This article goes through a brief history of broscience and its evidence-based counterpart. I explain the flaws of the popular evidence-based fitness community and why it is not so different from the ‘bro’ community. In fact, broscience may be superior by developing a respectable work ethic in its followers. Additionally, I explain some of my personal thoughts on body-image disorders, the increase of interest in bodybuilding, and the problems in conducting and publishing research. As a side note, I would like to apologize for the sexist language that is used throughout this article. Weightlifting has long been dominated by men which has created the masculine words of 'bro' and 'broscience' that are commonly used. In many ways, I feel strength training is more important for females and that their potential for developing size and strength is relatively unexplored.
The last several decades have extrapolated personal insecurities about body image into a multi-billion dollar industry. Fat which was once seen as a sign of wealth and luxury (Hill, 2011, p. 2) is now seen as both a health and social hazard. In the past, if you were able to accumulate adipose tissue you must have been financially able to afford excess food and time to rest. Fat use to be something all the cool kids were doing.
Fast forward years later and America has demonized what it means to be overweight. Individuals feel ashamed when their fit peers observe them taking an escalator or eating fast food. These individuals are often ostracized with questions and must give some sort of explanation as to why they are overweight. They may blame their ‘genetics’ or their ‘metabolisms' when they really shouldn't have to provide an explanation for their appearance. Honestly, I sometimes feel we have magnified the meaning of being overweight to the point where we have created an unsupportive environment. For an individual to make a significant change in their life they need the unconditional love and support of their loved ones.
Not only is being fat bad, but it is also bad to be too thin or too weak. Men had to witness their girlfriend’s arousal to Rambo’s veins throbbing through his biceps while females had to witness their boyfriends adjust their pants to Charlie's Angels fighting crime in their tight leather outfits. We are surrounded by beautiful, talented, and successful people in our magazines, television, cinema, and social media. We are so engulfed in how everyone else appears that we cannot take a minute to step back and realize how fortunate we are.
This rise in wanting to be lean and muscular has been coupled by an increase in going to the gym. From 2000-2015 gym memberships increased from 32.8 million to 55 million (Statista, 2016). Don't get me wrong, this is fantastic! Physical inactivity is a major international problem but it is hard to tell if this increase in gym memberships is helping the problem.
With more people going to the the gym, more people started searching for the perfect exercise routine to perform or diet to consume. At some point, these people realized that running on the treadmill or hopping from machine to machine was not enough to achieve the aesthetic look that they desired. This gave rise to the golden age of broscience.
When we are trying to learn a new skill, we tend to seek out those who are successful at that skill. If you wanted to be a blacksmith, you would find an apprenticeship for a blacksmith. Likewise, if you wanted to start a business, you would probably reach out to someone with experience starting a business.
This holds true in the jungle of the gym. We find the strongest guy or fittest gal and start to soak up as much information as we can. This creates a small army who are all following the same training program, diet, and lifestyle as this gym God. I personally believe that the discovery of anabolic steroids and the growing desire of physical fitness laid the foundation for the notorious figures of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Frank Zane, Franco Columbu, Serge Nubret, and others to meet the attention of the press.
As a zealot of bodybuilding, I find this to be both a good and a bad thing. On one hand, this helped popularize the sport to make many people aware of it today who would have otherwise been clueless as to what bodybuilding is. However, I feel this era began shifting bodybuilding away from its true origins and into a more sexual realm. Seeing figures such as Arnold Schwarzenegger posing with beautiful women forms the association that bodybuilding is sexually attractive. Additionally, having Arnold compare the somatosensory sensations of an increase in intramuscular blood flow to ejaculation did not help this matter (Butler & Fiore, 1977).
I feel this has attracted many male and female competitors to bodybuilding for the wrong reasons. It is upsetting when looking at the prevalence of eating disorders and muscle dysmorphia among physique athletes (Mitchell et al., 2017). I am curious if this is related at all to people being drawn into the sport for inappropriate reasons.
The Quest For Information
Regardless of my personal cynicisms about modern bodybuilding, many people soon became apprentices to the strongest guy of fittest gal at their local gym. The problem with this is that what works for the local prominent gym goer may not work for you. Individuals who are on gear are at an advantage and can train differently than their natty counterparts (Yesalis & Cowart, 1998). Their knowledge of training and nutrition tends to fall into the realm of broscience which is a body of anecdotes and superstitions passed down from generation to generation with little supporting evidence. However, it is worthy to note that many of the followers of broscience have made profound gains using this information. Furthermore, personal anecdotes are a form of evidence; so in a way, 'broscience' is 'evidence-based' after all.
