Strength Training and Science

Strength Training ScienceHave you noticed the domination of scientific research in modern strength training? It is trendy and dandy (and more importantly, marketable) to be ‘scientifically proven’ or ‘backed up by research’ nowadays. The general reading public readily accepts this, and everybody seems to feel the need to get scientific. However, despite the initially positive character of the trend, there might be a downside to it.

What Downside?

First of all, I absolutely love science and the scientific approach. People obviously wouldn’t be where we are if there were no science. To put it straight, let me quote Richard Dawkins:

“Science is interesting, and if you don’t agree, you can fuck off.”

Well, this quote might not suit my train of thought the best in this case, but it is indisputably awesome and deserves to be a preposterous adornment for the article.

Anyway, let me get to the point. The rise of awareness regarding strength training and nutritional scientific research has given the opportunity for geeks and nerds to blossom and to market their research-based ideas as “smart training” (kindly disregarding anything else). There is nothing completely wrong with this. Everybody does his own ‘thang’. However, the words “scientific” and “research” often create an illusion that it is the only way. And in regards to strength training, the reality can’t be further from truth.

Let me give you a couple of examples:

– I worked and trained with several powerlifting and bodybuilding pros here in Ukraine. I can assure you that they have not read any studies during their training careers, and this has not had any influence on their progress and achievements whatsoever. On the other hand, I haven’t met people with more determination and love for hard work.

– Look at old-school lifters like Pyotr Kryloff or Arthur Saxon. Lots of their strength feats are not surpassed even today. Again, there was no scientific research at that time.

These facts show us that the massive obsession with studies we see nowadays is at least non-essential. Furthermore, instead of thumbing the Pubmed articles all day long, lots of trainees could spend more time actually training. In the end, if your goal is to lift more, the amount of research you absorbed means nothing if you don’t lift more. If your goal is to have bigger biceps, knowing all the biceps-growing studies in alphabetical order means nothing if your biceps doesn’t actually grow.

How to Deal with Research the Scientific Way

Educating yourself with research can be a pretty useful thing though. However, you need to approach it right. Let me give you a blueprint for dealing with studies with class:

1. First of all, know the rules of science. Here is a quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson (I guess, he knows a thing or two about science):

– Question authority. No idea is true just because someone says so, including me.

– Think for yourself. Question yourself. Don’t believe anything just because you want to. Believing something doesn’t make it so.

– Test ideas by the evidence gained from observation and experiment. If a favorite idea fails a well-designed test, it’s wrong. Get over it.

– Follow the evidence wherever it leads. If you have no evidence, reserve judgment.

And perhaps the most important rule of all…

– Remember: you could be wrong. Even the best scientists have been wrong about some things. Newton, Einstein, and every other great scientist in history — they all made mistakes. Of course they did. They were human.

2. In other words, don’t blindly accept everything you’ve been told. Test the ideas, be precise in execution, analyze the results, accept what is useful and discard what is useless.

3. Take any research results with a pinch of salt and a healthy dose of skepticism. Know that everybody is different. There still might be a possibility that your body will respond differently comparing to any study results. Value empirical evidence the most.

4. Do not forget to apply common sense. If something sounds too good to be true, most likely it is false.

5. Explore the roots of the research. For example, you might have heard that some studies are sponsored by nutrition companies. How can you be sure about the results of such a study?

6. Embrace simplicity. Simple stuff will always outperform overly sophisticated things.

Theory VS Practice

Practice without theory is like driving on a road with pot holes. Yes, you will swear constantly, and it will take you more time to get from point A to point B comparing to a smooth road, but you will still make it (if you possess at least basic analytical skills). Theory without practice, on the other hand, is like buying a map, but never really going anywhere.

You can be the smartest ass in terms of theory, but if you don’t put money where your mouth is, then you are just another pussy theorist and your words have no value whatsoever.

