By Nick Tumminello

As someone who’s spent years training the trainers throughout the world, the most common complaint I hear from fitness professionals, strength coaches and exercise enthusiasts alike is not that they have trouble finding information on this or that training topic; the complaint is that “there is so much conflicting information out there, I don’t know what to believe.”

The two most common perceived areas of conflicting information are:

  1. What the scientific evidence says vs. what experienced coaches and trainers say.
  2. What athletes recommend for training and nutrition vs. what scientific experts recommend.

In this article I’m going to address these two hotly debated areas of perceived conflict and reform the discussion about them by highlighting how each can and should be used, but for different, mutually complementary aspects of the training and nutrition puzzle. And, along the way, I’ll also clarify some common myths and misconceptions associated with taking a more science-based approach to training and nutrition.

“Coaches and Trainers Agree on 95% and Argue About the Other 5%”???

Before we get into the two common areas of debate, I wanted to address two common (false) narratives that at the heart of the debates this article focuses on. The first of which is the common saying that “the leaders in training & nutrition agree on 95% and spend lots of time and energy arguing over the other 5%.” That statement is usually followed up with an accusation like, “those people argue over the 5% because they’re fighting for territory and ego.”

Although this saying may sound good, which is why it often gets repeated, this view on these debates is demonstrably false. One look at debates between leaders in fitness & nutrition, or between any trainer or coach for that matter, shows the only thing we all can seem to agree on is that people should 1) regularly eat better food and 2) engage in regular exercise. After that no one seems to agree on how to get those two things accomplished, as the countless arguments we see are about exactly what kind of exercise approach people should or shouldn’t do and what kinds of foods they should emphasize or avoid.

So, it’s rarely, if ever, about ego and territory. It’s far more often about genuine disagreement.

With this reality in mind, it’s more like this: The leaders in fitness & nutrition agree on only 5% and spend lots of time arguing over the other 95%. This is evidenced by the fact that so many intelligent trainers and coaches continue to be frustrated and confused by the amount of conflicting information in the training and nutrition arena.

“Trainers are Ahead of Research” is B.S.!

As a fitness educator who champions skepticism and science, and who challenges pseudoscientific and non-scientifically founded practices in the fitness, nutrition and health field, the common claim that “Trainers are ahead of research” rings my ears. This is the second problematic idea that many trainers and coaches continue to trip over in discussion and these debates, which is why I’m dealing with it here before we move into the meat and potatoes of this article.

There was certainly a time in training and nutrition history where you could justify claiming that taking a more science-based approach would put you behind the curve in regards to using valid practices. But given how much scientific evidence we currently have, that time is no longer. Therefore, this line of argument only applies if someone wants to have a 1950s, 70s, or 90s conversation about training. That said, we can avoid having conversations about training techniques and nutrition concepts that ignore all of the quality evidence we currently have; when we can have modern day conversations about training and nutrition that applies all we’ve come to learn to date.

In our modern day, claiming that “taking a more science-based approach to training puts you (insert arbitrary number of years) behind” is just an excuse modern day practitioners give when they don’t have sufficient evidence to meet their required burden of proof. It’s a cheap and transparent tactic to get you to think you need to believe what they’re claiming in order to be able to deliver a high level service. Lets face it, if one actually does have good evidence to back up their claims, they would be eager to provide it and have no need to make excuses.

The reality is, with all the scientific knowledge about training and nutrition we’ve accumulated to date, there is absolutely nothing the fitness professional needs to believe on insufficient evidence in order to be a great professional who delivers a high-level of service. Nor does one currently need to believe anything on insufficient evidence in order to be an innovator, as the best new ideas are spring-boarded from our current body of knowledge (i.e. the existing body of evidence; from universal training principles); not from the willful ignorance or rejection or of it.

Scientific Evidence vs. Trainers and Coaches

With the above realities established, although the anecdotal experience of seasoned trainers and coaches is often pitted against what the scientific evidence says, as if they’re mutually exclusive; both practical experience and research are great to use but for telling us different things. In that, training clients and athletes helps to tell us what is practical, but it doesn’t necessarily work well for telling us which practices are valid and reliable. On the flip side, scientific evidence helps to tell us what is valid and reliable, but it doesn’t necessarily work well for telling us what’s practical.

