A Brief Discussion of Research vs. Results, and Why Everything Old is New Again
One of the interesting things about the fitness industry is that, like fashion, trends come and go, only to resurface years later; and, much like fashion, people look back with bemused nostalgia and wonder how they ever thought it was a good idea in the first place.
In this way, bodybuilding and bellbottoms are fairly similar, as least in the way that they are sometimes loved and sometimes hated by the industries they represent.
And, unfortunately, bodybuilding has been hated on for far too long. (The same can be said of bellbottoms, I suppose, but I’ve taken this analogy too far already.) The unfortunate thing about bodybuilding-hatred is that, at least to my view, it occurs for all the wrong reasons.
In this article, you’ll see that reasons the training methods of bodybuilders have been discarded and ridiculed by the general fitness industry—and the reasons for the imminent and necessary return of those methods.
In the so-called Golden age of Bodybuilding, Arnold was, without question, both the paragon of its success and the foremost representative of its methodologies. What Arnold said, others believed. What Arnold did, others did.
When it came to training methods, his word on what to do was generally accepted, and with the exceptions of when he intentionally misled people with the wrong advices, what he recommended produced results. If Schwarzenegger or any other bodybuilders of the age were using and teaching a method, there was a very simple reason for it: it worked.
In the Golden Age, bodybuilders were solely interested in results. That, I think, is the biggest thing we can say for the guiding philosophy behind the training methods of those days—Arnold and his contemporaries did things that worked, simply because they worked.
As a result, figuring out what worked was a driving force that pushed our entire knowledge of training forward. Over the course of months or years, methods, systems and programs emerged.
If Arnold was interested in new or unusual approaches, he tried them out. If it could possibly yield results, it was worth testing; after a while, the ideas were either incorporated into the overarching umbrella philosophy of what was effective, or discarded altogether. All that mattered was that it worked.
For better or worse, that was not to last.
In many ways, bodybuilders of that era did not differ very much from many coaches and trainers of today: We develop theories based on existing evidence, test these hypotheses on our clients, and observe the results. If something seems to be more effective than what we were doing previously, we try to find a place for it; however, the difference between the fitness industry now and during the Golden Age is the focus on and impact of scientific research.
This is important for a number of reasons, the first of which is that it demonstrates a very clear shift in the collective mindset of strength culture: it’s no longer enough to know that things work; it’s become far more important to know why they work. And this, unfortunately, has proven it to be a double-edged sword.
Now before I go any further, let me just say that I think that the shift to wanting to know the how and why—not just the what—is a good one: it fosters questioning, and should foster critical thinking.
And of course, I value research tremendously1. The ability to test the gym-generated theories in a controlled environment helps us see what works, and sometimes tweak it to make it work better. All of that’s great, and should help the industry at large…but, as it turns out, for all the good the focus on studies and lab testing has done, there has also been a fair bit of harm.
Over the course of the past two decades, research has gained an almost deific status in the fitness industry. Studies are considered by many to be the final word on any issue, and this has led to unforeseen consequences: being blind to everything else.
This is an obvious problem: you have trainers and coaches who get so wrapped up in the value of studies that they fail to see value in anything else, and by extension, immediately devalue anything that hasn’t been tested in a research lab or published in a peer-reviewed journal; if it hasn’t been thoroughly researched, it can be overlooked or thought worthless, at least in the eyes of a certain subset of coaches in the industry.
To give you some context, let’s go back to the Golden Age bodybuilders for a moment.
Without question, it’s obvious that when it comes to training, they got some a number of things wrong; however, they got a lot right. Unfortunately, much of what they got right (or nearly right) has been attacked and rejected, simply because there was no hard data to back it up; only anecdotal (and obvious) reports of results. As research was given higher and higher esteem, it became not only acceptable, but—in some circles—, encouraged to lambast methods that were supported solely by observation.
In a very real sense, it became almost en vogue to publicly tear down and mock things methods or theories that couldn’t be—or, at least, hadn’t been—proved effective in a controlled academic environment.
For example, those who were too dependent on research and the idea of research would laugh at the suggestion that you should do different exercises to target different areas of the chest, or changing hand position to hit the biceps differently. While those suggestions seem to be based on fairly straightforward reasoning,there wasn’t a lot of research to back those ideas up—and so they were attacked.
The long and short of it is this: science zealots were, for a time, so intent on tearing town “conventional bodybuilding wisdom” that they lost sight of something truly important: it worked.
This is a truly, truly important concept: just because there aren’t seven studies backing something up doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. In many, many cases, the gym is a bit ahead of the lab.
Again, studies are important—the issue isn’t wanting to base things on research or wanting to prove things with research; the issue is that when only one stream of information is willingly incorporated into the viewpoint, the potential for growth and change will be severely limited2.