Closing Thoughts

So, is scientific research useless? Hell-fucking-no. It can be pretty damn useful, and it can save you lots of time, money, and effort. However, it means nothing without application, and it definitely means nothing if your practical experience shows that it is wrong. Finally, it is always better to go out there, do something, and get some sort of results than endlessly exploring theory and doing nothing. That’s it. Thanks for reading.

Play rough!

Alex “Old-School” Zinchenko

Every time you don’t like and share this article, you upset a kitten somewhere.

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10 thoughts on “Strength Training and Science

  1. Zazen555

    People do what works for them. I have found repeatedly that I have known instinctively what works for me: Low reps, heavy weight. The only way to lift heavier is to try heavier weight. If you cant lift it, lower the weight and try again later. Yesterday I tried front squats with 275 lbs. I did a partial, then when I tried a full I lowered and didnt get back up. That’s ok. There is no other way. Doing more reps with lighter weight wont do it. And then if I were in a gym people would try to give me their “advice”. Like I asked for this “help”. This is why I dont lift in a gym, partly, that and the ridiculous fees. If a person wants to, he can put the barbell in vehicle and drive somewhere and lift it, or lift it in basement, backyard, whatever. When I went camping I brought dumbbells and did olympic snatches in front of other camp goers in neighbouring campsites. I am sure they thought it strange but no one said anything. It’s interesting because of all this “research” that people think they can criticize form and technique and then offer “advice”. I remember doing cleans and heavy deadlifts(500lbsx5) in 1991 at UW Seattle on the olympic lifting platform. This Seattle cop would sneak in the back to lift. He was this short Filipino guy and all he would do is bench press. No leg work or anything else. I remember he would stand there and tell I wasnt lifting professionally. I asked him to show me what he meant and no reply. I commented in the locker room what a prick he was. Then the next day he wanted to fight upstairs and I said if I win, you arrest me, and if I lose I also get screwed, so I said no deal. I wasnt doing anything wrong, and he wasnt even supposed to be there. That was a long time ago so he is likely dead now either through age or police work. There are always pricks like this in gyms backed up by “research”. I dont care now and I didnt care then. I am 43 so I have less tolerance from bullshit. If I were ever in a gym again and people commented I would ask why they were bothering me and to leave me alone. If it were the gym owner telling me I couldnt deadlift, ie, “you are bumping the pictures in the office upstairs” I would quit the gym then and there. I am not going to be inhibited because some ass, dont care who they are says that supposedly I am doing damage. I have never damaged equipment or flooring from lifting, anywhere. I listen to “research” and if I dont like what it does, it goes out the window. The other day some guru said that to stretch the quads you should put135 lb foam roller and rub across the front of the legs. Bad idea. Could damage the knees. So I didnt do it. What I do like is the Russian weightlifters. Learned a lot watching Klokov, the importance of heavy singles, front squats, Sots presses, etc. and incorporated into my training. Would I see this type of training in a normal gym? Not likely. But in North America there are the crossfit morons who like to pay big bucks and then the other people in gyms where cardio equipment is a waste of space. The people in Russia get it right: Squat racks, lifting platforms, and heavy weights crashing and grunting. Not so much for this in North America. So I make it work my own way.

    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      There are some underground gyms here in Ukraine, but the majority is fitness clubs. The situation here is quite similar to what you see in the USA.

      – Alex

  2. Dave

    There is a place for science, but the information is rather overwhelming and requires trying to coordinate all the data.

    To be honest, the only people who benefits from using studies are coaches and trainers. They are being paid to get the most of their athletes. It’s part of their job description to know these kind of stuff.

    But the average Joes and Janes don’t really benefit from home-schooled research, because they might actually end up hurting themselves more if they apply their own theories incorrectly.

  3. Stephan

    Just like good old Bruce Lee said:
    “Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.”



  4. TS

    Most scientific studies suffers from certain obvious design flaws:

    1. The time-perspective. If you plan to lift weights for three months, and then stop, you will find useful information in studies that lasted three months. If you aim to lift weights for longer than three months, you may want to consult studies with a longer time perspective. I you aim to keep yourself fit through training for the rest of your life, there are no studies to look into. Sure, read studies that look promising, but don’t take them as ghospel. There is no way they can be.

