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The Pros & Cons of Evidence-Based Fitness Coaching

The Pros & Cons of Evidence-Based Fitness Coaching

Should we accept scientific research as immutable law or throw away capital T truths altogether? I propose a more nuanced approach

Evidence-based coaching has significantly shifted the direction of fitness over the past few decades. With evidence-based pioneers like Charles Poliquin in individualization, Paul Chek with his holistic, 360-degree approach, and James Fitzgerald breaking through to build new ways of thinking in CrossFit, an area where there was no evidence, the evidence-based approach has deeply embedded itself into fitness coaching practices. 

However, as with any paradigm, evidence-based fitness coaching comes with upsides and downsides. In this article, I want to explore those and offer a simple approach to coaching that doesn’t ignore what we know to be true.

What Is Evidence-Based? 

Evidence-based coaching involves making informed decisions and crafting prescriptions based on the best available scientific research. At its essence, it’s an effort to find an empirical truth in a fitness culture often marred by fleeting trends and entertaining prescriptions. This is a good starting point in a world where many believe There is no such thing as truth and that truth is relative. This claim doesn’t meet its own standard: “there is no truth” is a truth claim itself. It claims to be true that there is no truth! It’s like saying, “I can’t speak a word in English.” It violates the law of non-contradiction, so it can’t be true. So, truth does exist; we just have to do the work to find it.

The next question is: Does all truth come from science? Technically, no. We must remember that while science seeks truths, not all truths stem from science. The very nature of claiming that “all truths arise from science” is philosophical, as that statement cannot be scientifically proven, making it clear that even science needs a philosophical foundation. The goal of science is to prove a truth beyond a reasonable doubt.

Ok, now that we are on the same page that evidence-based coaching is searching for truth, there is such a thing as truth and that the goal of science is to prove truths beyond a reasonable doubt, let’s dig into some upsides and downsides of the concept of evidence-based coaching.

Upsides of Evidence-Based

I’m a huge proponent of using principles. Does this make me evidence-based? Well, kind of. Principles are derived from evidence, whether that evidence was empirical or scientifically researched and confirmed.

Principles are foundational concepts or fundamental truths that are simple. Principles are so foundational that more complex ideas or solutions are built on these principles. An example of a principle that was turned into a more complex and studied topic in fitness is the principle of progressive overload. This states that to make physiological adaptations and improvements in training, an individual must lift more weight, do more sets and/or reps, increase frequency, or increase the duration of their training. This simple principle led to periodization, the idea of phase types, tapering, etc.

With that said, let’s agree that principles are foundational, and an evidence-based approach builds on these foundational principles. 

Some upsides of this approach include:

  1. Informed DecisionMaking: Evidence-based coaching empowers coaches to make informed decisions by drawing from credible scientific studies. This helps coaches move beyond trends and fads, ensuring their strategies have a solid foundation.
  2. Customized Approach: By considering the individuality of each client, evidence-based coaching allows coaches to tailor programs to specific goals, needs, and limitations. This personalized approach enhances the likelihood of success and client satisfaction.
  3. Long-Term Success: Evidence-based practices promote sustainable progress and long-term success. Clients are more likely to adhere to programs that are backed by research, yielding consistent results and reducing the risk of setbacks.
  4. Ethical Responsibility: Coaches have an ethical responsibility to provide safe and effective prescriptions to their clients. Evidence-based coaching ensures that coaches prioritize their clients’ well-being by utilizing methods that have been proven through evidence to be true.
credit: OPEX Fitness

Downsides of Evidence-Based

Going back to the top of this article, remember that I said the goal of identifying truths was to prove beyond a reasonable doubt? That is a massive downside of an evidence-based approach. Just because something was true for a sample size of 25 doesn’t mean we would have gotten those same results for an N=250.

Sometimes there can be inherent or malicious bias in a study, and we should always ask ourselves the following questions (and more): Who is it funded by? What was the research design? What methods were used? What was the sample size and randomization? What were the variables? Is there any conflict of interest? Causation or correlation? Has the study been replicated? Those are a lot of considerations and questions, but it shows there’s a lot of opportunity for truth leaks in this process. 

Some other downsides include:

  1. Complexity of Research: Navigating scientific research can be challenging due to its complexity and varying quality. Coaches may find it time-consuming to decipher studies and determine their applicability to individual clients.
  2. Limitations of Research: Not all aspects of coaching can be neatly addressed by scientific studies. Some clients may have unique circumstances that aren’t well-covered in existing research.
  3. Changing Landscape: The fitness industry evolves rapidly, and what is evidence-based today might be outdated tomorrow. Coaches need to strike a balance between established principles and remaining open to new findings.

Which Approach Is Best?

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When considering these upsides and downsides, how should a fitness coach use an evidence-based approach in their coaching practice?

I think the answer lies in balance and pragmatism. While staying updated with scientific literature and integrating evidence-based methods is vital, it’s equally vital not to lose sight of the human element. I always tell our coaches that every client is their own N=1. Each client brings their own set of experiences, preferences, capabilities, effort, resilience and challenges.

Coaches should simplify their approach, using evidence as a guiding light but not as an immutable law. It’s about leveraging scientific insights to inform decisions while staying flexible, intuitive and empathetic to individual needs.

While a powerful concept, evidence-based coaching is not an end but a means to an end. Instead, consider the evidence, follow tried and true principles, meet your clients where they are, understand what success means to each one of your clients and ensure you’re moving them forward in their fitness journeys.

See Carl’s previous “Coaches Corner” column here.

Next week’s column: How To Recession-Proof Your Coaching Practice

Carl Hardwick, CEO of OPEX Fitness & CoachRx, is a strong advocate for bringing honor to the coaching profession and raising the value of all fitness coaches. He lectures frequently about program design, business systems, and building a sustainable coaching career. Follow him on Instagram @hardwickcarl and OPEX Fitness on YouTube

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