❮   all STORIES

The evidence based fallacy

Can we please stop majoring in the minors?

There has been a massive paradigm shift in the fitness industry over the past decade or so. An industry that used to be all hearsay was in desperate need of substantiation, which gave way to the evidence based movement. And for the good. It was about time that some of those stubborn old dogmas were laid to rest. However, the desire to support training theory with science has been increasing ever since, which has sprouted hordes of fitness enthusiasts who are now obsessed with measurement. What started as an evidence based movement is slowly starting to look more like an evidence based cult. And the question is: is this helping or hurting us?

Let it be clear that I believe in the power of good research. I have a background in Human Movement Sciences myself, and thoroughly applaud the advances in fields of exercise and nutritional sciences. Interesting though, is that most of those advances are about eliminating old beliefs that have proven to be faulty, but hardly ever bring about revolutionary new methods. If you compare what kind of training is being done nowadays versus the 1980's, you’ll notice that surprisingly little has changed.

photo by @wearebru
I'm not crazy, I'm just screaming so I don't have to listen to you majoring in the minors

Surely some things have changed. The overall advice has shifted somewhat from fixed repetition brackets ('do 6 to 12 reps for muscle growth') to a more fluid spectrum ('anything from 1 to 30 reps will do'), but for the rest little has changed. The best developed bodies are still built by pressing, pulling, squatting, and rowing a few times per week, while trying to work a little harder each time and eating sensible foods that aid in recovery. This makes it a peculiar occurrence that nowadays so many fitness enthusiasts can't stop arguing about protein requirement decimals or EMG values (electrical muscle activity) in exercises. Details that may make a difference when the basics have lost their magic - but how many are at this level, really?

"If you compare what kind of training is being done nowadays versus the 1980's, you’ll notice that surprisingly little has changed."

Many modern trainers are the worst. I can’t recall how many times I’ve unwillingly been sucked into discussions about what exercise supposedly trains the glutes best: ’Hip thrusts!’, ‘Squats!’, ‘Curtsey lunges!’, ’Banded side-lying clamshells!’. And preferably combined with the latest hyped method to ‘activate’ the muscles, of course. Usually the only question that arises in me is: why are we even having this discussion while neither of you has callouses on their hands?

Of course hip thrusts work, and so do squats - but if you are discarding either one because of some study then you are completely missing the point. You need all of those movements for full development, regardless of what the latest EMG table says. I see something similar happen with valuable - but limited - methods, like KAATSU training or ‘structural balance exercises’. They are thrown into the evidence based mix at cost of the much less sexy truth: you better start putting some weight on the bar, and not re-rack it until it feels like you are drowning on dry land. Because that’s what it takes to build a body that looks and performs the part.

"I loathe this sentiment that the body is a walking train wreck of sleeping muscles, ready to explode upon exposure to gravity."

And yes, if your technique sucks then you will probably need some coordinative retraining, or maybe you should shift part of your exercise selection in order to bring up a specific weakness. But I loathe this sentiment that the body is a walking train wreck of sleeping muscles, ready to explode upon exposure to gravity. Or that it is a machine that computes clear variables and spits out predictable results. That's just insulting to this resilient but deeply complex organism that you call your body.

I’ve been trying for over 600 words to not write ‘no pain, no gain’, because it must be the most worn out cliche out there. And I find such a simplification to be equally as distasteful as pretending that the body is easily mapped through a couple of measured variables. But maybe it's time to bring back a little old school. Respect your body, have eye for detail, and be on the lookout for improvement both in practice and theory. But I can tell you this: if the bulk of your training consists of landmine presses and dead bugs, then I’m quite sure that walking down the street no one will accuse you of having a gym subscription.

Bryan Wolters

MSc. Human Movement Sciences, former powerlifter, and current trainer at Vondelgym Amsterdam.

Get the latest Stories in your inbox

Thank you! Your submission has been received!

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form :(

Suggested Stories

Supersets are overrated

Quality over quantity

Mobility for gym rats

Don't overstretch your means