What Taleb Got Wrong in Antifragile

Let me start by saying that I loved the new book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, however, there was one point I believe Taleb fell for the survivorship bias he warned us about in Fooled By Randomness.

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

If he only mentioned this once in the book, I would have let it slide, but I think it was repeated three times. Taleb disses machine-based weight training as being less effective than single-rep max lifting. There are a lot of poor assumptions here.

  1. The fact that it appears that those using machines are less muscular than those using weights doesn’t mean that machines are less effective. It could be the application of the use of those machines, nutrition, rest, or some other issue.
  2. Taleb critiques machines because they lack the randomness of a “functional” movement such as the deadlift. But biomechanics aren’t random. Our muscles move in certain paths. When you violate those paths with heavy loads, you risk injury. Now, if your skill requires those movements, then, by all means, train them. However, Taleb’s motivation, like mine, is to just be strong and build muscle. What Taleb isn’t seeing are all the single-rep max lifters that hurt themselves and are no longer working out.
  3. He models his workout after his 60-year-old friend who does a single rep max deadlift weekly. This was the most puzzling part of the book for me. How did Taleb conclude that this method was ideal based on a single survivor point of data? His friend might be brilliant or he might be the Bill Miller (Legg Mason) of exercise.
  4. Taleb equates the deadlift with strength. The same as picking up a rock. Besides strength, the deadlift is also a highly skilled movement. Skill movements require more than 1 lift per week. When your skill level remains static as the weight you are lifting increases, you are increasing your risk of injury. I don’t think there is a single powerlifting coach who would advise their clients to do single rep max lifting every week.
  5. Taleb says it is easy to lift a lot more weight with machines and therefore it forces you into “endless repetitions“. Up until 2010, I felt the exact same way. I still see that 99% of the patrons using weight machines are in the words of Arthur Jonesthrowing weights“. However, the fact that a machine is easier at equal weight and equal tempo doesn’t make it inferior to free-based weights. The key is to slow down the repetition, something that is unsafe to do, especially in the negative portion of a lift, with free weights. By doing repetitions very slowly on machines, you can remove momentum and make the movement more difficult and safer.
  6. Also in the spirit of the book Antifragile, a max lift deadlift doesn’t gain from disorder. If you attempt to lift too much or your focus is slightly off, you can really hurt yourself. Meanwhile, when I do a slow leg press I truly benefit from disorder. I am trying to get all my muscle fibers to fail. With machines, I can still safely lower the weight at the point of muscular failure without risking injury to my joints. You can’t do that with free weights. Machines are Antifragile, not free weights.

I doubt Taleb will ever see this post, but if you are reading this I would encourage you to seek out a High Intensity Training gym and sign up for a workout. You will use machines, you will be humbled and your quest for strength will truly be Antifragile.


Add yours

  1. Along similar lines, I rolled my eyes when he implied that “looking like a bodyguard” would be a defense against someone intent on hurting him.

    Now there’s something to be said for a fit appearance and a strong posture as a defense against being targeted for certain common crime. But Taleb was talking about the threat he worried about as he became more famous.

    Nonetheless, Antifragile, and Taleb are great.

  2. I agree. While free weights are great, this is no reason to deride machines. Each has its place and, used appropriately, both are capable of producing very similar results in terms of muscle development. Elite trainees might benefit more from one or the other but, for most of us, it is just a matter of personal preference.

  3. @Scott – Interest post. Thanks for sharing.

  4. If you want to take Taleb on, he keeps discussions quite aflame on his Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Nassim-Nicholas-Taleb/13012333374?fref=ts

  5. @FB – I thought about doing that, but my point was so minor and more relevant to my audience than his, so I didn’t.

  6. I wonder how Those weight machines found their way inside the gym doors ?

  7. @Dan G – Nice! 🙂

  8. Nassim got it right and especially regarding machines!

  9. I too thought Taleb’s argument was boastful and stupid but after finishing the book I revisited the idea and found it’s not so bad after all. First there were studies to support minimal workout with heavier weight (you can look them up), and second my trainer has told me early on that machines are inferior to free weights because of all the neuromuscular coordination you develop when your body has to mind the many degrees of freedom when free lifting.

    The arguments about injuries don’t hold if you simply lift less when you lift free.

