Debunking the Top 6 “Trainers Are Ahead of Research” Arguments

As a fitness educator who champions skepticism and science, and who challenges pseudoscientific and non-scientifically founded practices in the fitness, nutrition and health field; I’ve become familiar with how people rise to the defensive of their fringe practices and attempt to justify their claims about them. And, there is no more popular defense than appealing to the “Trainers are ahead of research” line of argument.

In order to make this resource as comprehensive as possible, I’m addressing (and debunking) each of the six most common flavors this line of argument comes in from trainers and coaches:

  • “Research follows practice, therefore trainers are ahead of research.”
  • “I’ve seen it work!” – “I don’t need to wait for science to tell me what I’m seeing work in practice.”
  • “I’m doing research by training clients and athletes – that’s real world research.”
  • “I value what the experts say over what the science says.” – “The experts wouldn’t be who they are if what they were doing didn’t work.”
  • “Lifters from back in the day relied on experience – they were ahead of science.”
  • “If I waited for research, I wouldn’t have been able to help my clients or athletes to (insert some type of physique or performance achievement).”

Below are my direct responses to each of these commonly used forms of the “Trainers are ahead of research” argument. Since these are all variations of the same line of argument, each of my responses are related – it’s really one big, cumulative response – therefore each section should be read carefully, and in the order they’re presented.

1. “Research follows practice, therefore trainers are ahead of research.”

Of course ideas (i.e., hypotheses) come before research. No one argues this because it’s how the scientific process works: Research starts by first having a hypothesis.

The question is: How valid are the ideas (i.e., hypotheses) one is purposing? This is why the objective validation of ideas (i.e., verification or falsification of the hypotheses) comes after research… because anecdotal evidence is highly unreliable (as I’ll demonstrate throughout this article).

In other words, research follows practice, but validated practices follow from research. Trainers are ahead only in the idea creation  department, but not in the idea validation department. In the modern day, trainers and coaches are often very behind the research. This is why we 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 don’t give me this nonsense about how, by the time research has come out falsifying something trainers once claimed to see working in their in-practice experience, they’ve already learned that it didn’t work (because they’re ahead of research). If one really did find out that one was wrong about something they said previously, they would have come out and shared it before hand. The reality is: Trainers, coaches and rehabilitation specialists change their practices due to outside pressure of research falsifying their claims. This is also why we see those who double-down on their falsified claims and/or refuse to edit themselves to better align their beliefs and practices with current best research consistently losing the argument.

2. “I’ve seen it work!” – “I don’t need to wait for science to tell me what I’m seeing work in practice.”

One of the main reasons why many modern day personal trainers and strength coaches are behind the research is because they get caught up with this notion that “I’ve seen it work,” so therefore my conclusions about what I saw must be valid. This is highlighted by how often trainers say things like, “I can’t wait for science to validate what I’m seeing work in practice.”

Here’s the problem: As I said in my Science vs. Experience: What Anecdotal Evidence Does and Doesn’t Prove post, “Using anecdotes to justify the validity of a given health practice has little to nothing to do with objective evidence or reason, therefore it can be directed with equal force towards belief in any practice. Yet, for some reason, practitioners place little or no value in these types of beliefs from conflicting schools of thought. In other words, many practitioners recognize how weak these anecdotal arguments are because they reject them from others who have conflicting schools of thought. And, this is despite the fact that those using different schools of thought have no more or less evidence than their own.”

Additionally, because practitioners from various schools of thought use these very same lines of argument in attempt to “prove” the validity of their differing, often mutually contradictory claims, it offers us no objective pathway to distinguishing which, if any of their claims are objectively true; or if they’ve simply misjudged the evidence of their own experience. On the other hand, science does provide us that objective pathway.

3. “I’m doing research by training clients and athletes – that’s real world research.”

Another reason why, in the modern day, fitness and conditioning professionals are behind the scientific evidence is this common thought that science isn’t “real world,” and that one is “doing (better) research” by training clients and athletes. Those who use this thought process seem to fail to understand what this type of “research” (i.e., training clients and athletes) does and doesn’t do.

Put simply, scientific evidence helps to tell us what’s 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 what is valid and reliable (as I demonstrated in the last section).

In other words, expert anecdotes and science are not equally effective methods of coming to valid and reliable conclusions about observations. So this idea that one should simply listen to both ( expert anecdotes and scientific evidence), as if they’re equally effective means of coming to reliable conclusions about reality is simply false – it’s the middle ground fallacy. Observations/ conclusions gained by using controlled means (i.e., the scientific method) are far more reliable than those gained from using uncontrolled means (i.e., anecdotal experience).

Note: “Controlled” doesn’t mean a robotic, artificial setting, as some people mistakenly assert. It simply means, as Albert Einstein said about science, “a refinement of everyday thinking.”

What separates the scientific process from anecdotal experience is that it seeks to remove the subjectivity component of observations. Sure, like you and I, individual researchers are subjectively biased, but the scientific method is not biased in that manner. It’s an objective process that has built in machinery that teases out individual bias and bad science.

