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Training as Science and Religion

March 14th, 2012 by Andrew Heffernan

I'm not a basketball fan, though I became at least slightly interested in the sport while writing this article. What I discovered upon talking to twenty top collegiate strength and conditioning coaches was this:

Strength and conditioning is equal parts science and religion.

There are the science types--who live and breathe by the peer-reviewed study, the latest whiz-bang tidbit of scientifically valid data, and there are the mavericks, the off-roaders, the outlaws who throw caution to the wind, go by how they think and feel things work, and lead by intuition and force of personality.

And here's the weird, weird thing: both approaches work. Spectacularly. VCU and the University of Memphis both hired outside-the-box strength coaches last year, guys who don't crunch numbers, who don't care about bodyfat percentages and vertical jump heights--and both teams did very well.

Many other teams did well this year too, of course--and many of them had strength coaches who fit the classical number-crunching mold.

Which leads me to my above statement: whether you think training is science or training is religion, you're right. You've just got to believe it will every fiber of your being.

When I was but a wee speck of a muscle, training in the basement of the home of my youth, I used to pull training information from magazines published by Joe Weider. Don't laugh--that's all we had back then. One of the better programs might have gone something like this:

MONDAY: Incline Situps: 1 set to failure; Squats: three sets of 10; Incline Press, three sets of 10; Pullups, three sets of 10; Overhead Press, three sets of 10; Tricep Pushdowns, three sets of 10.

So I'd do that program every Monday--plus something complimentary two or three more days of the week, and make some progress.

But then, a month or two later, I'd get another issue of Muscle and Fitness that featured the exercise routine of this or that fitness dude or football player or buffed-up celebrity. His program that looked like this:

MONDAY: Incline Situps: two sets to failure; Squats: three sets of 12; Flat Bench Press, three sets of 10; Underhand Pullups, three sets of 10; Overhead Dumbell Press, three sets of 10; Bicep Curls, three sets of 10.

He'd tell you why it was such a great program, say why he thought it was the best program going, and how it made him into the man he was. So I'd jump on that program, following it to the (only very slightly different) letter.

And guess what? I'd make progress. I'd invest in the "new" program more. I'd suddenly have more faith that it was going to work. And crazily enough...it did.

Muscle confusion? Hormones? Maybe a bit of both. But I think the real reason it worked was much less tangible. I think it had to do with my belief in the new system.

I once saw a martial arts demo with a guy who said "You've got to throw your strikes with authority, like you think they're going to work. The whole time I'm striking"--and here he demonstrated his own, unique way of throwing a debilitating pokey-handed punch to the solar plexus on a hapless sparring partner--"I'm thinking it'll work it'll work it'll WORK!" Whammo, the guy went down.

Did he really have something all that new and different? Or was he just investing a basic technique with more force, power, and authority? I'd venture to say, probably the latter. It was more interesting to him, something he could get behind in a different way than the regular old way of punching. But in truth, the difference itself didn't matter that much.

And it's possible that, regardless of your approach to training, this is what we're really after: some confidence and investment in our training program, something that will help us go after it thinking, "it'll work."

So--science or religion, whatever gets you going. If you're a number-cruncher and like charts and graphs and feedback loops, good on ya. If you'd rather train by feel, go hard and fast and go home, well, I applaud that too, and I'm just as confident that you'll get good results.

And here's an idea: if you've been using one approach--try using the other one for awhile. You'll probably see a huge leap in progress. If you're a chart guy, leave it at home, crank your tunes and train entirely by feel. If you're an intuitive dude, get concrete for a bit, take some measurements, record some PR's and see what you can accomplish in 6 weeks.

You'll probably surprise yourself.

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