What Weight Lifting Should Have Taught Me About Quantified Self

My opinion of Quantified Self has gone from being an enthusiastic supporter to one of extreme skepticism. There is a lure to the narrative that if we collect enough data about ourselves we can be leaner, stronger, faster, and smarter. The problem is we are human and unless the correlation is very strong, the data we collect is not enough to draw meaningful conclusions. And unlike machines, we are always changing, so even if we did find meaningful data, it doesn’t hold true that it will always be of value.

I was recently thinking how Quantified Self is a lot like tracking how much weight you lifted in the gym.

Gaining strength is more than numbers. Instead of rehashing my opinion, I’ll direct those that are interested to the post Reps, Sets and the Weight Aren’t That Important. Chasing numbers whether it is going for personal records, lifting for X number of minutes, or going to the gym a specific number of times per week can be motivating to some, but every time I chased numbers, I always ended up injured. I didn’t listen to how my body was feeling at the moment, I relied on the training logs to tell me how much I should be lifting.

MAS in front of gorlla

A gorilla with a spreadsheet is still a gorilla

I no longer track my workouts. Ditching the training logs has been one of the best fitness decisions I ever made. The fitness bloggers engage in this endless debate on what is the best exercise, training frequency, or rep speed. I believe they are focused in the wrong direction. Pick safe exercises, train intuitively and then rest. Training intuitively means not being married to one volume level or training frequency or rep speed.

In a comment on the post Training to Failure is a Tool I said this:

I don’t believe there is one optimal tempo or volume program that applies to everyone at every stage of their training. There are too many variables. The best tempo is the one that captures your attention to generate the most intensity. For most lifters that will change as we become bored with one flavor of HIT and seek the novelty of something different.

You don’t need a number to quantify intensity. You know it when you feel it.

Intuition Not Quantification

The Quantified Self movement seems noble, but I question if trusting the few points of data we consciously chose to track is making us less trusting of our own intuition?

Intuition is like a muscle that must be exercised, with trust. – Paul Chek

Lest anyone accuse me of being anti-data, I can assure you that is not the case. I love data. I’ve built many database applications. I am fluent in SQL. I once built a reporting system that measured the energy usage of thousands of retail locations and then reported the high usage outliers to technicians.

Having worked with both self-collected data and machine collected data is why I’m highly critical of Quantified Self. Trust yourself. It takes work, but it can be done.


Add yours

  1. Yes, brilliant. Allow me to repeat this:

    The best tempo is the one that captures your attention to generate the most intensity

  2. Stuart Gilbert

    Mar 24, 2014 — 11:07 am

    I think the process that you have gone through on your training journey MAS is akin to what Bruce Lee said about his progress in martial arts, in that when he started a punch was just a punch, as it was in his later, more enlightened and experienced years. However in the intervening period of his development, a punch became much more, something to be explored, over analysed and over complicated.
    I still use a training journal and find it invaluable to me at the moment, while I am on my “journey”. Eventually I hope to perhaps not rely on it so much, and to be able to “freestyle” on “the fly” so to speak, but I’m not that confident yet. At this stage of my ( and other trainees ) journey, I feel that a training log is quite invaluable, as what it does do is help me decide what is right and working ….for me. The danger that many beginners and intermediates face is from the many “influences” out in the training world…all eager to make you part with your money. Combine this with ( as you described ) an individual’s changing body and circumstances, and it is quite conceivable for an easily influenced individual, with no “evidence of success” from his records, to be dragged from one approach to the next, by silver tongued fitness “salesmen”. Having some form of record keeping, makes you slightly more responsible for your own success, and forces you to think for yourself a bit more, rather than blindly following someone else’s approach, which is highly unlikely to be a 100% perfect fit. In that sense, I feel that record keeping is fairly important, until you have reached that state of enlightenment that you are confident enough in your approach, and yourself, that you can do without the “crutch” of written evidence.

  3. @Stuart – I don’t know. As an experiment, I’d encourage you to take 10 weeks off from the record keeping. Pick safe exercises and give intuitive training a try. I don’t think you’ll lose any progress. Going by how you feel at that moment is all that counts.

    Like Paul Chek stated intuition is a muscle. It needs to be trained.

    These days I often will change my rep speed inside a given set. 5 seconds up, 10 seconds down, 30 seconds up, 30 seconds down, 4 seconds up, 20 seconds down. Whatever happens to capture my attention at that moment. That kind of data would be too cumbersome to track and have almost no meaning for analysis.

    Fixing our movements to specific speeds, reps, sets and weights makes for much better analysis. Nut what we are doing here is making our movement more like a machine. One of the downsides to this form of analysis is we get better at the movement regardless of gains in strength. This provides the appearance of excess gains, when they may or may be there.

    The only record keeping that makes sense to me is when someone else does it such as a trainer and that person can successful guide you through a workout without sharing that data during that workout. I don’t care what I can lift, but if my trainer knows and can set the weight, guide the tempo, then I’m no longer quantify myself. I’m letting someone else do it. To me that is more powerful that quantified self, but less powerful than intuitive training.

    At least this is where my mind is at today. This could all change as my journey progresses.

  4. You don’t need a number to quantify intensity. You know it when you feel it.

    This may sound non-intuitive, but perhaps that statement is the ultimate data-driven outcome for exercise. When you train intuitively by intensity your brain receives millions of points of feedback from your body before, during, and after the workout. Getting away from artificial and contrived data (the numbers on a spreadsheet) gives your brain an opportunity to focus on authentic and meaningful data (your body’s feedback on the workout and the sensation of intensity that you seek).

  5. @Geoff – Agreed.

    Also, I do think HIT trainers can teach their clients how to generate intensity they didn’t know they had. Greg Anderson (RIP) certainly did with me.

  6. I agree. Us amateurs need no more, in general, than a modicum of experience that can indeed express itself through intuition.

    However, it must be said that worthwhile intuition is a form of tracking since, otherwise, there is no way to respond to shortcomings with relevant corrections. What I mean is that, whether I write it down or not, I still need to have educated knowledge of what I eat so that if the scale is not going in the direction I want, I can take effective corrective measures.

    In contrast, my sister’s intuition (for example) simply implies random eating.

    The same applies to weightlifting and other aspects of life.

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