Some people started to challenge the conceptions of broscience and looked for other sources of information. They turned to subscriptions of fitness magazines, surfing the internet, or listening to personal trainers. Still, there seems to be a knowledge gap where information is not coming from one central resource. Magazine articles are/were typically written by competitive physique athletes or celebrities. The information provided stemmed from what they did or what their coaches told them to do. The internet holds more knowledge than any person could ever dream of; unfortunately, sorting the good information from the bad information seems to be where people get in trouble. Lastly, the personal training industry is currently piteous as the field is saturated with inexperienced trainers who are unknowingly taking advantage of their clients.
I would like to emphasize that there are exceptions to the above sources of information. Numerous magazine articles are written by doctors and leading experts in the field of exercise science. The internet holds plenty of scientific journals along with online textbooks and there are plenty of people who have practical interpretations of this academic information that they discuss on their websites, podcasts, or video channels. Finally, there are plenty of personal trainers who are well-educated with years of experience. They strive to help their clients in an ethical manner.
With no reputable resource of information, the evidence-based community began to rise to power. An evidence-based practice is using scientific research, clinical experience, and a patient's personal preferences to provide the best possible treatment (Sackett et al., 1996). Unfortunately, it appears that the evidence-based fitness community has placed a strong emphasis on scientific research and has strayed away from the other two pillars of what constitutes an evidence-based practice.
In many ways, playing with research is like playing with fire as it can be both powerful and dangerous. When people hear that information came from a scientific study, they accept it as fact. Statistics is the grammar of science and the findings of a scientific experiment comes down to rejecting a null hypothesis or failing to reject a null hypothesis. Notice how I said “failing to reject” instead of accepting. This is because a scientist can never be absolutely certain about the outcome of the study.
Additionally, science is open for interpretation and two people can form different opinions from the same study. For example, this study found that there is weak evidence to support the use of parachutes during free fall. Since no randomized trials have ever been conducted on parachutes, those who wish to live an 'evidence-based' lifestyle probably shouldn't use parachutes (Smith & Pell, 2003). I personally choose to look past this study and turn to my friends who have skydived with a parachute and have lived to tell the story. In this example, my friends are the ‘bros’ and I am choosing to follow their 'unscientific' advice.
Fraud is something that has occurred numerous times within the scientific community (Smith, 2006b). Researches may fabricate or falsify data to make a conclusion that adheres to their personal bias or financial situation. A classic example of research gone wrong is Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s paper on the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. His paper showed that receiving the MMR vaccine caused the development of autism and gastrointestinal disease. This study spread panic as many parents choose to not allow their children to receive the vaccine. With less of the population vaccinated, more incidences of measles occurred (Burgess et al., 2006).
Wakefield’s paper never received support from the scientific community and was later retracted. The data was fabricated and no future publication could support his findings (Godlee et al., 2011).
Another example would be Dr. Oz advocating for his fans to take green coffee bean extract. Being the ‘scholarly’ and ‘honest’ doctor that he is, he cited a study that showed green coffee extract to help people lose a significant amount of fat (Vinson et al., 2014). This study was funded by the Applied Food Sciences and was seriously flawed in many ways. The Federal Trade Commission later released a statement saying:
“As detailed below, during and after the trial, the principal investigator repeatedly: (1) altered the weights and other key measurements of the subjects; (2) changed the length of the trial; and (3) confused which subjects took either the placebo or GCA at various points during the trial” (Tucci & Campbell, 2014).
Most recently, Michael Dansinger lead a study out of Tufts University on how the Atkins, Zone, Weight Watchers, and Ornish diets affect cholesterol levels. The journal reviewing the study rejected the article and choose not to publish it (Laine, 2016). This is the peer review process of evaluating work to determine its quality and reliability. One of the doctors on the peer review committee, Carmine Finelli, chose to copy Dansinger and colleagues work and republish it as his own (Finelli et al., 2016).
There are major distressing problems in the research community and I have only provided a couple examples to help support my case. Instead of discussing these problems at length, I would like to summarize them and direct you to resources to learn more.
Peer review is not accomplishing what it is suppose to (Smith, 2006a).
Scientists need their data to be published (Gasparyan et al., 2016).
P-values indicate the significance of a study. P-hacking data is a thing (Head, Holman, Lanfear, Kahn, & Jennions, 2015).
Studies are not being replicated (Begley & Ioannidis, 2014).
Companies are willing to fund studies on their own products (Moynihan, 2003).
Yes, fraud is a problem in academic research but it is something that has been recognized and is being worked on (Smith, 2006b).
The Abstract Scientist
The abstract scientist is a term that I first heard from Dr. Layne Norton. Many people don’t realize how expensive and difficult conducting research is. Every study is submitted to some type of journal for publication. Popular journals include: The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, The American Journal of Sport Medicine, British Medical Journal, and The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. There are hundreds of these journals out there.
