One of the core problems facing everyone involved in fitness and strength training is how to figure out what is garbage and what is legitimately effective.
This can be difficult because the entire field of exercise science is still made up of a lot of unknowns. Most of the knowledge and things we take for granted today have come in large part from experts in the field, the coaches and trainers that actually work with various athletes.
Even then, there’s a wide disagreement among these practitioners. A lot of it will really boil down to argument over fine details, as the general philosophies will usually line up.
But the devil can often be in the details; how do you know what you should listen to and what you shouldn’t?
Ideally speaking, we should use a rationalist stance in evaluating information. This means being open-minded, but at the same time being critical, logical, and rational in how we look at material.
Due to some weird quirks of human psychology, the rationalist stance can easily be derailed. Humans are emotional thinkers, reactive to the feelings and sensations that different things can elicit in us. This is the basis of much of our culture in fact, from religion to politics. We like ideas, we like charismatic people to rally behind, and we like groups to be a part of.
Marketing is based on the scientific study and application of these responses, in fact. By study and understanding what people will respond to, you can create an entire program designed to make people give you money. It’s elegant, in some ways, while being a little bit scary.
Getting back on topic a bit, the fitness industry in the modern day actually does have some interest in helping you out. The problem is that marketing, and more precisely the emotional responses it’s designed to tap into, has made everybody’s opinion relevant.
Most of us in the know refer to these guys as Gurus. They develop a system of training and/or dieting, codify it and turn it into various products that they sell you, and make money.
There’s nothing wrong with this, I want to add. As long as the information is of good quality, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making money off it. Both parties benefit from the exchange.
There’s one tiny problem that comes up, though.
Gurus can fall prey to their own marketing rhetoric. When this happens, the rationalist stance flies right out the window. Open discussion is closed, disagreement is chided, and censorship will begin.
So how do you operate when you listen to authority? Are you emotional, falling into line based on promises and expectations? Or are you a rationalist, evaluating skeptically, but fairly?
An expert worth listening to will be a rationalist by nature. He or she will be capable of backing up claims made, be it with science or anecdote. He will be able to admit gaps in knowledge, or areas which are speculation.
Gurus tend to fall into three categories, based on level of competence:
The Bro – The Bro is a meathead down at the gym that is big, ripped, and probably on drugs. He played football in high school (if he’s American), and works as a personal trainer. The Bro might understand a little science, but it’s just enough to get him into trouble and support his Bro-logic beliefs. A Bro’s claims can be easily countered with basic logic and science reasoning. Once challenged the Bro will inevitably respond by moving the goalposts with arguments like “hey, look at me!” or “oh yeah, well science doesn’t know everything, look at me!”. Expect to hear inflated claims of bench press numbers or body fat levels, and how those pencil-neck researchers don’t know anything.
The Educated Trainer – The Educated Trainer is a guy that works down at the gym that’s a cut above. He may or may not have an impressive physique, but he doesn’t rely on this to get business. Instad, he relies on being educated and knowing things. This actually does put him a cut above in the Bro-dominant personal trainer industry, but instead of falling victim to Bro-logic, the Educated Trainer relies too much on research topics. This means he will probably have a really good grasp of general fitness topics and how to work with special populations. The drawbacks are that he will tend to be closed-minded with regards to what he does know.
- The True Professional – This guy is the real deal (no sarcasm implied). He’s actually trained and worked with athletes, may have some higher education, and generally speaking knows his stuff. So where’s the problem? The True Professional can still be a Guru and fall prey to Guru hubris. Themes here will include getting so locked into a way of doing things and a single thought process that anything outside this becomes worthless.
The common theme here is the argument that science is the best, until science disgrees. Then we can ignore the things we don’t like, cherry-pick the parts that support our argument, and maintain the Guru status of expert. Often enough the goalposts are moved so that knowledge isn’t the measure; we’re instead shown glitz and glamour in the form of high-level athletes. In other words, marketing over substance.
Hey, you can get results, that’s awesome. But if your knowledge is shaky, it’s shaky. If it’s not applicable to certain groups, if it’s not applicable. And for the love of Rama don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your way is the only way; down that path lies total failure.
The rationalist approach is much better. Instead of slavishly sticking to a mantra, you can actually use this contradictory data to either come up with reasons for the contradiction, or use it to update your own thought processes.
But this might require some common-sense thinking, which is apparently hard to come by.