The Intersection of Health Research and Actual Fitness Improvements

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Daniel Duane writing for the NY Times had a really interesting piece concerning the application of research results to workout routines:

The problem is that everybody in the fitness industry grabs onto this basic science — plus the occasional underfunded applied study with a handful of student subjects — and then twists the results to come up with something that sounds like a science-backed recommendation for whatever they’re selling.

Regardless of whether you’re a regular weekend warrior or a fitness fanatic, you’ll likely find yourself having reached some of the same conclusions in the past. Duane raises some interesting questions centering around personal training and the fitness industry in general. This struck me as a particularly common complaint or realization:

As for personal trainers, I’ve known great ones. But the business model is akin to babysitting: There’s no percentage in teaching clients independence by showing them basic barbell lifts and telling them to add weight each time. Better to invent super-fun, high-intensity routines that entertain and bewilder clients, so they’ll never leave you. The science of muscle confusion, in other words, looks a lot like the marketing tradecraft of client confusion.

It’s akin to the old adage “Give a man a fish, feed him for the day; show a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” It’s no secret that personal trainers build their income and their livelihood off repeat business. Resigning clients are a wonderful thing as they help guarantee a certain level of income for trainers in a business that is anything but steady.

However, to Duane’s particular argument, there are a lot of contributing factors that feed in to this public mistrust of trainers. I covered a handful of them in this post on what’s wrong with the personal training industry and how it can be fixed:

  1. As an industry, we went a bit overboard with the whole functional fitness craze trying to convince every client that they needed to be standing on a BOSU ball doing single-leg squats with a dumbbell in each hand. I’m not even sure where this all started, but it caught on like wildfire throughout the personal training industry leading to everyone ditching main barbell moves in search of their “functional” counterparts.
  2. There are a ton of sleazy salespeople in the world of personal training that are fantastic at getting you to sign a contract but terrible at delivering results. They’re trained in the latest sales tactics and use proven arguments to get you to hang around when you know you should quit. These people help to ruin the industry for the great trainers that are out there delivering results at a fair price.

If you think you’re getting screwed over by your trainer, follow the list here to help make personal training work for you. Seriously, ask questions, demand explanations, and take charge of your sessions. It’s one thing to sit back and complain about how you’re getting taken advantage of in the gym arena; the much better option would be to take ownership of your training sessions and demand a good return on your investment.

Duane continues:

The human body is an adaptation machine. If you force it to do something a little harder than it has had to do recently, it will respond — afterward, while you rest — by changing enough to be able to do that new hard task more comfortably next time. This is known as the progressive overload principle. All athletic training involves manipulating that principle through small, steady increases in weight, speed, distance or whatever.

Progressive overload is the foundational principle for strength training, and one that I’d argue everyone is familiar with in some form or another even if they’ve never been inside the walls of a gym. It’s a lovely principle that fails to hit home in today’s society.

Our society is based on immediate results and big “bang for your buck” purchases. As Ryan Holiday states in The Obstacle is the Way:

We are A-to-Z thinkers, fretting about A, obsessing over Z, yet forgetting all about B through Y.

Ryan was referring more to business in the book, but it applies to literally everything today. We want short-term success, and we want it now.

Duane goes on to conclude:

So if your own exercise routine hasn’t brought the changes you’d like, and if you share my vulnerability to anything that sounds like science, remember: If you pay too much attention to stories about exercise research, you’ll stay bewildered; but if you trust the practical knowledge of established athletic cultures, and keep your eye on the progressive overload principle, you will reach a state of clarity.

If only it were that simple! First, most individuals in our culture are completely mystified with exercise in general. So much hocus pocus exists in the fitness industry today that novice gym users literally have no idea what the “right” thing is to do when they walk in the gym.

Should I try Crossfit or go for yoga?

Is it bad to squat with my knees going over my toes?

Should I use machines or free weights? Well, scratch that; the free weight area is clogged up with muscle-bound dudes wearing tank-tops. I’ll just stick to cardio.

The “keep your eye on the progressive overload principle” sounds great in theory, but it lacks any real application. For that advice to be practical, the general public would have to have some actual understanding of how to structure a workout or actually achieve their goals. Unfortunately, 80% of Americans lack that knowledge altogether.

The solution isn’t just to start ignoring mainstream health and fitness news (although that’s a solid start). The key is learning to be your own editor. No one is going to filter the truth from the lies for you. It’s up to you to take ownership over your health and fitness. If following the principles of progressive overload is enough instruction for you, have at it. For everyone else, build your base of fitness knowledge and a team of trusted friends and advisors. Do your homework on new theories that hit the market. Settle for results, nothing less.

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