Why Fitness, Diet, Bodybuilding, and Strength Training Programs Work

Posted on 24 Nov 2009 15:15

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By Eric Troy

Also see Diets: "They All Work When You Stick to Them"

I've never seen a strength training or bodybuilding program developed for a mass audience that didn't "work". No matter how ridiculous the program is and how unfounded its principles all such programs tend to be seen as largely successful. I know what you're thinking. It becomes popular because it works. But, I am not only talking about popular and profitable brands. I'm talking about programs that are only known to a tiny corner of the internet, on some forum or site, perhaps. There may be 100 people who try it, and they all say it works great! As long as, of course, the author has some authority in that little corner of the internet. Surely, though, silly programs should get such authors called out. A silly program founded on hot air should not work. How can so many of these programs, then, be seen as successful?

Once upon a time the world did not need specialists to the degree it does now. Most every human being had the basic skills of survival. Sure there were still "roles" that certain members of a group would be given by convention but the roles were simple and there weren't so many of them.

Listen to the voice version

Now, if your mother in law has trouble with her new DVD player, you are more likely to attribute that trouble to her lack of familiarity with modern technology than to any defects in the product. It is her failure to understand what is to you a simple device.

But is it simple? Could the fault lie in the product? Is it, perhaps, more complex than it needs to be? Probably not, but the point is most people would never consider the possibility. It's a "common sense" attribution. DVD players are "everyday" items and failure to understand them suggests a lack of common sense.

Most people you know never report problems controlling their DVD player. Since your mother in law USUALLY has trouble with technology you automatically attribute the problem to her. And, of course, in this case, your attribution is most likely correct.

But when it comes to strength training and bodybuilding programs that are published in books or popularized on the internet we see some problems with this type of attribution.

We are told to just "pick a program" and follow it like the owner's manual of that DVD. If the program then fails to produce results for us the failure is attributed to us rather than the program. WE failed to follow the instructions; or to comprehend them.

Success or Failure Attributions

The fitness culture tends to attribute success and lack of success to the individual. Lack of motivation, lack of adherence, lack of understanding and more vague concepts such as "doing too much" or "doing too little." Part of the outcome of this is that people tend to report SUCCESS but not FAILURE. As well, we don't go looking for these reports but simply rely on the relative abundance of self-reports of success.

Since they are so abundant by comparison, the few reports of failure can be easily written off. I've even heard such statements as "a crappy program done with the right attitude is better than a good program done with a bad attitude." Hardly a scientific argument since attitude is not an easily defined concept. Yet, we can see how bad programs can be defended on a vague basis. To me, this is like telling someone that if they beat their head against a wall with apositive attitude that will work better than stopping short of the wall with a negative attitude.

And, in fact, people do fail to adopt the proper attitude when entering a new training program. But in such cases they would adopt a poor attitude with ANY new program. Probably, just telling someone to improve their attitude will have little effect on their attitude!

Attitude: General and Specific

Also, such statements rely on ideas about general attitude and fail to consider the importance of specific attitude. A trainee may have a positive and enthusiastic attitude towards strength training and "hard work" but have a more negative attitude toward, for instance, low reps. A trainee who is convinced that anything under eight reps will fail to produce results will not be swayed by statements such as "you are unwilling to lift heavy enough." And, his underlying specific attitudes towards the parameters employed WILL affect his results. But since there is no one there or no one who is willing to explain these parameters in a way which will positively affect his attitude toward them he is left to his own responses.

And which came first? The "attitude" or the program? I have never encountered anyone who writes programs for general consumption who considered the impact of that program on a trainee's psyche.

Given that there is no way that one program and its plan of progression can possibly fit every trainee then it is easy to imagine that an inappropriate program could lead to a "bad attitude."

Perhaps the loading is too aggressive. Or volume is ramped too quickly (too "intensive"). Perhaps the writer failed to mention how other fitness goals could impact the effect of a resistance training program. Yes, that is the fault of the program as well. There is more to resistance training than just resistance training.

