Science and Practice: A Response to Glassman
As a follow-up to a previous article titled “Training or Working Out?”, I want to consider the recent comments made by Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit.
“No successful strength and conditioning program anywhere has ever been derived from scientific principles. Those claiming efficacy or legitimacy on the basis of theories they’ve either invented or corralled to explain their programming are guilty of fraud. Programming derives from clinical practice and can only be justified or legitimized by the results of that practice.”
The problem with Glassman’s statement—aside from the fact that it isn't true—is that it gives one the impression that science has nothing to offer the coach or trainer. This statement is false because the most successful training programs ever created—those of the Soviets and the Eastern Europeans—were the result of the near merger between science and clinical practice. Michael Yessis notes, “In the U.S.S.R., many types of researchers take part in the evaluation of an athlete's typical workout, with every exercise studied meticulously to determine its precise benefits and even when it should be performed for maximum advantage” (from 50 Secrets of Soviets Sports Fitness and Training).
Soviet coaches were required to complete a rigorous scientific education prior to engaging in what Glassman terms “clinical practice.” These programs attempted to base training programs entirely upon scientific principles. But Glassman is partially correct in that he says that “programming can only be justified or legitimized by the results of that practice.” Ultimately, scientific theories are beneficial to coaching insofar as they help one attain results. He is only partially correct because he vastly oversimplifies the way in which any training prescription or statement, scientific or practical, can be justified.
In order to better articulate the relationship between science and coaching, I want to return to the notion of a practice as articulated by Alasdair MacIntyre in his book After Virtue. I will paraphrase his definition. A practice, according to MacIntyre, is a form of social activity that is complex and highly integrated. Such activities must also be done for their own sake; they aren't merely instrumental. This means that people do such activities because they find them valuable and fulfilling. They find these activities fulfilling by trying to emulate and successfully adopt the thoughts and action that are taken at any given time to be the best examples of what it means to be successful at the activity in question.
For example, if we take something like powerlifting, it's clear that people are trying to lift as much weight as those who hold records in any given weight class. But it is much more than this. Powerlifters are also trying to adopt the methods that those successful lifters have used. This process is constantly evolving so that as time passes successful methods are ‘distilled’ from the chaotic background noise. It is this constantly evolving process by which standards of excellence are slowly brought to the surface that MacIntyre terms a practice. It is because activities with these characteristics provide the right framework and setting to provide a basis for standards of excellence that he thinks we should pay attention to such activities.
Looking back to Glassman’s statement, it is clear that he understands that a practice—in his case, some form of athletics—can provide one with a basis for justifying or making claims about the validity of training methods. Here, Glassman’s egregious error becomes apparent. Nobody doubts that successful powerlifters and successful powerlifting coaches (and the same goes for any other sport) have authority because the methods they employ have been successful. However, this doesn't mean that the sciences have nothing to offer in the way of designing a successful training program.
From MacIntyre’s perspective, each of the sciences is itself a ‘practice,’ an activity that enables one to speak and act authoritatively regarding some aspect of the world. An exercise physiologist participates in a specialized activity that is analogous to powerlifting or Olympic lifting in that it is a social activity involving large numbers of people trying to solve a related set of problems. For powerlifting and Olympic lifting, it is how to lift more weight injury free in the respective events. For exercise physiology, it is how to understand the underlying mechanisms that respond to various training methods. It is clear that there is a significant amount of overlap between these different activities and this is typical. Often one activity will borrow methods from other activities. Engineering borrows methods and principles from physics as does exercise physiology. As an engineer, it isn't possible to test and prove all the methods taken from other sciences. One must accept the best conclusions of these sciences and attempt to utilize them while acting as an engineer. If one’s project is unsuccessful, one doesn't write off physics as if the practice of physics doesn't provide good evidence for the principles and methods currently used by physicists. Instead, one questions one’s own adaptation of those methods. The successful coach must do the same.
Contrary to Glassman’s statement, the theories developed in kinesiology, physiology, and bio-mechanics as well as in physics, biology, and psychology can provide an intelligent coach with a rich source of information from which to develop a training program. They can also often provide a justification for the programs that a trainer develops. Thinking otherwise leads to (CrossFit) coaches who have never heard of periodization and whose idea of programming is essentially random. Because each of us is limited in our experiences, we need the experiences of other people who participate in our activity (i.e. "this worked for so and so who won such and such which is why we are implementing this program”). However, because each activity or practice is limited in that it only involved a narrow slice of reality, we must look to other such activities, other practices, to provide us with resources for developing and justifying our actions, especially our training programs. Forsaking the sciences and only focusing on clinical experience leaves one with many dead ends—a lot methods tried and proven unsuccessful—that could have been avoided had one looked to the broader perspective provided by the sciences.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The opinions and statements in this article are not necessarily the opinions of elitefts™, its staff or owners. We do feel that an open discussion of training should be encouraged, and NOT blindly following ANY training methodology is the only sensible path.