You see, if the conclusions we draw from our experience are (more often than not) objectively true, you’d expect everyone to be coming to the same/similar conclusions from their experience(s) dealing with the same type(s) of problems/ situations/ questions since we all live in the same laws of nature. But that’s not at all what you find when you look at the immense amount of mutually contradictory claims (i.e., conflicting information) we have in the fitness and health field. Not to mention other areas of life.

With this reality in mind, the only thing the wide variety of these mutually conflicting, “it’s true because I’ve seen it” claims do serve to provide “proof” of is a deeper psychological reality – like what I focus on here, here, and here – that undermines all of these anecdotal arguments.

On the flipside, if what science tells us is (more often than not) objectively true, you’d find much more consistency in the conclusions (i.e., findings) from similar, high-quality research. And, in fact, that is normally what you find – a convergence of evidence.

So, it’s the conclusions drawn from scientific evidence, not from anecdotal evidence, that are (more often than not) the most “real world” because the scientific process is a more reliable means of observing the evidence of reality and for coming to conclusions about the real word – not our perceptions of it.

Now, don’t get it twisted! This is not saying that science is always right, nor is this to say that anecdotal experience isn’t important – it is! But we must test experience against the evidence – that’s what evidence-based practice is all about! And, when they don’t line up, the science in no way makes the outcomes we’ve seen “in practice” any less real. It just means the explanation(s) we have given as the cause for why we had those experiences is (more than likely) wrong.

4. “I value what the experts say over what the science says.” – “The experts wouldn’t be who they are if what they were doing didn’t work.”

Yet another one of the (related) reasons why many personal trainers and coaches are currently behind the research is because they hold this delusion that “so and so (insert name of teacher) wouldn’t be who they are if what they were teaching didn’t work.”

The problem with this line of thinking is that it’s very shortsighted. In that, as I also said in my Science vs. Experience post, “Each prior generation of smart, well-meaning practitioners were being guided by information provided in courses just like the ones we have today – information which is now deemed to be highly incomplete and mistaken – using these very same reasons  (e.g., “it works in-practice”) to justify the information they were providing.”

This demonstrates that people can absolutely teach courses all over the world, and become recognized names, despite the fact that the information they’re teaching is incomplete and erroneous. In other words, despite the fact that these courses were teaching flawed information, they were still able to convince many well-educated and passionate practitioners (just like you and I) that it was valid information.

This look back at recent history also demonstrates that we’ve always been very good at inventing practices, however incomplete and mistaken; at providing good sounding explanations to justify these practices, however erroneous, and at becoming entranced with those explanations.

“This is a very typical claim made – “Practitioners are ahead of research” – that simply does not reflect what EBP is or how it is used. For every cherry-picked example of a small and unique approach or technique that is “ahead of the research” (when there really is no such thing, in fact: any technique relies heavily on the knowledge and information accumulated before it, so at best this “new and exciting” approach that has yet to be validated through study is still based on the accumulation of information that preceded it), we have a road paved with the broken ideas that were heralded as “the next advance, ahead of science” only to be invalidated and discarded. Even worse, when such things *ARE* invalidated, from bosu ball training for strength and power or claims to “affect myofascia” with manual treatments, for instance, it takes the industry *years* to rid itself of this pseudoscience because of practitioners either unwilling to acknowledge this information or unaware of it because of scientific illiteracy, which is equally as unacceptable in a science-based field.” — Jonathan Fass

5. “Lifters from back in the day relied on experience – they were ahead of science.”

Speaking of prior generations, some fitness and conditioning professionals seem to be very resistant toward the demand for having good evidence in support of the core beliefs they hold that guide their practices. They seem to feel that believing things based on insufficient evidence is somehow needed in order to be ahead of the game or to be able to deliver a high-level of service. And, to justify this belief, they like to bring up the fact that old-school lifters went on experience and they were ahead of the science.

Well, that’s the point: Training was an art that became a science! It evolved into a science because, in the past, the same type of anecdotal evidence was being used to justify every claim, many of which were mutually contradictory – sound familiar? – therefore exercise enthusiasts and health professionals needed a more reliable means of separating the training and nutritional sense from the nonsense.

So, 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 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, I fail to understand why anyone wold want have a conversation about training concepts and techniques that ignores all of the quality evidence we currently have; a conversation that places oneself in the infancy of the profession, when you could have a modern day conversation about training that applies all we’ve come to learn to date.

You see, in our modem day, claiming that “taking an evidence-based approach to personal training or rehabilitation 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 or proof. It’s a cheap and transparent tactic to get you to think you need to believe what they’re claiming in order to be able to deliver a high level service. Lets face it: 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.

Put simply, with all the scientific knowledge and about training and nutrition we’ve currently accumulated, there is absolutely nothing the fitness professional or conditioning coach (or rehabilitation specialist, for that matter) 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 the willful ignorance or rejection or of it.

This brings us to yet another permutation of the “trainers are ahead of research” argument:

6. “If I waited for research, I wouldn’t have been able to help my clients or athletes to (insert some type of physique or performance achievement).”

