Like most bodybuilders and powerlifters, my first exercise and nutrition information came from magazines, crappy internet articles, and big people at the gym. For a while, fitness enthusiasts seemed perfectly content with using these resources to guide their muscle-building and fat loss endeavors, but it seems that the tide has turned in recent years. Anecdote has been replaced by research as the “gold standard” of bodybuilding information.
This is a good thing. When you abandon the vices of bodybuilding folklore in favor of a more research-based approach, you often find that you achieve similar (or better) progress, while eliminating many sources of “wasted effort.”
I don’t want this article to sound anti-research, because that couldn’t be farther from the truth. As someone who spends most of my day working on research and serves as a reviewer for a couple journals, it goes without saying that I value research highly. Nonetheless, the current evidence-based trend in fitness is not without a few unintended consequences.
1) Knowing the research, but not the foundation
Every now and then, I’ll jump into online discussions about research. On more than one occasion, the people arguing about a study have asked me (or others) to justify basic, foundational statements on the topic with a PubMed link. I am all for demanding the evidence behind claims, but there are also basic concepts that should be understood before diving head first into interpreting research.
When you read research without a truly solid base of knowledge on the topic, it can be difficult to evaluate, contextualize, or apply the authors’ conclusions. It’s a bit like my amateurish attempts at playing guitar. I might be able to learn a particular song, but I can only play the notes that are given to me. I never took the time to learn the basic skills and concepts involved with playing the instrument or writing music, so I’m blindly repeating notes with no context of why they “work” or how to elaborate upon them. Had I taken the time to learn those concepts, it would have made me far, far better in the long run.
If I intend to read some research outside of my areas of focus, I’ll typically spend time brushing up on the topic in a textbook before I even begin reading the paper. I think it’s great that people are reading research, but trying to learn a field one paper at a time is a very tedious, time consuming, and confusing way to do it. You’d be way better off seeking out one or two quality textbooks to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the field, topic by topic (I have provided some textbook recommendations at the end of this article).
This isn’t some elitist viewpoint that research is just for the academia folks, but a reminder that learning is a process. After gaining some background knowledge about exercise, nutrition, and physiology, the process of reading research becomes far more valuable and enjoyable. Think about it like mathematics− teaching yourself calculus from scratch is going to be a painful process if you haven’t established a base in the necessary prerequisites. So do read, embrace, and enjoy research, but take a couple months to chew on a good textbook before diving into the deep end. If you do, you’ll get way more enjoyment and understanding out of the research you read later.
2) Letting research restrict innovation and curiosity
A lot of fitness buffs act as if you can’t suggest an idea or strategy that hasn’t yet been “proven” superior by science. As an athlete or practitioner, you might be doing yourself a disservice by adopting this mindset.
Here’s what you shouldn’t do: present a hypothesis as “fact,” spread a bunch of objectively false information to others, or employ methods and ideas that oppose current research and lack a plausible rationale.
But here’s what you can do: Use a combination of experience, background knowledge, and research to guide your training and nutrition. If you employ a strategy that is based on a solid rationale, does not directly oppose any strong evidence, has no risk of doing harm, but simply hasn’t been researched in depth, that is totally fine. As long as there is a plausible rationale and you acknowledge that you are going out on a limb, you haven’t committed any crimes against the scientific method.
The scientific process is not intended to stifle innovation, creativity, or options; it’s just intended to provide objective evidence to guide your decisions. As an athlete or trainer, you’ll do just fine if you never try anything that deviates from basic, standard recommendations. But seeking out ways to optimize the process is, in my opinion, what makes the whole process fun and worthwhile.
3) Ignoring any evidence that didn’t originate in a laboratory
Don’t get me wrong− in most cases, peer-reviewed research is the source of evidence we can be most confident about. It often offers information that is more objective, quantifiable, and generalizable than most other sources. But this doesn’t make it the only source of information. It’s still valuable to consider the observations reported by practitioners, high-level competitors, and your own observations and experiences. These sources of information should certainly be taken with a grain of salt, but they can be informative nonetheless.
Research is not intended to eliminate all other sources of information, but it should refine the lens through which we interpret that information. A practitioner might not know the entirety of PubMed like the back of his or her hand, but I refuse to believe I can’t gain some valuable insight from someone who has successfully trained high-level athletes for a few decades (and in some cases, longer than I’ve been alive). As an athlete or practitioner, it’s all about combining quality evidence from various sources, filtering out the garbage, and using this combination of resources to guide future practices.
So go forth and embrace research! Read it, enjoy it, and use it to inform your decisions. Read it with an open mind and a critical eye, and seek out the background knowledge that helps you contextualize the findings. Most importantly, let the learning process be one that enhances your enjoyment of fitness, not one that suffocates your curiosity for innovation or confines you to a rigid, standardized approach. Research has helped us learn much about how to change the composition and performance of the human body, but that book still has plenty of blank pages.
General exercise physiology− McArdle, Katch, & Katch. Exercise Physiology: Nutrition, Energy, and Human Performance (8th Ed). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Exercise physiology, with emphasis on performance and resistance training− Baechle & Earle. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (3rd Ed). Human Kinetics.
General human physiology− Widmaier, Raff, & Strang. Vander’s Human Physiology: The Mechanisms of Body Function (13th Ed). McGraw-Hill Education.
Nutrition− Take your pick! Plenty of textbooks out there, with some being exercise-oriented. One example is Antonio, Kalman, Stout, Greenwood, Willoughby, & Haff. Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplements (2008). Humana Press. Another is Williams, Anderson, & Rawson. Nutrition for Health, Fitness, & Sport (10th Ed). McGraw-Hill Education.