Evidence-based Strength and Conditioning – Is it for real?

Like so many other questions in the Fitness Profession, the answer is “it depends.”

The term “Evidence-based Strength & Conditioning,” or “Evidence-based Fitness Training” is starting to pop up in the Fitness Profession.

Heck, I bet someone is working furiously right now on creating the next big fitness info-product based on the idea.

“6 Weeks to Evidence-based Abs”

“Evidence-based Bicep Blast”

“Evidence-based Buns” (might have to copyright that one myself!)


So what is Evidence-based Strength & Conditioning (EBSC) or Evidence-based Fitness Training?

The idea is based on the concept of evidence-based practice (EBP,) an interdisciplinary approach to improving methods and outcomes in professional fields including medicine, psychology, nursing, dentistry, audiology and speech pathology and even in education.

In health care, it’s defined as “the use of a systematic approach based on evidence, professional reasoning, and patient preferences to improve patient outcomes.” (1, 2)

For Fitness Professionals, then, EBP would mean the application of a systematic approach to improving methods and outcomes through use of latest and proven evidence, professional assessment, reasoning and judgment and the implementation, where appropriate, of client preferences and desires.

Or something like that.

So isn’t that what all fitness professionals do?

Sort of. Maybe. Not really. Sometimes. Let’s look deeper.


Examining EBP, we can surmise that EBSC incorporates three “legs:”

  1. The best available research evidence and knowledge with bearing on why a specific program, idea or training concept works for a particular client/athlete, or in a specific instance. You gotta have real, measurable proof that you can analyze and apply!
  2. Professional expertise (professional judgment and experience) to quickly assess each client’s individual performance levels, dysfunctions and limitations. In addition, to identify the potential risks and benefits of proposed or needed programs or elements relative to the above. You can’t suck at what you do! KNOW YOUR STUFF!
  3. Client preferences and values. In other words, what does your client/athlete want, like and to what do they respond well? News flash! If they hate it, they ain’t likely to do it for long…

Nailing down the first two legs is important. However, if you fail to create something to which your client will not positively respond, you will struggle with repetition and compliance.

Professional expertise, for me, includes a level of intuition (clinical purists would likely contend that intuition is the purview of anecdotal evidence – see below) and a sense of how my client is RIGHT NOW.

Most importantly, I think for EBSC to work, “it depends” on the types and quality of the evidence you use.

For Fitness Professionals, I think there are 3 primary evidence types:

Empirical – Factual evidence which can be proven true or false by analysis, testing and logical review of the evidence within the system in which the empirical evidence was derived.

EXAMPLE – You assess a client or athlete, reviewing history, goals and current exercise and nutrition habits. You create a movement profile based on revealed kinetic chain dysfunctions and movement pattern  deviations. Perhaps you run performance tests (1RM, agility, speed, stabilization or deceleration ratings.)


You create a training and nutrition plan based on your findings. You employ the program, maintaining accountability, consistency and monitoring effort and compliance.

8 weeks later, you perform the same assessment and evaluation protocol originally used and compare results. With everything else being equal, your test results are empirical evidence of the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of your program.

NOTE – In his “Incompleteness Theorem,” Kurt Godel stated “In any given system, there are claims which are true, but which cannot be proven so by evidence within that system.”

Just thought I’d share that to get you thinking…


Circumstantial or collateral – Evidence which points to an empirical conclusion, supporting its validity. Often not enough, on its own, to prove the validity of the empirical, but strong enough to be considered important. Collateral evidence either supports or undermines the source of other evidence. Intuition often meets this criteria (see the quote from Godel above.)

EXAMPLE – You see a really fit person in the gym. He/she is reading a fitness magazine, open to an article about an “8 Week Summer Abs” program. They have great abs.

You, therefore, infer from this that they used this program to acquire said great abs. This is circumstantial evidence, or a “proof” derived from your understanding of the circumstances surrounding what you see. (ps…what you might NOT have seen is the bill for liposuction…just sayin’)


Anecdotal – Based on hearsay rather than hard facts. Often comes from stories or allegories about the results of how things have happened before or the nature of a thing unknown or not well known.

EXAMPLE – Some dude in the gym says “my buddy in Podunk got ripped eating nothing but grass-fed Beaver steaks, doing bench press 3 days a week and doing abs 3 times a day.”

“Did you say Beaver steak?”

This is an anecdote, or story. This is also known as bullshit, guido talk and/or stupidity.

Although, I have to be honest. I’ve never had grass-fed Beaver steak. It might be the fitness-food equivalent of Ambrosia, and just what we need to solve client nutrition issues.

I better get a corner on that, along with the “Evidence-based Buns” and “Evidence-based Abs” programs!

Like I stated earlier, whether EBSC is for real “depends.”

Mostly, it depends on the evidence you use to demonstrate effectiveness.

Of course, it also depends on whether your client thinks your program is boring, repetitive, pointless or just sucky (technical term, careful with that one.)


Here’s my simple, 3 step plan for implementing an Evidence-based Strength & Conditioning plan for your athletes and clients:

Step 1 – KNOW YOUR S%$T! Get educated, for heaven’s sake! You don’t necessarily need a BS (Bull S%$t,) MS (More S%$t) or a PhD (Piled Higher and Deeper) to build a great knowledge base.

