Research-based Exercise Prescription Part 1

If you’re a fan of Westerns, you’ve probably seen your fair share of sheriffs, gunslingers, train robbers and cowboys, but another prevailing character is that crafty snakeoil salesman who travels town to town peddling his wares to unsuspecting followers. The strategy was simple: Advocate a miracle product that cures all that ails you, supply said product to the masses, collect and then move on before you overstay your welcome. Now, during this timeframe (i.e., the late 19th Century), this method worked because, for the most part, impartial information regarding medical treatments was scarce. Consequently, word of mouth was all you could rely on. The missing link was the scientific method, which bridges the gap between subjectivity and objectivity by providing inquiry-based empirical evidence that can be definitively measured. Once this form of analysis became front and center, the snakeoil salesman bit the dust.

It is safe to say that when you visit your doctor, the diplomas on the wall imply that he/she respects the scientific method and will only prescribe a course of action according to what unbiased inquiry has proven effective and safe. But what about when you speak to your trainer at the gym? I sincerely believe that physical activity can be as potent as any pharmaceutical known to man when it comes to prevention and treatment of many of the debilitating conditions that compromise our health, but there is a huge caveat attached to this statement. Much like a drug that your doctor advocates, exercise must be prescribed according to tenets that have stood the scrutiny of scientific investigation. If not, those calling the shots in the gym are no better than that sneaky snakeoil salesman who went the way of the horse and wagon back in the day.

When I began training with weights in the mid ‘70s, the importance of this form of exercise with respect to painting the picture of optimal health was far less recognized. Indeed, at this point, instead of the many benefits that could be realized from regular resistance training, there was far more emphasis on how this type of exercise could cause harm. Specifically, athletes and children were warned to avoid it at all costs lest risk the scourge of becoming “muscle bound” and having growth stunted. And for a woman it was even worse because it might make you look like a man! Needless to say, none of these beliefs had been confirmed objectively nor could they be because as we now know, they are false. However, they were still widely believed simply because objective information was scarce. Case in point, I constructed my first weight training program according to what was depicted on a wall poster that accompanied my first weight set and I refined it based on what I learned from a paperback entitled Complete Weight Training Book by Bill Reynolds. Who was Bill Reynolds and what means of evaluation did he use to determine the methods he was advocating? I hadn’t a clue, but the book had a catchy cover and was sold at Herman’s Sporting Goods, so what it contained must have been correct, right? Imagine a physician prescribing a drug with such caprice!

Things have changed quite a bit since I pumped my first iron and the benefits of appropriately-designed resistance training programs are now well established. However, the scrutiny required to determine exactly what “appropriately designed” conveys is still lacking. Now, rest assured, unlike in the past, the scientific method is used extensively to assess many aspects of resistance training in an attempt to make exercise prescription a precise, unbiased science. Indeed, every month, peer-reviewed articles that reveal findings which are essential for informing the process of resistance-training program development are published. But unlike the medical doctor who has an ethical obligation to respect science when prescribing treatment, those who lead in the exercise community are bound by no such standard. Consequently, many common methods that are widely advocated and, therefore, routinely practiced are supported by little more than hearsay.

Snakeoil was pitched for monetary gain and the same can be said for many of the unsupported practices that are advocated in the weight room. To understand why this is the case, consider an analogy that I use to impress upon my students the need for exercise professionals to respect science. Imagine an entrepreneur whose goal is to strike it rich in the wheel-making industry. Well, the wheel as we know it has been around for quite a while and it’s safe to say that simply marketing it in its current incarnation would not provide a means to that end. So, the alternative is to develop a novel version and sell people on the notion that it is superior. Hence, creation of the square wheel! However, this plan would ultimately fail because no matter how persuasive the pitch, once people bought the new version, word would spread quickly that it simply didn’t work. And from there, the law of supply and demand would do the rest. Now, back to exercise: Unlike a wheel’s function, the degree to which an exercise regimen might be superior (or inferior, for that matter) is far more difficult to evaluate at least over the short term. Consequently, the potential exists for significant monetary gain from creating square-wheel training methods that can be peddled to the masses. 

This article was originally published in New Living Magazine, which can be accessed on-line at




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