A rather long throat-clearing…….
There is a human instinct for critique, it is part of our social negotiation. At its best, contrarianism, pamphleteering, social activism, debate and campaigning (call it what you like) has formed the backbone of inspiring counter-revolutionary movements and change. At its worst, it is unjustified mockery or just plain graffiti.
How do we rationalize this instinct with exercise in the age of the internet?
The ‘narcissism of the small difference‘ is as present amongst exercise enthusiasts and professionals as it is with any other collective. The phenomenon of feuding rival tribes on adjoining territory, elevating the importance of seemingly trivial matters, creates a situation where a bystander must surely be shocked at the vitriol resulting from the difference for example in squatting a barbell; one group onto a box, another group not.
I repudiate any claim however that it is ESPECIALLY present in the exercise community. I am yet to encounter a workplace, a class, a sport, a school or a community that was immune from a feud or disagreement of some sort, of some level, that appears trivial. Almost certainly, to the outside world, it will be a feud of confusingly small, near undetectable discrepancy.
Arguably, humans do not actually enjoy endless peace and consensus: they must pick at every edge, seek out disputation, and eventually, someone will punch a sacred cow.
This is a good thing.
Even if there were something sacred, us mere hominids would not be able to figure out and decide on exactly what that would be. Tampering with custom may cause offense, but in the question of ‘how shall we do things?’, it’s never a waste of time to re-examine first principles and ask ourselves, ‘why do I do what I do?’ and ‘can we do a better job than that?’, else we are left with completely un-vetted orthodoxy.
The issue at hand……
In the internet age, one will see criticism in the many forms that it takes, and in a much larger volume: Much greater than most humans would experience in the past. Every form that discourse takes in our age is now supercharged beyond that endured by previous generations. The adage that ‘a lie goes round the world three times whilst the truth is putting its boots on‘, might need to be ramped up a few notches. Whilst once upon a time reading something was a case of exposure to someone else’s well-considered thoughts, we all now know that thoughts in writing are often people’s immediate peripheral reactions sent out publicly and un-vetted.
If you can cope with the volume of it, it’s an interesting salad of human thoughts and feelings.
Those interactions can cause some Jimmies to be Rustled, and now we arrive at the issue at hand.
When are you just Trolling? What is Graffiti? What is Contradiction? What is an Argument?
Some words from Monty Python are applicable.
“Well an argument is not the same as contradiction…… an argument is a connected series of statements in order to establish a definite proposition it isn’t just saying, ‘No it isn’t’!…… An argument is an intellectual process, contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says. “
Those sensitive to criticism can disregard a large amount of critique based on the fact that it isn’t really arguing anything. It is merely contradiction or Trolling or Graffiti?
The Prime Minister earlier this year referred to Twitter as ‘electronic graffiti’. I don’t think too many people are going to agree with that, the ability of a medium to work well in 120 characters or less is up for debate. Drive-by literary shootings seem to occur in both short and long formats. It would be a mistake to just think that insults are brief and wit is more expanded.
There are legendary feuds in the internet exercise community. They can be extremely entertaining for those not directly involved.
The Couch Thread is a compendium and anthology of every calamity to beset Crossfit. Running now at 1400 pages, it is everything that is good and bad about exercise critique. Amongst racism, misogyny and bigotry, there are valid questions and incredulous yelps.
Consistent with that theme, Drywall and Elgintensity are strongly satirical in nature and pull no punches. Fail compilations, might actually be performing a great public service. ‘Don’t do this! or else you’ll end up being mocked.’ You’ll be the cautionary tale.
Closer to home for me, catapult vs triple extension is the argument that never goes away. Then there’s debates on Low Bar vs High Bar, Raw vs Equipped, Paleo vs Food Pyramid Orthodoxy vs Zone Dieting and ‘whatever fits your macros’.
We can come to blows over, ‘Steady State Cardio for fat loss vs High Intensity Interval Training’ or why not something simpler? Squatting below parallel, knee explosion or perfectly fine?
