A Scientific Approach to Exercise

A Scientific Approach to Exercise

by Chris Young

Recently I was accused by a work colleague whom I respect, that one of my blogs, Cult and Gimmick Bashing #3 Weight Training, was an unscientific rant. Me, unscientific! Whatever next? I’ve read hundreds of books on training, nutrition, psychology, etc; I like to think that relative to the rest of the fitness world, I’m very scientific.

Louie Simmons, the epitome of the scientific approach

This comment got me thinking about what we (trainers) think we know. We are consciously and unconsciously guided by our experiences. If a trainer does a Pilates qualification they would tend to look at things as a Pilates instructor; and the same holds true for an Olympic Weightlifting instructor.

Let’s say that both these hypothetical instructors are faced with a client who wants to strengthen their back. Both trainers would probably select different exercises to achieve the same result but which one is more scientific with their recommendations?

The Pilates instructor would point to one body of evidence and the Weightlifting coach to another.


For an excellent critique of the claims of Pilates see the following (it’s the same link that you’ll find in my blog on Pilates).
Pilates Critique Part 1 & Part 2

I’m going to concentrate on Olympic Weightlifting, as there is probably a larger amount of evidence for this type of training than any other modality. The Soviet Union based much of their training off of Olympic athletes, not just lifters, around Weightlifting and its associated movements such as Squats, Bench Presses, and Deadlifts.

During the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s more studies were done by the Eastern Block on human performance than has ever been conducted before or since. The Eastern Block, especially the Soviets, poured an unprecedented amount of money into making their athletes world-beaters, to prove that communism was a superior system to capitalism.

Author of Supertraining, the late, great Dr. Mel Siff

I have actually read much of the translated Soviet and Eastern Block materials from those times, as well as “Supertraining”, “The Science and Practice of Strength Training”, and a few others; and with this huge body of work the system didn’t change quite as much as one might suspect. I think the biggest change occurred when the Bulgarians went volume mad in the late 70’s (training up to 60 times a week!) and dominated weightlifting for a decade from the mid 80’s.

My own coach, Louie Simmons, initially based the Westside system of training around the Soviet system; and as a result has had unparalleled success with dozens of World and National Champions in a gym where only 60 or so train.

Vassily Alexeyev, double Olympic Champion (’72&’76)

Anyway, this is all very interesting but what does it means to us? Well, we know how to get big and strong, and how to make (lose) weight -or do we? The body of evidence seems overwhelming.

That is until you look into the details; these athletes aren’t your normal guys who lift weights in your local gym, they’re genetic freaks that have been identified at a very young age. Their nutrition is taken care of; their drug regime is laid out and medically supervised; all they had to do was train when and how they were instructed to; obviously that’s the easy part!!

The difference between them and us is well highlighted in the following exchange: An American journalist and strength enthusiast Randall Strossen asked Bulgarian weightlifting team manager Ivan Abadjeyev what he would do if he had a lifter who did everything he was told, followed his nutrition and drug regime, and was enthusiastic, but still wasn’t improving? Abadjeyev looked at him like he was mad and said, “I’d get another lifter, of course!”

This type of extreme survival of the fittest might win nations gold medals but it doesn’t really help us regular folk. So where can we go for answers?

I like to look back to before the 1960’s (pre steroid era) for some answers. For fat loss bodybuilders back then used to use circuit training with heavy loads; the writer John McCallum called it Peripheral Heart Action (PHA) training. Many also ate a high protein, high fat, and low carb diet.

For increasing muscle size, or adding bulk as they liked to say, lots of Squats, along with other basic exercises; all washed down with a gallon of raw milk. I think these days where milk isn’t prepared as it used to be, we could substitute protein shakes for milk.

Having said this, I also think that we can learn from today’s athletes too. The system used by Louie Simmons and the lifters at Westside has much to offer the drug free athlete. Can I point to any specific studies for his particular system? No. Might I be wrong? Of course. But the basic tenants of his system do agree with the things we do know are important — periodization, training frequency, training intensity and preventing adaptation. For further details see my article Westside for Drug Free Athletes.

So, it looks like the criticism is right to some degree — I cannot point to specific studies for every single thing I recommend, but after 25 years of improving myself and others, I’m pretty good at entertaining thoughts that might work while disregarding those that simply won’t. I’m observant with those I train, can offer really sound advice, and I’ve seen good results over and over. This is known as anecdotal evidence, which may also be influenced by confirmation bias, but experience definitely counts for something in this day and age of internet gurus who have never touched a weight and nutritionists who would do good to lose another 50lbs.

So what can science tell us which is relevant to the average person? Well, it still seems that weight loss / gain is calories in VS. calories out.

And it’s hard to argue against Newton’s second law, F=MA as far as getting stronger is concerned – you just don’t get stronger lifting light weights and / or slowly!

After this we have a lot of conjecture based on anecdotal evidence, influenced by confirmation bias, and confounded with contrasting results due to flawed exerimental conditions (experimenter bias, the placebo effect, incorrect reporting of significance, etc.) but I believe that although there are individual differences, the training, nutritional, and mental approach recommended on this site would be invaluable to all. Is the best way to develop appropriate force through weightlifting or through Pilates? Well I know which school of thought I fall into; I think you the reader, have a pretty good idea about that too.

Chris is a British and World Champion Drug Free Powerlifter who has worked in the fitness industry since 1985, he currently runs the gym at the very prestigious Spa at Pennyhill Park (http://www.thespa.uk.com). Along with Powerlifting, Chris has competed nationally in Martial Arts, and has dabbled in Drug Free Bodybuilding. Chris can be contacted through www.getmightynow.com.