For every coach or trainer who makes this type of statement there is a long list of other trainers or coaches, who use mutually contradictory training practices, that are saying the exact same thing. This demonstrates that simply having trained high-level athletes or having had any level of training success in no way means that everything you claim is valid (simply because you asserted it). Plus, as I said above (in #2), the practitioners who make these types of statements, as though it provides sufficient “proof” of the validity of everything their claiming, are the very same people who reject these types of statements when they’re coming from other coaches or trainers who use a conflicting school of thought. Heck, we’re all well aware that if you want to know what’s wrong with a particular training school of thought, just ask a practitioner who follows a different, conflicting school of thought.

The other fact is: The practitioners who like to use this kind of argument cannot rule out other, more likely, alternative explanations as the cause of the outcomes they’ve experienced. This highlights the fact that anecdotes only tell us that one has witnessed an outcome, but these stories do absolutely nothing to demonstrate the validity of the techniques/intervention(s) any practitioner is ascribing as the cause of the outcome.

There’s no doubt these practitioners are witnessing their clients and athletes making improvements in their “in practice” experience. However, if the special, fringe practices they’re claiming to be responsible for their training success have been used along with other, well-evidenced training or nutritional practices, as the usually are, with anecdotal testimony alone, these practitioners have no reliable means of distinguishing whether it wasn’t the well-evidenced applications that have caused the (short term or long term) improvements. Not to mention, when there’s nothing we’ve learned about the body (from the current best scientific evidence) that would indicate the special, fringe interventions would work as advertised by the claimer, it makes it even less likely that what they’re claiming is valid, and even more likely they’ve simply misinterpreted the evidence of their own experience.

The well-evidenced training or nutritional exercise practices they also used are far more likely to be the true explanation for the training success they witnessed, but because these practitioners cannot reliably tell, they cannot not honestly answer: “No, it wasn’t just due to those practices. It was also because of the additional fringe practices I used.” Yet, by asserting, “If I waited for research to come out on (insert fringe practice), I wouldn’t have been able to achieve this or that training success,” they’re claiming that they do have a reliable means of knowing that their success wasn’t just because of the well-evidenced training or nutritional exercise practices they used. <– That’s claiming to know things you don’t know. It’s the very definition of intellectual dishonesty. In other words, it’s bullshit!

Additionally, it’s important to note that taking an evidence-based approach to personal training does not mean that you won’t let your clients or athletes perform anything without a PubMed reference in hand – that’s a ridiculous straw man argument. As I said in my book Strength Training For Fat Loss, “It’s great to use scientifically proven work-outs 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 general principles that have been repeatedly shown to elicit the results you’re after.”

Note: I understand that science technically doesn’t “prove” anything; positive evidence simply adds likelihood that a given hypothesis is true. However, science can disprove (i.e., falsify) hypotheses.

Final Thoughts and Clarifications

As a personal trainer or strength coach (or rehabilitation specialist) in today’s field, there’s plenty of high-quality scientific evidence – and it’s growing everyday – to use to guide your practices and inspire your creativity. So, you certainly do not need to wait for any research to come out in order to be able to deliver a high level of service or to be ahead of the game. However, you do need to be humble about the training and nutritional beliefs you hold that guide your practices, and intellectually honest about the claims you make about those practices. And, as I’ve demonstrated in this post, appealing to some form of the “trainers are ahead of research” in attempt to justify your beliefs is exactly the opposite of being humble and intellectually honest!

In short, not only do the various flavors of the “trainers are ahead of research” argument essentially make the (false) claim that modern day trainers and coaches need to believe things based on insufficient evidence in order to be great at what they do, it’s also an intellectually dishonest attempt to disguise one’s unjustified or unjustifiable claims as “rooting on the fitness field.”

To be so supremely sure that one’s beliefs are accurate about the training or nutritional practices they use based on insufficient evidence – Remember: 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 – is a form of arrogance, and it’s the very definition of being close-minded. Interestingly, although we recognize this type of thinking to be problematic in others areas of life – think Dr. Oz or imagine a medical Doctor trying to justify using interventions on you by saying “I’m ahead of the research” – we constantly see otherwise intelligent, well-meaning fitness professional patting one another on the back for using some form of “trainers are ahead of research” argument anytime their questioned/challenged, while congratulating themselves on their humility and “open-mindedness.”

Finally, I want to make it clear that evidence-based practitioners like myself are not discounting anecdotal claims as a whole, but discounting them in the context in which they are being provided. What we take issue with is when people make objective (truth) claims based solely upon their subjective experiences. This is because the type of evidence they have provided (subjective) doesn’t warrant to the type of claim they’ve made (objective).

Since ideas are only as good as the evidence that supports them, we should all want people to understand the difference between objective and subjective reality, and seek to create a professional environment that demands intellectual honesty. There is no issue with people sharing their subjective experiences. Heck, I provide lots of anecdotal information in my article, videos and workshops, yet none of my fellow evidenced-based practitioners feel the need to “call me out” because I don’t give them a reason to do so. Just be humble and honest by choosing your words carefully when communicating about your beliefs and practices, and don’t try claim to know things you don’t know. This is all evidence-based practitioners keep trying to point out.

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