Now, the problem lies in the fact that many coaches and trainers (mistakenly) think that their anecdotal experience gives them an accurate view of what practices are valid and reliable, which is why we often hear trainers and coaches saying things like, “I’m doing research by training clients and athletes – that’s real world research,” or “I can’t wait for science to validate what I’m seeing work in practice.” This is also why, anytime a these trainers or coaches are confronted with good scientific evidence that collides with their beliefs about the practices they use, they’re quick to cite their “in practice” experience in an attempt to 1) discredit the scientific evidence and 2) to convince others their claims about their practices are valid and justified.

Here’s the problem: Using anecdotes to justify the validity of a given health or training practice has little to nothing to do with objective evidence or reason, therefore it can be directed with equal force towards belief in any practice. Yet, for some reason, practitioners place little or no value in these types of beliefs from other trainers and coaches who have conflicting schools of thought. This is because many practitioners recognize how weak these anecdotal arguments are because they reject them from others who have conflicting schools of thought. And, this is despite the fact that those using different schools of thought have no more or less evidence than their own. Not to mention, for every coach or trainer who says, “If I waited for research, I wouldn’t have been able to help my clients or athletes to (insert some type of physique or performance achievement),” there is a long list of other trainers or coaches who make mutually contradictory claims that are saying the exact same thing.

These undeniable realities demonstrates the fact that that simply having trained high-level athletes or having had any level of training success in no way means that everything you claim is valid (simply because you asserted it).

The other fact is, the practitioners who like to use these kinds of anecdotal argument in attempt to justify their claims cannot rule out other, more likely, alternative explanations as the cause of the outcomes they’ve experienced. This highlights the fact that anecdotes only tell us that one has witnessed an outcome, but these stories do absolutely nothing to demonstrate the validity of the special techniques and methods any practitioner is ascribing as the cause of the outcome.

In other words, many trainers and coaches hold the false idea that “I’ve seen it work,” therefore my conclusions about what I saw must be valid. However, the fact that practitioners from every school of thought claim be achieving the same types of “amazing” results (from pain relief to improved performance), but often make mutually contradictory claims about how we should go about our training and nutrition practices reveals a deeper psychological reality that makes a mockery of all these “it works in practice” based claims. And that reality is called confirmation bias, which is a filter through which you see a reality that matches your expectations.

The field of social psychology has clearly shown us that our observations and beliefs are not the result of years of rational, objective analysis, but are the result of years of paying attention to information which confirmed what we believed while ignoring information which challenged our preconceived notions. There are many forms of confirmation bias, such as the bias towards positive evidence, which describes our innate tendency to detect relationships (between two variables) that are not there because we overvalue evidence that only confirms a given hypothesis.

It’s likely the only reason so many otherwise smart, well-meaning trainers and coaches present their anecdotes as “proof,” even in the face of contradictory scientific evidence, is because they’re unaware of the innate fallibility of human reason and judgment in everyday life.

Put simply, when one doesn’t know about these realities or fails to embrace them, it’s very easy for one to overvalue the conclusions they and their colleagues have drawn from their “in-practice” experiences. However, when one does become aware of these realities, if one values objective truth and reality, one embraces the fact that it’s not safe to let our intuitions and observations run unchecked and unexamined. One realizes that it’s in our best interest to test our experiences against the scientific evidence. And, when they are tested and fail, it makes it even more likely that the science is correct and our cognitive processes have caused us to misjudge or misinterpret the evidence of our own experience. These are the cognitive processes (innate to all humans) that skepticism, and the methods of science and statistics grew up specifically in opposition to.

With that all said, of course ideas (i.e., hypotheses) come before research. No one argues this because it’s how the scientific process works: Research starts by first having a hypothesis. The question is: How valid are the ideas (i.e., hypotheses) one is purposing? This is why the objective validation of ideas (i.e., verification or falsification of the hypotheses) comes after research… because, as I’ve demonstrated, anecdotal evidence is highly unreliable.

In other words, research follows practice, but validated practices follow from research. So, trainers and coaches are ahead only in the idea creation department, but not in the idea validation department.  It’s because of this reality that, in the modern day, trainers and coaches are often very behind the research because they are unaware of their innate fallibility of reason and judgment in their everyday life. This why we often see fitness and conditioning professionals – at least the one’s who are the intellectually honest – constantly having to edit themselves in order to better align their beliefs and practices with the current best scientific evidence; and this is why we see the ones that refuse to do so consistently losing the argument.

