Monday, June 3, 2013

Independent Verification

Deliberate Statistical Flaws discussed the "6 Worthless Exercises..." article, which is re-linked here, as Yahoo replaced the original link with a blurb and a video. (As we go through this, any fans of Heiress Arianna may take note that the Huffington Post's link-laden site partnered with the original article.)

Crunches as Crucible

The statistical flaws are, as the title stated, deliberate. Part 1 discussed the effectiveness of using insults as a marketing technique. The entire original article that followed the opening insults is erroneous, and, like Dubya or Bono, exemplifies pop media. By dissecting even a brief, stupid, online article about exercise tips, we can isolate and identify the same kinds of strains that infect much larger things. We'll begin with crunches v. planks.

There's the shot, from the article, of the people doing crunches, right? Here's the companion text on crunches:
This gym-class standard needs an update: According to research from San Diego State University, the traditional crunch is the least effective strengthener for both the rectus abdominus (6-pack muscles) and the obliques (waist muscles). What’s more, because sit-ups require more strength from front ab muscles than obliques, this move can create a strength imbalance in the core—setting you up for back problems.

What do we have here? The most basic form of the message being communicated here is "CRUNCHES UNGOOD," or, "crunches are bad." Many relevant things could be said about that paragraph's thesis, and many more relevant ones about the details that develop the thesis--firstly, though, we'll look at the statement more elementally.

Like most news, the article is abjectly false, not only because of the conclusions it draws or the rationalizations it relies upon, but to its core. Look at those people up there again, lying on the mats in their bright clothing; smiling vaguely forward; bodies stretched out; legs down or bent, offscreen feet on the floor...they are doing sit-ups, not crunches. Those are not crunches, yet the entire purpose of that segment is to compare crunches to something else.

What should we do about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction? How will we address the shortfall in Social Security funds? How should we respond to the destruction of building 7 by Muslim extremists?

Open yourself to the idea that almost everything they produce and promote to inform and entertain you is untrue. Not just the big, but the little, and the in-between. Almost everything. You don't need a conspiracy to create a conspiracy. The people who wrote the article; the seven or eight experts who were quoted in it; the dozens of staff members and physiology grad students who failed the MCAT and ended up doing post-docs for fitness companies instead to create the justifying research; the photographers; the actors; the ad reps who coordinated link placement on the side of the original article page: how many of them thought, "I'm going to screw people over and make a few bucks by lying about sit-ups versus crunches"?

Probably none. And yet, here we are, right? We invaded Iraq, building 7 collapsed without being crashed into or having any jet fuel on it, and there never was a designated Social Security fund. This is what it looks like, and this is how it feels. Let's talk about how it gets done.

Early Sit-ups

The exercise known as the "sit-up" involves lying down, then sitting up. When the idea of "exercise" was introduced to sedentary post-industrial populations, these people had difficulty dealing with gravity and flexibility, so the sit-up evolved to involve bent legs: the standard modern sit-up is where you lie on the floor on your back, bend your knees with your knees facing roughly upward, and keep your feet on the floor. You then sit up, elevating your upper half until it is perpendicular to the floor, creating what would be a ninety degree angle between your upper and lower halves were your legs not bent to accommodate for a lack of strength and flexibility.

That's the standard, modern sit-up. Pull away from the computer and give one a try. Really, give one a try, just to keep the feeling of it in your mind. There will be lots of try-giving today. Try-giving is independent verification; it is commonality; it is the idea that by doing something yourself, you can feel and understand it, rather than relying on faceless, distant experts to provide you with authority that You, Peon, Are Too Dumb To Verify, e.g., prophecy.

The sit-up has evolved a lot over the course of post-industrial, then post-modern fitness merchandising. People came up with the idea of having a workout partner brace your feet, so that you could do an old-fashioned sit-up, beginning by lying completely flat on the floor, without having the strength, balance, flexibility, and coordination to complete the repetition yourself--but also without having to bend your knees in a concession to sedentary modernity. Ergo people would do sit-ups lying flat on their backs, legs straight, toes pointed down, and having a partner pin their feet to the ground. This provided resistance to the top of the foot, giving the rest of the body a pivot point from which to brace against while sitting up.

