Skepticism in Training

TAGS: personal training, Sports Training, max effort method, powerlifting, strength training, Elitefts Info Pages, barbell

I am a powerlifter. One of my great passions in life is spending time in the gym lifting heavy weights. To this day, I cannot think of anything more satisfying than setting a hard earned personal record. Well, let’s just say there are very few things that are more satisfying.

I’m not alone, of course. It really does not matter whether you compete in powerlifting, weightlifting, or strongman competitions. If you are in these sports, you are spending quite a bit of time, energy and money in search of the next big PR. Sometimes progress comes easy, but most of the time it does not work that way.

Ultimately, progress in the gym comes down to knowledge. One source is the invaluable knowledge that lifters pick up from spending time under the bar. Another equally beneficial source of information comes from sitting down and discussing training with other lifters; chalk talk if you will. This special sort of camaraderie is probably the main reason why I train.  However, the simple truth is that before this sort of knowledge can be applied to training, the lifter must start off with a scientifically sound foundation.

You see, I am also studying to be a scientist. Specifically, my background is in Sport Science. One thing that I find disheartening is when lifters shrug off scientific evidence as something that is useless; a phenomena that seems to be on the rise as of late. However, I can certainly see why some feel this way. I would agree that a lot of the studies out there in the sport science journals were designed and conducted by individuals who have obviously not spent much time acquiring knowledge from the two previously mentioned sources. It is not that scientific training knowledge is not applicable; it’s just that a lot of sport scientists have been asking the wrong sorts of questions. What I would like to do is ask you to view science differently; to see it not as a source of information, but as a powerful tool, which can help you construct the optimal training program.

The late astronomer Carl Sagan described the scientific method as not so much what you know, but how you think. It seems that in life, people are always trying to tell you what you should know. This is especially true in when it comes to the strength / fitness industry. There is so much training hokum out there, how can you tell when you come across a seemingly useful bit of information? The problem is that no one spends anytime teaching you how to think critically. What I would like to do, if I may be so bold as to borrow some of Dr. Sagan’s own terminology, is to present you with a baloney detection kit for training information. Granted, bad information is not always spread on purpose, but this list, inspired by the works of a leading author in skeptical thought (1), should help you identify such information, as well as to recognize when thinking goes wrong.

The “Kit”

1. Question the So-Called “Training Program”

When you come across a training program, it is appropriate to question its validity. Is the program based on reliable information? Has the author applied the program to any population, and do the results warrant its authorship? Does the author of the program have a vested financial interest in your participation?

2. Observation is not Foolproof

Once upon a time, someone made a trip to Bulgaria to observe the training of one of the top weightlifting squads. What they observed was a group of men training maximally just about every training session. What they failed to observe was all the other times of the year when these athletes were not training maximally every session. The result was a lot of people performing training that surely resulted in less than optimal adaptations, if not all out overtraining.

Be mindful that the training you observe others doing may not be representative of their entire macrocycle. In addition, understand that the simple act of observation is likely going to alter the observed.

3. The Fallacy of Equipment Dependency

Having state of the art training equipment at your disposal is great. Few have such a luxury. However, beware of any training advice that involves the purchase of any one piece of equipment. Such ploys are usually attempts to make money.

What is important is that you perform exercises that utilize the joint ranges of motion, and appropriate forces, that you will experience in competition. If you have a barbell, odds are you have all you need already. If you are made of money, buy whatever you wish.

4. Anecdotes Do Not Always Make for Reliable Training Advice.

We established earlier that seeking the opinion of others is a great way to acquire training knowledge. However, you need to take this information for what its worth. What has the individual providing this information been able to accomplish using it? Has this information proven useful with other lifters? For all you know, this person may have a flair for embellishments.

5. Bold Statements Do Not Make Claims True

This one obviously applies to more than just training. The easiest way to fool people is to evoke emotion. If an individual is making bold statements that sound too good to be true, then the statement is probably false. That’s all there is to it. Truth does not need to rely on antics. If someone insists there stance is true, remember, the burden of proof is theirs.

6. Fancy Words Do Not Make For Valid Training Information

If you are an educated and well-versed person, and you pick up a training article that is incomprehensible and overly complicated, then it is not valid. In addition, train yourself to look for the inclusion of buzzwords, which are clear signs of bad training information. Just take a look at the Late Mel Siff’s Guru Terminology Kit. This can be found in Siff’s book Facts and Fallacies.