Advice from High-Level Athletes vs. Scientific Experts

Another area of perceived conflict is the common occurrence where a scientific “expert” refers to the advice some high-level athlete has given as “broscience,” while the people who follow the athlete come back with statements like “that researcher or scientific expert doesn’t look like he is that big or strong.”

First off, you’re supposed to be looking at the results the participants in training studies got, not looking at what the researchers look like who where there to recorded the data or at the people look like who are simply telling you what the data showed. This is what it means to commit the ad hominem fallacy, which is another way of saying that one is making a B.S. argument.

With that said, just like with anecdotal evidence and scientific evidence, the information coming from high-level athletes and the information coming from scientific experts aren’t mutually exclusive. They’re both good to use but for different aspects of the training puzzle.

Put simply, athletes who’ve achieved a high level of success in their respective sport are a great resource to use for the emotional and psychological aspects of training and to share the experiences they’ve had with competing, but they’re not so great to rely on for the intellectual aspects of training. On the flipside, scientific experts are great resources for the intellectual aspects of training (i.e., the technical and tactical aspects of exercise programming), but they’re no so great for the relating to emotional and psychological aspects of training.

When I refer to the emotional and psychological aspects of training, I’m referring to things like mindset it takes to continually sacrifice much of your social life to you organize your life around kitchens, gyms and bathrooms. And things like how to overcome mental challenges involved with competition prep, the experiences of competing and the like.

Now, it’s important to understand that this whole idea that one must have personally achieved a certain level of success in a sport in order to be a reliable source of technical information (i.e., the intellectual aspects of training) is demonstrably false – look no further than the professional sports like the NFL. Many of the best players turn out to be terrible coaches, while other’s who never even played the game turn out to be top-notch coaches who’ve helped many athletes realize their potential. This is because where these coaches excel is in possessing, not just a deep knowledge of the technical and tactical aspects of the game (i.e., the X’s and O’s), but they could also simplify and communicate that knowledge in a way that athletes can use to their advantage. The same thing can be said for trainers and coaches.

Heck, none of Michael Jordan’s coaches were nearly as good as he was at playing basketball, but they were able to help him to realize his potential. Not to mention, saying that you’re not qualified to coach someone unless you’ve had personal experience in the same arena is to say that male trainers can’t effectively train female clients because they don’t have any personal experience having a menstrual cycle, exercising while pregnant, being constantly goggled at by creeper dudes at the gym, etc.

Males absolutely can train females on the technical and tactical aspects of exercise programming (i.e., the intellectual aspects of training), but it’s the emotional and psychological aspects of training and competing that can be better related to from another female with experience in that same arena.

Final Words on the Art and Science of Training

I want to clear up a few other things that are relevant to this subject matter before wrapping up this article. First, I want to clarify that training is not an “art and a science,” as it’s commonly defined because these are not two separate things running in parallel. Training is the art of applying the science.

If the practical applications you’re using aren’t scientifically founded, then what you’re doing isn’t based on sufficient enough evidence to warrant justification. And, for a personal trainer or strength coach, clients and athletes deserve better than unjustified or unjustifiable practices for their hard earned money and valuable time.

Secondly, I also want to clarify that taking a more science-based approach to training does not mean that you won’t let your clients or athletes perform anything without a PubMed reference in hand – that’s a ridiculous strawman argument. As I said in my book: Strength Training for Fat Loss, “Sure, it’s great to use specific workout protocols that have been evaluated in a study, but it’s unrealistic to ask that of every workout, especially when we’re changing workouts every few weeks to keep things fresh and interesting. Specific workout strategies don’t have to been scientifically tested as long as they are scientifically founded and highly plausible, meaning they are founded on the general training principles that have been repeatedly shown to elicit the results you’re after.”

For example, if you want to become more explosive, use explosive exercises. If you want to improve strength, incorporate some training with heavier loads. If you want to improve your rotational ability for a rotary-oriented sport, use a variety of rotational exercises at various speeds and loads. None of these approaches to exercise programming I just listed to need to be specificity validated in a study because they’re based on the principle of specificity, which dictates that the adaptations to training are specific to the demands that the training puts on the body.

Finally, I’m not at all beyond using anecdotes. However, what I tend not to do (anymore) is make unjustified and unjustifiable claims about those experiences. I spent several years doing that earlier in my training career, and I was wrong each time for doing so. And, I’m wrong on any occasion where I may slip up and do it in the future.

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Nick