Let’s take a look at where this led.
Eventually, the growing dependence on research as the sole marker of both credibility and efficacy reached its tipping point—put bluntly, it became “cool” to make fun of a number of ideas that Arnold and company touted as fact.
More damagingly, it was no longer just coaches and scientists; the condescension aggressively applied to theories based only on observation skyrocketed, and bled its way into message boards, discussion forums and the general culture of fitness as a whole—and so it was that the term “Broscience” came into being, and was entered into the zeitgeist.
I must assume that there are some people who may not know this term, so a brief explanation is in order: Essentially, “broscience” a term applied to claims or reasoning based on (potentially flawed) logic instead of evidence that has been proven in an academic setting. While this is not a new term—the first online usage that I have found is dated November of 2001—bro-science has picked only really become part of the common fitness vernacular over the past four or five years.
The important thing to realize is that because of a push towards research and against everything else, the pendulum has swung to the extent that broscience is an insult, and is hurled at anyone who makes claims or assertions that they can’t immediately back up with citations.
As you might imagine, the use of this term as a derogative has further widened the rift in the community between those who are interested only in what works, and those who are primarily interested in what they can prove.
For the purposes of clarity (and fun), let’s head to Urban Dictionary, there are a few definitions.
Broscience is the predominant brand of reasoning in bodybuilding circles where the anecdotal reports of jacked dudes are considered more credible than scientific research.
Submitted by world-renowned nutritionist Alan Aragon—who values research quite highly—this definition is clearly not giving a favorable impression of any line of thinking that values anecdote over academia.
[Broscience is a] sarcastic term implying that the time tested, muscle building wealth of knowledge developed and utilized by successful, experienced bodybuilders is inferior to the continually shifting hypotheses of articulate, textbook-savvy 155lb. chemists with little or no real world first-person experience to substantiate their conclusions. The term “Broscience” is oft repeated on bodybuilding and fitness oriented Internet forums in an attempt to demonstrate online dominance as a substitution for success in the arena of actual bodybuilding.
Submitted by an unnamed source, this definition is obviously pushback from the bodybuilding community, and makes clear that there’s a certain subset of individuals who view the reliance on studies as the single source of quality information to be misguided.
Neither of these opinions is wrong, or at least not completely wrong. Whatever connotations Broscience brings with it, the truth is that very existence of the term is indicative of the dissonance created by trying to value one source over the other. For my part, I think that both parties are taking too hard a line and missing the big picture.
To a moderate viewpoint, Broscience is just observation paired with rationalization: A phenomenon is observed, and then an argument is proposed for its occurrence; reasoning is backwards engineered from the result. Sometimes, of course, that reasoning will be flawed—but flawed reasoning does not invalidate the result.
And this is something that the fitness industry is finally being forced to admit. As you will see, scientists owe bodybuilders an apology.
If we are being honest and judging the past by the standard of the present, Arnold and his crew were certified Bioscientists, in the sense that nothing they did was scientifically validated, and they just used observation.
As previously alluded to, many of the claims or recommendations that came out of that era are considered to be false, and this has tainted the ones that we can consistently observe to be true, at least in the sense that they work.
This is changing, however…because, ironically, science is now telling us that—whoops—bodybuilders knew what they are doing. What I mean is that we now have some research that showing that bodybuilders were right; more interestingly, that even when they were wrong, there weren’t necessarily far off the mark.
To give you an example of being not-that-wrong, let’s look at training for fat loss. For years, coaches have fought against the idea that doing exercises high reps with lighter weights get you shredded. That idea is often put forth as one of the greatest myths to come out of the Golden Age—and that’s fair. In the truest since, it isn’t accurate; however, it’s not exactly false—just incomplete.
Doing a traditional bodybuilding routine with high reps with low weight isn’t going to get you shredded; but if you take it a step further and set up the exercises in a circuit, you’ve got something that looks very similar to what we now call metabolic resistance training, which those selfsame coaches laud as one of the most effective training methodologies for fat loss.
Can we say unequivocally that 40 years ago, bodybuilders weren’t using circuits, or keep their rest periods short? Of course not. But that didn’t stop people from criticizing the entire idea. A small tweak to something that we once considered foolish, and you have the foundation to nearly every fat loss program available these days. Oh, and, yeah—we’ve got studies to back that up.
Still not convinced that observation is enough to push progress, or that bodybuilders have been right for a long time?
Let’s take it a step further and look at one of the hallmarks of traditional bodybuilding workouts: selective hypertrophy.
As early as the 1950’s, bodybuilders have been staunch in the notion that varying exercises and body positions can target distinct areas of individual muscles, preferentially recruiting fibers of a specific area during the movements—that rotating a dumbbell during a curl would activate the lateral more, or that leaning forward during dips shifted focus to the chest.