Westside vs All Comers.
The quality of the discourse requires navigating past all the contradiction and trolling as well as the ‘Strawman Arguments’, before we even get to the content. But getting to the crux of all this, where is the line for critique?
There is an obvious sensitivity to criticism. ‘Keyboard Warriors’, ‘Know-It-Alls’, ‘Internet Experts’; you know what I’m talking about. Do you create a principle of not calling things to account? And if you observe this ‘Rule’, at some point you need to ask if it extends consistently to all matters at all times? Again, where is the line?
Are we allowed to make fun of this?
Or do we need to congratulate the fellow for ‘having a go’? Is what’s needed just a call for politeness? Or can we be civil at the same time as a call for honesty and analyze things at the risk of turning up the unpleasant. Can we escape the safe confines of the majority for a moment, and bravely step our foot out where the last step should have been, accidentally stepping on a noisy toy?
Isn’t it possible that temporary merciless satire of this attempt at a weight room skill COULD give inexperienced persons cause to avoid replicating it? Educational moments come in many shapes and sizes, but wouldn’t it be better that the person learns at least what NOT to do, so they can AVOID getting tattooed to the floor?
If Gym Fails cause us to ask, as it does with me, ‘what did they THINK was going to happen?’, then it has now become educational.
Sometimes you have to ask yourself if it’s almost unsportsmanlike to shoot such a large fat fish in such a small barrel. But if you’re doing something in the gym that appears as if you’ve just said, ‘Here, hold my beer while I have a crack at this’, and you put it on the internet, then its going to expose itself to criticism. Some of that criticism might break decorum, but even if it does, is that break in decorum any worse than the failure in practice that it being commented on in the first place?
Not every example is such an easy target.
Some times the example is heaped in esteem. And this is where this can get really interesting.
All professions have feedback loops that make up the basic mechanism that drive the evolution of them.
If you are an engineer, and all your bridges fall down, there is a strong feedback loop for improvement. If you are in medicine and your patients start dying, someone will come to ask some questions, in law, your clients all going to jail is going to result in some similar reprisal.
There is nothing like that in exercise prescription. Overwhelmingly, it is a convergence of three powerful phenomena.
#1 Adaptation, is extremely simple. Even the elderly and the infirm can get a training effect of some type. The pluralism of training tactics is testimony to this.
#2 Partly because of the first phenomena, there is a tremendous number of false positives. Even athletes with the most elite output and ability, gaining a training effect is exceptionally easy. This shouldn’t be difficult to understand; possessing the deepest narrowest fitness possible, any divergence from this is almost inevitable. It makes it easy to say, ‘There see…. we got a training effect!’
#3 If you’re going to have a profession, money needs to be made. Commercially, it needs to be demonstrated that value can be added. See points #1 and #2 on how that can be achieved.
Earlier this week I wrote an article critiquing the footage of the Australian Men’s Rugby team training in the gym. It was not graffiti, it was not contradiction, it was not trolling.
I gave examples of why I thought it was much less quality in general preparation than should be expected from the flag-ship Rugby program in the nation, and that I felt that the skills that they had chosen to display were not something that should be emulated.
It was an argument about the application to the content that has already been chosen. A key detail.
The responses were largely in solidarity with my own. It’s worth noting, that if you are reading THIS article, you are in the minority. Writing articles for the website for my own gym is essentially a hobby. Whilst the gym is a commercial entity, (but more actually like an athletic club) the articles are basically there for people who are already members, as well as being an outlet for me to form my thoughts into coherent prose.
What I did uncover with the posting of THAT article, encouraged me to finish writing THIS one; ideas for a commentary on internet interaction within the fitness and training community.
At every step when critiquing something within your own industry you have to ask yourself if you are trespassing on the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Ignorance begetting confidence more so than knowledge, is the explanation of David Dunning and Justin Kruger regarding the tendency of the unskilled to overestimate their abilities. On the contrary, skilled people generally (in western countries in particular) have a tendency to underestimate their abilities. You will often notice experts in a given field hedging constantly in their answers. “It could be this”, “I don’t have all the data. “It might be that, but I might be wrong.”
