Leverage Volatility

Earlier today I was pointed to an article by Nassim Taleb on volatility and uncertainty. Regulars will recall that randomness, uncertainty, and variability have been topics of fascination for me lately. Taleb has been key in making these tumblers fall into place, largely thanks to The Black Swan.

Taleb’s discussion of uncertainty, of his ‘negative epistemology’, resonated with me, not least of which because it unmasked the appearance of certainty and control that pervades our comfy first-world lives. As I’ve related lately, I think this illusion extends to fitness communities on a deep level. The resulting obsession with analysis creates a mess: dichotomies between “bro” and “science”, overwhelming neuroses about squat form and diet macros and who even knows what else I don’t see since I quit reading forums and Reddit.

This article touches on Taleb’s upcoming book about a concept he labels ‘antifragility’. In published technical works, which flesh out some of the deeper mathematics, he has referred to this as ‘convexity’, but antifragility is a useful (if somewhat cumbersome) shorthand.

To understand Taleb’s neologism, let’s first look at what ‘fragility’ means. A vase is fragile. Throw a softball at it or unleash a cat and it breaks. It needs stability, regularity, order.

Antifragile systems, in contrast, thrive on ‘noise’ and chaos. Antifragility is not simple robustness, or resistance to change. You could think of a vase big enough to tolerate any softball throw or feline assault, but that’s only a matter of scale. You’ve made it more difficult to break, but the vase still has the property of fragility.

Antifragility is a property of systems that incorporate and thrive on the uncertain and unforeseen. They don’t need regular, stable environments. In fact, repetition and order deprive them of the noise they need to function correctly.

In reading these ideas, I immediately picked up on the parallels with biological life. Living organisms, at all levels, behave exactly like this. This not only jives with my current reading on chaotic systems and stochasticity and robustness in biological systems, but fits neatly with processes of dynamic stability-through-instability which I’ve written of previously.

Black Swan didn’t have much to say about biology or, relevant to us, exercise and fitness, minus one chapter when he discussed the asymmetry of ‘many small things’ and ‘few large things’ as relative to fitness development. Amusingly, he called this power-law distribution a ‘barbell strategy’.

At any rate, that got some wheels turning for me, and I’ve since been roughing out some ways to make this work for the type of lifter-bodybuilder-fitness crowd that I write for. Familiar readers will note that my writings on autoregulation, and indeed the way experienced lifters seem to internalize these lessons tacitly, are right here in the same territory. I think antifragility makes for a powerful toolkit insofar as explaining why autoregulation and tacit knowledge ‘work’, as contrasted to a prevailing belief in fitness and nutrition that bodies ‘need’ precisely-constructed diets and programs — built out of ScienceTM of course — or else you don’t get results.

We all know that the stressors of exercise are necessary for good health, but people don’t translate this insight into other domains of physical and mental well-being. We also benefit, it turns out, from occasional and intermittent hunger, short-term protein deprivation, physical discomfort and exposure to extreme cold or heat. Newspapers discuss post-traumatic stress disorder, but nobody seems to account for post-traumatic growth. Walking on smooth surfaces with “comfortable” shoes injures our feet and back musculature: We need variations in terrain.
— Nassim Taleb

The bullet-points in this article make for a convenient starting point, and I think these could serve as a solid framework for a ‘smart’ strength program incorporating uncertainty (in contrast to fearing it and trying to avoid it with obsessive over-planning). Taleb is obviously discussing public policy decisions, but the theme applies to all domains sharing these properties, including biology. The parallels are striking, in any case:

1. More like a cat than a washing machine

“[N]atural or organic systems are antifragile: They need some dose of disorder in order to develop. Deprive your bones of stress and they become brittle. This denial of the antifragility of living or complex systems is the costliest mistake that we have made in modern times. Stifling natural fluctuations masks real problems, causing the explosions to be both delayed and more intense when they do take place. As with the flammable material accumulating on the forest floor in the absence of forest fires, problems hide in the absence of stressors, and the resulting cumulative harm can take on tragic proportions.”

I won’t spend much time on this as I’ve devoted several articles to the point, but it bears repeating that we are dealing with a different category of entity when we talk about living beings as compared to designed machinery.

Life need some disorder, which for us falls under the umbrella of stress, to shake up the status quo, and that disorder itself needs to vary in timing and degree. Repetitive familiarity and stability may be rational places to be, and there is reason to believe we seek them out, but they are neither healthy nor fitness-increasing. Volatility is an intrinsic feature of life.