    2. What kind of strength training regimen was studied? If you want to study programme design for squats, you may want to know whether they used hig-bar or low-bar squats. Did the researcher know about the difference at all? Perhaps the participants didn’t really squat, just put a bar on their back and went down as far as they felt like. How was the techinacal supervision and instruction? Usually, you never know.

    3. Control group. What did the control group do?

    4. What background did the participants have? Something similar to your bakcground, or not?

    5. Recovery issues, sleep, diet, etc. Are these controlled for?

    6. Bodyweight vs barbells. How can you measure, and what can you measure? Hard to tell!

    So, pinch of salt. Or a box. whatever, read the studies, and think.

  5. Luc Pedneault

    Good topic. I started out with basic routines that touched on a bit of the whole body and the rest of the time I played sports. Then I graduted to specializing and applying all the latest research from the 90s (In my 20s at that point and wanting to be accurate) and you know what, it worked! Now I am back to more simple workouts and using sandbags and straps and sticks to stretch and move the body in basic and full ranges of motion so I could keep loose. Yup, it works. I now figure if you’re not getting hurt, are feeling good, and making gains then who am I to critque or be negative about what you are doing? The answer is I think you are doing okay. Some of these studies want to help you gain an ounce of strength over a thousand hour training cycle or run 5 seconds faster over a 100 kilometres. 99.9% of people don’t need that advice. They need someone to say “Good Job, keep it up!” Best trainers I ever met start a conversation with “Hello” and end it with “Good Job, I look forward to seeing you again.” The worst started with “I have a system based on the latest research.”

    The science is neat and good but good training is good training. Seek the good training my friends.


  6. TS

    Greg Everett puts it nicely (out of context, but highly relevant to this discussion anyhow, article is titled ‘plandomization’ – a pun on CrossFit’s negative view of preiodization and planning):

    // If an individual is untrained enough, I can improve his deadlift with nothing more than vigorous nose-picking.//

    Exactly. And I can design a study, and construct the appropriate statistical method, to prove that nose-picking, if done vigourosly enough, is a viable strategy for improving ones deadlift. And it will be scientific. Of course, the gains from nose-picking will fizzle quickly, so the study must be short. Likewise, my study subjects must be sufficiently deconditioned in the first place.

    But you can bet – your nose, for instance – on the fact that at least half of the gym bro’s, and all of the journalists, who read the article, will conveniently miss those relative important points, and learn useless lessons from unintelligent reading of scientific litterature.

  7. Lane Batot

    DON’T EVEN get me started about that newest of human religions–SCIENCE! Yes, I think “science” has become a religion substitute for all the atheists out there, but they are often as dogmatic about science as fanatics are about their religions! Which is not real science! Real science ALWAYS continually questions results! Having gone to college and majored in sciences(of some sort) and having been thrown amongst the scientific types for many years, I can assure you that MANY “scientific” results are the result of human ego and greed just as much as any other human endeavor! So you gotta take ANY scientific results with a grain of salt–or maybe a 50 lb. mineral block–which is great to lift weights with! In the “rough strength” tradition! And although I love science too(and find researching stuff very inspiring, whatever the subject!), it is FOOLISH to be disdainful of the increasingly pooh-poohed “anecdotal evidence”.There is great and bad anecdotal evidence just like there is great and bad science! Anecdotal evidence tends to be belittled despite the scientific FACT that humans have survived on this planet by learning and passing down anecdotal evidence for just a coupla million years before science ever came on the scene! A funny but true statement made in a GREAT fitness book by Richard Sullivan(geared towards us older folks) I JUST reread(and highly recommend to all you young whippersnappers out there!) titled “Reclaim Your Youth; Growing Younger After Forty” is (paraphrased here…) “Scientists are a strange people; they doubt or won’t believe their own anecdotal experience until a colleague publishes a paper on the subject….”!….L.B.


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