My language in the beginning of the article was fairly clear, Are you seeing what I’m seeing? What do YOU think of this?
An Argument from Authority is a logical fallacy that values opinion based on credential. It’s only natural of course. If you don’t know very much about something, seeking out an authority on the matter is your best choice to start a process of becoming informed.
The critique of authority however, screws up the HTML code of exercise discourse. A Pollyanna approach is acceptable, gushing over a guru is acceptable, criticism is not acceptable.
We would be wise to keep in mind the fable of the undraped Emperor. It holds a special place in our folklore and the message is as relevant now as it ever has been. The story condemns the gullibility of the Emperor as much as it does the members of his court, reluctant as they are to call things as they see it,….. ‘doesn’t the Emperor look fine in his new clothes’, ‘We all think he does, only someone who isn’t fit for their job would disagree’.
It takes the boy, innocent of the robust social conventions of the adults, to call out that the Emperor is in fact naked!!!!
Pluralistic ignorance somewhat explains the situation regarding people newly into the exercise industry. After a short period acclimatising to the new environment they privately look around and start to see some pretty uninspiring things, generally however they think that everyone else believes in what’s happening.
It doesn’t matter if its Boxercise as cure-all for everything, capricious boot-camp classes, wasteful looking PT sessions; eventually you’re going to notice something breathtakingly stupid.
There is a necessary protection of those in authority however. If you aspire to emulate that person, and you’re following the same pathway, any criticism is likely to be unwelcome, as it damages the very credibility of the pathway you are about to trade on. It will become necessary in that case to prefer hypocrisy: they might quietly disagree, but they will still give things tacit approval, afraid that a less than wholehearted obedience to the career path would be apostasy. ANY criticism is heretical: They’re committed and doubling down.
You know you’re on the right track however when they start with the ad hominem responses. Rather than argue assertions, a debate ensues over the ‘right’ to criticize, and indeed whether its EVER right to criticize, someone from your own field. That right is determined by who you are. This is not particular to the exercise industry, it transcends sport, workplace, social club and family; but mark it down in your notes on the issue at hand.
Make no mistake, the call for ‘respect’ is a call for censorship and a prohibition on critique. Do we really watch the Emperor stroll past in the nude? or do we call things how we see them?
Interestingly, it doesn’t take much to notice a strong, ‘Cry before you’re hurt‘ theme developing. Once you see, ‘Inb4 all the internet experts‘, you start to see an actual desire to be offended. It will almost certain be followed by rebuttals as brilliant as, ‘Keyboard Warrior’, ‘Internet expert‘ and an attack on credentials; seldom is the content ever addressed. Attacking and discrediting the person who is making the observation is far easier. When you think about it, its actually quite important that there IS a littering of graffiti and contradiction. For someone who actually does have a case to answer in the quality and hypocrisy of their work, being able to dispense ALL criticism into the same category gives the perfect cover.
A gym huckster NEEDS criticism of the lowest form; it hides the valid investigations. ‘You’re just haters‘
There is generally outrage when anonymous persons ridicule others on the internet. It seems a fair position to take, ‘If you have something to say, put your name on it’. That ethic appears on face value to be a reasonable demand. It does however have a very important alternate way of considering things.
