The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the expression of setting up a straw man as a weak or imaginary argument or opponent that is set up to be easily defeated.
In the business of fitness where marketing tops everything (a hard knock on the concept of “strength trumps everything”), you can read daily blogs doing just that, setting up arguments only to take them down and promote one’s own product. And before I get attacked myself for hypocrisy considering I invented a product I wish success for, the SmartFlex™, I need to stress that in order to engage the community of trainers and consumers I have been able to reach via my network as well as partners and allies, I used established knowledge and opened myself up to the critique of people smarter than me. But I digress. So-called experts routinely set up said “straw men” arguments by either preying on the public’s lack of in-depth knowledge of a subject, or, conversely, re-focusing the buffet of information plastered all over the Web to “prove” their point by isolating one element out of proper context.
Take nutrition for instance: is there a definitive answer? Is there one plan that fits all needs or populations? The obvious, sensible answer ought to be “No”. However, if you read the copy of an invested proponent of ANY diet, you’ll find it filled with anecdotal evidence with a pseudo-scientific explanation backing it. Did you know that for any test group, you have the right to publish the evidence that supports your claims, but can keep what refutes it mum for over a decade, or publish it in an obscure journal no one will ever bother to find? What’s even more sad, said test group can have a 3% success rate and 97% failure rate, if you’re only shown the success stories, it’s OK to use for marketing/advertising purposes with nothing more than “individual results may vary”? The supplements industry is the perfect example for that. I even received a multitude of emails recently from different online fitness personalities (I like to see what others are doing), all of whom affiliate with the flavor of the month, usually with an urgent call to action before the information is “taken down for good” or with a huge price hike (to make the offer seem like a deal) past the introductory period, which never expires in reality. There is a reason the offer is taken down. Think about it.
I remember learning and utilizing elements of communities I belong to for marketing purposes. Caught up in the excitement, I never questioned those elements (which are still being used), like the burning of 1200 calories per hour for kettlebell snatches. Yes, that is possible. The test was done by having somebody snatch a 24kg/53lb kettlebell for 10 minutes, which measured 200kcal (calories). That person, to the best of my recollection, was in the 180-200lb range. So the measure is appropriate to the individual, not everyone. And to extrapolate the 1200 calories/hour, you essentially multiply the 10 minutes of work by 6. The math works, the theory works. Now, ask that same person to snatch for an hour instead of 10 minutes. Will the individual actually burn 1200 calories? Is it safe? Will form falter and potentially increase the risk for injury? Respective answers can be: maybe with elevated EPOC or “afterburn” levels but good luck surviving that (not for the average person), most likely realistically there will be a drop in rep quality & quantity, hand callouses forming then tearing. Benefits are possible, just maybe not likely or plausible. Am I setting up a straw man myself right now by not verifying that this maybe applied to kettlebell swings instead of snatches (way more manageable), hoping no one will call me out or banking on the reader not knowing and trusting my years in the biz? Am I not thorough enough, using my recall of the “Burn up to 1200 calories per hour with kettlebells without the dishonor of aerobics or dieting” with the wrong exercise? Truth is, a little bit of everything applies here. I am however owning up to it and still making my point that this is routinely done without full disclosure, which is where one argument can become law. And kettlebells are one of my favorite tools that I have been using for 7 years now.
I personally have learned to question everything, and like to engage anyone I train to even question what I teach them. I have no problems admitting I was wrong, or that “to the best of my knowledge ____”, or “in my experience, _____” because I like to stay current, informed, and also, I remember the basics of philosophy where every theory is right until proven wrong, and also know that empirical evidence can be skewed or refuted. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that I am one day for something, against it the next day if evidence shows me otherwise. I take it as it is, process it, apply it, present it. This works well if you have nothing financial at stake but your integrity. And just because someone said something bad about something that works doesn’t mean I have to throw that thing away. Instead, I file the newfound information into the “addendum” category. I like the Paleo diet, I even was on it for a while, and just like a weight training routine, the body adapts, things don’t work anymore, goals change and you need to change/adjust variables. Many times I used a high protein, low carb, high fat diet with nutrient dense rich carbs for short term goals, and later found the addition of starches to actually promoted further fat loss -if such was the goal- (when the starter plan of no starches started to fail and affect my hormones).
I have worked with people who built their entire businesses around a concept, but if you dig into their personal regimen (nutrition and/or training) and you’ll find little synergy with what they’re selling. We’re not cavemen needing to survive on food we forage, but we are indeed in need of moving more. Cavemen didn’t work out, they were nomadic, either chasing or being chased. They didn’t lift rocks for fun. But they also didn’t have 156 HD channels and desk jobs. And they sure as heck didn’t enhance their mate’s bosom with silicone or inject anti-aging hormones into their veins. Similarly, the guy who invented the Nautilus line of equipment rarely used it, but was spotted using traditional tools like barbells and dumbbells while saying he relied primarily on his Nautilus gear, with the argument of “checking his strength” as his excuse (checking it 3-4 times a week for a couple of hours at a time. Um, yeah, not buying it).
You can get extremely confused these days reading how everything will kill you, and also that this guy’s coffee is better, or that brand’s lotion is safer or more effective because it has this breakthrough ingredient (usually in concentrations so small it barely moves the needle in any direction). I actually really enjoyed reading about Paleo as the Scientology of diets because it provides some really good light on the Straw Man topic. Mainly it shows that smart people will have a harder time letting go of certain notions because it took them a while to understand the notion. This happens a lot with educated people because they need to justify the high cost of their education at the expense of common sense. It’s called “cognitive dissonance“. I myself have been guilty of that many times, and it’s hard to find out or accept sometimes that yes, you, me, we can be the smarter person, instead of the person we learned from or the world renown expert whose book we bought that yielded a big goose egg worth of results. Sometimes you know what’s right for you, but you can’t either accept it or dig it out of your brain because you may not have the confidence to do so. Yes, we should always seek the advice of experts, but who is an expert these days? Even the experts make mistakes if they remain caught up in their ways.
Change is inevitable and even lack of change promotes change (not in a good way, though).