Matt Perryman Matt Perryman

Should we really keep it real?

Over the years, I’ve made it a point to be loud and proud about my criticism of the fitness and supplement industries. That’s the main reason this blog and site were started; I’ve always put the truth ahead of sales gimmicks and flashy marketing, in an attempt to introduce some honesty into the field. I don’t regret that or think that I have anything (or at least very much) to apologize for.

I’m also not changing my stance on shady sales practices that I’ve come down on hard in the past. What I’m interested in is the role of thought and belief on results.

In research, we see this exhibited in the placebo effect. This is a bad thing if you’re a scientist working with human subjects, because it will confound your results. If you tell people you’re giving them something with a certain effect, that effect can happen even if you gave them sugar pills, instead of the real thing. People have to be kept in the dark about what they’re getting so it doesn’t screw up the experiment.

I’ve complained about this a lot with supplements because it’s easy to milk somebody out of a lot of money for stuff that doesn’t work. Those hyped supplements are either a bunk Fad of the Moment formulation, or stuff that does work but gets shoved into a diluted and overpriced shotgun package. It’s not cool to pay $60+ for caffeine pills or $300+ for a month’s supply of protein.

It’s easy to see why belief can be misplaced or even abused in those cases. But what about the positive applications of this psychology? If the power of placebo is that strong, and by implication your belief in an effect can influence the body in a real way, then why shouldn’t we use that as a tool?

Brutal honesty is good, and there’s something to be said for seeing through real bullshit. At the same time, I’m really starting to wonder how much those of us caught up in the 100% pure analytical-or-nothing thought processes hamper ourselves by not allowing a little “Bro-magic” into our routines.

I still remember what it was like being a starry-eyed newbie, picking up the muscle rags and thinking that if I really busted ass, got the training and diet dialed in, I could wind up looking like one of those guys. Yeah yeah, save the jokes — point being, a lot of us start out as “bodybuilders” and that’s the motivation to train. Like it or not, there’s an air of motivation around the bodybuilding culture.

The same thing goes for impressive strength feats. I can watch a big squat or pull or overhead press or whatever else and still feel that rush of motivation. That all gets me fired up to train. For an instant, I get that spark of belief where I’m not a broken mess and anything’s possible.

So here’s my question: what’s the line between healthy skepticism and willful delusion?

I mean obviously I’m not going to turn the clock back to where I was at 18, thinking I can be 250 with glute striations if I just apply myself. At the same time, what has cynicism and Keeping It Real done for anyone? You can be completely honest and objective in  your evaluation of reality…and totally miserable. A little self-delusion can do us good.

I’m going to give a shout-out to Chaos & Pain’s blog post which inspired this question on my part,  and because Jamie is pretty much the man when it comes to getting fired up and in the zone. I don’t know if you readers have noticed, but over the last year (give or take) I’ve been moving away from Mr. Science and slipping a lot more into Just Do Things mode.

My Bulgarian experiment a few months back was a product of this mindset; if you’d caught me 2-3 years ago, I’d never have bothered because I knew it wouldn’t work. Once I said screw it, try it and see what happens, I was pleasantly surprised. Turns out that what I knew wasn’t as true as I’d once thought.

And of course this all ties in to my thoughts on the brain’s plasticity and role as the primary governor of the body (which I’ve yet to elaborate on in any detail; that purely exists in my head for the moment). The fact that the mind can verifiably influence physiology is a facet of that, one that could be very useful — hence the discussion.

Being scammed is bad. Paying out the nose for a placebo effect is bad. But is having an optimistic, positive outlook towards your training, your diet, your whole life — even if that means accepting some untruths or outright bullshit — really that bad?