If you don't have a partner, you can try the assisted sit-up using the "I don't know anyone at the gym" routine popular in western Europe and America in the 1960s through the 1980s: lie flat on the floor, legs straight, toes pointed down, and find a piece of furniture to be your partner. Use the underside of the back of the couch to brace your feet, so that you can do an assisted sit-up.

To make a sit-up harder, gym rats used to add a little more weight to the movement by winging their arms alongside their heads, rather than leaving the arms lying flat on the floor. When sedentary exercisers began doing modern sit-ups and assisted sit-ups, they began to cheat in harmful ways--not only by creating the "modern" and "assisted" variations, but by mimicking the winged arm positions and using the cupped hands to pull at the back of the head. Pulling at the back of the head doesn't reduce the weight that the body is bringing up during the sit-up--instead, it harms the neck, and allows micro-rests during the movement that make it less effective.

With proper discipline, cupping the head to reduce neck involvement in the sitting-up motion can be a safe, effective way of isolating core muscles, and can guide the neck into relaxing. However, it takes most people years to develop the discipline to not tug at the head while going up, and to only use the cupped hands to provide a barrier against descent, without pushing "up" on the head even the tiniest fraction.

To counter this trend of morons yanking on their heads, fitness professionals began instructing people to do modern and assisted sit-ups with crossed arms: instead of winging the arms alongside the head, people would "trick" themselves into not pulling on their heads by crossing their arms over their chests and hugging their shoulders. This provides less of a weight to the core during the rising phase of the sit-up, and fails to teach enduring discipline of movement, but it seemed, to a swelling community of poorly- or never-disciplined, certified trainers (or to those who were training impatient children, itinerant elders, or fleshy yuppies), to be an effective compromise that would stop their students from yanking on their necks.

Let's sum up what we've covered in this part: we've looked at the traditional, actual, completely literal sit-up, where you lie flat on the floor and sit up. If we're good at those, we can wing our arms alongside our head during the repetitions, to add a tiny bit more weight. If we're not good at them, and we have a friend (or some furniture), we can do the assisted sit-up, bracing our feet on the floor, or we can make it even easier by bending our knees and doing the modern sit-up. If we're just starting out, or don't trust ourselves, we can do any of the above while crossing our arms over our chests.

Give all of those a try another time. The real one will probably feel weird if you've done any exercises at all during the past thirty years, since much professional fitness from 1980 to post-2000 involved reducing range of movement and muscle involvement, breaking down exercises into tinier and tinier, sillier and sillier component-parts, while the old-fashioned sit-up is a complete exercise involving much more of the body. This trend, which grew out of industrialism, was based on the idea that iron, steel, then plastic, "exercise machines" could be built that would be superior to anything else. These expensive machines created the franchise gyms, snobby lifters, professionalized "trainers," surreal isolation, and long-term bodily damage of modern "fitness." Learning to build, maintain, replace, and use these machines required specialized knowledge, built up tribal groups, intimidated newcomers, arrogantly invigorated the experienced, and cast aspersions on those who "tried" to stay healthy and use their bodies without professional advice. All of the bullshit that happened in religion, science, politics, art, and education happened also in the fitness world. $90 spandex biking suits, $35 pilates classes, aquacize at 3:30PM, et cetera. Fractals, people. The verse always looks like itself.

The Death of the Sit-Up

Give all of those another try: (1) The original sit-up. (2) The modern (bent knee) sit-up. (3) The assisted (furniture if no partner available) sit-up. Then try the modern sit-up with your arms crossed into an X over your chest, hugging your shoulders. Then, lace your hands behind your head, and try a modern sit-up while tugging, just a little, on your head. Don't hurt yourself--you're only tugging the tiniest bit, so that you can imagine what it would be like if you were really tired, your abs gave out, and you were so stupid that you actually tried to pull your head up to your knees, fifty times in a row, using your arms alone, for three years. Feel the way it affects all the stuff in there, and remind yourself never to do it for real.

You'll notice something else when you do any version of the sit-up: the motion doesn't just utilize your abs, but to a large extent, your hip flexors. Your abdominal muscles play a part in curling the upper body, but your hip flexors (and other little stuff in the pictured area) are doing the bulk of the work, pulling your upper half up to the perpendicular position.

