Saturday, January 24, 2009

Scientific studies - are they the end-all?

My last post got me thinking about a seminar I went to a few years back. Before I tell you the story, let me preface it by saying that I do believe in science, and in scientific testing and evidence-based proof. I have a degree in exercise science. As a student, we had to either perform or participate in as many studies as possible. [One of the reasons I decided not to get my Masters in Exercise Physiology was due to a distaste (or was it fear?) of performing studies and being stuck in a lab, and all the statistics required. I hate statistics, and it must be told that I had a yearning to travel at the time...]

I am also much more into the practical aspects of fitness.

So, scientific studies are very important, but I also believe that there's a LOT to be said for anecdotal evidence. 

My story:

I went to a fitness conference in Aspen, Colorado about 5 or 6 years ago. The conference was geared towards conditioning for skiing. Dr. Michael Stone and his wife Meg Stone, MS, were presenters, along with some excellent US Ski Team coaches. At the time, Dr. Stone was head of sport physiology for the US Olympic committee, and Meg Stone was a coach at the USOC, in Colorado Springs (and a former Olympian in Discus). Big name, and lots of studies in their backgrounds.

They led a session on weight lifting where they demonstrated proper lifting techniques, using very standard methods, weight benches for bench press, typical squats on the squat rack, etc. All good. All stuff I learned as a CSCS and CPT. All effective (if you are into that type of lifting).

Then someone asked a question about using resistance balls as instability platforms when lifting weights, or discs to stand on for squats or other lifts.

I was floored at their answer. I had been using balls and dyna-discs with my personal training clients for ever. I'd been to so many sessions at conferences, by big name presenters in the fitness industry such as Juan Carlos Santana, Paul Chek, Vern Gambetta, Douglass Brooks and many more. (Most of whom have an MS in Ex Phys, except Paul Chek who has a PhD in self-love. But hey, he really is a smart guy. And well read.)

I believe 100% in the use of stability balls for balance, functional training and core engagement. 

In a word, they said they were bunk. They said there was no studies that proved that they improved stability or core engagement. Much better to use a weight bench, get the body stable, and lift more weight.

AUGH! My friend, another personal trainer who focuses on functional training, and I looked at each other incredulously! In fact, it made me shut out everything they said after that. Now these are people who are BIG names in weight training, and Olympic athlete development, so people listen to what they say. Currently they both work at the University of Tennessee.

There were a few muscle heads in the room, one guy in particular (the kind of guy who could not put his arms by his sides due to over-developed lats, pecs and know the type) who I remember said, "See! I knew it! All those trainers at my gym on those stupid balls. Yeah!"

Scientists like these do not believe in anecdotal evidence. It must be proved in a scientific lab in order for it to be "true". That's probably the line of thinking of Dr. Carl Foster who I quoted in my last post who said "There are no studies that prove periodization is effective."

In my mind, there just hasn't been a study YET that proves that it's effective, or that stability balls are effective core conditioners. 

Think about the process of developing studies. They are almost always done at the university level; they require funding, and willing students to develop a hypothesis, develop the study, get approval, recruit the guinea pigs, carry out the study, analyze the data, interpret the results, do the statistics (ugh, the hardest part), get peer reviews, get published, and then perhaps retest. Wikipedia gives an exhausting and migraine-producing description of valid scientific methods. 

For most graduate students, the study must fall into line with what they are interested in pursuing in their careers (otherwise, why do it). Can you imagine the level of complexity to develop certain studies? The time involved? The financial commitment?

Maybe no one has yet come up with a method that will accurately compare stability ball effectiveness with a control group. But from the empirical evidence experienced by hundreds (thousands?) of trainers at very high levels (Olympic coaches, professional coaches for baseball, football, or other sports teams) who have used stability balls, I think there's overwhelming evidence that it works.

Regarding indoor cycling, there are no studies that I know of specific to this industry. But can we say that "XYZ isn't true", simply because there hasn't been a study? Maybe it's not interesting enough to a graduate student? Or worth funding? I would love to see more studies on the effectiveness of "Spinning", especially on how the weighted flywheel affects pedaling mechanics. Sans the scientific method, I think it's still safe to analyze what we know to be true about momentum and inertia, and extrapolate how a weighted flywheel can affect pedal stroke.  

Therefore, in my opinion, there are moments when we as instructors and trainers must rely on anecdotal and empirical evidence. It means being educated, and not just spouting off what we read, but having first-hand experience. 

So to follow up my last post, I believe the anecdotal evidence clearly shows that periodization works. And that training on a stability ball is an excellent means to develop functional strength. Maybe not maximal strength, but how many of us are working with Olympic weight lifters?

[By the way, at that same conference in Aspen, one of the US Ski Team coaches gave a fantastic session outside in a park using functional training methods developing stability, power and core conditioning. They were awesome, hard to do, much more fun that the standard weight lifting procedures...and I BET there were no scientific studies as to their effectiveness! Only stronger bodies winning medals in downhill skiing...]

Here's to your training!

EDIT: Maybe I should get former Spinning MI, the brainy Jennifer Klau, to get her opinion and $.02 on this matter. She's getting her PhD in Ex Phys right now and is immersed in lab studies. She may disagree with me (or not) and/or provide reasons for why some things are not "scientifically proven" but generally accepted and why others aren't. And she might have more input on what Dr. Carl Foster said about periodization.

Hmmm, I might have to send her a message on Facebook, or a "tweet" - she's always on Twitter - how can she be doing any research these days?! 

Just kidding, Jen! I know you're working hard! ;-)


KalaSpins said...

Jennifer, it's funny that you mentioned the stability ball... I was in Barnes & Noble today and there were two or three books on using stability balls and all the great things you can do with them.

I for one, love them :)

Jennifer Sage said...

Yes, and I'll never stop using them!

nikki said...

As a BSc. student in Kinesiology, and a certified spin instructor/PT, I know all too well the fight between "proven" and "accepted". I think most of us "scientists" would rarely ever say anything is scientifically "proven". There is always evidence backing a model, but only until the next model is developed!
Too many hardcore scientists are quick to dismiss evidence not gathered in a laboratory, but I think we need to start bringing together the methods of collecting data, from both real-life and the lab. Besides, a lot of the findings in a lab don't even transfer to the real-world!

Jennifer Sage said...

thanks so much for your comment. It sheds some light on the discussion. And good point about the fact that findings often don't transfer to real life.

Robert said...

I mentioned in my comment to your last post (I have a lot of catching up to do, having been away from my laptop for a week!) that the lesser scientist will presume their field has the answers to the universe; the greater one will presume he knows nothing and sets out to find the truth the hard way. Science once said that smoking was good for circulation... only 50 years ago.

Examples of anecdotal evidence that was first dismissed but later proven by the scientific community: the efficacy of a post-exercise sauna; marrying eggs with orange juice for breakfast (it counteracts the bad cholesterol); drinking red wine (anti-oxidising); eating cereals from breakfast (low GI); cooking pasta al dente (beyond which point it goes from low GI to high - mushy pasta is just sugar paste), etc. The list is and wiill be forever endless, as science cannot hope to explain everything our forefathers took as a given.

Personally, I want more of the studies like the one that showed chocolate milk to be the best recovery drink - yeay!