Before we start, here’s a question for you. Which of the below statements is easier to prove?
a) All swans are white
b) Running a mile every day will make you lean
Smart readers might have read statement b) and immediately started devising an experiment to test it: obviously you’d have to control for calorie intake and other daily activity, right? Smarter readers, of course, will have already realized that it’s very hard (maybe impossible) to definitely prove either statement: but it’s very easy to disprove them. Find one black swan, and statement a) is done: find one fat guy who runs a mile a day, and b) is provably wrong.
This is what philosopher Karl Popper called falsifiability, a cornerstone of the scientific method and the key to what’s known as critical rationalism. A theory in the empirical sciences can never be proven, argues Popper, but it can be falsified, meaning that it can and should be scrutinized by experiments – and that if the outcome of an experiment contradicts the theory, one should refrain from manoeuvres that evade the contradiction merely by making it less falsifiable. Look at evolution, for instance: up until the 19th century, a lot of people still believed that the world was created 6,000 years ago. The fossil record and carbon dating seemed to disprove that idea, but then a naturalist called Philip Henry Gosse published a book arguing that God had deliberately created lots of fossils to give the illusion that the Earth was older than it is. The problem: this makes creationism invulnerable to failure, since there’s no way to falsify it: if the answer to any new piece of evidence is ‘God is fucking with you,’ then creationism doesn’t even qualify as a theory.
So how does this relate to getting jacked?
Simple. There are a thousand fitness programmes in the world, each of them claiming to be The Thing that will get you to an effortless six-pack, or rippling delts, or a triple-bodyweight deadlift, or a 3-hour marathon on less than two hours of training a week: and a lot of them don’t work. Paying attention to the people selling them, or to the success stories they cite, is pretty much useless: those people have a vested interest in stacking the evidence in their favour, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell if the dude selling you his three-minute fat-blaster really got lean with the workout he’s touting, or with years of good eating and better genetics. Listening to success stories from other people who’ve done The Thing might not work, because you can find success stories for anything, and people are more likely to report success than failure. Even listening to an appeal to the scientific validity of the idea is questionable: the human body is an insanely complicated thing, and the our understanding of the mechanisms by which it works is constantly being refined. Or, to put it another way: it doesn’t matter whether a training plan should work, according to our current understanding of science: what matters is whether it actually fucking works.
So here’s the question to ask when you’re considering a new training plan:
Can you find anyone who’s done The Thing who hasn’t got the results you’re looking for?
Suddenly, your training plan is falsifiable.
Take Starting Strength, for instance. I would be amazed if there’s anyone in the world who did that plan seriously, as described, and (assuming they were a beginner) didn’t put at least 30kg on their deadlift and back squat, and a couple of kilos of muscle on their body. Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 is similar: I’m the sort of man who hangs out on weightlifting forums, and I’ve never seen a single guy go ‘Actually, it didn’t put any weight on any of my lifts.’ By contrast, think about the premise that running will make you lean: that’s instantly disproved any time you spectate at a running-based event. P90x, 10,000 kettlebell swings in a month, Ido Portal’s online training plan, CrossFit Endurance: will they work for you? If you can’t find anyone they haven’t worked for, there’s a good chance the answer’s yes.
Obviously, you’re going to argue with this.
Firstly, okay, there’s potential for a bit of correlation/causation confusion here. For instance, I would argue that any man who can do 20 strict pullups will almost certainly have a six-pack. But is that because doing all those pullups makes you ripped, or because any guy who can do 20 pullups will, ipso facto, have very low bodyfat in the first place? Realistically, it’s probably a bit of both, but if the pattern’s well-established then you might not even need to worry about it: just concentrate on getting those 20 pullups, one way or another, and the six-pack will come (obviously, there are a lot of ways to do this quicker, but for the sake of argument). [Incidentally, this is one reason I like setting performance goals rather than bodycomp ones: weirdly, I find it much easier to eat less cake when the end goal is ‘Do more pullups’ than when it’s ‘get lean’ – but the beauty is, you get the body comp stuff as a bonus.]
Secondly, there are a few things that confound this process: starting conditions, commitment to the process, etc. So yes, you do have to think about those. But honestly, if you’re committing to a new plan for at least six weeks (you are committing to at least six weeks, right?) then you should think about it quite a lot first anyway. Here’s my five-step guide to making it happen.
- Pick The Thing you’re going to try. The more simple and clearly-defined the easier it’ll be to test: ‘Do 100 pressups a day’ is clear, as is ‘follow Starting Strength exactly as described.’ ‘Do CrossFit’ is vague – ‘Follow the CrossFit mainsite WODs’ would be an improvement.
- Define the results you want. If your plan is ‘Do 100 pressups a day’, then ‘Be able to do more pressups’ is fine. But if your end goal is ‘Get a massive chest,’ then be honest with yourself decide that now.
- Try to find someone who’s done The Thing who hasn’t got the results you’re looking for. Post on Twitter, or Facebook, or (better) Reddit’s /r/fitness or /r/weightroom or /r/bodyweightfitness forums. If your response to this is ‘I can hardly find anyone who’s done the thing,’ then maybe this is an early warning sign that you’ve chosen the wrong Thing: there is very little stuff that actually works that isn’t already in widespread use. Stop looking for the super-special shit that nobody else knows about: start looking for the well-established stuff that works for everyone who does it.
- Pay attention to what the ‘did not work’ people say. If they’re post-rationalizing their own failure by going ‘Ah, but I didn’t try hard enough/got injured/ate wrong,’ then be honest: will you do better? If, for instance, a programme has a 50/50 chance of making you look like He-Man or blowing out your rotator cuffs, then maybe that’s not a programme worth gambling your one set of working shoulders on. If everyone says the programme only works if you’re genuinely going to drink a gallon of milk a day or squat five times a week (or whatever), then ask yourself: are you actually going to do that?
- Repeat until you’ve found a plan that you can’t falsify. And have at it.
Science is beautiful for a reason. Here’s some Popper to close us out:
“A rationalist is simply someone for whom it is more important to learn than to be proved right; someone who is willing to learn from others — not by simply taking over another’s opinions, but by gladly allowing others to criticize his ideas and by gladly criticizing the ideas of others … The genuine rationalist does not think that he or anyone else is in possession of the truth; nor does he think that mere criticism as such helps us achieve new ideas. But he does think that, in the sphere of ideas, only critical discussion can help us sort the wheat from the chaff. He is well aware that acceptance or rejection of an idea is never a purely rational matter; but he thinks that only critical discussion can give us the maturity to see an idea from more and more sides and to make a correct judgement of it.”
Damn straight. Live hard!