Iron Philosophy 103 – Skepticism and the Slow Death of Nonsense

 In a hurry? Have some highlights! (TL;DR)

A Few Guidelines for Spotting Potential Nonsense:

  • Claims that a particular training and/or dietary practice is the only way to achieve a particular result.
  • Promises of drastic changes in a very short amount of time (e.g. the classic “add 2 inches to your arms and/or get a shredded six pack in just 2 weeks” programs).
  • Pretty much anything that revolves around a supplement or “one weird trick” as the linchpin of the secret formula for getting shredded or jacked. For that matter, probably also most anything that uses the word “secret.” 

A Few Things to Check (Often):

  • First, assess whether you are making progress towards your goal, whatever it may be. For that matter, make sure you have some goal(s) to progress towards.
  • Consider each aspect of your training (as well as supplementation, recovery practices, etc.) and ask yourself, “What is the function of this? Does it move me closer to my goal?”

Lastly:

  • Don’t be scared to try new things, whether it is the addition of a a new technique, or the removal of something that is normally a staple. Just remember to keep track (e.g. with a journal) of what you are doing so that you can more reliably learn what works.

Now…

For the past several years, I have kept a running list of training tidbits—things I have tried (and how they’ve worked), things I want to try in the future, potentially helpful things I have picked up here and there on the interwebz… So on and so forth.

Do you know what I call this list?

“Everyone is Full of Shit, and I am Too.”

Why? It’s not because I actually think everyone  (myself included) is completely full of shit. No. Rather, it’s more of a tip of my metaphorical hat to an idea—the idea that we need to practice skepticism with both vigilance and consistency if we hope to tease out the kernels of truth buried amongst the ocean of information available at our fingertips.

Now, just to confront the whole “guy on the internet tells his readers that everything they read on the internet is bogus (aside from his stuff; that’s gold)” conundrum preemptively, I’m… well, not that guy.

This isn’t a spiel about how my content is flawless and everything else is wrong. This is just me pointing out that it’s not a “bad” thing to sometimes stop and question both what you think you know as well as what other people—including me—tell you about what they think they know.

It’s not skepticism for the sake of skepticism (kind of like what’s captured in the image at the top of this post) that I wish to encourage, but rather an openness to the idea that a lot of what we hear and come across is not accurate, and we are allowed and able to work to identify these inaccuracies by our own volition instead of relying solely on “experts.”

Hopefully you’ll trust me when I say that I do try really hard to be diligent in my endeavors to bring you quality information, but I am not flawless. What I write is based on my personal experiences, my interpretation of the available data, and, sometimes, my judgement of the quality of others’ interpretations of data. There is room for inaccuracy (and even plain incorrectness) to creep in at each of these levels.

I’m not saying this because I deliberately intend to ever screw the pooch and mislead you; I’m just being honest and pointing out that I probably won’t always get everything totally right. I think, generally, those who tell you otherwise about themselves most likely live somewhere on a spectrum between delusion and dishonesty.

skepticism on wikipedia

The Point at Hand

Now that I’ve attempted to avoid plopping myself in a stew of hypocrisy, let’s expand this to the main point: it’s going to behoove you in the fitness game (as well as elsewhere in life, probably) to question things. All of the things. Even the things that have become so ingrained in fitness culture that people might laugh at you when you think twice about them.

Do they make sense at face value? Do they clash with anything that you think you already know? Do you have a deep enough understanding of the underlying concepts to form an educated assessment? If the answer to any of these questions is “No,” it’s probably worth your time to do some reading before you decide to accept these things as being good or reasonable practices.

Some of these things you’ll find seem to be rooted in some basis of “fact.” Great. No harm done, and now you’ve at least thought/read about it. The logic of many of these common practices, though, you’ll probably find doesn’t seem to hold up to more than a cursory glance. When this happens, good work; you’ve probably spotted the (potential) nonsense!

I’ll also point out briefly that just because something appears to be “true” doesn’t mean it is necessarily incredibly useful. Nitpicking over fine details is not going to do much for your training if there are gaping holes in its foundations, for instance.

The Impetus

Part of what sparked me to write this post was a question from one of my clients about warming up. See, she had been warming up for back squats by walking into the gym, doing a few sets of squats with just the bar, and then working up to the weight for her work sets. Perfectly reasonable. One day, though, someone felt the need to come tell her firmly that she had to warm up with 5-10 minutes of cardio. Had to.