    That said, I do believe that machines may give you bigger muscles, but those muscles will be optimized for machines, not real life. So if you’re a body builder, machines are better; if you want to be strong and agile, free weights are superior. That’s my 2 cents.

    And btw from the personal angle — shortly after Antifragile I switched to lower reps with heavier weights. I do enjoy the workouts so I don’t want to get out of the gym as soon as possible, but I notice I’m lifting heavier than before even though I don’t seem to have gained much more muscle. (Which is better nature-wise — more strength for less bulk.)

  10. @Davor – I don’t think low-reps, high weight is bad. It is my 2nd favorite gym strategy.

    My issue is more with how Taleb arrived at his decision. He used one extreme outlier to define his exercise protocol. He would never do something so foolish with investing.

  11. I wouldn’t say Taleb defined the protocol, as much as he recognized it. He probably watched the guy do enough to conclude he wasn’t a fool. Had a fool been doing the “same thing” instead, Taleb possibly wouldn’t have bought into the idea. And he may have embellished the story, and/or only deciding it’s good after doing it himself for a while.

    This is in spirit of Antifragile: he speaks of two kinds of knowledge, one being formal, structured, academic knowledge, and the other is the kind not easily expressed in words — a myriad little details picked up by our brains that together form in our minds a vague feeling of how something is.

    That said, the idea of a single rep as a recipe may very well be dangerous, because of all the little details (posture, breathing) the observer may have picked up that are left out in the short description.

    What’s my point? I don’t know. Except, don’t put blind faith in structured knowledge and if an idea appeals to you, test it for yourself cautiously and see how it feels for you. Someone once said, you can only believe what you can prove for yourself.

    Thanks for the post though. I found it by looking around for challenges to Antifragile and what Taleb may have gotten wrong.


  12. @Davor – What Taleb might have asked is why there are so few examples of 60 year men that perform single lift maxs that are healthy. Either his friend has stumbled upon the secret or he can’t see the failures. I think the later.

    thanks for the comment.

  13. Innocent bystander

    Feb 16, 2014 — 9:00 pm

    He actually says that he tried to follow the guy’s recipe for a while. This suggests he stopped, or changed the routine at some point. No further details on what happened.

    I agree this is a pretty dangerous approach.

  14. Exercise physiology textbook: All that is required to maintain muscle is a 1x weekly rep at max effort.

    So to me, the basis of this practice is science. Obviously he needs to perform this with good form every time. But it should provide results. For a 60 year mature man, if you are adequately strong there is nothing but risk and downsides to pursuing a hypertrophic routine. For the average 60 year old, they go downhill because “maximum effort” is usually unquantified, their belief in their various activities being a poor substitute.

    But keeping a 1repmax 1x week formula, intuitively, reaches maximum efficiency. No excessive catabolic or anabolic activity. You avoid hypertrophy on one hand and backsliding on the other. That is, you avoid risks to health overtraining or undertraining. You maintain strength which both insures against future catabolism as well as maintains the value of previous work. Its a simple, effective strategy that is very different from the endless treadmill anabolic routine.

    I don’t mind machines, but they do some of the hard work for you (like picking the weight up and putting it down, coordinating, balancing, etc. So it IS a bit lazy. I admit it, when theres a lot of dudes in the gym when I’m there on my weight days I don’t waste extra time waiting, I hit the machines which are usually free.

  15. @J Boogie – If the exercise selected didn’t have a high skill component, I might be more inclined to agree with you, but it doesn’t. It is simply not safe to 1-rep max an exercise that requires perfect form. Your form will get rusty and that can lead to injury when the weight gets high.

    I would include Hammer Strength and other plate loading machines, so not all machines are lazy. 🙂

  16. ” I don’t think there is a single power lifting coach that would advise their clients to do single rep max lifting every week”

    Yeah, unless you’re Louis Simmons

  17. @Face palm – Maybe I could have written that sentence better. Taleb is JUST doing one single rep max per week. Not volume plus going for single rep max. Just one rep.

    According to Bodybuilding.com, here is the Westside protocol.

    Monday (A) – Max-effort lower body (deadlift/squat)
    Wednesday (B) – Max-effort upper body (bench)
    Friday (C) – Dynamic-effort lower body
    Sunday (D) – Dynamic-effort upper body
    Plus one day of training weak points: an hour of various exercises, 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps.

    That is a lot more than 1 single rep per week.

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