7. Radical Positions Do Not Equal Correctness

Every once and a while, someone comes along with a radical new position. Think of Copernicus or Einstein. These men had very radical ideas that turned out to be revolutionary.  But then again, they were not talking about increasing bench press strength or vertical jump height.

In this field, you need to understand that there is nothing really new out there. If you hear something that seems radical, then it’s probably made up out of nowhere. Well, maybe if I fly to the moon, performing super slow reps will make me an explosive athlete, but while I’m on earth I will stick to moving heavy weights as fast as I can. Consider the following quote (1)…

“They laughed at Copernicus. They laughed at the Wright brothers. Yes, well, they also laughed at the Marx brothers. Being laughed at does not mean you are right.”

8. Watch out for After-The-Fact Reasoning

Correlation does not mean causation. If someone incorporates a specific strategy into their training program, and the outcome is favorable, remember that this result is not necessarily due to that strategy. During the course of a training cycle, there are many variables that can affect performance. If Joe Blow decides that smith machine squats really helped his deadlift performance, it would be in your best interest to corroborate this finding before incorporating it yourself.

9. The Rationalization of Failure

Let’s say that you are under the tutorage of a “strength” coach. In the event a certain strategy proves unsuccessful, that coach must admit that the approach was, at best, less than optimal. If failure is rationalized, then odds are your coach spends more time stroking his ego than gaining training knowledge. A sign of a truly intelligent man is the ability to admit that he does not know everything.

10. False Analogies

The problem with analogies is that they are often used to cloud your thinking. For example, I recently read a statement that declared, “Since you spend most of the game on one foot, you should spend most of your time in the weight room performing unilateral leg exercises”. Sounds good, right? Well, no one ever seems to ask these people why you would use one leg, when you could use two. This improves stability, thereby allowing you to lift more weight. More weight is a stimulus for improved chronic force production. Improved force production, say during a sprint, equals faster sprinting.

11. The Appeal to Ignorance

You may argue with me that balance disk training is absolutely vital to improving athletic performance. I may not have access to peer-reviewed scientific evidence to the contrary. However, my inability to prove your claim wrong does not make yours true! And of course, as mentioned in point 5, the burden of proof is on you.

In addition, if two individuals are arguing over the efficacy of balance ball training versus kettle bell training, proving one side wrong does not necessarily make the other one true; this is otherwise known as the Either-Or Fallacy.

12. The Ad Hominem Attack

This is a common strategy used in politics; discrediting your opponent’s opinion by attacking his character. This strategy pokes its head in the training world as well. For example, the Soviet Union dominated the weightlifting world for some time. As a result, many coaches and athletes devoted quite a bit of time to learning their training “secrets”. On the other hand, other coaches insisted that the Soviet Union’s success was due to advanced drug programming. It is certainly true that the Soviet Union may have used such strategies. However, that does not mean their training methods were not valid. Such claims must be addressed objectively.

13. Over-Reliance on Authority

Just because an individual holds a position of authority in the field, that does not make them right all the time. Odds are they got to that position by being very good, so respect their opinion. But, you should always be prepared to turn a critical eye their way.

14. Occum’s Razor

All things being equal, the simplest explanation for any given occurrence is likely the correct one. This is a powerful tool for cutting right through myth. For our purposes, I have modified it a bit. “All things being equal, a simple approach to training is usually the better option”. When your training program is starting to look a bit complicated, you should think about scaling back a bit.

15. Ideological Immunity

Something strange seems to happen when people learn. As they accumulate more and more knowledge, they become less and less likely to admit what they do not know. As you start to accumulate training knowledge, you will begin to get a little arrogant. You will see guys in the gym doing weird stuff and be quite judgmental. This should be a warning for you. As soon as you become comfortable in your ideology, that’s when you will cease to learn. Of course, if you see a guy doing tricep kick-backs, by all means, please say something. It’s for his own good.

16. Spinoza’s Dictum

Once you have honed you’re skeptical eye, you need to be careful not to be critical simply for the sake of being critical. Consider this quote from the seventeenth century philosopher Baruch Spinoza...

“I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them”.

Once you develop a sharp, critical eye, use it responsibly. Cutting down someone’s opinion for no good reason does not help advance the field, it just makes you look like a jerk.

Remember, there is a lot of good training knowledge out there. You must try your best to seek it out. Invariably, however, you will come across some bad information. I hope this kit has armed you with a certain skeptical perspective, which will help you identify the garbage.

Train hard. Train smart.


1. Shermer, M. Why people believe weird things: Psuedoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time. New York, New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC., 2002.

Loading Comments... Loading Comments...