Bridging the Gap Between Science and Practice in Fitness Continuing Education

3 Simple Steps for Bridging the Gap Between Science and Practice in Fitness Continuing Education

For many years the fitness field has suffered from an epidemic of professionals who, on one side are long in science education and short on practical application, and on other side, who focus on the practical application, but promote pseudoscientific and non-scientifically founded practices.

The cause of this epidemic is the gap between science and application in fitness continuing education. The purpose of this article is to provide a vaccine for this epidemic by discussing three simple steps to take (and realizations to make) that will bridge the gap between science and application.

Step #1: Rethink the definition of “training” 

Training is not an “art and a science,” as it’s commonly defined because these are not two separate things running in parallel. Training is the art of applying the science.

If the practical applications you’re using aren’t scientifically founded, then what you’re doing isn’t based on sufficient enough evidence to warrant justification. And, your clients and athletes deserve better than unjustified or unjustifiable practices for their hard earned money and valuable time.

It’s important to note that taking an evidence-based approach to training does not mean that you won’t let your clients or athletes perform anything without a PubMed reference in hand. It’s great to use scientifically proven workouts that have been evaluated in a study, but it’s unrealistic to ask that of every workout, especially when we’re changing workouts every few weeks to keep things fresh and interesting. Specific workout strategies don’t have to be scientifically proven as long as they are scientifically founded, meaning they are founded on the universal principles of training:  individuality, progressive overload, specificity, and variety.

Applying these principles is really a process of decision making. This decision making process should be guided by a series of questions:

  1. What are my training goals, and what types of exercises and training methods need to be applied to achieve these goals? (Principle of specificity)
  2. Which of these types of exercises and training methods will I be able to do based on my ability and training environment? (Principle of individuality)
  3. How can overload be provided to these exercises and training methods to ensure progress? (Principle of progressive overload)
  4. How can these exercises and methods be varied to continue to create a positive adaptation to the training program (training stimulus) without reaching the point of accommodation, where I greatly reduce my ability to adapt positively? (Principle of variation)

There was certainly a time in training and nutrition history where you could justify claiming that taking an evidence-based approach would put you behind the curve in regards to using valid practices. But given how much scientific evidence we currently have, that time is no longer. Therefore, this line of argument only applies if someone wants to have a 1950s, 70s, or 90s conversation about training. That said, we can avoid having conversations about training concepts and techniques that ignore all of the quality evidence we currently have; when we can have modern day conversations about training that applies all we’ve come to learn to date.

In our modern day, claiming that “taking an evidence-based approach to personal training puts you (insert arbitrary number of years) behind” is just an excuse modern day practitioners give when they don’t have sufficient evidence to meet their required burden of proof. It’s a cheap and transparent tactic to get others to think you need to believe what they’re claiming in order to be able to deliver a high level service. If one actually does have good evidence to back up their claims, they would be eager to provide it and have no need to make excuses.

The reality is, with all the scientific knowledge about training and nutrition we’ve currently accumulated, there is absolutely nothing the fitness professional needs to believe on insufficient evidence in order to be a great professional who delivers a high-level of service. Nor does one currently need to believe anything on insufficient evidence in order to be an innovator, as the best new ideas are spring-boarded from our current body of knowledge (i.e. the existing body of evidence; from universal principles); not from the willful ignorance or rejection or of it.

Step 2: Understand what training experience does and doesn’t do.

Many trainers say things like, “I’m doing research by training clients and athletes – that’s real world research,” which mistakenly makes them think they’re ahead of research; they fail to understand this simple reality: scientific evidence helps to tell us what is valid and reliable, but it doesn’t necessarily work well for telling us what’s practical. On the flip side, training clients and athletes helps to tell us what is practical, but it doesn’t necessarily work well for telling us which of those practices are valid and reliable.We often see fitness and conditioning professionals constantly having to edit themselves in order to better align their beliefs and practices with the current best scientific evidence; and this is why we see the ones that refuse to do so consistently losing the argument.

Step 3: Change the way an evidence-based approach to training is taught.

Using the adage, “Teach a person to fish versus give them a fish,” most evidence-based educational resources focus most of their efforts on covering basic physiology, reviewing the general scientific principles of exercise and periodization and discussing several relevant studies. Then, at the end, they may wrap-up with providing a few practical programming recommendations. Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t really do much to teach you how to fish (i.e., provide a clear, practical programming instruction and direction). All it does is focus mostly on telling you what equipment is required to go fishing, what materials the fishing equipment is made up of, and what studies have been done on catching various types of fish.  

To bridge this gap and to actually help the fitness professional learn how to become better at doing their job, the order and focus of fitness continuing education must change. This means focusing on the need-to-know information instead of the nice-to-know information. We’re all aware of the fact that one can learn how to make a variety of paper airplanes without ever knowing much about the law of aerodynamics responsible for their flight. Sure, understanding the intricacies of aerodynamics are nice to know, as it can give one a deeper appreciation for paper airplane making, but it’s not necessary to be able to make paper airplanes that fly well.

This also means spending less time talking about the details of various relevant research studies and spending more time talking about what the evidence says and practical strategies for how you use it in our everyday practice.

The fitness continuing education gap we have isn’t between evidence-based (i.e., research) versus anecdotal experience (i.e., experts). Remember: training is the art of applying the best evidence. The gap is between the information that’s being provided in fitness continuing education resources and what we are able to use in our everyday practice. Put simply, if what we learn isn’t provided in a practical manner, the larger the gap we have.

With the above in mind, talking theory and citing research is very important because the beliefs we hold that guide our practices should rest on a solid foundation of evidence and reason. But no type of evidenced-based fitness education closes the gap between science and application better than practical education that focuses on providing a variety of training techniques and applications we can immediately use to put the current best evidence to work on the training floor.

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