Don't Just Trust Me

TAGS: scientific method, internet forums, Internet Caveat Emptor: Don’t Just Trust Me (Part 1), strength information, Scott Stevenson, internet

How to Know What and Who to Trust on the ‘Net

Everybody’s an expert or at least plays one on the internet, right? But really, how can you know that you can trust what you read or what someone has told you?

What if I were to write:

“Minerals such as iron (Fe), zinc (Zn), and trace amounts of boron (B) begin accumulating during embryonic development in the tissues that later differentiate into skeletal muscle. These metals form the basis of the contractile machinery that imbues muscle cells with its force producing ability (1). In adult mammals, dietary deficiencies in these elements have been associated with a variety of myopathologies and muscle weakness whereas Fe, Zn, and chromium (Cr) supplementation produce muscle fiber growth, including hypertrophy and hyperplastic adaptations (2) even in the absence of external load (3).”

  1. Smith J, Doe J (2011) Genetic and dietary control of mammalian embryonic development: Muscle tissue. J Signif Results 43(3)198–26
  2. Deez N, Balls T (2003) Muscle plasticity: Structural and mechanical bases. Arch Histochem 22(11):1034–8
  3. Tate D, Meadows J, Starnes S, Dugdale M, Sapir A, Hill KS (2013) Supraphysiological mineral supplementation induces murine muscle enlargement in microgravity. J Mice Men 2(2):369–76.

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It may sound convincing, but hopefully you can tell that the quote above is completely fabricated as are the references. Given a quick read, perhaps by someone without education in the biological sciences, this could actually seem quite plausible because many tools (ranging from silverware to bulldozers) that convey force to external objects in our everyday lives are indeed made of metals. On the other hand, can you honestly say that you confirm the accuracy of novel information you don’t completely comprehend? Have you grown to trust authorship based on reputation, general agreement with your understanding, or simply an intuitive trust based on writing style or some other intangible (perhaps unconsciously conveyed) aspect of the information put before you?

In this two-part article, we’ll take a look at some basic “ways of knowing” something. I’ll give you my take on how (if) these yield insight and/or confusion for you as conscientious consumers of the health, fitness, bodybuilding, and strength and conditioning industry. If you read what I write below with more skepticism than in the past, my mission is accomplished believe it or not.

Ways of Knowing

One framework [but not the only one (4)] of organizing perspective on how we come to “know” things is by classifying “ways of knowing" (2):

  • Tenacity
  • Intuition
  • Logic
  • Authority
  • Scientific method

Tenacity: This Is How Arnold Did it

We can come to know things because we simply believe them (“tenaciously”). Tenacious knowing is tradition-based “belief” or faith in what one simply knows. An example of this may be the belief that one must do formal cardiovascular exercise (“cardio”) to get highly conditioned before a bodybuilding show. I've known individuals who cling to this notion with incredible tenacity, despite examples of individuals such as IFBB pros David Henry and Dexter Jackson who have prepped without cardio as well as elitefts™ team members John Meadows and myself.

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Bottom line: Tenacious beliefs that aren't criticized might just need to be revisited now and again.

Intuition: This Oughta Work

You might have seen someone in the gym doing some very interesting things that they seem to have intuited would work for building muscle mass. A common response to this “outside the box” thinking is to smirk and disregard.

Intuition is criticized because it’s unsupported by objective evidence. However, sometimes the objective evidence may only be apparent after the intuition has been put to the test. For instance, imagine walking into your hardcore gym (ten years ago) to see someone tie a tourniquet around his upper thighs before doing a set of high rep knee extensions with “ridiculously” light weight. You might even report said person to the management. (What if he decides to wrap that thing around his neck and try to squat that way?)

As it turns out, the inventor of blood flow restriction (aka occlusion or, in Japanese, Kaatsu) training simply intuited that reducing blood flow might evoke beneficial muscle adaptations after a prolonged, numbing sitting practice at a Buddhist memorial (9). More than fifty years later, occlusion training is used clinically throughout Japan to treat sarcopenia and is gaining support by American bodybuilders and in the western research literature as a legitimate means of increasing muscle size (1, 6, 12, 13).

Bottom line: Intuition in and of itself might be flimsy evidence to some, but it may lead one in the right direction.