Everybody from the elite Olympic athlete to the common gym rat believes that success depends on a certain amount of volume and intensity in the training regimen and that without it you are simply not training hard enough.

Social Influence

So what I am saying is that there is a big psychosocial influence at work here. We let social conventions drive our individual training without any thought to whether the results will be better performance or worse. When we speak of attitudes, however, we fail to recognize that there is a point of contention between the models we use to write programs and the effect of an individual's attitude on their outcome. That is, these models DO NOT CONSIDER the contribution of the individual's disposition, as will be shown later.

Mundane training affects us as well. Doing the same thing day in and day out with the same parameters is not conducive to an enthusiastic and positive outlook to training.

We are so apt to blame trainees but once they adopt a program they have no one but themselves, much of the time. They don't have a supportive trainer or coach. Or an experienced buddy. If they seek out help on the internet they are invariably told to work harder or follow the directions. This is hardly helpful at all since, much of the time, to their mind they HAVE been working hard and they HAVE been following directions.

Strength and bodybuilding programs are like popular diets. We have been socially conditioned to think that if they fail it is our fault.

Stress and Stressors

The training program is a STRESS. All individuals do not respond to the same stressor in the same ways. That in itself should be enough to dissuade you from recommending the same program to every resistance trainee who asks or from adopting the program that is the most popular or "hardcore" but I'll assume you need more convincing.

Traditionally, there have been two basic ways that researchers look at the effects of a prolonged stressor (the training program) and the difference between them may not be apparent at first glance. These are stimulus oriented (or stimulus-event oriented) and response oriented. The latter was the model developed by physiologist Walter Cannon1. and later by Hans Selye, who first saw as a stimulus, but later started viewing it as a response.2

photograph of walter b. cannon American physiologist 1871-1945

Walter Bradford Cannon
National Library Of Medicine

Stimulus Oriented Model of Stress

The stimulus oriented model of stress assumes that an organism has an innate ability to withstand a certain amount of stress. When the stressors are greater than that organism's ability to withstand then, "balance" is upset and so the organism deteriorates (physically and psychologically). Cannon defined this balance as homeostasis, which is basically an organism's ability to maintain its systems within certain functional parameters. Stressors are any demands, internal or external which upset homeostasis, thus requiring some action to restore it.

To develop this model, researchers like Cannon and Selye used animal studies. They subjected animals to various stressors and then measured their physiological responses. These results they extrapolated to human beings.

Organisms therefore are viewed as somewhat static with no control over the stressors which simply ACT on that organism. This is more like an engineering concept, then. In fact, the word homeostasis comes from the Greek word for "standing still".

There can be no doubt as to the value of these models but I want you to keep in mind that when someone refers to the "Grandaddy Laws" of resistance training; those laws basically see you as a living piece of lumber! You either adapt..or you die. I don't claim to know whether Friedrich Nietzsche was aware of these theories but you can see how this gave rise to such simplistic notions in the world of strength training as "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger." That is not to say that these notions aren't of great value. They are, however, notions not laws. The word law used in regards to training should immediately put you on guard.

Response Oriented Model of Stress

Later on, these models were built on and the response-oriented model was produced. These models are a bit more subtle. Whereas the earlier theories focus on the stressors as "actors" and then measure the results of those stressors on an individual, response-oriented models look at an individual's response to those stressors and the level of disorganization or maladaptive behavior 1.

So, the stressors themselves are not deemed to have any power to produce stress but stress is instead seen as intrinsic. In other words, it's how you REACT to the environment that produces "stress" and it is your individual state, your personality, fitness, etc. that determines this. Now, you can begin to see how "attitude" may be a factor in determining HOW we should train and not just a factor in our success or failure with a particular regimen.

But it goes further since both of these models, although important, have been found to be inadequate. There is just way too much variation in individual responses to stress. So attention has shifted from either the stressors or the responses to a person's interaction with the environment. The working assumption is that a person has certain characteristics which influence his response to the stimulus of the environment.

