Op-Ed: When Research Comes Up Short In the Gym

Research can be a great tool for predicting outcomes, but it shouldn't be an end all be all.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Lately, I’ve been receiving a lot of requests for supporting my recommendations with “evidence.” I put the word in quotes because usually, when lifters ask for evidence, they specifically mean formal evidence – that is, evidence collected during controlled experiments in an academic setting. There’s certainly nothing wrong with academic research: it’s incredibly useful for supporting hypotheses about how the human body responds to training.

But there are a lot of problems with relying solely on academic research. I addressed this question a bit in a previous article and video here on BarBend, so I don’t want to rehash that too much. I do, however, want to offer a brief summary of the pitfalls between controlled experiments and actual in-the-trenches training:

Potential Pitfalls In Controlled Research

  • Experiments are rarely conducted with highly-trained participants, and therefore may not be applicable to highly-trained athletes.
  • In my opinion, individual variance is such an important factor in training outcomes that even if an experiment’s sample is indicative of the larger population, it may not be applicable to you as an individual. 
  • Academics often face conflicts of interest in the publishing process, which can lead to conclusions not necessarily supported by evidence anyway.

There’s another reason I really dislike an over-reliance on academic research, and that reason deals with the difference between tacit and formal knowledge. Formal knowledge is what we’ve addressed so far: it’s information that has been studied, written down, and applied in a wide variety of settings.

Tacit knowledge isn’t quite the opposite of formal knowledge. In fact, tacit knowledge is usually supported by evidence just like formal knowledge. Tacit knowledge usually gets reviewed, too, by top experts. However, none of this occurs in a strictly controlled, academic setting. That’s because tacit knowledge can’t really be written down or even explained, even by the experts. Instead, it’s communicated primarily through observation and practice.

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Sharing a few #lightwork sets here to show the difference that bracing with and without a belt can make FOR ME (you might be different). Notice in the first video how my hips drift backward a bit too much, and I end up leaning forward? That's in part because my hips are tight AF, but it's also because without perfect #bracing it's very difficult to engage the posterior chain properly — some of the load that SHOULD be carried by the abs instead involves the hip flexors and psoas, forcing the knees in and putting the body in a suboptimal position to recruit the hamstring and glutes. You can contrast that with the deficit #stifflegdeadlifts where my hips don't move back at all — granted, a different movement and I'm still using too much low back on them, but there's way more glute and hamstring work being done. Ideally, you don't need a belt to brace properly, but the kinesthetic cue it provides makes it much, much easier even if your #abdominalstrength is up to par. Full #squatworkout at @unleashdstrength will be on YouTube soon 💪

A post shared by Ben Pollack, Ph.D. (@phdeadlift) on

Here’s an example of tacit knowledge: let’s say you’re a strength coach, and you’ve been watching one of your athletes squat. There’s something a bit off with his technique (perhaps he’s leaning forward too much, but still using an appropriate amount of hip drive and not performing a “squat-morning”). You can’t put a name or label on the technique flaw, but you can tell – just by looking at the movement pattern – that this individual athlete needs to narrow his stance a bit and focus more on forward knee displacement. There’s no study that supports that recommendation. Instead, you’re applying your tacit knowledge and experience from your training as a coach to solve the problem.

Now, keep in mind that tacit knowledge can be bastardized just as easily as formal knowledge (maybe more easily). I’m not saying to take everything you hear from a top-level athlete or coach or Internet gurus at face value.In fact, that’s a terrible, terrible, terrible idea.

I am saying that if you spend hours, even days, in search of the scientific evidence that will help you create the perfect program; or if you blindly cling to the evidence that you do find; or if you ignore arguments only for a lack of formal evidence: you need to stop. Instead, I’d suggest you follow these steps.

Four Steps to Using Academic Research Appropriately

1. Stop Obsessing

Seriously. Again, if you’re the guy always looking for scraps of academic research to justify every single thing you do in the gym, you need to stop.  For one, that’s a waste of time and energy. But more importantly, if you base all of your decisions on academic research, you will be setting yourself up for failure – or at least for suboptimal results. 

There’s simply too much value in tacit strength and conditioning knowledge to ignore it completely.

Evidence Based Training
Photo By Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock

2. Make a List

Sit down with your training journal (you do keep a training journal, right?). Go through it – carefully – and select your three, absolute best training cycles. 

Make a list of the common factors among those training cycles. You might pay attention to movement selection, loading parameters, and even significant life events outside of the gym.  

3. Check it Twice

After you’ve made your list, put it aside for a few days to allow your mind to clear. Then, go back through it, and this time, try to identify which of the “success factors” you are still using in your current training. If you’ve dropped any of them, ask yourself why you might have deviated from a method that was working!

4. Iterate and Experiment

Now that you know your success factors and how they fit into the scheme of your current training methods, try to identify new methods that might further improve your training.  For example, if you found that all of your training cycles involve safety-bar squats, you might brainstorm other movements that share elements in common with the safety bar.

Applying the Research…

Now, here’s where academic studies can be valuable. Let’s say you’ve found that all of your successful training cycles involve traditional periodization blocks (hypertrophy, strength, etc.), but you’ve grown bored with that method. 

It might be a good time to investigate daily undulating periodization, and use the research to develop a plan to transition from “traditional” block periodization to DUP.

Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page.