Logic or Rational Thought: I Lift, Therefore I Am (Larger)

In my experience, logic and (informal) logical fallacies form a tremendous amount of the conversational rhetoric among bodybuilders. Naturally, what seems logical may not necessarily pan out quite so well. For instance, simply doing more cardio with the idea that the greater the caloric deficit, the leaner one can become may also run the risk of muscle loss (3).

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It’s far beyond the scope and purpose of this article to cover all logical fallacies (10), but here are a few of my favorites:

  • Straw man argument whereby a person’s argument is misrepresented by a “straw man.” “Lifting heavy weights produces muscle growth” is countered by “Lifting heavy isn't the only way to produce muscle growth.”
  • Ad hominem attack whereby a fact or presumed fact about a person is used to discredit his statement: “Well, because you’re a former drug dealer, nothing you say has any relevance here.”
  • Irrelevant conclusion or a red herring argument whereby someone continues to change the subject thus diverting attention from the real issue at hand: “Ronnie Coleman never used occlusion training and he got plenty large, so I don’t see a reason why this form of training can possibly work.”

Bottom line: Evidence may contradict logic or what seems logical at the time. Look for logical fallacies if a person’s conversational style seems evasive, confusing, defensive, or otherwise bizarre.

Empirical (Sensory) Experience: Been There, Done That

Experience, experience, experience. This counts for something, of course, but can also be influenced by “expectancies” (self-fulfilling prophecies), as demonstrated hundreds of times in experimental research: What an athlete (or his/her coach) expects to happen very well can and will happen (5, 7). This effect may obviously benefit performance, but over time, self-fulfilling prophecies can create bias that goes both ways. A critical expectation (“No, that won’t work”) can adversely impact an otherwise effective strategy (8), thus putting up roadblocks to (other) potential avenues of improvement. For example, if you are convinced that the only way to get really “dry” on stage is to make use of pharmaceutical diuretics, this expectancy may just ensure that this is the case.

Bottom line: Be aware of what you expect. You just might get it.

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In part 2 of this article, we’ll dig into the limitations of relying upon authority and science as ways of navigating the world of fitness, strength, and human performance. I’ll give you some personal insights (and perhaps piss off a few people) in the process but hope that this makes you a more informed and safer consumer.

References

  1. Abe T, Kearns CF, Sato Y (2006) Muscle size and strength are increased following walk training with restricted venous blood flow from the leg muscle, Kaatsu-walk training. Journal of Applied Physiology 100:1460–466.
  2. Forzano L-AB, Gravetter FJ (2009) Research methods for the behavioral sciences. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  3. Hawley JA (2009) Molecular responses to strength and endurance training: are they incompatible? Appl Physiol Nutr Metab 34:355–61.
  4. Kovach B, Rosenstiel T (2010) Blur: How to know what’s true in the age of information overload. Bloomsbury Publishing.
  5. McCambridge J, Witton J, Elbourne DR (2014) Systematic review of the Hawthorne effect: new concepts are needed to study research participation effects. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology 67:267–77.
  6. Nakajima T, Kurano M, Iida H, Takano H, Oonuma H, Morita T, Meguro K, Sato Y, Nagata T (2006) Use and safety of KAATSU training: Results of a national survey International Journal of KAATSU Training Research 2:5–13.
  7. Rosenthal R (2010) Pygmalion Effect. In: The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  8. Rosenthal R, Rubin DB (1978) Issues in summarizing the first 345 studies of interpersonal expectancy effects. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 1:410–15.
  9. Sato Y (2005) The history and future of KAATSU Training. International Journal of KAATSU Training Research 1:1–5.
  10. Tindale CW (2007) Fallacies and argument appraisal. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, pg. 218.
  11. Trudeau GB (1985) Doonesbury–Teaching Is Dead. Universal Press Syndicate.
  12. Weatherholt A, Beekley M, Greer S, Urtel M, Mikesky A (2013) Modified Kaatsu training: adaptations and subject perceptions. Med Sci Sports Exerc 45:952–61.
  13. Yatsuda T, Abe T, Sato Y, Midorikawa T, Kearns CF, Inoue K, Ryushi T, Ishii N (2005) Muscle fiber cross sectional area is increased after twice daily KAATSU-resistance training Int J Kaatsu Training Res 1:65–70.
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