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Tribute to a Coach

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Many years ago, I experienced leadership and coaching in its purest form. From 1991 to 1996 my life was forever changed by a coach named Phil Emery. Coach Emery was the innovative strength and conditioning coordinator for the United States Naval Academy (USNA) football program. His background as a collegiate football player and coach enabled him to foresee the needs of each trainee. While keeping the needs of the team as a whole in mind, his leadership inspired individual and collective growth.

That growth was fueled by Coach Emery's high expectations and by competitive public benchmarks of performance and progress. The weight room had a "leader board" (much like the whiteboards at CrossFit Santa Cruz), where the top sprint times and bench press, squat, and vertical jump test scores were publicly displayed. A 350-pound bench press or 500-pound squat also earned photo recognition on the weight room wall. A photo on the wall represented more than a number. It indicated commitment and sacrifice. Over the years, Coach Emery's training methods evolved. His mantra of "always gain, never maintain" crushed the status quo. Complacency was unacceptable. Coach Emery's approach to strength and conditioning was an extension of the Naval Academy's mission.


Last year, Lee Smolin published a book with a most provocative title: The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next. This title promises brimstone for the fire of creationism, and that should sell an extra few thousand copies.

If mathematics is the Queen of Science (borrowing from Mathematics: Queen and Servant of Science, a classic by Eric Temple Bell), then physics is the King. It has been the exemplar of science. So, has the revolution begun?

The reviews of The Trouble with Physics tell us that Smolin urges not that string theory arises from the decay of physics but instead that string theory is itself symptomatic of something that is wrong in physics (a sick distant cousin), not with physics (a fatal familial disease). According to the criticism (the most valuable part of reviews), Smolin both spends too much time on string theory and gives it short shrift. Could the latter, though, just be string theorists taking offense, and further evidence of what is wrong in physics?

Video Article!

Retired engineer, scientist, and frequent rest-day discussion participant Jeff Glassman talks with Tony Budding about argument, logic, science, and his reasons for engaging in the rest-day discussions. He lays out the following hierarchy of terms for describing and evaluating the validity of statements and arguments, in order of increasing certainty and validity: A conjecture is essentially a wild guess: "I think x might be true."

A hypothesis adds to a conjecture the requirements that the statement actually fits the known data and makes a prediction about an outcome or outcomes. A theory is a hypothesis for which some significant predicted outcome has been established empirically. A hypothesis becomes a theory when one of its significant predictions has been tested and shown to be true.

A law is a theory for which all the possible predictions and all the ramifications have been tested satisfactorily, to universal acceptance.

Bad Form

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I was driving home the other night, listening to the radio, and the guy filling in for Art Bell on Coast to Coast AM was talking to some other guy about Nazis, UFOs, the Kennedy Assassination, time travel, and George Bush, and how it all relates to OneWorldGovernment. This, of course, made me think about barbell training, and it occurred to me that good form on the barbell exercises should not be a matter for debate.

People should not be entitled to their own opinion about it, any more than they are entitled to an opinion about the value of x in 3x - 10 = 60, or whether the Grays pulled off the Bay of Pigs. Good form (or technique, or kinematics, or whatever you'd like to call doing it right) should depend on the logic of a dispassionate analysis of the body-and- barbell system in the motion required by the exercise, and that's about all. The exercise is chosen to work a particular movement pattern normal to the human skeleton, the bar has a certain path it most efficiently travels through space for the exercise, the skeleton must move in ways defined by its segment lengths and articulation points to enable this bar path, and the muscles must move the skeleton exactly this way. Anything that deviates from this is Bad Form.

Silly Bullshit

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I have been accused of being an asshole on more than one occasion. This is probably due to the fact that I am an asshole, and compounded by the additional fact that I speak my mind rather too easily. I tell you this to provide context for the following remarks, some of which may cause less cynical people to take exception. But here we go.

There is a lot of advice, information, and well understood knowledge regarding the field in which I practice-- strength training and fitness--that is just silly bullshit. Plain old "SB" (to keep from baiting the censors too temptingly). And it comes from numerous sources: chief among them are medical professionals who think that they are also exercise professionals, muscle magazines published specifically for the purpose of perpetuating it, home exercise and weight loss advertisers, Internet fitness sites, the academic exercise people, and the mainstream media, who are the mindless pawns of the others.

Glenn Pendlay and I were talking one evening about the prospects of making a living in the fitness business. He was finishing his masters in exercise physiology and wondering aloud about his options. I was providing the witty repartee and the beer. At the time I had been in the industry in some capacity for 23 years and a gym owner for 17--although any realistic assessment would have to conclude that, if earning lots of money were the criterion, I had not been terribly successful, so we were mainly discussing his situation.

"I don't know if I want to work in this industry," he said. "Why not?" was my insightful, probing response. "Because the general public doesn't know the difference between me and you and the kid at Gold's." "Well, nobody's stupid enough to confuse me with you, but you may have a point about the pinsetter." "You know what I mean." And I did. "The average person trying to make a decision about where to spend their money on a gym membership or personal training has absolutely no way to tell the difference between a coach with our experience and the kid that Gold's certified last weekend."

What Do We Know?

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When Coach Glassman asked me to write for the CrossFit Journal on the science behind CrossFit methodology, I thought that the first thing I should do is discuss the term "science" and some important related concepts.

Science in the broadest sense refers to any system of knowledge attained by verifiable means. A central concept in science and the scientific method is that all evidence must be empirical--that is, it must be based on evidence that is observable by the senses. CrossFit trainers and athletes can certainly observe and measure the response to CrossFit training, but there are few other similarly intense training protocols that we can compare results with. Without this comparison it is difficult to scientifically validate CrossFit methodology. The Canadian military has done that, comparing CrossFit methods with conventional physical training methods (CrossFit Journal issue 41), but more such studies are needed.

The basis of the scientific method is that researchers propose specific hypotheses as explanations of natural phenomena and then design experimental studies to test these predictions for accuracy. But scientists cannot perform experimental studies on humans. In an experimental study all variables are kept constant except the variable of interest. You can do this in chemistry, for example, where everything in a number of solutions is identical except the one element under study. However, it is impossible to do in human populations.


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