Matt Perryman Matt Perryman

Narrowing the Bullseye

I often find myself describing science as a limiting factor. The typical lay-view, reinforced by Hollywood, stereotypes scientists as mysterious figures in labcoats handing down edicts the same way a king would hand down laws to his peasants. But it doesn’t quite work that way.

Most fields relevant to us — falling under the considerable umbrella of biology — are descriptive sciences: variable X causes event A, under circumstance Y. We watch it, write it up, and try to figure out what’s going on based on what we already know.

Rayleigh scattering causes the sky to appear blue on cloudless days. That’s the process of descriptive science. Watch a thing happen, and then explain the immediate causes and the circumstances in which it happened. Descriptive science leads to an ever-greater level of detail as causes and effects are established, leading us down the rabbit hole as more questions arise from each answer.

In these fields, published research establishes boundaries. Very rarely do you run into any kind of prescriptive knowledge, the What To Do, step-by-step user-manual kind of knowledge that seems expected by a considerable fraction of gym-goers. You can imagine how these conflicting views create friction between science and practice.

In the softer domains of personal training and S&C coaching, you run into real and very valid criticisms of exercise science research. While there are good points to make regarding validity and generalization — points I often agree with — dismissing research without consideration isn’t helping anyone. I find that to be as unhelpful as the crowd that can’t make any decisions without a Pubmed abstract.

Consider a bullseye drawn on the side of a barn. The target represents everything we’d consider a form of exercise, from Pilates to powerlifting, marathons to mountaineering. You’ve got darts in your hand. Where you aim on the board is the kind of exercise you end up doing. The bullseye is your goal — the Ironman triathlon, the strongman contest, the game next week.

But let’s say you’re blindfolded. You barely caught a glimpse of the place, and definitely have no idea where the bullseye is. How well are you going to do? About as well as you’d expect. Your darts wind up all over the place. If you hit the bullseye at all, it’s through the magic of probability, not any plan on your part.

Science works like the scope on a rifle. All the useless fluff is blocked out, letting you focus on the narrow area you need to hit. You cut out the chaff and get a much better view of your target.

Research falls victim to sloganization. Complex topics require nuanced discussion; when you compress them into one-line sound bites, you lose much of the meaning. Mainstream science reporting is notorious for this, creating sensation by diluting the content with exaggerations and distortions, oversimplifying the matter to the point of uselessness.

‘When you lift weights you’re trying to break down the muscle fibers so they’ll grow back stronger.’

Damn near any trainer you talk to, fresh out of PT 101, will say that line. Even people that should know better say that, because it’s easier than going into the details. Worse than that — that’s the sloganized form of science that’s passed around the lay-folk at the gym. When regular people at the gym think it’s true, it’s time to re-evaluate your premise.

And truth told, the phrase isn’t even that wrong. Incomplete. Missing some important shades of meaning. But not wrong.

I once posted Isaac Asimov’s essay The Relativity of Wrong. If you’ve never seen it, read it. If you’ve read it before, read it again.

The essay points out that we’re all wrong one way or another, but wrongness is a matter of degree. We do the best we can with the information we have. The better the information, the more right we become. Being wrong isn’t a failing provided you’re using the best-available information.

Asimov’s premise is that it’s useless to point out that ‘we don’t know everything’ when your alternative is a less informed viewpoint. Since wrongness is a matter of degree, it is possible to be more wrong if you lack (or just throw out) important information. The Greeks figured out the world was round, but they had no way to send satellites into LEO to measure the equatorial bulge from rotation. And yet the Greeks were still more right than the people who thought the world was flat.

Anybody making the point that we should throw out the idea of a mostly-orblike world because it’s not perfect, and that we should run back to the flat Earth model, would rightly be laughed at. You may recognize this thought process by another name: Bro-Science.

You exchange an incomplete, yet still well-informed viewpoint, for an alternative which includes less information and has less predictive power. Phrased that way, it sounds like a losing proposition — and yet that’s how great swaths of personal training and the S&C field operate.

Science works by adding information, and that information narrows your options. The flat-Earth viewpoint made sense based on the available information, but nothing ruled out a spherical world, a toroid, or any number of exotic configurations. Later measurements made the flat model impossible, while not ruling out further refinements.

That’s how this works. Science very rarely contradicts itself outright. Instead, we get incremental refinements. Knowledge expands itself and improves on what we know. Einstein proved Newton wrong, in a manner of speaking, and yet Newton’s ideas on gravity and motion are still applicable to any situation you’ll ever encounter on Earth (unless you work at the LHC or something).

Science shrinks our target and zooms in on the bullseye. Science refines knowledge and eliminates nonsense. The ‘break down the muscle’ view of muscle growth isn’t 100% correct, though there’s a lot right about it. The question is whether or not it gets results — that is, does it have any predictive power? Does it at least match up to observations?

You can break down muscle tissue with anything from ultramarathons to Heavy Duty one-set-to-failure modes of training. The space of possibilities that fall under the slogan is immense — virtually any physical activity qualifies.

What we need is to narrow it down. We’re looking for specific kinds of muscle breakdown — and importantly, it’s not damage or pain we’re after, but the right kind of fatigue. We need to fatigue the contractile proteins within the muscle by overloading them with resistance. The ‘break down the muscle’ analogy begins here, even though it’s questionable as to whether this even qualifies as damage. There are several papers, including this beauty which just came out the other day, strongly suggesting that real damage, including the inflammatory event and soreness, isn’t necessary for growth to occur. Damage is secondary and unwelcome compared to the kind of muscular work that triggers the hypertrophic machinery.

If you don’t know that, if you’re just going by the slogan, then you’ve got a massive target to aim at. Anything that sounds like it might hit the bullseye will turn up on your checklist. Running on the treadmill for an hour or two would qualify; after all, that breaks down protein in the muscle fibers. Knowing more details about protein metabolism, about tension and work-induced hypertrophy, about myogenic regulatory factors, narrows down the options by ruling out all the things that don’t fit.

We all create filters based on what we know. The more information you have, the more precise — and ironically, the more open minded — your worldview. Your worldview is your lens that focuses the world into a manageable set of rules and ideas. When the slogan-educated person filters information, he’s shining a spotlight on the wall. Big, amorphous, and not very helpful. The more information you get, the more precise your beam.

Science is not the end of information. It should be the beginning, a framework for you to filter everything else. The better your filter, the better your process.