Theory and Practice: a philosophical essay on progress.


I just read a good quote that an RKC comrade uses as his signature: In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.

In theory, if you gradually add a couple of pounds every week to your bench press, you should be able to press a thousand pounds over time. In practice, it doesn’t happen…
In theory, trapping an opponent’s right cross, breaking his right elbow and then twisting his right wrist into a half nelson works. In practice, it’s a lot more challenging (or in a real fight, that is, as you can practice the sequence successfully).
Should we throw out theory? Absolutely not. Theory is the foundation of philosophy, be it of the mind or of the body. Experimenting, applying the theory, which stems from a hypothesis, validates the theory, at least until proven wrong.
All things work till they don’t work anymore. The question is, why don’t they work anymore?
If you follow a certain diet and it’s working for you, then you stop losing fat or gaining muscle, whatever your goal, is the theory behind no longer valid? Has your body reached homeostasis?
Is it a matter of entropy? “An object in an unnatural state always returns to its natural state”?
The jury’s still out on this one (by jury, I mean my brain). I believe it is the change in acute variables. You may be following a strict powerlifting routine to bench press, but maybe you’ve changed the time of day for your training (the body actually likes routine, one theory implies, and you need to wave your loads in a micro, meso or macro cycle rather than “shock your muscles”, which confuses them and results in them underperforming). Or you’re sleeping pattern changed. Maybe your diet is not supporting your body’s increased caloric demand.
Unless you can isolate any given factor, or acute variable, as the culprit for your lack of continued progress (or plateau), you cannot claim with certainty that the system you’ve been using no longer works, that the theory is obsolete because it no longer works in practice.
This transitions my thought to another point: too much of your training regimen is left to chance.
Unless you categorically and systematically log your training and your nutritional intake, you are unable to analyze what needs to be modified in your training to break through your plateau. You may very well follow a certain protocol without changing its theoretical approach, because it will yield results in practice, without worrying about periodizing. For instance, I train heavy on Monday, light on Wednesday, moderate on Friday, with a couple of optional “variety” days. The drills are the same on MFW, the weight is the same but the volume differs (less reps, or sets) and I increase the load every 5-6 weeks. However, on any given day, my balance may be off. My stress level makes me less focused or I may be at 100% and perform like a champ. I log everything, every detail, observation, technique modification. I leave nothing to chance.
So, empirical evidence doesn’t disprove a theory. It may very well reinforce it if you are able to identify and isolate any given factor. A mishmash of factors creates confusion and you cannot state with certainty that this or that prevented you from reaching your goal. Address one thing, and one thing only, and see how it affects your training by keeping everything else the same. If that didn’t solve it, address a different variable.
In theory, it should work 🙂

3 comments on “Theory and Practice: a philosophical essay on progress.”

  1. Josh

    Philippe, you raise a lot of good points. In the last 7 weeks I've gotten very strict about logging everything. What I put into my mouth, reps, bodyweight, time of day when I workout, minutes of work time, and lbs moved during that workout.

    It helps. I'm not able to control all the variables. My one constant is that I do not miss days on the RTK program unless I'm on-my-back ill. Time of day doesn't seem to effect me too much. Strangely, lack of sleep isn't hurting me either, but I've never slept well.

    Dan John said everything works for about 6 weeks. But that doesn't mean that each 6 weeks you should overhaul everything. Just change something small. Same but different. Different grip, same reps in less time, supersets, whatever. I've found this to be true in my case.

    I'm not big on theory. Once someone says "do this" and I know it works, I'm fine with the results. I want the results and can get by without the "why it works" information most of the time.

  2. Philippe Til

    I validate your POV wholeheartedly.
    Remember your post on "Tolerance" a while back, and the semantics behind it?
    When someone tells you to "do this", doesn't it stem from a theory backed by evidence/experimentation/practice though?
    I too have "removed myself" from the theory aspect when doing ETK and have noticed my progress à la Dan John, starting low ladders of 3 to 5 ladders of 5 rungs before moving on to a heavier bell, takes about 5-6 weeks, and the bell size is the variable that changes on purpose (the other being added strength and muscle mass).

  3. billpage

    How difficult to maintain houses, and machinery, and our bodies in perfect working order: how easy to let them deteriorate. In fact, all we have to do os nothing, and everything deteriorates, collapses, breaks down, wears out, all by itself — and that is what the second law is al about." Isaac Asimov

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