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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 that would advise their clients to do single rep max lifting every week.
- 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 Jones “throwing 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.
- 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.