Let’s talk about ‘science-based’

written by Philip Stefanov  |  APRIL 25, 2023

You’ve probably come across these so-called science-based fitness educators who always cite studies and base their entire approach on PubMed findings.

At first glance, there’s nothing wrong with doing so. After all, what’s more valuable than actual scientific findings coming from controlled human trials, right?

Science certainly has its place, and we should keep up with recent findings on topics of interest. However, the subject is more nuanced than most people imagine, and things aren’t nearly as black or white as we think.

A Big Problem With Research

Studies are more difficult and time-consuming to conduct than most people realize. To make matters worse, experiments are costly, and researchers often struggle to secure funding. The result is a body of scientific findings that grows slowly over years or even decades.

There are often just a handful of studies on specific subjects, and the findings differ because of factors like:

  • Biases and data manipulation
  • Tools used to take measurements
  • How many participants the study has
  • How long the experiment takes
  • What outcomes the researchers look at
  • How controlled the actual experiment is

If we are lucky, we get enough data, which researchers can examine closely and publish their findings in the form of a meta-analysis or a systematic review. However, even then, results on similar topics can vary from one paper to the next.

To make matters worse, people often cherry-pick which studies to discuss to fit their agenda while ignoring the rest. We often see this in the fitness supplements industry, where companies share studies showing potential benefits to specific compounds while neglecting all the papers that don’t find any benefits.

One popular example is the push to sell turkesterone as a natural and healthy alternative to anabolic steroids. However, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I wrote a newsletter on that specific topic a while back, in case you’re interested.

But What is The Value of Scientific Findings?

I’m all for research, and I often look at scientific findings when writing content on various topics, giving supplement recommendations, or even deciding how to coach people. Well-controlled human trials can greatly help because they reveal how and why things work.

However, we can’t lean too heavily on a single paper when deciding how to eat, train, or supplement for our goals. As discussed above, findings can differ between papers for many reasons.

For example, one study might suggest a specific herb leads to a modest increase in muscle protein synthesis. However, that is not nearly enough evidence to go out and purchase a supplement containing the herb. At the very least, it’s good to have some longer-term research suggesting that the compound is safe.

Other research issues include small sample sizes, short experiment durations, compliance issues, and difficulties insolating one variable (e.g., number of sets done) while keeping all else consistent (e.g., the exercises done, the weight lifted, the effort put into the workout plan, etc.).

This is one reason why I recommend creatine monohydrate and not much else. The supplement has been studied for over five decades, and countless papers show its benefits and safety under unique circumstances and among countless participants.

Meta-analyses and systematic reviews are better than single papers, but even then, it’s important to consider the inclusion criteria. In other words, how good are the studies reviewed?

My recommendation is to keep up with studies that align with your interests. One straightforward way is to subscribe to a monthly review, such as Monthly Applications in Strength Sport (MASS). The folks at MASS do all the heavy lifting (finding good studies, examining the data, breaking it down, and interpreting the findings), saving you time, effort, and frustration.

(On that note, an annual sale starts today and will run until May 2nd, so feel free to grab a subscription at a discount.)

However, don’t solely rely on research because science isn’t perfect and individual differences matter.

Thank you for taking the time. Until next week,


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