Do It Because It Works: Why Everything Old is New Again

To help you find your spark, I will seek out some of the best minds on the cutting edge of fitness to share their wisdom. That starts today with this post from fitness star John Romaniello. - Arnold

By John Romaniello

One of the interesting things about the fitness industry is that, like fashion, trends come and go, only to resurface years later; in this way, bodybuilding and bellbottoms are fairly similar—people look back on them with bemused nostalgia, and wonder how they ever thought it was a good idea in the first place.

For the past few years, bodybuilding and its training methods have been on wrong side of the trend, to the extent that there has been a significant amount of negative sentiment. This in itself is bad enough, but the more unfortunate thing about bodybuilding-hatred is that it occurs for all the wrong reasons.

In this article, you’ll see the reasons the training methods of bodybuilders have been discarded and ridiculed by the general fitness industry—and the reasons those methods must return. The pendulum has begun to swing back, and what is old will be new again.

Once Upon a Time, Results Were All That Mattered

In the Golden Age of bodybuilding, Arnold and his contemporaries were interested in results, and only results. That, I think, is the biggest thing we can say for the guiding philosophy behind the training methods of those days—they did things that worked, simply because they worked.

Figuring out what worked—and what didn’t—was the driving force that pushed the entire understanding of training forward. Over the course of months or years, methods, systems and programs emerged.

The mindset was simple: If it could possibly yield results, it was worth testing; after a while, the ideas were either incorporated into the overarching umbrella philosophy of what was effective, or discarded altogether. All that mattered was that it worked.

For better or worse, that was not to last.

Raw Deal: Research Takes Center Stage, Bodybuilders Fall to the Wayside

In many ways, bodybuilders of that era did not differ very much from many coaches and trainers of today: We develop theories based on existing evidence, test these hypotheses on our clients, and observe the results; however, the difference between the fitness industry now and during the Golden Age is the focus on and impact of scientific research.

This is important because it demonstrates a very clear shift in the collective mindset of strength culture: it’s no longer enough to know that things work; it’s become far more important to know why they work. Unfortunately, this has proven it to be a double-edged sword.

Before going any further, let me just say that I think that the shift to wanting to know the how and why—not just the what—is a good one: it fosters questioning, and should foster critical thinking. I see great value in research; the ability to test the gym-generated theories in a controlled environment helps us see what works, and sometimes tweak it to make it work better.

This should help the industry at large…but, for all the good the focus on studies and lab testing has done, there has also been a fair bit of harm. Over the course of the past two decades, research has gained an almost deific status, and studies are considered by many to be the final word on any issue.

All of this has led to an unforeseen consequence: being blind to everything else.

In a very real sense, it became almost en vogue to publicly tear down methods or theories that hadn’t been proven in a controlled academic environment. Science zealots were so intent on upbraiding anyone dolling out the "conventional bodybuilding wisdom" of the Golden Age that they lost sight of something: a lot of it worked.

This is an important concept: In many cases, the gym is a bit ahead of the lab; just because there aren't seven studies backing something up doesn't mean it doesn't work.

Again, studies are important—the issue isn’t the desire to base things on or prove things with research; the issue is that when only one stream of information is willingly incorporated into the viewpoint, any potential for growth and change will be severely limited.

Let’s take a look at where this has led.

Collateral Damage: The Rise (and Fall) of Broscience

Eventually, the growing dependence on research as the sole marker of both credibility and efficacy reached its tipping point, and bled its way into the general culture of fitness: It became “cool” to make fun of a number of ideas that bodybuilders touted as fact. And so it was that the term “Broscience” came into being, and was entered into the zeitgeist.

In the interest of clarity, a definition: Broscience is a term applied to claims or reasoning based on (potentially flawed) logic instead of evidence that has been proven in an academic setting. While this is not a new term (the first online usage that I have found is dated November of 2001) Broscience has only really become part of the common fitness vernacular over the past four or five years.

The pendulum has swung to the extent that Broscience is an insult, and is hurled at anyone who makes claims or assertions that they can’t immediately back up with citations.

To take a moderate viewpoint, I believe that Broscience is really just observation paired with rationalization: A phenomenon is observed, and then an argument is proposed for its occurrence; reasoning is backwards-engineered from the result. Sometimes, of course, that reasoning will be flawed—but flawed reasoning does not invalidate the result.

This is something that the fitness industry is finally being forced to admit.