To be completely honest, most Ex. Sci. degree holders who come to intern with us are like deer in the headlights (I like venison…stand still) for the first 3 weeks in our place. Real life in the trenches of a real, live S & C facility is nothing like the Ivory Towers they just fell out of. (“Excuse me, how do you test Vo2 Max?”)

I have no problem with someone getting an Ex Sci or related degree (what the heck is Global Health, though? Anyone?) if that’s important to them. However, you can just as easily become expert in this field by starting with a good certification program and interning at a great facility.


You can read. There is tons of stuff available from brilliant people on the internet. For free. Or maybe just cheap. Vladimir Janda. Tudor Bompa. Mark Rippetoe. Dan John. Mike Boyle. Stu McGill. Paul Chek. Eric Cressey. Grey Cook. Mike Clark. Mike Robertson.

Go read those guys, then come see me; there’s more.

Then, you can go out and screw up. Then fix it, screw up again, fix it and repeat until you realize you’re not perfect. Just keep learning along the way.

Did I mention learning? Good. Never stop doing that.

Success! You're on the list.

Step 2 – PAY ATTENTION! For the love of Pete (if your name is Pete, I don’t necessarily love you. Maybe, jury’s probably still out) pay attention!

Assess. Observe. Ask questions (“why” is the most important one you can ask – more in another article.) Re-assess. Observe some more. Ask more questions. Change stuff. Watch how it changes other stuff. Write stuff down. Re-re-assess.


I mentioned intuition earlier. Sensing your clients emotional, intellectual and spiritual condition is so important – and so ignored by many Fitness Professionals! While I’ll be writing extensively about the “4 Pillars of Human Fitness” in the coming months, as well as speaking on it (again,) I want to share a story with you that will illustrate why I believe the clinical purists are missing the point when they assert that intuition is anecdotal.

My client, “A,” is training with me to get ready for her wedding. She wants to look great in her wedding dress, pictures and all the festivities. Her younger sister (“V”) is a competitive figure skater who trained with me coming off of an ACL tear.

V and A came in to train together on a Tuesday morning. They were clearly stressed, especially A.

Through some questioning, they revealed that A’s bachelorette party had gone somewhat awry (something about an evil step-cousin taking over and releasing demons…or something)

The wedding was Sunday. We were supposed to get a hurricane (this is NJ, so we don’t know until the first tree falls on a car) on Sunday. Everyone who was travelling in was doing so on Friday.

She was stressed. Her sister was stressed. We were right down to the “Yes to the dress” wire.


I could have just plowed ahead with a “suck it up, buttercup” approach and pushed them through the workout. But, that, my friend, is not how I roll…

We did some tissue quality work, some mobility work and a little core training. I told them I had a special workout planned.

We did a little “guns” workout. Some lunges, curls, triceps, yada yada.

Then, I told them “I have a special finisher for you today. You’re going to go to the beach. And you’re going to walk. W-A-L-K. That’s it. You can talk about anything except the wedding.

And, I want you to text me a picture of the two of you on the beach. Here’s the picture I got:

Andrea and Viv Mathis

That was exactly the kind of kick-ass cardio finisher they needed (sarcasm implied, sort of.)

By the way; the wedding venue moved the wedding up to Saturday when they heard all the attendees were in town and available. Pretty cool how stuff works out…

Step 3 – Have some damned fun, already! In our profession, we seem to be engaged in either a wee-wee contest to see who has the best abs (butt, whatever,) arguing over which training “system” is the RIGHT one or competing for the 18% of Americans who already have gym memberships.

Here’s a secret. Ready? There is an untapped, ready-to-rock pool of people dying to LIKE, no, LOVE, fitness, wellness and performance training! They’re on the couch, waiting for YOU to stop arguing with all the other “right” Fitness Professionals, stop pulling up your shirt and showing your abs (ooh, shiny!) and give them a fun, sustainable way to get up, get moving and get in our lifestyle!


Play some games. Tell some jokes. Make it fun to make mistakes. Laugh a little. Love them a lot.

Love them. A LOT!

Create programming that meets the evidence you saw by paying attention, is guided by all the s$%t you know and let’s people really have fun with it.

Let them discover movement and how it makes their bodies feel. Just be there to guide them in the right general direction.

Help them explore fitness and movement, expanding their physical and intellectual abilities as they go. Watch as their spirit is renewed and they take on more and more responsibility for their own fitness and wellness.

Be part of their transformation from sedentary couch potato to activated human being!

Along the way, take note of what happens, how it effects your clients/athletes, which parts they like (and vice-versa) and the transformative results. Then check to see if the journey took them closer to, or farther away from, their desired outcomes and goals. Look at the evidence and see what it tells you.


So, is Evidence-based Strength & Conditioning for real?

It depends! It depends on the evidence you choose and how you integrate it. it depends on how deep you’re willing to dive into the realm of wellness, fitness and performance knowledge. It depends on how closely you’re willing to pay attention and how much you’re willing to adapt to meet the needs of your athletes and clients.

In short, the successful use of Evidence-based Strength & Conditioning depends – on YOU!

Be of service.

Galatians 5:13-14

  1. Sackett DL, Rosenberg WM, Gray JA, Haynes RB, and Richardson WS. Evidence based medicine: What it is and what it isn’t. BMJ 312: 71–72, 1996.
  2. Thomas A, Saroyan A, and Dauphinee, WD. Evidence-based practice: A review of theoretical assumptions and effectiveness of teaching and assessment interventions in health professions. Adv Health Sci Educ Theory Pract 16: 253–276, 2011.

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