This is a good thing. The hip flexors (and associated goodies) should possess strength, endurance, and flexibility. They're part of the integrated system that moves the body. For 1980s America, though, as celebrities started to want to demonstrate their version of physical fitness, the hip flexors became an enemy. Who wanted to waste time on hip flexors when you were supposed to be developing toned abs? The sit-up had to go. Experts began developing workout routines and diets to specifically target the abdominal region (which works about as well as deliberately-systematically-ignorant policies in the rest of the verse), and when they figured out, a few years later, that all forms of the sit-up were targeting more than the abdominal muscles, the sit-up became the enemy.

Unfortunately for the new fitness experts, people had spent a half century thinking that the sit-up was for strengthening the midsection. Ergo variations on the sit-up were developed--the modern and assisted variation, and different cutesy arm positions, to make "your" brand of sit-up seem to be better than the other brands.

If you didn't catch the feeling of your hip flexor area working when you tried the stuff before, give it another try, and think about that area tensing as you sit up. If you're not accustomed to sensing what your body is doing, putting your fingertips on the skin immediately above the place in question can help the neurons focus, and help you feel the tension caused by the attempt to sit up.

Rise of the Crunch

What would replace the sit-up, in a culture attempting to develop inner sickness beneath outer dazzle? The crunch. In the crunch, you lay on your back on the floor, but you don't lay your legs down. Instead, your back is flat on the ground, your thighs are perpendicular to the ground, and your legs from the knees-down dangle, roughly parallel to the ground, from your ground-perpendicular knees. You then "crunch" by raising your head and shoulders up a little bit.

The "crunch," like so many of the minutely specialized exercises of the machine period, is a focused exercise. It narrows the range of motion of a natural action--sitting up--into a drastically unnatural way. The reduced range of motion takes out of play most of the stabilizer muscles that "larger" exercises involve, thereby focusing the effort on the intended group--in this case, the abdominal muscles. For people trying to get abs, the crunch was a godsend. It cut out all the unnecessary aspects of fitness--like strength, flexibility, endurance, overall health, calorie-burning, and heart rate--and let people just focus on abs.

In that, it was perfectly American; perfectly 1980s; perfectly Reagan and Thatcher and Trump. It was also a really, really good exercise--it's fantastic for abs, and makes for a great component of a core routine. Like all specialized, focused exercises, it should be used as part of an intensive overall program, or as a refinement for someone of years and years experience who is trying to hone specific areas. It isn't inherently bad.

What was bad about the crunch, besides the obvious? Well, it was easy. Specialized, focused, master-level exercises tend to be really easy, because they so limit the range of motion. As a result, they don't contribute much to overall health, making it easy for people to feel fit while doing a bunch of them, yet not actually accomplish anything. Decades of crunches got Americans even fatter, but possibly with strong abs (and abs alone) underneath the layers of flab.

Professionals also discovered that crunches would be done by simply adjusting the head, to appear to be doing them. The crunch is so limited that many people forgot to lift their shoulders off the ground entirely, so crunches became only a neck exercise, involving wiggling and no real abdominal contraction. Worse, people dramatically telegraphed the head movement by jerking on the backs of their heads--the same thing they were doing with sit-ups, but in an even more focused way.

The Value of the Crunch

Lie on your back on the floor, put up the knees, dangle the feet (maybe cross them, if you like), wing your arms, touch your ears with your thumbs, then elevate your head and shoulders. You're not trying to touch your knees with the crunch; you're only trying to bring the abdominal muscles to a contraction while they're supporting the weight of your head and shoulders (that's why the technique is considered focused or specialized, and assigned such an abbreviated name).

Good; normal; et cetera. Problem, though. Did you fishhook? Probably not.

Fishhook? The real crunch is a focusing exercise. Try a normal crunch, or a few of them, and then try a variation: as you raise your shoulders and head, raise your chin, also. Pretend that you have a fishhook stuck into your skull about one skin-inch of length toward your throat. The fishhook is connected, by a taut line, to the ceiling, and being pulled on, so that each time you raise your head and shoulders, your chin goes up, too. Your chin starts out against your chest, but as you raise, it un-curls up. At the apex of the crunch, you're not tilting your skull back against your trapezius like a bad example; you're about halfway there, and your pointed chin is not the highest part of you (your knees are still higher); it is just the highest part of your head and shoulders, leading the way in pursuit of the invisible fishing line. Try it, and you'll notice that the raising of the chin causes a reverse-curling effect of the rear part of the upper skull, subtly adjusting the spine and forcing the abdominal muscles to clench harder. The curling skull also works with the cupped hands to allow you to support your neck up to a zero point, without adding an iota of upward pressure, further isolating the abdominal muscles and reducing neck strain.

