Confirmation Bias in Exercise “News”

When explaining the concepts of optimism and pessimism to a child, the typical example is of a glass that is partially filled with water. The optimist is said to see it as half full, the pessimist as half empty. As a way to define these two terms, I guess that’s fine, but I think the more interesting concept is that two people can look at the same situation and choose to see what they had already chosen to see.

This is common in life. I won’t bore you with examples, but if you successfully operated a web browser with enough skill to lead you here, then I’m sure you can think of a few examples of confirmation bias in others. Bonus points if you can think of a few examples where you too were guilty of it.

A photo from Dana Linn Bailey’s IG account, showing her time in the hospital.

I bring this up today, because someone sent me an instagram post with their commentary on it. After reading the comments (both from my peer and from the dreaded comment section), I saw a lot of people using this post as proof of what they already thought long before that post happened.

Dana Linn Bailey is a highly accomplished bodybuilder and powerlifter. She is very lean and very strong and by any reasonable standard is an elite athlete. DLB recently did her first CrossFit workout and afterwards developed a serious condition called Rhabdomyolysis. Essentially, so much muscle was broken down by the workout she performed (High rep GHD sit-ups for time) that her kidneys couldn’t process it all. It’s a very dangerous situation and I’m glad someone with her following was able to increase awareness of the possibility of this happening.

The comments had the predictable reactions. There was a large group that already hated CrossFit using this as an example of how dangerous it is. “The instructors are unqualified”. “CrossFit is a bad workout”. There was another side as well. The group that loves CrossFit took home a different message. “Powerlifting and Bodybuilding don’t build true fitness”. “She’s at the top of these other sports but was humbled by a simple workout”. “Here’s proof that CrossFit is harder than any other fitness sport out there”.

Surprise, surprise in this essay about people choosing to see what they want to see, I think both sides are wrong.

CrossFit requires a two day certification. They offer additional certifications but one can be a CrossFit trainer after two days of work and learning. I think this is not enough time learning. However, I don’t feel like ANY certification exists that qualifies you to be a trainer. I have met many trainers that have a ton of letters behind their name (additional certifications) that I wouldn’t let coach a single person in my gym. Teaching a BootCamp in a local park requires no certification, so at least there is SOME requirement of learning and hands on coaching through CrossFit.

To say that CrossFit is a bad workout or a dangerous workout is disingenuous as well. CrossFit is too broad or a training system to be defined like that. There are absolutely some people teaching CrossFit that are doing a terrible job in my opinion. They’re picking workouts randomly, they’re pushing every workout too hard, they’re not thinking about a logical progression for their trainees. But for every example you can find of this, there are wonderfully qualified instructors that are NOT doing that. I’ve found many gyms online and trainers in person that progress their workouts in a logical fashion. Many use a system of conjugate training with cyclical focus where they train all modalities at once but put a higher emphasis on certain areas at certain times. If you’d like to criticize CrossFit trainers (or any other one domain of trainers) then I would gladly take you into any box gym in America and show you a trainer with a certification you do like that’s doing something dumb.

Ray Williams squatting a weight that would crush your favorite CrossFitter. This isn’t a sign that CrossFit is bad.

For those that used it as an opportunity to tout CrossFit’s superiority to other fitness regimes, I’d question that too. Rich Froning is a many time champion CrossFitter. At his peak he was one of the fittest people in the world and while I’m writing this, I’d imagine that he is doing something that mortals can’t dream of doing. That being said, if we asked him to get under a squat that Ray Williams (a champion Powerlifter) can perform routinely, he would get crushed. Literally. This isn’t an indication that CrossFit is a bad program for strength training. It just indicates that people get good at the things they practice and that includes CrossFitters. Although Dana Linn Bailey is very fit for the sports that she practices, she was not ready for the load of her first CrossFit workout.

I think both sides are missing a valuable lesson here. If you are a fitness instructor, you can’t judge someone’s readiness if you haven’t personally seen it. It’s why at Core Blend, regardless of what someone’s claimed workout history is we progress them slowly. On Joe Defranco’s podcast he had the New York Giants Strength Coach on and he made an interesting point about injuries. He asked the question of if the injury was caused by the workout where the injury occurred or if it was caused by the lack of progression towards it. Does two hours in the sun cause a sunburn? Or is it caused by all of the time not spent in the sun building up to it? Tissues can’t handle a load that they haven’t been conditioned to handle. Looking at an athlete like DLB I can COMPLETELY understand why the instructor let her hop in. Any other first time athlete would have been given a modified workout, but LOOKING at her and knowing her resume I’m sure the instructor thought that she would be fine. Knowing how competitive top level athletes are, I’d imagine that she would have WANTED the more difficult workout (I do not know this. I am assuming).

So what’s my takeaway? Real coaching is hard. It’s a lot more than just yelling “keep going”, “ten seconds left”, “you’ve got this” every few seconds. It is sometimes the job of the trainer to push, it is sometimes the job of the trainer to hold back, and it is always to make sure they can vouch for the progression of an athlete. Never make assumptions about the capabilities of someone based on looks or training history. If someone has a problem going through the progressions that you think are safe because they “are ready for it and want to work”, then explain it to them. If they still balk, then let them go train and get hurt somewhere else. This person isn’t interested in a coach, they just want someone to hold a stop watch while they work out. They don’t need you.

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