Anonymity can be an oddly important tool, it stops someone from using an ad hominem argument. The same crowd who get angry at an anonymous remark that hits the target, is the same crowd who wants to play the man and not the ball anyway. I’m always quite happy for people to know who I am in internet discourse, but it wouldn’t matter even if I were to remain anonymous: the evidence stands on its on merit. Or as the line in Dr Strangelove goes, ‘I’m sorry sir, but those are the figures’
I wasn’t shocked at all by what I saw in the Wallabies training footage. What you see there is standard. I’m not impressed by 31 programs, and neither should you be. Baskin-Robbins has 31 flavours of ice-cream….. THAT is impressive. There is no way of telling really who is any good in the profession of Strength and Conditioning/Athletic preparation based on their credentials, who they have worked for, or number of trophies. The false positives are such in team sports that recruitment of talent and technical-tactic coaching, far outweigh the value-adding of general preparation. A general preparation coach may have excellent abilities in one area but there are so many things to have sound knowledge on, and so little is taught in the education modules, that you’re bound to see gym skills at professional clubs and rep teams like those in the Wallabies footage all the time.
Its just necessary from time-to-time to point this out, just to make sure people are paying attention.
You have to look very, very closely for true excellence, and when you find really good all round people you’ll quickly realize that the reason that they ARE any good, is because of the work they have done of their own volition; Not because of how many merit badges they have accumulated. The appeal to credential and authority is bankrupt.
I hate to sound like I’m S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G I-T O-U-T but the case I made, and I make again here, is quite simple, and please re-read it several times before offering contradiction and ad hominem…..
If you have already decided on selecting skills for your training program, and you are promoting performance improvements, claiming to use sophisticated protocols, and preaching the avoidance and elimination of injuries, “make them bulletproof”, then you must be prepared for critique from people who use those skill selections to a far better level of quality, but with populations of far less natural ability, need, time and training history.
Its a weak response to say, ‘Well he’s winning, so he must be doing something right’, when the evidence more surely suggests something closer to, ‘Gee, that looks pretty uninspiring, I can do that better, they must be able to do just about anything and still play okay.’
The identification and questioning of the conduct of the gold-standard is not just a case of, Someone on the internet is wrong!
Its a case of pulling back the curtain on an industry and its education system that produce Exercise Hucksters and Workout Mountebanks that are considered experts and draw an income from credulous customers; be they individuals, professional sporting teams, amateurs or the public at large.
One of the greatest and most important movie scenes ever is in the Wizard of Oz. Toto pulls back the drapes, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”.
As stated in the article, it is important to appear to be ‘cutting edge’. Just doing simple things well wont impress the people doing the hiring. Instead people have a tendency of lamenting that a wheel, after all this time, is still just a wheel. You’re not bringing sexy back if you just doing simple things well. Impressive nomenclature, special looking tools and attachments are an easier sell than a situation where a new client is taught how to do gross movements competently but the complex explanation can wait.
When fitness-fascism arrives, it will be wrapped in a sponsor banner and carrying ‘The Literature’.
At its worst, ‘The Literature’, are sacred texts. At its best it is the reasoned and reliable account of proven material used for useful physical adaptation.
The use of ‘The Literature’ can be problem in cases where an appeal to authority is being made. Formulating a hypothesis, creating a testing battery, gathering data, interpreting it, publishing results, peer-reviewing those results; what could possibly go wrong?
Well a lot. In particular, the issue in exercise is at the front end. Without experience, it is difficult to formulate something worth testing. Who really cares and wants to know about the effects of periodized abs training or how much momentum effects hypertrophic stimulus in lateral dumbbell flyes? Quality results to a stupid research question isn’t really advancing things very much. It turns science into pseudoscience.
The deconstruction and scrutiny of claims is both educational and necessary in the overall improvement of a population.
When that deconstruction and scrutiny reveals laziness, ineptness or self-conscious fraud, the effort has played a particularly useful role. When it uncovers genuinely held but fallacious beliefs, the sensitivity can be observed pretty quickly, and that brings us right back to the beginning.
Humans are going to critique things. There can be no prior restraint of calling something into question. If you try to make a complaint about complaining your own credibility is going to be effected and it will be obvious to everyone that the irony is lost on you. You look even worse avoiding a point of conjecture and making a demand for respect instead an analysis of what is said.
Look at every person is if they are a slightly more evolved ape; they are. In a generation we’ll look back and see that right now we were grazing on the low slopes and we can do much better.