Fitness Professionals Fail to Understand Survivorship Bias

So many fitness bloggers and professionals fail to understand survivorship bias. They model their advice around what they see working best for a handful of outliers with little regard for safety, recoverability, or sustainability. In their minds, willpower is the limiting factor, and any failures rest with the individual and not their training protocol. They look for successes as proof their training advice is solid and never question if a safer path would have yielded the same or similar results.

Things get confusing when some of these fitness professionals demonstrate signs of brilliance with their understanding of nutrition or other health topics. But when it comes to resistance training, they fail to question the failures of conventional wisdom as anything more than a failure of the individual.


Photo by Marco Crupi Visual Artist. My readers already know what I think of the “Must Squat” mentality

How the mind of a fitness professional gets warped is understandable. Those that get results will stick around, those that don’t will go away and will be replaced with new clients. Over time, the trainer sees more and more successes, which they believe are in part a result of their expertise. The failures are hidden. The successes are now financially supporting the trainer. Those who can train more often and recover faster are the best customers.

I could go on and on, but I think this is the root of many problems in fitness. Fitness advice is geared towards survivors, not towards reducing the failure rate. Instead of seeking the minimal sustainable dose, the industry pushes recommendations to higher than necessary volumes of exercise. When you question their recommendations, their defense is to point to a handful of survivors as evidence their way works. Failures be damned.

In this post, I use the term “successes” as those that survived the workout protocol used by the outliers.


Add yours

  1. I think this is true of veganism as well. We know not everyone can do it, and that many who try too hard come to harm, but the survivorship bias keeps the successful pushing the naive into attempting it. Not everyone will be able to ever climb Everest or complete a marathon – does everyone still have to try?

  2. Another insightful and well written piece…I couldn’t agree more.

  3. Glenn Whitney

    Sep 5, 2013 — 12:28 pm

    Very, very astute!
    I would say “minimum effective dose” but we may be playing with trivial semantics here…

  4. @Glenn – I go back and forth between “effective” and “sustainable”. When I think back on how bored I was when I first started HIT, a hybrid approach might have been less effective, but more sustainable.

  5. Glenn Whitney

    Sep 5, 2013 — 12:45 pm

    If it’s not effective, does it matter that it’s sustainable?
    Albeit “minimum effective and sustainable dose” is a bit wordy…

  6. @Glenn – You are correct. Effective is the proper word.

  7. This is true of so many things. I can’t even begin to count. And yes, working out is certainly one of them. I’m just trying to think of an area where I end up in the survivor pool. :s

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