But for more close to 20 years, you’ve been told not to do that, simply because there wasn’t initially research to back it up—and unfortunately, being pro-research seems to have meant being anti-bodybuilding.
To give a specific example, because it hadn’t been exhaustively concluded that incline pressing worked the clavicular head of the pectoralis, the very idea was considered foolish; study-dependent coaches maintained that muscles fibers run the entire length from origin to insertion and are activated by single nerves, and as a result not possible to preferentially recruit specific areas.
The problem is, as you and I know, you can do that, just as Arnold and every other bodybuilding in history has known it—we know it’s true because of the very obvious reason that when you do more incline work, your upper chest gets bigger.
And now, research is clearly showing that some coaches and scientists owe bodybuilders an apology—and have for over a decade. In a fantastic review paper written 2000, Dr. Jose Antonio began to dispel the misconceptions, and demonstrated clearly that you could target areas of specific muscles, lending credence to the original bodybuilding theories.
In the time since that paper was published, much more research has emerged, substantiating Antonio’s position, and this is finally working it’s way into the public eye of the fitness industry, thanks in no small part of a group of fantastic coaches who are doing their best to get the information out there.
One such coach is Bret Contreras, an Arizona-based writer who regularly contributes to the largest bodybuilding magazines in the world. In a recent presentation he gave, Bret said,
“It is now readily apparent in the literature that the traps, delts, biceps, triceps, pecs, lats, abs, erectors, glutes, quads, hams, and calves (not only the different muscles within the muscle groups but in the parts of the individual muscles as well) all contain functional subdivisions which are preferentially activated during different movements. Furthermore, recent research has showed that altering body position such as foot placement during calf raises can target different areas of muscles. Bodybuilders were right all along; it just took research some time to catch up to their wisdom.”
Contreras’ assertion makes clear the fact that it’s time to revisit a lot of what we consider myths, and, with a critical but open mind, evaluate if we were not wrong in dismissing them for lack of evidence.
The title of this article implies clearly where I think things are going. After a long enough time, old is new again, and it’s very clear that with the research backing up claims of what had long been observed to be true, bodybuilding training methodologies are going to come back with a vengeance, and take the world of general fitness by storm.
Of course, this type of training has never gone away completely; many trainers, myself included, have been using these “bodybuilding” methods for years, incorporating them where appropriate.
My good friend Bryan Krahn has been pretty outspoken about the ridiculousness of the culture shift, and in addition to writing about the fact that these methods never stopped working, is the king of snarky Facebook posts on the subject.
Self-professed meatheads like Bryan and I aside, there are a number of fantastic high-level trainers who rely on many types of training that haven’t been backed up by a mountain of studies; or who simply don’t read the studies because they just care about progress.
On such coach is Nick Tumminello, who in a recent presentation stated, “I’m far more interested in the art than I am in the science—understanding how to get results is better than understanding anything else.”
Another example is Dr. John Berardi, one of my early mentors and a Ph.D in Kinesiology with specialization in exercise and nutrient biochemistry, who has said that, “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”3
In addition to being two of the preeminent experts in the entire fitness industry, Tumminello and Berardi often do quote studies and design their programs around them—they just don’t ignore things that work simply because they can’t find research to validate it.
However, instead of just a few open-minded coaches making recommendations, the entire culture will pivot, and you’ll see recommendations for angled biceps curls, calf programs with specification on varying foot positioning, and even articles about new exercises to isolate parts your forearm; it’s all fair game.
Although I have been somewhat harsh on those coaches who place a lot of emphasis on scientific literature, I should reassert that I see and appreciate the value of those experts, their respective perspectives, and the value they bring to the industry.
I would be remiss, however, if I did not come down firmly on one side of the line.
With that in mind, let me make clear that I am wholly of the opinion that getting results is at least as important—and very probably more so—as understanding the exactitudes of the why they occur4.
This is perfectly summarized by Tim Ferriss, who in the introduction to his bestseller, The 4-Hour Body, writes, “Everything in this book works, but I have surely gotten some of the mechanisms completely wrong.”
Ferriss understands, as I hope you understand, that it is the height of folly to dismiss things that work for the sole reason that we don’t understand exactly why they are effective, because the very simple truth is that even if the theory or the understanding of the process is flawed or incomplete if something works it should be used.
At last, bodybuilders have been exonerated, and it’s time to at least consider: if they bodybuilders were right about selective hypertrophy and had an effective pre-cursor to metabolic resistance training…what else could they have been right about?
It is my fervent hope that this question will lead to a renewed interest in and elevation of the methods used by bodybuilders of the Golden Age.
Because…ya know. They worked.