No One Does Sit-Ups Anymore

It took quite a while, but we now understand the difference between sit-ups and crunches, right? They're completely different things. We should also understand that there are really good ways, droll normal ways, lazy ways, and really bad ways to do sit-ups and crunches. If you're doing sit-ups properly, they work a large percentage of your body, but not in a difficult, focused way--they're easy, casual calisthenics, done not for making your abs look impressive but for warming up, cooling down, and stretching. Crunches are for honing a very specific part of the abdominal core.

The article used the term "crunches" because that is the term people recognize, but portrayed crunches as sit-ups, because sit-ups look archaic. Like Middle Eastern leaders in headdresses and dark sunglasses, the sit-up is visually spooky and old-fashioned to Americans. For decades, now, no one (in the modern, professional sense of "exercising people") has done sit-ups; they've done crunches. Targeting sit-ups in comparison to planks (the offered "superior" alternative to crunches) makes all the urban legends about bad crunches combine with all the archaic perceptions of abused late-twentieth century sit-ups, into a stew of, "Ahhh I need your expert advice!"

There are as many different ways to do sit-ups, and crunches, as there are people. It is objectively erroneous and insultingly over-simplified to say, "Don't do this exercise," not only when the exercise being negatively targeted is not portrayed properly, but when no guidance is offered as to which form of a highly complex set of (professionally-internally much-contested) variables goes into what that exercise may be considered in any given marketing region or at any given time.

If we're less emotionally invested in concepts of personal fitness than we are in geopolitical relations, it may be easier for us to understand that the fitness article is a racket than to draw the same conclusion about the rest of the corporate media. If, though, you've figured out that the foreign relations product is false, then seeing the same condescending simplifications in fitness may help introduce you to the idea that all the rest of it (even your favorite parts) is part of the same scheme.


Around the same time as the post-industrial exercise machine crap was turning gyms from fitness refuges into whirring spinning-class pool-including minimalls, the powdered drinks, then fad diets, grew in force. Muscle builder, whey, soy, pre-digested, creatine; energy bar, running bar, meal replacement bar, protein bar; energy drink, electrolyte drink, sodium replacement drink, concentration drink, race gummis, race gel packets, recovery packets; carb diet, pasta diet, Atkins diet, seafood diet, primal diet, zone 40/30/30 diet, vegetarian diet, vegan diet, plant-based diet.

And on, and on, and on. Diet salesmen, and the zealots they've ensnared, use the same techniques as job- and terror-alert systems salesmen, Limbaugh-listeners, and certified exercise coaches to push their product: they battle strawmen.

No one does sit-ups anymore. All the professionals switched to crunches, and they're now switching over to a new, exciting fad, that will be entirely different than all the others. When they switch, they switch in the same way that anti-racism fadders switch: by demonizing the last phase. All of the bad stuff about crunches gets highly over-generalized, swirled together with a bunch of forgotten bad stuff about sit-ups (that only old-timers are still bothering to do anyway), and made responsible for All Your Current Problems.

The food people use this technique, also. Plant-based diet advocates now have expert statistics proving that their diet is healthier, and the statistics, like the exercise statistics above, are true: if you compare planks (which are wonderful exercises, and which you should do also) against hyper-fanciful sit-up/crunch mistakes, planks will win every time. If you compare an organic plant-based diet against over-processed, heavily-preserved (often, literally, "fast food"-style) meats, the plant-based diet will look lots better.

The comparisons will have no relevance to reality, though. Of course doing planks and eating organic squash will turn out better on paper than yanking your neck through fifty jerky crunches and eating a Big Mac. Doing 10 planks and eating GMO squash, though, will turn out far worse than doing five hundred proper crunches and having a free range organic egg shake.

The details of expert studies are hidden on purpose. "Experts" become experts so that they no longer have to cite their sources at all, reveal the finer details of the studies they do cite, or ask for independent verifiability from the people who are supposed to believe them. When certifications, licenses, or degrees become more important to a society than subjecting every justification for an argument to question, it is a sign that the substance is no longer there. Classified information is "classified" because there really isn't any proof of anything. You're not smart enough to understand the Latin and/or the math because if you understood it, you'd realize their conclusions about God and/or cosmos are in error. You shouldn't try something at home because your failure might make you question the value of the product or service you should be accepting.

