Treat your training like an experiment

Now before you mouse over to the back button, you’ll want to hear me out. I know that the scientific method brings back nightmares of high school chemistry, but there are some great connections between what happens in the lab and what happens in the gym. Actually, for most people in the fitness industry the gym is their lab, so what I’ve written below might just be worth it…

The Scientific Method

The scientific method is simply a sequence of steps that scientists use to develop ideas and test them rigorously in the hopes of creating solutions to today’s problems. The process begins with an idea that is usually based on previous research or just a nagging question that someone wants to get to the bottom of. Once an idea and any related questions are fleshed out, the hypothesis (a guess of what is expected to occur) is generated, and experiments are designed and executed to test whether the experimenter’s hypothesis is correct or way off. Once the experiments are completed, the results are analyzed and interpreted, and based on the data future experiments are conducted. If there is a strong disagreement between the results and what was expected, the hypothesis is often revisited and revised before new experiments are planned, in what often seems like an endless cycle. Pretty dry stuff, but clearly an organized, methodical approach to problem solving.

Your training is an experiment

While the process above may seem a little dull, anyone who has made any significant achievement (both inside and out of the weight-room) has done so by taking a systematic approach. There is always the story of the random slacker who gets everything they want and more without trying, but this is definitely the exception, not the norm. Most exceptional people got there by spending inordinate amounts of time working extremely hard. Taking from the example above, where the scientist in the lab starts off with an idea, in the gym we start off with a goal. It might be to lean up for an upcoming contest or the beach (don’t worry, I’m not judging), bulk up to fill out your new size medium t-shirts, increase strength; whatever it is at this point is irrelevant, because no matter the goal the process is ALWAYS the same.

While scientists hypothesize, in the gym we generate training programs, and the difference here is simply semantics. When scientists say “If I give these patients drug X, I expect to see effect Y”, the training program might go a little something like “If I add 5 sets of 10 repetitions of Glute-Ham raises, I expect increased hamstring strength that will help me increase my squat”. So again, while the terms are different the process is the same: your training program is YOUR hypothesis, you identify the effect you want (goal), and you hypothesize that if you train in a certain way (training program) you’ll see the effect (result). So by this logic, your training is an experiment, and you should treat it that way. Every day you’re moving weight, you’re running your experiment. You’re the scientist AND the lab rat all in one.

If it’s so simple, why do people fail?

Would you be a good scientist if you ran experiments and never analyzed your results? What about a scientist who generates and analyzes data, but never reconciles it with their hypothesis? Did that data support their idea, or were they totally wrong? It’s pretty clear that you’d be a bad scientist, and not even a cushy tenure-track position at a university would keep you employed. Funny thing is, while it would be totally unacceptable in a lab, it happens all the time in the gym and I’m guilty of it myself.

It’s difficult to stay objective, we’re all human and we make mistakes, but if you ingrain this simple, objective process in your training design I think you’ll find yourself much more successful. Any time you design and complete a training program/cycle, take the time at the end to OBJECTIVELY reconcile your results to your goal. If they don’t match up, something needs to change. Did you start off to get leaner for the summer and your body-fat hasn’t budged? Take a look back at your training, diet and behaviours to see what could be the source of the problem. There is a smorgasbord of factors that influence your results and it can be a timely process to identify what went wrong. Maybe you picked the wrong indicators (variables) to determine your success, didn’t train hard enough, left out leg training, or maybe you just didn’t wait long enough to see an effect. Any combination of variables could explain your success or your failure, but it is those who take the time to systematically test to figure out what works and what doesn’t who achieve their goals. Can’t do it yourself? Get someone else in on the problem, a second set of eyes will often provide a much need dose of reality.

I often find myself dumbfounded at some of the weight-loss shows on TV and the stuff they get away with. On a popular show that is designed to help a woman lose a fixed amount of weight in a short period of time for a ‘special event’, the participant on the show often falls short of their goal. In the end what happens? They are patted on the back for their effort and consoled by the simple fact that they just put on muscle while losing fat. While that obviously does happen (definitely an excellent result), the variable they chose to track for the experiment (just scale weight), doesn’t give them the info required to know this. If you set a realistic goal to lose ten pounds of scale weight and you didn’t, no rationalization is needed. Your results (weight-loss) don’t agree with your goal (10lbs), so you need to modify your training program (hypothesis) accordingly, or in the case above, pick additional indicators (variables) to track to support your future conclusions.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

To wrap things up, there is a clip of a seminar with some prominent lifters associated with EliteFTS on youtube, and while the language is a little colorful (be warned if you’re at work or just sensitive to that stuff), it drives home the message of this post.

In the clip we see Matt Kroczaleski, a record setting powerlifter who’s attacking the sport of bodybuilding with the same ferocity, discussing how the people at the top of their game train. Rants about the fitness industry aside, he describes in the last few seconds that everyone borrows from everyone else, playing off the same core prinicples but testing modifications along the way as needed. In this case while many follow a highly similar overall training template, they test different exercises and other training parameters based on their goals, current weaknesses and limitations, and what others are doing or have done. Whatever doesn’t get them where they want to be is dropped and another idea tested. So while it may not be written out on paper, this is a classic example of the scientific method in action. A goal is set, a training program is designed (hypothesis), the experiment is performed (training), and the results are analyzed. If it failed, the training program is revisited, revised, and the cycle continues.

Where to go from here

So while this post may seem a little vague when it comes to each step, over the following series of posts I hope to develop a steadfast system that I (and you) can use for setting goals and then crushing them in a systemic fashion. I’ll be writing as I go, so I’m sure we’ll see some things that work, and others that don’t, but that is how things should be. While many experts tell us we need to be adaptable and constantly embrace change, the economics of the industry is telling us to buy one training program then jump to the next without actually learning how to train. We should just be able to log onto the net, pay our three payments of $49.95, download a program template and head to the gym. Well, we’re all better than that, and the ones who ultimately succeed are those who take the time and put in the work to really understand their bodies, their training and what they need to do to take it to the next level.


    Simon B says:

    Great article Dan, I've only recently started recording my stats and analysing them but I've seen significant gains because of it!


    Dan Ogborn says:

    Thanks SImon. I actually experimented with NO tracking over the past year when I was trying to simplify my training and let's just say it didn't go well. I'm all for simplified training, but the tracking always has to be there IMHO.

    What's your favorite way(s) of measuring or tracking result?

    I'm sure gonna share this with lots of my friends. It says what I need to say. I'm both an experimental scientist and a trainer. 🙂

    Dan Ogborn says:

    Well I never have a one-size-fits all method, some times it's an excel spreadsheet, other times a simple checklist. I find myself gravitating to the simplest means whenever possible and hate to admit but I've never even looked at any of the online trackers like Fitocracy.

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Dan Ogborn