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Bodybuilding, research, and common sense

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Research, Bodybuilding, and Common Sense

Im often asked by folks on the bodybuilding.com forum and on YouTube to provide research on statements I make. You will note that in recent videos like sleep and bodybuilding and hydration and bodybuilding, I have started providing these references where I can. This questioning attitude is awesome and I encourage it. Its a mistake to follow ANYONES advice, including my own, without questioning it. Start by following the money to see what their motives are, then read about the subject from as many different viewpoints as you can and decide what you think to be the “truth”. Be forewarned though, there are gaping holes in our bodybuilding knowledge – it’s not an exact science and there often is more than one “right way”.

“To maximize mass gains you must do 7.38 reps per set”

It’s just not possible to make definitive statements like that in bodybuilding!

Research is very important and its even more important to demand research for views that agree with your own than it is to demand research for opposing views because you have a built in skepticism of ideas that oppose yours. Its human nature to call people who agree with you smart and those who disagree with you stupid, acknowledging this helps you counteract it. Keep an open mind. If you really want to learn fast, surround yourself with people who disagree with you rather than people who agree with you. Demanding research to back up your own ideas and beliefs is even more important when you have surrounded yourself with like-minded people as we naturally do, just because all your friends believe something doesn’t automatically make it true. If this were so then the world would still be flat.  Challenge all ideas whether you agree with them or not. Be very careful though with research though, you can find research which “proves” almost any point you care to make, many people make the mistake of cherry picking only the research that agrees with their views and they just discard any opposing research with a dismissive hand wave. Its important to look at all research and do a meta-analysis to get as informed a view as possible.

Secondly, please do not under-rate the value of intuition and personal experience. When it comes down to it, there is very little research relating to bodybuilding, not even for the simplest, most basic things. What is the optimal time to wait between workouts to maximize muscle gain? Simple question, no clear and definitive answers. Good research costs lots of money, hundreds of thousands of dollars for even simple research and there just isn’t money in bodybuilding to justify this. Medicine and pharmaceuticals are big business so lots of research gets done in these areas but bodybuilding is a sport, and one with relatively little money when compared to the drug industry. Its important that you know the research that has been done but its even more important that you be able to use your experience and intuition to fill in the gaping holes in our knowledge. If you wrote a book about bodybuilding and limited yourself to things that had solid, published, peer-reviewed, double blind research backing it up then it would be a very, very small book indeed – and not a very useful one either. Its a great idea to question people about what research they have that backs up what they are saying but don’t discount it out of hand if there isn’t any.

Common sense is one of your most important tools of all! Applying the common-sense filter helps immediately weed out wishful thinking. We all want to believe that there is a newly discovered herb from the Amazon jungles that burns fat away quickly and effortlessly but common sense tells us that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  Think you can get big muscles just by drinking protein shakes?  Again, apply the common sense filter.  A big part of common sense is to hedge your bets. Always ask yourself the following question:

“I know I’m right, but what if I’m wrong? How can I minimize the damage in the unlikely event that I’m wrong?”

Let me take the example of global warming. Scientists provided evidence of global warming decades ago but the politicians responded with “where is the proof?”. Research doesn’t “prove”, it suggests. Had they applied common sense they would have realized that there was a reasonable chance the scientists were right and that hedging their bets by starting a modest CO2 reduction plan would have been prudent given the magnitude and of the problem and how long it takes to fix the issue. Global warming is a great analogy to the problem of nutrition and health because nutrition problems can take decades before they manifest themselves as diseases, but by then its too late just as it might be for global warming. I am predominately a vegetarian, not only do I eat a lot of vegetables but I get about half my protein from legumes, why?  Can I “prove” that vegetarians live longer, healthier, and vibrant lives than meat eaters? Certainly not, but the combination of research, common sense, and intuition suggest to me that it might be true.  So I’m not convinced but I’m hedging my bet.  Do I eat chicken/fish/beef? Yes, but not often, maybe once or twice a week.

Moderation is a great form of hedging your bets. Research has flip-flopped on many important health issues in the last 20 years. First lots of eggs are healthy, then they clog your arteries and cause heart attacks, then they are healthy again. First our aluminum water bottles cause Alzheimer’s so everyone switches to plastic water bottles, then we find harmful chemicals leeching out of the plastic into are water and everyone goes back to Aluminum water bottles. Soy is healthy, then it gives you moobs, then its healthy again. Need I go on? Research suggests, it does not prove, and its often wrong. Every month there are sensationalistic news reports of yet another type of food that is “bad for you”, if you avoided them all there would be nothing left to eat at all. So what can you do? Use moderation and common sense! Don’t eat 10 cans of tuna a day, 2 dozen eggs a day, or even 2lbs carrots a day! Moderation! Its good to stick to things we believe to be healthy but get your nutrients from a variety of sources! Don’t eat a lot of anything, even things that are “known” to be healthy.

Many people who are otherwise very scholarly about their training techniques and nutrition seem to regress to their childlike naiveté when it comes to supplements. Its even MORE important to apply your demands for research to supplements than any other aspect of bodybuilding! Why? Because there is so much intentionally misleading “research” out there that is quietly funded behind the scenes by those supplement makers who stand to profit by the research. Let me ask you this, look in your gym bag at the supplements you are taking. Where is the independent research (not paid for by supplement manufacturer) showing the supplement is safe? Where is the research that shows it is effective? The decision if and what supplements to take is one of the most important ones you will make, why is the burden of proof here so low for most people? Many people who demand research to prove the proper squat depth are willing to take supplements based upon what they hear in the locker room. I’d be willing to guess that most people who take jack3d cant even tell you the ingredients, let alone if there is any research on the safety and effectiveness of those ingredients.

So its important to know the research and its even more important to demand research for ideas that agree with your own than it is for ideas that oppose yours because you naturally question them. Also remember that although research is important, its very spotty in the field of bodybuilding and to fill in the gaps you need to use experience and intuition. Don’t take my word nor anyone else’s as gospel!

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