Now, to be fair, I have no idea what experience our unsolicited helper had under his belt, but let’s be honest—no one has to do anything. If someone can walk into the gym and start squatting with no problems, they certainly don’t have to do a more elaborate warm up. And if that person doesn’t feel ready to squat when they walk in? Well, there are several exercises/activation drills I would recommend emphatically over “5-10 minutes of cardio.”

But that’s not really the point.

The point is that (again, not actually knowing anything about the guy) this guy was probably just parroting something that he had been told or had read in a magazine or online at some point along the line. He probably had never given the alternatives much thought, but had instead accepted the practice of doing “5-10 minutes of cardio” as being simply the right thing to do. That, OR he just sees something in the power of an ambiguous “5-10 minutes of cardio” that I have completely missed.

Either way, while he was probably (maybe?) trying to be genuinely helpful, from my point of view, he was basically spreading dogma. To give my client credit, she basically stuck with her guns for the time being then posed her question to me in the context of, “I don’t think that what this guy is saying makes much sense, but I wanted to get your opinion on it,” to which I basically responded, “Good on you,” along with an explanation of why I thought she was totally fine continuing what she was doing (along with some alternatives she could try if she ever did find herself having trouble getting moving).

Back to my original point, this exchange prompted me to start writing this post.

Most of what I do on this site is already intended to slowly chip away at the bullshit that so pervasively… pervades a lot of the information out there, so this topic is sort of redundant in a manner of speaking. The difference, I suppose, is that this time, instead of trying to illustrate why or how a specific idea is misguided, I simply want to encourage everyone to try to get better at making these distinctions on their own.

Confused Fry

(Potential) Nonsense-Spotting

While it’s hard to give a foolproof process for avoiding bullshit (aside from actually learning ALL of the things… like, in the universe), here are at least a few general features (hardly an exhaustive list) of incoming information that probably merit a raised eyebrow at the very least:

Claims that a particular training and/or dietary practice is the only way to achieve a particular result.

Training and diet are not governed by magic, and there are many strategies that can bring you to more or less the same destination.

Promises of drastic changes in a very short amount of time (e.g. the classic “add 2 inches to your arms and/or get a shredded six pack in just 2 weeks” programs).

Again, there is (currently) no magic to be found here. Even with “optimal” training and diet practices, drastic changes in body composition will probably take at least several months for most people. Additionally, this statement comes with a huge asterisk— *Potential for rapid/sick gainz is highly dependent on trainee’s current body composition, training experience, etc.

Pretty much anything that involves a supplement or “one weird trick” as the linchpin of the secret formula for getting shredded or jacked. For that matter, probably also most anything that uses the word “secret.” 

You know what this broken record is going to say… No magic! And in the age of the interwebz, there don’t seem to be many secrets left either. Hell, I’ve already disclosed all of the “secrets” that one needs to build a very impressive, strong physique on this site alone. As much as people might want to believe otherwise, the path to most—if not all—of the results they are looking for is not in a magic pill (at least, not yet) but rather in the direction of consistently practicing the fundamentals and slowly adapting as required.

This last part, adapting as required—learning the fine details, getting even better at the basics, and eventually evolving them to continue making progress in the long term—is mostly what I have left to “reveal” with my writing, but these things are far from secrets (more general knowledge with a personal perspective to hopefully enhance understanding), and they are also not the most important things to understand for someone who just wants to get in decent shape to start with.

Of course, many promises in the fitness industry combine all of these features and more in the quest to sell, sell, sell!

From my experience, it seems that people who are willing to at least halfheartedly exercise are generally more liable to fall for “information” that fits into the first two categories more than the third, whereas those who seem to have an almost pathological aversion to exercise might be more likely to invest in the magical, effort-free solutions often advertised by the third category. You know, generally.

But let’s just be honest with ourselves and get a few things straight:

-Those jacked and tan people in those commercials you see probably didn’t get to look like that by simply using the xtreme ab-nuker, the jerk-weight 5000, or whatever else the commercial is selling to you.

-Those fat loss pills are not going to let someone continue eating like crap while not exercising only to wake up to a lean, shredded body one morning.

-Following the arm blaster routine in your favorite muscle mag (or site) is probably not going to add 2 inches to your arms in 2 weeks, and it’s especially not a surefire guarantee.

-No one specific routine is guaranteed to work better than all the others all of the time for every trainee ‘no matter freakin’ what.’

An so on, and so forth…

Maybe these things all sound perfectly obvious to you, and you’re wondering why I would even take the time to type them out. If that’s the case, then good on you! However, whether it’s something seemingly blatant like the above examples or something more subtle, people do fall prey to these kinds of ideas all the time, whether it’s because of a sales pitch or simply because of earnest yet inaccurate information.

