despite all the bad press carbs have gotten due to their effect on insulin, they are still the body’s preferred and most efficient energy source. They are the best option for fueling physically taxing activity. Not only this, but their effect on insulin is crucial for refilling glycogen stores, which is very important for performance.
Despite all the articles, books, and God knows what else I’ve read on diet and nutrition, the following three tips are probably the best pieces of advice I could give to 90% of people:
1) Learn to cook and practice it as often as you can.
2) If a food was in your grandma’s kitchen, it’s probably a good choice (Unless you had a good Southern grandma who fried everything in Crisco. Hydrogenated oils are one of the few things that really are quite bad, even in modest quantities).
3) Eat like an adult. We all know what this means. Coined by Dan John, the expert in making all things fitness-related simple
Follow these three guidelines and you will already be a couple of steps ahead of most people when it comes to diet and nutrition. It’s not flashy and fancy, but what REALLY works generally isn’t.
Bringing it all together
As an author, I know that when an article, book, or blog post is written, there is a certain target audience in mind (even if it is targeted subconsciously). Personally, I try to make my writing reach as many people as possible (as I have tried to do here), but this is not how everyone approaches this. Unless an author called you and questioned you extensively about a subject so they could write an article about it, chances are the article you’re reading isn’t directed at you specifically. Therefore, you need to analyze exactly how applicable that information is to you. Is the book touting the benefits of intermittent fasting applicable to you if you work 10 hours a day in manual labour AND train in the evenings, meaning your body requires fuel all day as you are constantly physically active? Is the article about the benefits of depth jumps applicable to the guy who’s trying to stay fit and muscular after two knee replacements?
My protocol when reading something new is as follows: read it thoroughly, then assess the author (their target audience, their experience level with people who have similar goals to mine, their experience level of working with people of my experience level and in a similar lifestyle to me, etc.), then re-read the article again to pick out the information that is useful for me. Then, I realize that maybe the advice from the NFL strength coach may not apply to my client, 45-year-old Mr. Average Joe who wants to look a bit better when his clothes are off.
As Bruce Lee said: “Absorb what is useful. Discard what is not.”
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1. L. M. Burke , G. R. Collier and M. Hargreaves (1993). Muscle glycogen storage after prolonged exercise: effect of the glycemic index of carbohydrate feedings. Journal of Applied Physiology, 75(2).
2. Golay A, Eigenheer C, et al (1996). Weight-loss with low or high carbohydrate diet? International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders: Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 20(12). 1067-1072.
3. Frank M. Sacks, M.D., George A. Bray, M.D et al. (2009). Comparison of Weight-Loss Diets with Different Compositions of Fat, Protein, and Carbohydrates. The New England Journal of Medicine.