On Effectiveness and Conceptual Frameworks

I complain a lot about people and workout programs. Specifically, I complain about how people look at programs. And diets, for that matter.

Most people go about it wrong-headed. They place emphasis on the actual protocol they’re following, as opposed to why that protocol is actually working.

Your workout and diet are not important. There, I said it.

It’s not a simple matter of packaged lists of exercises and numbers. Nor is it about lists of approved foods or calorie counts.

On a deeper level, a workout program or a diet is a set of rules that translate to behaviors. These behaviors (i.e., lifting weights, running, eating in a specific way) in turn create physiological effects that add up over time. It’s the latter physiological effects that are of concern to us.

Everybody models the universe in their own way, based on what they know and what they’ve experienced. These pieces of information and this personal bias create a conceptual framework.

The conceptual framework can be thought of as a model of a system or process. We incorporate information about what’s in that system, and how those objects behave, in order to figure out how it works. The conceptual framework is generally going to be an abstract model, as opposed to dealing with concrete matters.

For example, I know that lifting a heavy-enough weight creates mechanical stresses on muscle fibers, and that these stresses set off a signal cascade that increases protein synthesis, which will eventually result in a larger muscle. Further, this remodeling (or growth) process is influenced strongly by positive and negative signals from the body, regulated at the brain level.

Yet I can’t account for every last biomolecule in that process. I have no idea how to model that in “real” terms. Even so, I know what happens in aggregate, which is sufficient to understand the process. That’s my model of muscular hypertrophy in broad terms. It’s abstract, but still useful in guiding behavior.

In any framework, there are fundamental axioms (or first principles) that must be assumed as they cannot be proven within the framework. This isn’t strictly true for exercise science, as it’s built on biology, which is in turn built on chemistry, which is itself built on physics.

For our purposes however, we can identify (quasi) first principles for performance and physique goals, mostly relating to behavior of the neuromuscular and cardio-respiratory systems, how those systems respond to stress, and how they interact with the rest of the body. For muscle hypertrophy, it’s tension-time overload and the resulting mechanical stress which result from resistance exercise. For endurance, it’s specific overload of metabolic pathways created by continuous (or near-continuous) exertion. And so on down the list.

These axioms guide us in a fundamental way; they constrain our behaviors to certain avenues, which in turn lead us to specific outcomes.

Which brings me back to the original point. Too many people see the operational solution – the workout or diet – as being fundamental. In reality, it’s the axioms that need to be emphasized.

Any workout routine or nutritional plan we follow is a means to an end. We’re at point A and we need to get to point B. Here’s the thing, though. When moving from A to B, there’s only one thing that really matters: moving towards B. We can argue over efficiency, sure, but as long as you’re moving away from A and towards B, then your program is working.

The body’s chaotic nature throws a wrench in that analogy, too. Unlike a map, there isn’t necessarily one shortest distance between the two points. The phase space of potential routes may not have a simple topology; many routes may yield equal results.

The lack of an optimum value (i.e., a straight line) means that by definition we can’t assess things according to an objective standard. What works like magic for one person may cause a second person to crash and burn, and vice-versa.

All we can know is how closely any given protocol is adhering to the fundamental axioms. Making comparisons beyond that, with our current understanding of biological adaptation, is just not feasible. It’s just too complex an issue, very dependent upon individual tolerances and responses to a whole lot of interacting variables. It may well be that at some future time we’ll have the knowledge and means of testing required to do that, but for now it’s not possible.

Now look at popular diet and exercise routines. They’re simple lists of rules, and people always sweat the details. How many sets? Should I do five reps or eight reps? Do I rest 60 seconds or wait three minutes? Does a full-body workout work better than a split routine? Should I have 150g of carbs or just 100g?

Do you think any of that actually matters in the scheme of things?

That kind of nitpicking is far beyond the resolution of accuracy in our models. It makes people feel better, like they’re doing something. For newbies, it can be useful to keep them constrained. For anyone else, it’s counterproductive. They focus on the minutiae to the exclusion of the physiological effects.

Any specific program you do is an operational solution. Like it or not, exercising and dieting are fundamentally a matter of heuristics, not deterministic rule-sets. The program just derives useful behaviors from the model. And there’s only so many ways you can organize that before it starts to become redundant (and a matter of personal choice).

There’s an infinite number of permutations once you account for all the possible variables, mind you, which is why you see so many programs out there that aren’t 100% identical. Zoom out a little, though. What you’ll see is much more in common than there are differences.

Hint: These differences are largely irrelevant to the outcome. It’s net physiological effect that matters, not the specific implementation of a workout/diet plan.

That’s why I get a bug up my ass when any specific program or training method or diet is being trotted out as the be-all and end-all. The workout/diet is not the magic. The plan you follow is only effective because it makes you do the things that are effective.

Yeah, I know, I know. Branding is critical to marketing, and human brains are wired to be receptive to that sort of thing.

And there is something to be said for finding useful implementations, too. There’s nothing wrong with finding a results-producing strategy or methodology. What I’m complaining about here is the notion that 1) your favored strategy is the most bestest thing ever (it’s not) and 2) that the fine details matter (they don’t).

Ultimately there are no completely right answers to the problem; the chaotic nature of the body means that there won’t be any absolute optimum condition to seek. We can only try to adhere to the first principles as closely as possible.

Don’t sweat the program; worry about sticking to important stuff.

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4 thoughts on “On Effectiveness and Conceptual Frameworks”

  1. Nerd talk is right, I need my dictionary everytime I read this thing. No worries tho', it's a good thing. I love your approach to the field, thanks.

  2. Recently discovered your site after it was mentioned on the fitness.com forum. I'm enjoying reading your articles, very detailed and descriptive! I agree, it's not about the specific workout but about aspiring to improve

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