be a better lifter

How to be a Lifting Skeptic

By: Barbell Logic Team

Concerning the expert’s opinion, the skeptic has to ask two questions. Whether the expert confirms or opposes your own beliefs you must ask whether your beliefs are rationally held. And, you must ask whether the expert’s beliefs are rationally held. Both of which stem from an independent investigation into the subject.
When the Advice Guy tells you “to look up to go up,” however, your investigation into the mechanics of the movement and development of a model for its correct execution is much more powerful than his high-school glory days. Your opinion is more rationally based.

Be a Barbell Lifting Skeptic

“This is why I do not perform brain surgery[.]” -Rip

Every local powerlifting meet has a particular cast of characters that always seem to show up. You have the old guy who has probably forgotten more about lifting than most of the younger competitors will ever know. You have the Aging Athlete who rocked in high school and used to squat 500 lb. You have the strength nerds, who love the quirkiness of powerlifting as a sport. And you have the advice guy who dispenses undiscriminating wisdom like “Look up to go up!” and starts every sentence with “She really needs to . . .” to anyone within conspiratorial earshot.

Among the competitors, there are always some really strong people who show off a keen deficiency regarding the finer details of the sport in which they are participating, like the rules. Many of the lifters will fail lifts because they miss the judge’s commands or perform the lifts in a way that earns them fewer than 2 white lights. Others will open with attempts that are far too heavy or far too light and end up bombing out of the meet or leaving a lot of weight on the platform. You don’t see this behavior in other sports. Nobody shows up to play soccer without knowing that you’re not supposed to use your hands.

Powerlifting is a simple sport. But it’s not the same as just going to the gym to lift weights. And THAT is where these lifters have made their mistake.

The point of this isn’t to pick on people who’ve been brave enough to put on a singlet and lift in front of strangers. We believe in competing as a natural extension of your lifting development. But, there is a framework that we believe in for developing yourself as a lifter. It is a framework that comes from skepticism and critical thinking.

Skepticism

Photo: Nick Delgadillo

Skepticism in its most pure form is a questioning of all knowledge or, rather, a questioning whether true knowledge can even exist. The more general meaning concerns inquiry, a skeptic being someone who is unsatisfied with their current level of knowledge or current rationale and continues to search for the truth. A skeptic is not someone who simply doubts, but who investigates, employing inductive and deductive reasoning for epistemic (knowledge-based) inquiry and engaging in deliberate practice for performative (skill-based) pursuits.

How does skepticism apply to lifting? It begins with an investigation into why we lift in the first place. If your goal is to get stronger, then you must proceed from there and answer a few basic questions: “What is strength?” and, given that definition, “How do you get stronger?” Or, “How do you measure strength?” That line of inquiry will lead to the exercises you choose to perform, the number of sets and reps, and the overall structure of your training. Within an overarching framework, things like competition can fall naturally into your training when they serve the greater purpose of your goals. For those who choose to spend a significant amount of their time getting strong, we value competing as a means of boosting your training, furthering the expertise you are developing as a lifter, expertise expressed in the competence of your form and the rationality of your approach to training.

The difficulty for the skeptic lies in how you acquire knowledge. Where do you look to answer your questions and to what extent do depend on another’s expertise? Should you rely on the expertise of others? If you can’t answer that question, who’s to say that the random lifting advice dolled out by bros and trainers is wrong? Maybe you should “look up to go up” after all.

The Expertise Dilemma

Is there something that you know more about than most anyone else? Does your job require some specialized knowledge or experience? Or do you have a hobby that is somewhat obscure? Maybe you are a bibliophile, cinephile, or an audiophile. Whatever your particular area of expertise, you have probably experienced the frustration that comes from the layperson’s interpretation of what you know. And, you know that people who hold themselves out as experts to the general public tend to offer grossly oversimplified versions of complicated ideas, workings, or processes and present less-than-expert opinions. This is why lawyers laugh at TV crime dramas, why scientists scoff at the news outlets’ interpretation of the latest studies, and why combat specialists shake their heads at made-for-film action sequences. You know what the neophyte doesn’t know; you exceed the dabbler’s basic understanding. You have approached your field of expertise with a skeptic’s mind, investigated and educated yourself, reveling both in the uncovering of knowledge and the continual pursuit of yet greater expertise and understanding.

Skepticism has two opposing states: One in which the individual fails to recognize the absence of knowledge and one in which he, thinking that he has found knowledge, rests, stopping the inquiry with the assumption that he knows and therefore needs no further investigation. The first is the failure to realize that expertise exists for almost any given subject matter. Matt and Scott were discussing this phenomenon on the Barbell Logic Podcast recently with respect to professional counseling. Scott said (paraphrasing someone else),

[I]f somebody went into the Arctic and observed polar bears for years and made notes on all their mating habits and their diet and all this stuff and then they came and spoke at a conference everybody would say “that guy is a polar bear expert.” But somehow, if somebody observes people, works with people, learns about their habits… they think that you can’t understand people and can’t be a people expert. But [ ] oh no, we’re just polar bears and you can be an expert[.]

