The Perils and Pitfalls of Fitness Absolutes

Simplicity is useful, but it’s no substitute for experience and understanding.

As a high school strength and conditioning coach, I have the opportunity to work with over 500 kids each week. Given that opportunity, I try to use my influence for more than just making them better athletes. I want them to learn a lifelong appreciation for health, movement, and learning. I want them to be autonomous and courageous leaders. Most of all, I want them to be good people who leave the world a better place.

It’s easy for that message to become abstract and cliché, so I try to make these lessons more tangible by giving students a few absolutes. For instance, my absolute metric for goodness in people is that good people do not litter, they put shopping carts back where they go, and they are not mean to servers at restaurants. I could certainly think of some exceptions and additions, but by and large, I’ll stand by this list.

Linking Absolutes to Action

The benefit of these absolutes is that they offer specific direction. They cause one to directly confront the actions of themselves and others. If I say I want someone to be courageous, I may know what I mean, but the application of that concept may be very different from person to person. When paired with concrete action, absolutes can help cut through people’s excuses and spur positive changes.

For example, if I say “we should create autonomous kids,” everyone agrees, but no one changes. However, if I say:

“Your kids should be taking care of all household lawncare duties by middle school. Parents should teach their kids how to make breakfast and pack their own lunch, so that they are expected to do so by high school. Kids should have consistent chores and earn a small allowance, so that they learn to budget and earn things.”

These absolutes, while simplistic and not accounting for extenuating circumstances, offer more direction and are more likely to result in changed actions. They may come off as grand proclamations, but I’m confident our youth would be healthier and better prepared for adult life if parents heeded this advice.

Where Absolutes Are Abused

Absolutes are great for simplifying concepts, particularly at an introductory level. Want to get strong? Lift heavy. Want to run fast? Run fast. The problem is when they become barriers to critical consumption and depth of thought. The world is never as neat as our textbook definitions make it out to be.

Likewise, even the greatest training program in the world needs to be adapted to the needs of the individual, and the limitations of time, facilities, and a million other variables. This point was highlighted in my interview with world class strength and conditioning coach, Brett Bartholomew. He advised that we should guard against the “notion of absolutism” pervasive in today’s fitness landscape, as artificial constructs are often used to oversimplify and manipulate.

The fitness world has exploded with grand proclamations contending certain techniques or modalities are absolutely wrong, or alternatively, the secret weapon. We’ve all seen the “agility expert” whose repertoire consists of only ladder drills, cone drills, and admittedly impressive videography. “Strength is so overrated,” they’ll tell you. “You play moving and on your feet. Great athletes have great feet.” Whatever that means.

Or consider the “functional training expert” who claims the back squat is worthless unless done with a slosh pipe on a stand-up paddle board in the middle of a river, because “Sport is never played standing in place, so why would you squat?” Instead, they’ll have you flip a 300lb tire, jump on it, then hit it with a sledgehammer. “That’s moving in all planes of motion,” they’ll claim. “That’s sport!”

In each case, someone takes a simple yet true concept— that strength alone does not guarantee success in a specific sport—and pervert this message to displace the tried, true, and essential foundation of a strength and conditioning program.

These gimmicky absolutes attract followers because they offer people a promise of a secret sauce for success that others aren’t doing. They are also typically quick, easy ways for trainers to separate themselves the field without having to spend tedious years learning and developing their craft. It’s far easier to claim you have a “cutting edge” breakthrough that no one else understands. You’re now labeled “the footwork guy” or the “functional training guy,” and can prey upon the masses that think weight training is too dangerous or outdated.

Boring Truths Make Terrible Tweets

The sad truth is that common sense and consistency don’t sell. Sensibility is not sexy. A thoughtful response is generally too nuanced to express in 140 characters or less. People don’t flock to an article about how to build a principle-based program, or the coach who promotes simple fundamentals and focused execution for the first three years of anyone’s training. Messages about the time and patience required for sustainable lifestyle change rarely promote any easily-digestible absolutes.

On the contrary, after a holiday weekend of nutritional extravagance, people flock to biggest loser challenges and articles telling you to eat magical foods that burn fat. We want our fat loss delivered by Amazon Prime. 

Likewise, no one wants to be told that they should master the deadlift and front squat before they power clean. No one likes to hear that long-term physique change or athletic development is not about any special supplement or fancy new exercise, but rather incremental change and improved habits.

Absolutes as the Crutch of Inexperience

In an age where social media and digital marketing have made it possible for anybody to sell anything to just about anyone regardless of qualification, it is more important than ever for us to seek intelligent discourse and logic. We must start by understanding foundational principles, and let the methods evolve from there. Without an emphasis on critical consumption and dialogue, more and more people will be pulled to extremes and absolutes.

Absolutes and dogmas are very attractive in fitness, particularly to those just starting out, or outsiders trying to make sense of training. The vast majority of football coaches will tell you that the power clean is the backbone of their strength program. But without an understanding of principles, it will lead to more harm than good. They don’t yet comprehend the difference between power and strength, or what rep ranges and percentages are best suited to develop certain athletic attributes.

Instead of blind adherence to the dogma that dominates strength training in football, coaches should be open to a conversation about what training tools are most beneficial to their athletes. Perhaps the kettlebell swing and its derivatives could be coupled with medicine ball drills to accomplish a superior training effect, given the limitations of time and the movement proficiency of their athletes. At the very least, they should seek a thoughtful dialogue that leads creative improvements in their training processes.

Never Stop Growing

Question your absolutes from time to time, and seek out differing opinions. This does not mean to be flimsy in your convictions, but this process will create more refined understanding and spur creative solutions. Review principles more than methods and you’ll probably find quite a few breakthroughs.

There is no magic formula for optimal results. Resist the urge to chase what’s shiny. Ignore those videos that pro athletes tweet. Instead, commit to principles and people who understand principles. Temper your workout ADHD by reading one book and committing to one plan. It will yield far greater depth of understanding and perspective for interpreting future information. If you are willing to engage in dialogue, and to accept that there may be better ideas than the ones you hold now, your potential for growth is limitless.

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