Beyond points I’ve discussed elsewhere, the point about ‘putting out the forest fire’ bears a mention. I’m concerned with how much emphasis people put on bandages and cure-alls. By that I mean all the pills, potions, and other goofy nonsense people buy into in order to make up for unsustainable lifestyles. Most of the things sold by the supplement industry are aimed at covering up bad diets, bad workouts, bad living in general. We do too much, worry too much about it, and never take a break from the ‘always on’ state of the modern world.

Instead of doing something about that, letting the fire take out the underbrush so to speak, we medicalize an unhealthy, unfulfilling lifestyle and rely on pills, fad diets, and other miracle cures so we can keep doing it. Clearing the leaves does more harm than good, as raging forest fires will attest.

2. Benefit from your mistakes.

When I was daily squatting, the best thing about it was not having to worry about a bad workout. So what? You’re coming back tomorrow. Compare that to a once-a-week squat workout. Bad day? You’ve just lost a week of training. This is the real power behind autoregulation, especially when you’re training either frequently or off the seven-day week.

You don’t have to work at that extreme to exploit diversification, though. The important thing is the contrast or asymmetry between deliberately low-exertion (or light or ‘easy’) workouts and all-in, throttle wide-open I will hit a PR or die today workouts. The trick is to make the former actually work as a stimulus, which, rhetoric aside, is very possible, and to leave the latter for those moments when all the tumblers lock in place and you’re In The Zone. Too many people try to force out PRs, and crucially, a PR-setting mentality, at every last session. Down that road lies burn-out and injury.

The best-laid plans aren’t plans at all. They’re organic guidelines that modify on the fly, making change one of the only constants. Even the Russians knew this, as demonstrated by the oft-ignored sections in Supertraining describing how the Russians knew this and built flexibility into what otherwise appear to be monolithic training programs. Hit your high notes when you can hit them, and leave things on cruise-control when you don’t have the fire.

3. Small is beautiful, but it is also efficient.

Think small, think bottom-up. Almost every program ever is a top-down solution. You make a plan and then you make your schedule — and by extension, your body — fit to the plan. We need to think bottom-up, to let the long-term emerge organically from the individual workouts.

This is autoregulation, which I’ve described in more detail in three or four other posts. We substitute the monolithic Central Planner for a nimble, dynamic process of trial and error.

Which leads us to…

4. Trial and error beats academic knowledge.

I was thumbing through Richard Fumerton’s book on epistemology (aptly titled Epistemology) recently when I came across a timely quote:

Dogs know how to swim, but it’s unlikely they know any truths describing their activities.

For context, this quote is from a discussion on propositional knowledge, which we can call “knowing that“, as contrasted with the type of knowing we mean when we talk about the dog’s “knowing how” to swim. The latter is what we can call tacit knowledge, the knowledge of a technician, an engineer, or, borrowing Taleb’s word, a tinkerer.

This may be the most controversial of these points to my readership. Given my previous preoccupation with the “knowing that” side of the argument, and how pervasive that remains (viz. the hysteria about “bro science”), you might wonder if I’m abandoning “science”. Far from it.

What this argument means is that, insofar as “doing things”, knowing how to do a thing takes precedence over knowing endless lists of propositions about said topic. Science, by which I mean the published output of the institutions and people working in the academic domains of science, can and should inform our “how”, but lists of facts and (alleged) ‘truths’ do not a practitioner make.

As coaches, trainers, athletes, and gym-rats, we have to be very careful in separating the propositional from the tacit. The training process need not be managed by a caste of experts with specialist knowledge who hold the keys to arcane secrets of Making Gains. The best outcomes are realized by those who are willing to tinker and experiment.

Taleb makes a point which I believe to be critical: “The potential cost of errors needs to remain small; the potential gain should be large. It is the asymmetry between upside and downside that allows antifragile tinkering to benefit from disorder and uncertainty.” Again we revisit autoregulation: a screw up costs you very little, but the pay-off — having a great workout, hitting a new PR — is immense in comparison.

In a wider scope, this applies to our mentality towards exercise. What does it matter if you have a bad day? If your form isn’t 100% identical to a textbook — repeating guidelines which are themselves a product of the ‘machine metaphor’ and requiring active management by experts — so what? So what if you don’t hit your macros, or don’t complete a workout you wrote down two months ago?

All of these things miss the point. They are constructs of a broken worldview, and the fact that they occupy your attention at all says that you’re looking through the wrong lens.

The last point is rather oblique and doesn’t have much play outside of economic and financial policy discussions so I’ll leave it be.

This is a fascinating area on many levels, and for me the applications to fitness (and to diet, which I may address in a later post) are immediate and clear. From program design to exercise technique, I think we can all benefit from thinking of the training process as antifragile.

Written by Matt


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