Conceptualizing Philosophy in Strength & Conditioning: The Barbell Strategy and Risk

Conceptualizing Philosophy in Strength & Conditioning: The Barbell Strategy and Risk

Guest article by Adriano Arguedas-Soley

In my previous article on the Complementary Training blog, I briefly described the integrative pluralist philosophy in strength and conditioning. We defined an integrative philosophy as an approach that purposely and scientifically draws a combination of theoretical paradigms in practice 1. I discussed how this is an appropriate approach to preparing athletes, particularly in team-sports, where individuals are subjected to a complex range of biological, psychological, mechanical, technical and tactical demands.

Further, given our immature understanding of biological systems in complex domains, such as high-performance sport (which is reflected by the pluralism of methodological representations to address similar problems), our safest bet is to avoid being compelled by reductionist models of practice 2.

A purposely drawn combination.

Having taken time away from my article and re-reading it today, I would like to expand on this line of thinking. More specifically, I would like to place greater emphasis on part of the integrative philosophy definition: “… a purposely drawn combination…”, and to introduce further thought, along the lines of risk mitigation, with the aim of helping coaches to identify the most appropriate theoretical/ methodological combinations for their practice.

What separates the integrative philosophical approach from a randomly jumbled-up mix of methodologies is precisely that, purpose. The outcome of adding every single ingredient in your refrigerator into a blender and trying to make a smoothie is very different from purposely picking the right fruits, yogurt, oats and milk to make a delicious smoothie. The same is true in physical performance, and holistic high-performance models for that matter, where the outcomes of a programme are highly subject to a competently derived combination of training and non-training elements (i.e. the “ingredients”). This is where Charlie Francis’ vertical integration model excels over traditional training organization models, for example. The vast difference between your smoothie and high-performance sport is that identifying the most suitable elements of a training program requires a high degree of critical thought, a strong experiential background, a current risk awareness and a robust professional philosophy.

Perhaps the key to informing practical decision making in high-performance sport programs, as is the case in any complex domain, is the practitioner’s regular evaluation of risk in relation to the potential reward associated with a given decision. Through this process, a practitioner may engineer a favorable environment for a high-performance program to thrive, mitigate risk and sustain growth. In other words, to establish the purpose behind the integrated combination of training elements/ methodologies. How is this done, though? Or what steps should guide this process, for that matter?

Let us take a step back and introduce some definitions.

We can define risk as exposure to danger. In high-performance sport, this may be athletic injuries, burnout/ overtraining, impaired/ unsatisfactory performances, job redundancy, etc. A reward, on the other hand, is a positive return on investment, typically a tangible achievement or recognition; in high-performance sport, this may be peak competitive performances, reduced injury rates across a season, physical fitness adaptation, job security, etc.

As described in my previous article, the problem with reductionist models is that because all models willingly or unwillingly make underlying assumptions 3, particularly in bias and variance, there are no theoretical models in science or in practice that will be right forever. There are models that presently work better compared to others until new models evolve and falsify them, which advances our understanding 4. In health, exercise, sports and physical performance there are plenty of practitioners married to their models; and unfortunately for them, these individuals fall into the narrative fallacy (something we all are victims too, to greater or lesser extents). We like to provide explanations and create cause-effect relationships between elements/ events, which may or may not be truly related, to create a story that explains our conceptualization of reality. This is why the ability to identify the strengths, limitations and potential outcomes of the individual training elements, as well as their combination, is crucial.

In this sense, we can learn a lot from a risk-engineering expert, flaneur, author and former trader Nassim N. Taleb and a model he proposes for financial investment called The Barbell Strategy. Taleb classifies our world in two main domains, the Mediocristan, where single rare events have no substantial effect on the total (e.g. weight and height), vs. the Extremistan, where single rare events do carry a great proportion/ impact of the total (e.g. wealth). These single rare events are referred to as Black Swans. Black Swans can be positive or negative, and this is where an ability to recognize these and engineer a favorable (i.e., anti-fragile) risk environment may yield the greatest returns. According to Taleb, to benefit from positive Black Swans whilst avoiding negative ones, investors (in our case, sports performance practitioners) should protect themselves, or their programs for that matter, from blow-ups while also exposing themselves to unlimited upsides. We will see some relevant examples soon.

What is The Barbell Strategy?

The Barbell Strategy for financial investment, profoundly outlined by Taleb in his books The Black Swan and Skin In The Game, consists of ensuring that 90% of your capital is safe, by investing it in risk-free assets, thereby covering/ protecting you from inflation (Figure 1) 5 6. The remaining 10% capital is to be used for very risky investments; for example, options or rights, where the upside is unknown. The interesting thing to me of this strategy/ line of philosophical thought is the purposeful intention of engineering one’s practice into anti-fragility (i.e. a practice that benefits from disorder, as opposed to just being robust to it). It is almost like getting the best of both worlds (i.e., conservative vs. aggressive risk approaches). Particularly in complex domains, where uncertainty prevails above most/ all, this binary “anti-fragility” approach may promote both sustainability and aggressive growth.

Figure 1. The Barbell Strategy (Taleb, 2007)

In identifying and further conceptualizing training and non-training elements into their respective risk/ reward categories, it is crucial to have a proficient understanding of the physiological, mechanical, psychological and technical-tactical needs of the sport that the strength and conditioning coach is operating within. However, this is beyond the scope of this article. The most successful high-performance programmes are the most successful because of their team’s collective ability to identify low-risk high-reward elements, as well as high-risk high-reward elements in a timely, organized and skilled fashion. And obviously, to act accordingly.