Of course, the penalty for falling prey to misinformation here is probably not exactly of the life-or-death variety. Instead, it is likely to simply be a lack of progress towards your goals, a “waste of time”, a “waste of money,” or a combination thereof. I place the waste of time and money in quotations because, on the bright side, finding yourself practicing exercises in nonsense—while frustrating in the short term—often offers a good learning experience.

butcher

Trimming Down to the Good Stuff

Let’s imagine that my awesome bullshit detection guidelines (above) failed their job (maybe because they came too late; maybe because they were wildly unhelpful… hopefully it’s more the first one), and some of that nasty ol’ nonsense has crept into your training and dietary practices. What then?

Fortunately, removing any overt bullshit that has somehow crept into your training is pretty doable. Applying two seemingly simple strategies periodically can work wonders for keeping you moving in the right direction:

First, assess whether you are making progress towards your goal, whatever it may be. For that matter, make sure you have some goal(s) to progress towards.

It sounds overly simple, but a lot of people just don’t do this. Are you lifting more weight than you were two months ago (or can you)? Are you closer to your goal? Answering these questions probably begets the use of a journal or some form of record keeping so that you can reliably track your progress (as opposed to the classic, “I’m pretty sure I did 185 lbs last week!” song and dance) and monitor how it is affected by different variables from week to week, month to month, and year to year.

In short, if you are no longer making progress towards your goal (note, this is pretty hard to determine if you don’t actually have any specific goal(s) to start with), there is probably a shoddy link somewhere in your metaphorical chain, whether it lies with the training itself or some facet of your nutrition, recovery, or mentality.

Consider each aspect of your training (as well as supplementation, recovery practices, etc.) and ask yourself, “What is the function of this? Does it move me closer to my goal?”

If you find—as you probably will—that you don’t have a laser-focused explanation for why you are doing certain exercises, using certain supplements, etc., chances are, these things are not totally crucial to your progress. Worse, depending on the situation, it’s possible that utilizing precious training resources on such extras could even detract from your goal(s) (again, assuming you have established goals already).

At any rate, I recommend assessing your practices this way at least once every month or two. If you find that something doesn’t seem to be accomplishing much, try dropping that thing for a couple weeks and see if anything changes for better or worse.

For instance, returning to the story from earlier, if you religiously warm up on a treadmill before doing weight training (or further warm ups), see what happens if you cut the treadmill out of the equation. See how you feel if you instead do some light hip thrusts and back extensions to wake your posterior chain up.

In short, if you’re not positive that any given practice is essential, don’t be afraid to change things and see what happens! People who refuse to do this often seem to be the ones who end up doings things like rocking 3 sets of 10 with the same weight on the same exercise for 5 years straight (which is, as a side note, a pretty pure form of non-periodized training… hooray).

It may sound kind of contradictory at this point in the post, but I also want to point out that you don’t need to be scared to try new things, whether it is the addition of a new technique, the removal of a potentially less-than-useful one, or something else entirely. Worst case scenario is that you find that the new ‘thing’ doesn’t seem to help you out much (or that removing an old staple does indeed prove detrimental), but then you will have learned something!

At the end of the day, very few things (depending on your sport and/or goal(s)) are probably actually essential (i.e. without substitute) for training success, and these things are probably mostly the core fundamentals and not nit-picky details like deciding between dextrose and waxy-maize for your intra-workout shake.

If you have identified a specific, tangible goal and you can also defend the training and dietary practices you are using to pursue that goal beyond simply saying, “Just ’cause,” then congratulations, you are probably doing pretty darn well! If not, it’s probably worth giving these things some more thought if you want to avoid spinning your wheels.

Until Next Time

In closing, the next time you come across a tasty morsel of information about why you’re not making progress or how to finally get that flat, toned tummy, I hope you’ll take a moment to stop and really think about it. Before you dig in, probe it, question it, and try to make extra sure it’s not in fact a piece of dogma pie that you’re about to take a big bite of.

It’s okay to question things, regardless of whom they’re coming from. A lot of times, it could save you some grief. And if the information is good? You simply spend a little bit of extra time doing some reading and critical thinking.

That hardly seems like a loss to me!

As always, thanks for reading, everyone! If you enjoyed this or any of my other work, please spread the word!

Additionally, if there is anything you would particularly like to hear about next (or soon), please let me know in the comments below (or via email, social media, etc.). I have a pretty chaotic month ahead of me, but I will do my best to keep more content coming out!

 

 

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