False Comparisons in Strength Training Research and Literature

Posted on 08 May 2013 16:20

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The most frequent fallacy committed in studies related (however loosely) to strength training is the "false comparison," also known as the false analogy or questionable analogy. Sometimes, this happens because the researchers do not have any true understanding of overall practice of strength training, and therefore compare two things that really shouldn't be compared. Other times, however, the researchers well know that they are making a false comparison, and they are using this to discover relationships and move forward in their research, rather than to prove something. It is the strength training lay public that misunderstands this and uses these studies as evidence of something.

False comparisons are used to sell products on television all the time. For instance, I just saw a silly commercial for some skin product for women that used "paper that reacted like skin" to show that their product was more gentle. But paper is not skin nor can paper "react like skin." It is a false comparison.

Another used a subtle yet entirely fraudulent comparison. This was the Sobakawa Cloud Pillow commercial. To show that their material was more supportive than memory foam, they dropped a weight into a cylinder of their foam and into a cylinder of memory foam. Except the memory foam was cut up into cubes. Memory foam comes in solid blocks, not cubes and this, of course, would make it less supportive as the weight can simply fall through the pieces. They altered the density on purpose. A false comparison, since the cloud pillow material was left in it's original normal state and the memory foam was altered. This makes the two distinctly dissimilar: one is altered, the other is not. We see many such false comparisons in everyday discussions of strength training and fitness.

The Smart Car commercials that show the frame of the car supporting an SUV on its roof also uses a misleading false comparison since supporting a vertical static force is completely different than the dynamic forces of a vehicular collision. Also, we usually don't get hit from above or generally have a demand to support loads from above. Not only that, but the safety cell is mounted on a steel frame that provides atypical support compared to its axles and wheels.

Now for examples of strength training study false comparisons, I'll give one that should be easy to grasp. It has to do with research on neural fatigue. Pituitary-adrenal-gonadal responses to high-intensity resistance exercise overtraining by Fry et al:

Weight-trained men [OT; n = 11; age = 22.0 +/- 0.9 (SE) yr] resistance trained daily at 100% one-repetition maximum (1-RM) intensity for 2 wk, resulting in 1-RM strength decrements and in an overtrained state. A control group (Con; n = 6; age = 23.7 +/- 2.4 yr) trained 1 day/wk at a low relative intensity (50% 1 RM).

Okay, do you see the huge difference in the training parameters of the experimental group and the control group? This is a false comparison. As long as you understand that this group is meant as a control you're OK. But many lay people will see this as a realistic comparison between two training scenarios: low intensity and high intensity. Now, people have used this study many times to point out that there must be a fundamental difference in the body's reaction to very high intensity muscular training, and low intensity training. They speculate that this must have to do with the neural component. That may well be true. But that is as far as you can go with it because comparing these two protocols is like comparing the quality of flip flops to hiking boots on a hiking trip.

In reality, nobody actually trains like the experimental group and there is a continual mixture of intensity, volume, density, etc. within a single workout, let alone a work week or a training cycle. Metabolic and/or neural components will be at work and there will be no true way to separate one from the other. There was NEVER any intention on the researcher's part to suggest new ways of training for strength. They were studying overtraining, not training itself. Specifically, they were wondering about ways to monitor overtraining due to short-term high relative intensity resistance training. Which illustrates my point that people are constantly talking about neural fatigue as if we can actually actively monitor it an separate it out from other causes of fatigue. This is an example of when just because there is a study that has something to do with lifting weights, doesn't mean it can be applied to our training practices.

What you must understand is that even if you were to compare two groups of lifters using the exact same training protocol, but with different training histories, the comparison would fail. So to compare two vastly different protocols should of course not be expected to lead to any direct insights into strength training. Nor were they ever meant to.

Instead of listing a bunch of little examples of false comparisons, like comparing walking to squats and talking about how they affect your nervous system (not made up), I want to just mention the biggest one that affects the subject that is most dear to me, training for maximal strength. Most of the strength and conditioning world is concerned with power production for athletes. This is because, in most sports, power is more important a consideration than total force production. Now, this does not mean that strength, or "force" training does not come into play as part of that. Of course it does. However, when your express purpose is to gain maximal strength, you are engaged in a different activity than an athlete needing to optimize power for his sport. Pure strength training is specific, as I've hollered about a million times. The false comparison, then, is when strength coaches talk about their training for sports athletes to a pure strength training audience. If you do not care about power production, then you do not need to follow the training of an athlete from some specific sport. Now, some coaches have decided that the strength part of the training is more important and that developing power should be left to working with the specific skills that one needs to have power in. You know, like using vertical jumping to get better at vertical jumping instead of cleans or something like that. That's all fine and I agree with it.

The point is that in order to reasonably compare training, we must compare goals. An athletes goal is to further performance in their sport. A pure strength trainees goal is to lift the heaviest weight possible in whatever lifts he is prioritizing. Different goals make for different training and any comparison of these training scenarios is a false one.

There is also the general success comparisons. That is the myth that the same habits that make for a successful businessman would make for a successful strength trainee. Now, if that is not a false comparison, I've never seen one.

Do you know some examples of false comparisons frequently made in the strength training world? If you do, comment on it below!

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This page created 08 May 2013 16:20
Last updated 20 Oct 2015 16:41

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