Assumptions are Critical: Part 3 of Bad Fitness Articles

Posted on 29 Jan 2010 21:59

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Assumptions are a perfect subject for this third post in the series. The first two I think held no real surprises. For this one, I wanted to write about something that would challenge your assumptions so I decided to write about assumptions themselves.

A good fitness article must make assumptions. There, I'll bet that threw at least some of you. I mean, aren't the best fitness writers omniscient?

Refusing to make assumptions but instead trying to cover all the bases in an article can actually do more harm than good. Many writers tend to construct different scenarios in their articles in an effort to discuss every independent variable they can imagine. They seek to achieve impossible perfection and instead of moving from the complex to the simple they make ever more complications! Although this may please the author as an intellectual exercise, to the reader the result is a hodgepodge of intellectual posturing and confusing details.

Let's suppose that we are answering a direct question. "When should I do my deadlifts? At the beginning of the week or later?"

A good answer would be "It depends".


I mentioned above independent variables. An independent variable is the one variable that is not dependent on any other variable. And there is only ever one to consider in any discussion.

To answer the question about deadlifts we say it depends. Well it depends on all the dependent variables. However, the dependent variables depend on what the independent variable is. We decide, in any one discussion, what that will be. The independent variable may be the deadlift. That is the one thing that we control and does not change.

However, by making the deadlift an independent variable we are making an assumption! This is not a controlled scientific experiment, this is a training discussion. What if I asked "What is your priority?"

"I really want to bring up my squat."

At that point the squat becomes the independent variable. Everything changes.

See how muddy this all gets? What's more the dependents do not assume a neat and direct relationship to only the squat. Everything affects everything. Try to follow all the threads and you will not make progress. You will suffer "paralysis by analysis".

But the key is understanding what assumptions really are. Most people tend to think that assumptions are dogmatic beliefs or expectations based on past experience. The word assume itself is often pejorative. You know, to assume makes an ass out of u and me. The idea is that we should be aware of assumptions.

Nothing of the sort. Assumptions are critical. And they are a part of critical thinking. Just about any reasoning must start somewhere! The most oft-stated example is in the Deceleration of Independence, by Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…"

What Jefferson was doing (actually he was paraphrasing another work) was stating a claim without argument. In other words, he held it as reasonable to assert, without any support, that all men are created equal, etc. Notice, though, that he explicitly stated this assumption. The danger is not in making assumptions, but in hiding them, or never being aware of them in the first place.

So, the failure in fitness articles is not making assumptions but failing to name them. The thing about an assumption is that it must be reasonable. Someone can reject our assumptions and so reject our entire argument but that does not mean we do not make them in the first place.

The authors who refuse to make assumptions are authors who simply want you to believe that they know everything that must be known. The rub is that in attempting to cover everything that they know, they show how unknown things can be. You do not need to know everything to move toward an answer. You must simply have realistic expectations and take them into account.

For instance, I recently wrote a long article on how to achieve your first pullup. Even though the article is long I had to make assumptions to write it. Failing to make those assumptions would have resulted in a very crappy article and an overly long one as well.

My main assumption in that article was that those using the method were not severely overweight. I mentioned that excessive body-weight was, of course, a big stumbling block for pullups. But I assumed that those attempting to achieve their first pullup were either not overweight or would be attempting to lose weight. The alternative would be to write a fat loss article. But I was writing an article about how to do your first pullup from a simple methodological perspective. The other variables that need to be considered to be able to handle your own body-weight are for other articles.

Someone who wanted to cast doubt on my method could, instead of discrediting the method itself, attempt to force me to address further and further variables. This is sometimes called moving the goalpost. The idea here is not to actually answer any questions but to move further away from the central point, ask ever more complex questions and eventually stymie me by reaching a point where my knowledge fails. And on the subject of fatloss my knowledge would fail sooner rather than later. However, this would in no way discredit my instruction on how to achieve a pullup!

So we must break this down to simple spots for bad fitness articles. The first two are:

1. Author refuses to make assumptions but rather moves a simple question or subject to ever more complex area of investigations.

2. Author makes assumptions but fails to clearly name them in the article.

The last spot needs a bit more explanation:

3. Author makes unreasonable assumptions.

Unreasonable assumptions are those that the author, nor anybody else can garner from past experience or knowledge. Unreasonable assumptions, at their extreme, are just ridiculous statements. In an article they become like the pink elephant in the room. So be the first person to acknowledge them.

A great example comes from Pavel Tsatsouline. I've mentioned this one several times because it is such an outrageous assumption. Pavel said everybody has the strength to lift a car; their muscles just don't know it yet. After a statement like that, it really doesn't matter what follows.

Another gem comes from Charles Poliquin, when he stated that women with belly button piercings will not be able to lose weight because the piercings interfere with electrical signals in their bodies! Now that is a unreasonable assumption!

This page created 29 Jan 2010 21:59
Last updated 22 Oct 2015 20:40

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