Let’s take a look at some bad exercise research and find out why the best research is the kind you do yourself.
This week a study estimated the dollars wasted on invalid basic science research to the tune of $28 billion. “Basic” science is the type that’s done with test tubes and petri dishes, and it’s notoriously difficult to reproduce and interpret.
Sadly, this trend isn’t just limited to research with cells in a lab. Lots of research involving human subjects is similarly unreliable. I’ve written before on the doubtfulness of diet research, but a lot of exercise research isn’t much better. And it’s important to know how to interpret those headlines, so you can find the best information to train better.
Take this simple study on kettlebell training and its aerobic fitness benefits, which concluded that eight weeks of kettlebell training will improve your aerobic fitness. While strength training and high intensity training will probably improve your endurance performance, there is absolutely no way you could conclude that from this study. Let’s take a closer look and find out why.
In the kettlebell study, sponsored by the American Council on Exercise, real scientists with all the academic letters after their names split up thirty active, college-age volunteers between a kettlebell training group and a control group. They wanted to know how two hour-long sessions of kettlebell training per week for eight weeks would influence a wide array of fitness variables: aerobic capacity, grip strength, core strength, general strength, flexibility, balance, and body composition.
In order to test the effectiveness of their training program, the researchers put the subjects through testing at baseline, and again eight weeks later to see what changed. After eight weeks, they saw just what they were hoping for: compared with the “control” group, the training group improved their aerobic capacity by 13.8%. And that’s the headline that hits the fitness blogs and sells books: “lift weights faster instead of doing cardio.”
But again, while resistance training has obvious benefits to almost all fitness outcomes, this study doesn’t prove squat. Why not? Aside from other methodical miscues, the researchers used a modified kettlebell snatch as their measure of aerobic capacity. That’s like testing your reading comprehension by doing a trigonometry problem. The subjects didn’t improve their aerobic capacity by 13.8%; they improved their kettlebell snatch by 13.8%!
And, just like in that fake chocolate diet study, when you only do one thing to your subjects and measure a ton of outcome variables, something is almost guaranteed to change. This is sometimes known as the “shotgun approach”: when you fire a shotgun shell at a target, you’ll have a lot of ugly misses, but you’ll likely land one or two shots close to the bullseye. A lot of researchers do it.
It’s this type of research that spawns claims of “The Scientific 7-Minute Workout“. Don’t have seven minutes? Try the 6-minute abs workout. Or save time with the allegedly scientifically-verified “5-Minute Abs (Proven in a lab!)“. Or the similarly scientific 4-minute workout. Or the comprehensive “3-minute, 360-degree abs workout”. Or the super-hard, heart rate-soaring superset, “The Incredible 2-Minute Ab Workout”. Or even the cardio surge “One-Minute Full-Body Workout”. Time will tell if exercise scientists can crack the coveted 1-minute workout threshold.
So how do you know what research to believe? Obviously you should always use some good old common sense – there are no simple answers to complex problems, and if it sounds too good to be true, it is.
But more importantly, do your own research! Have a purpose, a plan, and record your data. There’s enough health and fitness information available to put the most experienced coaches and athletes into an existential emergency. The whole purpose of Addaero and any other tool in the quantified self movement is to empower you, the athlete or coach, to make your own decisions based on your own results.
Do you think kettlebell training has improved your athletic performance? Or, more importantly, do you actually enjoy doing it? Great! Keep doing it.
But don’t do it because you read it in a headline.