Below, is a graphical illustration with examples of risk and reward levels from training elements in the traditional strength and conditioning training of running-based team sport athletes, as this is where most of my experience lies (Figure 2). To construct the most suitable integration of training elements/ methodologies in practice, it is imperative to identify the low-risk high-reward elements. Given their potential to return high stakes at a low degree of risk, these shall form the non-negotiables of the high-performance program. From my experience, examples of this category would include regular meditation, sleep quality and quantity promoting strategies, strength training at 2 RIR, tempo runs, sufficient dietary protein intake and soft-tissue foam rolling work. However, my examples may not necessarily work for all athletes and temporal changes may influence their efficacy. As such, identifying the appropriate low-risk high-reward elements for a given time and setting can require significant study, naturalistic observations and experiential evaluations from performance practitioners. This challenge is further exacerbated by the fact that these elements tend not to be “sexy” at all for the athletes, and it isn’t until regular engagement with them is sustained over time that the outcomes are evident. Here, coaching ability, trust and relational qualities take the driver’s seat.

Figure 2. Conceptualization of risk and reward from associated outcomes in examples relevant to the strength and conditioning training of athletes.

The classical superheroes’ meta-story serves well to conceptualize high-risk high-reward elements (i.e., the subsequent category feeding into high-performance success) 7.. Here, the hero travels to unknown lands to save the princess, with the risk of encountering the evil and powerful dragon, before returning to the safe (i.e., known) lands. The hero’s journey can lead to great reward, or to catastrophic loss. The unknown territory, or the dragon for that matter, represents the degree of risk of implementing a high-risk high-reward training element (e.g. pre-game lift, high-dose caffeine ingestion), where the potential outcome is great beyond the normal, but so is the downside. This is where Taleb suggests 10% of your investments should lie, for exposure to positive Black Swans, whilst the other 90% safeguards you. Deciding upon and implementing these elements requires expert coaching intuition, a current understanding of the program, courage and an ability to deal with the potential negative returns. One must also consider the athlete with respect to training level and responsiveness to high-risk elements. Though the implications of a negative outcome are likely less at the lower ranks of the sport, these high-risk elements tend to require a high degree of prior training exposure for the rewards to be attainable. For instance, we know there is a benchmark strength level required to observe performance-enhancing PAP effects 8., but the downside of implementing pre-game lifts at the elite level can cost you your job. Conversely, there may not be tragic consequences if something goes wrong in a sub-elite sport, but you are substantially less likely to attain the reward. This is where collective risk evaluation, review, retrospective and consultation are so important in a high-performance program; not only in terms of the training element itself but where the program currently sits in relation to where it intends to be (i.e., can we afford this?).

Caveats

So, I think it is obvious that we’d want to avoid high-risk low-reward elements unless you purposely want to fail. But what about low-risk low-reward? With these, it is important to understand how these elements scale over time. It may well be possible that accumulating low-risk low-reward elements within your program may yield high-rewards in the longer term at a low cost. But it is unlikely that this is the case for all elements given the complex nature of the high-performance sport environment. The low-risk low-reward elements provide space for introducing variability in the preparation of the athletes, without necessarily traveling to the unknown, which is why identifying suitable ones can be necessary.
A caveat of applying The Barbell Strategy in the strength and conditioning practice is that it is likely that many training elements sit on a continuum in terms of both risk and reward levels. It is unlikely that training elements in the same category will yield the same or even greatly similar outcomes. However, the idea behind profiling risk-reward interactions is to then engineer a favorable (i.e., anti-fragile) environment that can benefit from disorder, not to predict outcomes.

A final caveat derives from the concept of iatrogenics – the idea that more harm is produced by intervening as opposed to allowing nature to take its own course of action 9.. Before philosophy and negative empiricism (i.e., an awareness of our own ignorance) were truly integrated into the medical realm, for years doctors caused more harm to their patients by intervening than they would have by simply stepping back and allowing the patient to recover from an illness on their own (5). This desire to intervene has been termed the false illusion of control. In this similar regard, Dr Jordan Peterson has expressed how in his clinical psychology practice he has observed multiple individuals reporting clinical anxiety, post-traumatic stress and depression disorders reverse their conditions simply by adopting better sleep patterns and nutritional habits 10. This sheds light on the idea of going for the “low-hanging fruit”, before seeking more complex/ “sophisticated” solutions. But where exactly does “doing nothing” or “taking a step back” sit on the risk-reward quadrants? This is where your contextual understanding of your program will trump anything I say. 😊

References and wider reading

  • 1. Poczwardowski, A., Sherman, C. P., & Ravizza, K. (2004). Professional philosophy in the sport psychology service delivery: Building on theory and practice. The Sport Psychologist, 18(4), 445-463.
  • 2. Mitchell, S. D. (2003). Biological complexity and integrative pluralism. Cambridge University Press.
  • 3. Wimsatt, W. C. (1987). False models as means to truer theories. Neutral models in biology, 23-55.
  • 4. Arbesman, S. (2013). The half-life of facts: Why everything we know has an expiration date. Penguin.
  • 5. Taleb, N. N. (2007). The black swan: The impact of the highly improbable (Vol. 2). Random house.
  • 6. Taleb, N. N. (2020). Skin in the game: Hidden asymmetries in daily life. Random House Trade Paperbacks.
  • 7. Jovanović, M. (2020). Strength Training Manual: The Agile Periodization Approach. Volume One and Two.
  • 8. Seitz, L. B., de Villarreal, E. S., & Haff, G. G. (2014). The temporal profile of postactivation potentiation is related to strength level. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 28(3), 706-715.
  • 9. Steel, K., Gertman, P. M., Crescenzi, C., & Anderson, J. (1981). Iatrogenic illness on a general medical service at a university hospital. New England Journal of Medicine, 304(11), 638-642.
  • 10. Peterson, J. B. (2018). 12 rules for life: An antidote to chaos. Random House Canada.

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