True Lies: Research Vindicates Bro-Science

Judging the past by the standard of the present, Arnold and his crew were certified Broscientists, in the sense that nothing they did was scientifically validated, and they just used observation.

As previously alluded to, many of the claims or recommendations that came out of that era are considered to be false, and this has tainted the ones that we can consistently observe to be true, at least in the sense that they work.

This is changing, however; ironically, because science is now telling us that Arnold knew what he was doing. We now have research showing that bodybuilders were right; more interestingly, that even when they were wrong, they weren’t necessarily far off the mark.

Let’s look one of the hallmarks of traditional bodybuilding workouts: selective hypertrophy.

As early as the 1950’s, bodybuilders have been staunch in the notion that varying exercises and body positions can target distinct areas of individual muscles, preferentially recruiting fibers of a specific area during the movements. For close to 20 years, though, you've been told not to do that simply because there wasn’t research to back it up.

It seems, unfortunately, that being pro-research seems to have meant being anti-bodybuilding.

For example, because it hadn’t been exhaustively concluded that incline pressing worked the clavicular head of the pectoralis, the very idea was considered foolish; study-dependent coaches maintained that muscles fibers run the entire length from origin to insertion and are activated by single nerves, and as a result not possible to preferentially recruit specific areas. Of course, that is possible, as every bodybuilder in history has known.

And now, research is clearly showing that some coaches and scientists owe those bodybuilders an apology. In a review paper written in 2000, Dr. Jose Antonio began to dispel the misconceptions, and demonstrated clearly that you could target areas of specific muscles.

In the time since that paper was published, significantly more research substantiating Antonio's position has emerged.  This information is finally working it’s way into the public eye of the fitness industry, thanks in no small part of a group of fantastic coaches who are doing their best to get the information out there.

One such coach is Bret Contreras, who regularly contributes to the largest bodybuilding magazines in the world. In a recent presentation, Bret said,

“It is now readily apparent in the literature that all muscle groups…contain functional subdivisions which are preferentially activated during different movements…recent research has showed that altering body position such as foot placement …can target different areas of muscles. Bodybuilders were right all along; it just took research some time to catch up to their wisdom. “

Contreras’ assertion makes clear the fact that it’s time to revisit a lot of what we consider myths, and, with a critical but open mind, evaluate if we were not wrong in dismissing them for lack of evidence.

The Next Step: Total Recall

After a long enough time, old is new again, and it’s very clear that with the research backing up claims of what had long been observed to be true, bodybuilding training methodologies are going to come back with a vengeance, and take the world of general fitness by storm.

Of course, this type of training has never gone away completely; there are a number of fantastic, high level trainers who rely on many types of training that haven’t been backed by a mountain of studies; or who simply don’t read the studies because they just care about progress.

However, instead of just a few open-minded coaches making recommendation, the entire culture will pivot, and you’ll see recommendations for angled biceps curls, calf programs with specification on varying foot positioning, and even articles about new exercises to isolate parts your forearm; it’s all fair game.

Closing Thoughts

While research studies are certainly important, I am of the opinion that getting results is at least as important as understanding the exactitudes of the why they occur.

This is perfectly summarized by Tim Ferriss, who in the introduction to his bestseller, the 4-Hour Body, writes, “Everything in this book works, but I have surely gotten some of the mechanisms completely wrong.”

Like Arnold, Ferriss understands that it is height of folly to dismiss things that work for the sole reason that we don't understand exactly why they are effective, because the very simple truth is that even if the understanding of the process is incomplete, if something works it should be used.

Bodybuilders have been exonerated, and it's time to at least consider: if they were right about selective hypertrophy…what else could they have been right about?

This question will lead to a resurgence of not only bodybuilding training, but also a renewed interest in and elevation of the bodybuilders of the Golden Age, who will once again begin to shape the fitness community.

And that, of course, starts with Arnold.

The man who is responsible for so much of the initial growth of the industry is once again taking strides to help people, and part of that is fostering a general sense of open-mindedness and acceptance within the culture of health and fitness.

Which is why this article, on this new site, is so important—this is the beginning. If everything old is to be new again, it will start here.


John Romaniello is an angel investor, the author of two upcoming books with HarperCollins, and the founder of Roman Fitness Systems, a training and online coaching company based in NYC. Romaniello regularly works with all types of clients, from youth athletes to social media moguls.

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