Transactional Model of Stress and Coping

The most prevalent model based on this assumption is the "transactional model of stress and coping" developed by Lazarus3 and Folkman4. A major assumption of this model is that there is a transaction between a person and his or her environment. So, a person is not only influenced by his environment but influences it in turn. A second important assumption is that a person's cognitive and emotional resources define the stress. A person first appraises the stress and then reacts to it based on individual resources.

What this all means and how it is any different may be a bit hard to grasp at first. I'll try to bring it down to earth a bit. Let's say something happens to someone. That person responds to that event. Based on the way that person responds we determine that they are "under stress". Response-oriented, see, as I explained above. Now, suppose that we ASK that person about his or her level of stress. I'll describe a personal example.

I am an introverted person but I am not uncomfortable in small groups of people that I know fairly well. As an introvert, however, I don't always enjoy small-talk and I tend to listen more than I speak. So in social gatherings you might find me sitting quietly and listening to the conversation going on around me.

My tendency toward quiet reflection sometimes causes people who don't know me as well to perceive me as shy…which I am not. Sometimes this is compounded by the reports of others who know me better and so tell acquaintances that I am quiet and introverted. The perceptions of others based on the words "quiet" and "introverted" cause a common misunderstanding.

So sometimes, perhaps out of a sense of altruism or simply based on their own discomfort people say things like "you're awful quiet today" and even "what's wrong?" They assume that my not talking is a reaction to stress! They may perceive the social environment to be a stressor and my response to it as an indication that I am under stress. OR, they may not perceive an actual stressor at all and simply assume that 'quiet' is a signal of stress.

I am forced to respond, of course, that I am fine and dandy. There is nothing wrong and, in fact, I am quite comfortable and content. So my "self-report" indicates no stress although my behavior signals stress to others. But the only stress I feel on these occasions is that brought about by such annoying questions!

Can you see, therefore, how simply looking at a stressor, response or both to determine how much stress an individual is under may not always be accurate? Suppose you are doing a certain strength training program. If you make progress or fail to make progress you are forced to view it in a very simplistic fashion that limits your coping choices. You either are under too much stress or under not enough stress to progress. Which one? How do you immediately proceed? If you assume you haven't done enough it may be too late by the time you found out you have done "too much" and over-trained! To be clear, it is not all that easy to become over-trained, though.

The Broken Clock

I know that all this may seem ridiculous, simplistic, and even silly to many. But most one-size-fits-all programs MUST deal with the above reality. How do they do this? They make assumptions about how people progress. The assumptions are usually derived to fit the underlying premise of the program rather than the other way around. They are based on nothing more than wishful thinking and a few best guesses about how an average sampling of an average population will react to training. Which fits…hardly anyone.

If grounded in at least a little common sense, we end up with a program that is a lot like the proverbial broken clock that manages to be right twice a day (or 732 times a year). The problem is, based on the factors I discussed above, we only look at the clock twice a day and are thus led to faulty conclusions about its accuracy.

Some, realizing this, have gotten a bit confused and decided that training is therefore all about perception. Reactive training and other monickers have been used to describe the ideas that have come about from this. All good training is reactive but it is also PROACTIVE. Simply reacting implies that we cannot develop training models for an individual, and therefore for ourselves, that make sense.

Unfortunately, popular programs are a lot like dietary supplements. They work because people say they work. We have been socially conditioned to assume that when a program doesn't work it is our failing rather than the program. Much the same conditioning exists in the fat loss and dieting industry as well.

There are a number of articles here at GUS to get you started really unlocking your strength potential. Stop relying on rote programs written by people who, quite frankly care more about perceptions than YOU and your results. A person who wants to help you get results should not care about being right but only about the training being right for you.

Read through some of the articles and posts offered in the training section of GUS.

1. Krieder, Richard B., Andrew C. Fry, and Mary L. O'Toole, eds. Overtraining in sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1998

This page created 24 Nov 2009 15:15
Last updated 11 Feb 2017 21:56

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