Association with a university, holding a post-graduate degree, having paid your County $185/year for a license, or being part of the President's special committee often makes you more informed, less informed, and less truthful (sic). In fact, the people int he world with the most access to information often seem to be the people doing the most disastrous things. Wars are planned, and countless millions killed, by coteries controlling worldwide networks of trillion-dollar intelligence services. The greatest economists and bankers in the world run the Federal Reserve and the International Monetary Fund, starving and/or immiserating most living humans. Seventy-seven expert personal trainers, medical doctors, and physiology experts at a Research One university cannot identify the difference between sit-ups and crunches (or tell you how to safely perform a bench press, use a pec-deck machine, not use a cable-crossover machine without hurting your back, use a lateral fly machine, or do a pull-up).

Drop The Infotainment

Who has the time, right? And who has the expertise to understand what they're all talking about, anyway? You do. This stuff affects you. There's at least a 99% chance that Muslim terrorists, or even terrorists of any persuasion, have not actually attacked the places where you live, work, and socialize. You know there's not actually a problem with "the economy" because if you go looking, you can see the occasional overly wealthy person; the store filled with so much food that a lot of it is nearing its expiration date; the sturdy young people eager to work at productive jobs. You know something is desperately wrong with the world because you can, if you look hard enough, find real people who will tell you about family members who were killed overseas making $28K a year fighting phantoms in order to keep your neighborhood safe. You can talk to people who have real problems and real pains that are deeper than a 90 minute movie or a 30 minute special report.

Drop the infotainment entirely. Cut off all of the corporate feeds. It is a poison. You can survive with small amounts of poison in you--no, really, you can. You can spend long decades taking a small pill of poison every night, and not feel affected in the slightest. When you go off it, though, something wonderful will happen. You will find yourself more aware of the actual ebb and flow of the world--of yourself, and the places and creatures around you--than the people who are so very, very informed. You will find that you can live without studies, because your body is constantly studying and providing you with evidence and results.

You will find that the news is all the same. The books, and the movies, very--no, exceedingly--rarely, are passable, or even divinely good, but the news has been on repeats for years. The economy is bad, strong, showing signs of weakening, and showing signs of recovering. Young people are too irresponsible and old people are too stuck in their ways. Someone got raped and the rapist is on trial, while someone got murdered and the killer got away. Tensions rise in faraway parts of the world, which may be responsible for troubles at home.

Drop it completely. Stop reading it even to criticize it--letting the poison in, in any form, is still ingesting it. The less you can absorb the better. You will always pick up some of it from the rest of the population, but the less you allow it to spread into you, the closer we all come to healing. You will find that real people, and the feelings they have about the events in their lives, become more interesting--in a way directly meaningful to you.

Remember all of the problems people had when newspapers, then radio, then TV, came out for the first time? They've all come true. We are living in the hell they predicted. And this is how it starts, and this is what it seems; and this is who we are, and this is what will be.

All the seeming cosmopolitan intelligence of turning over your perception of the world-at-large to the great mythmakers is to become less intelligent. Less you. Less your environment. Less the moment. It is all already yours. What you see and feel is real. Don't believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.

Real knowledge is not afraid of inviting you to try it out. It might be wrong, and it might be different for you. That's okay. That's good. That's new knowledge.

Real knowledge doesn't care about credentials, because the substance is what matters, not the messenger. Experience might be relevant, but it's only a decoration.

Statistics are very rarely useful. Statistics are only useful when they are highly scrutinized and exhaustively detailed. Without those details, and the work spent getting to know them intimately, statistics are a curiosity; a piece of cute trivia from a board game in grandmother's attic; meaningless. If someone wants you to make a decision based on statistics, and does not provide you every applicable contour of how the statistics came to be, and invite you to re-verify the statistics yourself, then they are trying to sell you a house using a picture, rather than letting you walk around inside it.

1 comment:

  1. not to nit pick, but my independent verification tells me that organic food mentioned is a bit of a marketing fad - the regular produce is just fine, GM or not :)