These journals work like a magazine. They will charge a monthly or annual subscription fee and you will receive their research articles in return. Each journal will cost several hundreds of dollars to subscribe to. For example, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research charges $383.00 per year.
Luckily, universities will subscribe to many of these journals and provide them to their students and faculty. But, what does everyone else do?
No matter where the study was originally published you should be able to find an abstract online. An abstract is a brief summary of the study that explains the purpose and conclusion of the paper. So, we have a great deal of people in our evidence-based camp who only read abstracts and feel it is equivalent to reading the whole paper. This is simply not the case and not reading the full manuscript can lead to major misinterpretations.
In the evidence-based fitness community, some people will attempt to read a study without having the education and experience to properly interpret the results. It takes time to develop these skills when conducting research. Not only do you need to be familiar with a great deal of the jargon presented in these studies, but you also need a high level of critical thinking. A good scientist will find themselves asking questions that are not discussed in the paper, or reaching a conclusion that differs from the authors.
I do not want to steer anyone away from reading research as I feel anyone who is interested in learning should be allowed to learn. I am merely providing a warning that it is easy to overlook certain things in a study. Although a formal education in this field is not necessary, it is helpful for anyone who wants to read and comprehend research. I am aware of some highly intelligent individuals who have self-educated themselves to be able to understand these studies. It should be noted that these individuals have a career in the fitness field and have invested a great deal of time to get to where they are today. Someone with a career in an unrelated field may struggle to reach this level of knowledge mainly due to a lack of time.
Lack of Diversity
Like anything else, the evidence-based community follows a top-down system. There are people at the top who are considered the Gods. They are on the front lines conducting research and sharing their findings with anyone who will listen. Below the Gods are the demigods who take this information and help communicate it with the masses. The demigods tend to be trainers and fitness icons who have larger followings than the researchers themselves. At the bottom of the system is version 2.0 of the bro. These are the masses who blindly follow advice passed down from this system to structure their training and nutritional regimens.
I will not refer to any of the scientists in this inner circle by name. I deeply respect their work and have the same goal of sharing information to the public. My intention is not to criticize these researchers but to show some people that they are learning from a small group of like-minded individuals.
There are thousands of people conducting research in the field of exercise science. Being familiar with no more than ten of these individuals should be a warning that something is not right. Many less known scientists have views that differ from what is being passed down in this system. I enjoy my conversations with these scientists and love to hear their critiques on popular papers. I am not saying that the researchers at the top of the system are wrong in anyway. I am simply making the argument that it is good to learn from a variety of people.
This is the how the evidence-based community became the new broscience. By becoming overly confident in the latest scientific findings, people have become arrogant, thinking that they know everything they need to know. The majority of the people in the evidence-based community do not have the expertise and capabilities to read and critique a study. This results in them gravitating towards those with the educational background to synthesize research. They listen to what successful, educated people tell them to do and accept it as fact.
How is this any different from listening to the strongest guy or fittest gal at the gym? Science is an evolving field. Many of the things that we use to believe are now falsified. Remember, we are the same species who once thought that the world was flat.
One of the major goals of broscience is to stay ahead of the research. Since conducting research is a timely and expensive process, if we are always waiting for significant scientific support to structure our training and nutrition, we will always be behind. The bro has been ahead of research in many ways including advocating for high protein diets at a time when scientists believed that a high protein diet could cause renal damage (Lentine & Wrone, 2004).
Too often do people think of the bro as the meathead grunting in the gym everyday from 2:00pm to 4:00pm. I would like to counter that these meatheads have developed an insane work ethic. Not too many people prepare all of their food in tupperware containers, go to the gym everyday, and eat every two hours. To keep this high frequency of protein feedings it is not uncommon for a bro to wake up in the middle of the night to grab a protein shake. Don’t forget, most of the times the bro is not a professional athlete and is dedicating all of this time on sculpting their physique on top of working a full-time job and possibly raising a family.
At the end of the day, I don’t know how much better off the evidence-based fitness community is from broscience. Both communities have their advantages and disadvantages. Broscience does have this feel of hard work and dedication that may lead to superior progress than someone who is following a more scientific approach. For anyone who wants to get as big and strong as possible, my best advice is to eat well and train hard for the next twenty years. By the end of that time period, I am not too sure if the differences between the groups will reach statistical significance.
I do not mean to come across as some lunatic who thinks science is fake and that we should stop spending our time and money in research. Nor am I trying to convince you that scientific authors are fraudulent and acting in their own personal interest. I myself spend a great deal of free time reading scientific studies. Some of this is for work, some is for my education, and some relates to my own personal fitness and academic goals. I hold a great deal of respect for any professional producing content in the field of exercise science. In fact, I plan to pursue a doctorates in this field where I can conduct research and help make new discoveries. This article is written to help those with less familiarity in the field realize that it has its own limitations.
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