You know that scene from Star Wars where they’re stuck in the trash compactor, the walls are closing in on them and there’s a weird worm monster swimming around beneath the sludge, threatening to attack and drag them under at any moment?
That’s often how I feel as a part of the fitness industry: Social media is the trash compactor, with snapchat-filtered booty-selfies floating around in a sludge of inspirational quotes and the weird worm monster is the kino-body guy. Not only that, but everyone claims that what they offer is “backed by science.”
Here are some essential criteria for truly scientific fitness information, so that you can escape the trash compactor and avoid turning your brain and gains to space sludge.
1. Did the creator cite any peer reviewed studies?
If no, it may still be interesting and potentially useful, but that should be considered more like a starting point for your research, and not something to be taken at face-value. Even if it’s true, you need to do further research before basing any substantial life decisions on that information. I’m not saying that opinions and anecdotal pieces aren’t valuable, but they should be received by the consumer as such.
If the content producer did cite peer reviewed studies, then:
2. Did they interpret the study accurately and honestly?
Journalists often succumb to the temptation of bending the truth for the sake of a more gripping headline, or to suit their agenda. They know that if the headline doesn’t grab you by the throat, you’re probably not going to read the article. In reality though, most studies are full of “probablys” and are really only making a statement about what specifically happened within that study. Single studies should be seen as a part of a growing body of literature on a topic and not as a final solution. Which is why it’s important to also check:
3. Are there multiple studies cited?
The more studies you read on a topic, the more you’ll notice that there’s always a few weird ones that don’t line up with the rest. It’s important to remember that “science” is not perfect. There are conflicts of interest, poor study design, cherry picked information, misleading titles/abstracts and many other potential problems. However, if we look at many sources honestly and find the commonalities between them, we can begin to deduce some practically applicable information. Having said that though, quantity doesn’t always equal quality, so it’s good to check:
4. Were the studies of robust quality?
Meaning primarily: was there a large number of participants, was there sufficient diversity in the participants, did it last long enough to draw the alleged conclusions, was there a low probability of bias from the research organization, was the data gathered in a reliable way, was there a placebo group to measure against etc. Practicality prevents most studies from having all of these qualities, but the more of them a study has the more reliable it is likely to be.
However, sometimes this information still might seem questionable, which is why the final filters are perhaps the most important:
5. Does it make sense to you?
If you’ve checked all of these things and the outcome doesn’t line up with what you know of reality, a couple things could be going wrong:
A. Everyone involved in all of the studies is part of a conspiracy designed to mislead the fitness community about which rep range is optimal for hypertrophy, or
B. You interpreted something incorrectly and need to re-evaluate the evidence. Until you’ve done so, it’s perfectly fine to say “I don’t understand this well enough” and carry on with your goals in the best way you currently know how, until you have a better understanding.
Afterall, the clock is ticking for all of us and perfect understanding can never be achieved, so imperfect decisions are inevitable. Just start with what you have and what you know, and then continue to learn as much as you can. Above all, just start.
6. Does it make sense for you?
It also might be possible that while you interpreted the studies correctly, that information might not be actionable for you. For example, you may learn from well executed research that heart disease is the leading cause of death in America, and that sugar and refined carbohydrates play a major part in causing heart disease. In that case, it makes sense that you should avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates, right?
No, not necessarily. For many people that might be the case, but suppose you’re a collegiate track athlete who already eats a balanced diet and could be using those carbs to fuel more effective training. In that case, if you’re very active, you’re at no risk of heart disease and controlled intake of those carbs could benefit you quite a bit, do you need to avoid gummy bears at all costs? Probably not, and they could even be beneficial to you under the right circumstances and in reasonable quantities.
So while your research may have been sound, you need to apply the same diligence to determining whether or not it actually applies to you as an individual.
Afterall, an 85 year old woman and a 22 year old man are two very different things, and it would not be reasonable to expect them to have identical needs.
If that all sounds like a lot of work, it is! That’s why we have institutions such as universities set up to gather this information, distill it into a more palatable form and pass it on to the general public via certified professionals.
Whether or not they do their job well is up for debate, but for those who would rather skip the above process, it’s probably best to find someone who seems to be thoroughly committed to finding good information on your behalf, and verifying that they at least pay attention to a similar criteria as outlined above for the most part. That is certainly our goal on this website and with these articles.
As always, I hope this was helpful to all of you! Feel free to add anything to this list you feel would be valuable!