The problem is that we don’t hold some subjects to be “things-about-which-you-can-be-an-expert.” This is a flawed position and not something the skeptic should accept.

The assumption that deeper knowledge does not exist is problematic. Take the lifters we mentioned earlier, those who are at a powerlifting meet and show up with lifting form that violates the rules of the competition. Many lifters will end up without a score because they have never squatted to depth or they hitch their deadlifts up their legs or they always lift their head or their butt off the bench when they bench press. How does this happen? Presumably, they have been lifting in the gym long enough that signing up for the meet seemed like a good idea. The description of correct depth is in the rules. So why do they fail? The simple answer usually is that they have no idea what correct depth feels like and how to squat in a manner that allows them to hit correct depth at the weights they are attempting.

This is because they didn’t take the skeptics path for training. In particular, they did not pick and adhere to a model for lifting that they pursued and worked on. If they did, then they closed their mind to the possibility that their model is different from what is allowed under the rules of the sport. Very likely they didn’t know there was such a thing as a model for lifting, one that includes squatting until the crease of your hip is below the top of your knee. They have been lifting weights but not training and have remained ignorant that there was more to this sport than what they have been doing.

As a starting place, the skeptic should always assume there is deeper knowledge or experience to be gained. You can be an expert about pretty much anything, anything about which you can acquire a significant body of knowledge, that you can experience to any degree beyond everyday occurrences, and/or that you can accumulate practice beyond daily phenotypic experiences. In short, you can develop expertise in pretty much any anything beyond, perhaps, the ability to lie prone with your eyes closed. If you don’t know what that deeper knowledge is, then the only assumption to make is that it exists. And this forms the basis of further study. Or as Data told Captain Picard, “The most elementary and valuable statement in Science, the beginning of wisdom is: I do not know.” Put another way, if speed walking is an Olympic sport, then you cannot discount the depth of any subject or any activity.

The opposite problem with expertise is the over-reliance on the expert. John Hardwig, a philosopher who has written extensively on the role of experts in society, said about the knowledge expert:

“The rational layman will recognize that in matters about which there is good reason to believe that there is expert opinion, he ought (methodologically) not to make up his own mind. His stance on these matters will–if he is rational–usually be rational deference to the epistemic authority of the expert.”

The double use of the “rationality” of Hardwig’s layperson should signal a potential problem with the overreliance on the expert. Because the layperson must make a decision as to whether the person whose opinion they are taking on, in lieu of their own judgment, is, indeed, an expert. This is good advice for brain surgery and highly specialized areas about which there is a high enough barrier to erudition that you must rely on the expert’s opinion or nothing at all. But, overreliance on the expert is problematic when the expert is not offering a wise opinion.

Take again our powerlifting meet. The “look-up-to-go-up” guy is usually completely ignorant of the different types of squats and the needs of the lifters. He may have squatted 500 pounds in high school, but if you accept that he is an expert, then overreliance on his opinion is harmful.

Concerning the expert’s opinion, the skeptic has to ask two questions. Whether the expert confirms or opposes your own beliefs you must ask whether your beliefs are rationally held. And, you must ask whether the expert’s beliefs are rationally held. Both of which stem from an independent investigation into the subject matter of the opinion.

When you talk to your brain surgeon, you have to take into account their training and knowledge of an area that is likely inaccessible to you without many years of study and access to formalized education. This supports the rationality of their views and the comparative irrationality of your own.

When the Advice Guy tells you “to look up to go up,” however, your investigation into the mechanics of the movement and development of a model for its correct execution is much more powerful than his high-school glory days. Your opinion is more rationally based.

Lifting Weights vs Training

When you consider the value of lifting, you know that you should be training, not just lifting weights or exercising. There are some questions you need to answer for yourself if you are going to really train:

  • What are your goals?
  • What is strength?
  • How do you measure strength and progress?

We have some ideas about these big questions:

And part of the value of having a coach is that they will put you on the path to expertise whether you choose it or not. They will build a framework for understanding each lift that will help you execute and advance it as a part of the pursuit of getting stronger. But ultimately, the rationality of your training belongs to you.

Simply by choosing to train, you have crossed the threshold into skepticism about lifting. By consuming information, learning more about this activity, examiningskepticallyall the content and information out there, you are further along the path of expertise. Keep going, keep learning, and we hope to be with you while you do.

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