Critical Thinking Is Like Strength Training for Your Brain

The following is a guest article written by Stuart Maytham.

When asked what you think about a topic such as injury prevention screening, the best bicep exercise or periodisation, you can normally answer pretty easily.

You believe you know what goes on in your mind, and that you have taken on all relevant information to come up with the most logical answer.

But that is not the way the mind works. In fact most opinions and thoughts come to you automatically without you knowing how they really got there.

If this doesn’t sit well with you, try not to worry. Highlighting our mental weaknesses does not mean that we are not highly intelligent complex beings. Likewise, highlighting medical diseases doesn’t mean that we are not healthy. It simply means that we should be aware of them and do our best to minimise their risk.

Exercise, like strength training, can help reduce the risk of medical diseases, and critical thinking reduce the risk of errors in our decisions and judgements in your Personal Training.

Most of us are healthy most of the time and most of our decisions and judgements are appropriate most of the time.

However, occasionally they are not and if you are unable to think critically then you are more likely to make errors in your decisions and judgements. This in turn will have a negative impact on your Personal Training services, your results and thus your business.

***The above statement is based on the assumption that we define your success as a personal trainer by the quality of the services provided and not simply the revenue that your business creates. The two are not synonymous. Yes you need to make profit but people can make lots of money from conning people. We are talking about constantly improving yourself and your services to the benefit of your clients, your business and the industry.

Why should you care about critical thinking?

Improving your critical thinking will make you a better Personal Trainer, which will help you get better results with clients, that will help you to grow a successful business.

If we decide that what we believe is based purely on what we ‘see’ in everyday practice (our perception) based solely on experience, we run a very high risk of getting it wrong.

For example imagine growing up “knowing” that the sun revolves around the Earth. It’s all you ever known and you can see it! When you look out of your window the sun does appear to revolve around the Earth. Then someone shows you the Science illustrating that the Earth in fact revolves around the Sun. If you hadn’t grown up knowing this fact, it would be quite hard to accept, because it seemed obvious at first. We are easily misled by how things seem.

In your local gym you may assume that because someone is extremely strong, that they are the best person to speak to about getting strong yourself. Being strong however doesn’t automatically make you a good coach.

“The fitness field is full of highly trained bodies, but untrained minds.” – Nick Tumminello

Science is more than just “knowing” lots of “stuff”, it is a way of thinking, a way of thinking critically about the Personal Training industry with a fine understanding of human fallibility.

Using this mindset allows us to answer the question “what is most likely to work?” most efficiently and accurately, as not all information and opinions are created equal.

As a Personal Trainer, if you are not able to think critically then you are up for grabs from the next charlatan or pseudoscience that you come into contact with.

It’s not what you think but how you think that is important.

How is critical thinking like strength training?

Just like nobody is born inherently strong, nobody is born knowing how to think critically.

Critical thinking is like strength training for your brain and cognitive dissonance is like the resistance of a weight or even a calf.

The story of Milo of Croton illustrates the principle of progression in strength training. Legend has it that he carried a newborn calf on his shoulders everyday for four years, until he was no longer lifting a newborn calf but a full grown bull.

milo of croton

Like strength training, it takes time to progressively build up your critical thinking ability.

Imagine you’re at the end of your set of squats performing your final repetition at 100%, not quite sure you’ll get back up. The mental equivalent is like having someone provide you with a piece of evidence that refutes a belief you’ve always had and were sure was correct. It’s very uncomfortable and it’s very hard to accept.

Screen Shot 2018 07 16 at 8.00.50 PM

Like strength training, critical thinking is not comfortable or particularly pleasant at the time but you can learn to enjoy it once you discover the meaningful purpose behind it. The term for this mental discomfort, is called cognitive dissonance.

What can you do to improve your critical thinking skills?

Becoming a good critical thinker takes time and effort but by starting small you can build habits that can develop to a higher level.

‘‘Judge of a man by his questions rather than by his answers’’ (Voltaire, French author, humanist, rationalist, & satirist; 1694–1778).

an image of a critical thinking square

You know that if you want to get strong, nothing substitutes consistency, hard work and good technique. Likewise, if you want to become a strong critical thinker you need to be curious, creative, skeptical and humble. All of which are teachable skills, which we can all improve.

“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” — Albert Einstein


Author Bio

meet stuartAs a Personal Trainer and Physiotherapist, Stuart has spent over ten years actively working to encourage physical activity among different demographics and helping people recovering from injury. His diverse experience includes working with stroke survivors to help them improve their mobility and confidence, to working with athletes recover from injury and minimise their risk of re-injury.

Stuart’s main areas of interest are critical thinking, improvement science and sustainable behaviour change. He believes that these three topics can help the Physiotherapy and Personal Training industries move forward to help more people achieve a higher quality of life.

Stuart is one of three founders of Health by Science, a Personal Training and Physiotherapy Social Enterprise based in Edinburgh, Scotland.Qualifications:

MSc Physiotherapy, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh
BSc Applied Sports Science, University of Edinburgh
HCPC Registered Physiotherapist

ARNI Functional Rehabilitation & Exercise Training after Stroke Qualification
REPs Level 3 Advanced Personal Trainer
Precision Nutrition Level 2 Nutrition Coach
UK Strength and Conditioning Association (UKSCA) Weightlifting and Plyometrics (Level 2)

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