What role does Science play in the field of Strength and Conditioning?


The term ‘science’ is derived from the Latin scientia, or scire, for ‘know’, so by practicing science, one should gain knowledge of the natural world; but this notion is not entirely correct. Defining the term ‘science’ does not easily reconcile the issue, for most definitions fail to exclude clear examples of non-scientific activities, like Astrology; or worse, fail to include clear cases of good science.

Identifying what counts as science and what does not is indeed difficult. This difficulty, Goldman (2006) contends, is symptomatic of a deeper, as yet unresolved problem in Science that dates back to the time of Plato. The problem surrounds the true nature of knowledge; some contend it is distinct from belief, others hold that it is rather a species of belief. So, without an adequate definition of science, we are left with a sort of ‘demarcation checklist’, or a list of the ‘characteristics of good science’. Outlined below are some of the more important characteristics that set science apart from other endeavors  like mythology, or even common sense. From this, we shall arrive at a general role for science, and then consider this role in the larger field of sport, but also in the context of this website.

The Role of Science

Perhaps the greatest idea of modern science is that of method. It is interesting to note however, that scientific method as we know it did not come about until the scientific revolution was ending; what’s more, it was proposed by a social and educational reformer. The scientific revolution began around 1543 with two events; Copernicus published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) just before dying, and Vesalius published De humani corporis fabrica (On the fabric of the human body). The revolution lasted around 150 years, until around 1687, when Sir Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica. But it was not until 1620 when Francis Bacon outlined his scientific method, which, it must be stated, incorporated already accepted ideas from mathematics, experimentation, reason and logic. Bacon, considered the father of experimental science for his effort, believed that a knowledgeable society could improve the human condition, and saw science as a tool for spreading this knowledge. Although he argued that knowledge could only be gained through observation (i.e. scientific empiricism), he conceded that by our very nature, we reason in ways that are not correct; indeed, he asserted the mind is the problem, and experience, the solution. In 1620 he published Novum Organum, or ‘the new instrument’, and argued in it that: 1) we tend to be more responsive to positive than negative evidence, and hearing small numbers of positive instances overwhelms small numbers of negative instances; 2) internal beliefs influence whether we see a piece of evidence as confirming or disconfirming; 3) our language tends to classify things as more different than they are; and lastly, 4) we often hold incorrect teachings in our head, which get in the way of reason. Bacon proposed a new instrument (or method) for gaining knowledge that accounted for our flawed capacity to reason. He held that we must learn to control our experience, by first collecting as much data as we can, with a neutral state of mind, analyse the data until we see patterns, then form hypotheses to explain these patterns. Hypotheses must then be tested through experimentation. If the data from this new experiment confirms the hypothesis, do more experiments. After several confirmations, we can announce the discovery of a law of nature. Bacon argued that truth will eventually emerge from the repeated application of this method; ‘truth’ he declared, ‘is the daughter of time.’ With the advent of method, Bacon introduced a number of demarcation criteria. The notion that one must not call upon supernatural phenomena to explain natural phenomena is central to method. Further, knowledge requires confirmation by a large number of instances (observations), and it must provide explanatory power (prediction). But Bacon, like many early scientists, believed that you could substitute method for a theory of knowledge and did not address the question of how scientists come to ‘know’.

The demarcation problem was again revisited by Karl Popper (1902 to 1994), who argued that good scientists seek to falsify their hypotheses, whereas much of the pseudosciences seek to confirm it. So what sets good science apart from bad science, Popper argued, was not its ability to observe and predict; rather, it is founded in its ability to make bold predictions that are testable (falsifiable) and open to criticism. But of course, Popper is not without his critics, for he grossly under emphasized the importance of induction, and in the strictest application of his philosophy, nothing counts as a science and everything counts as pseudoscience.

Undeniably, the notion that knowledge is justified by experience is the foundation of modern empiricism. And it is this empiricism that sets modern science apart from other pseudoscientific endeavours, like religion, mythology, or even common sense. And although we still do not know how science explains, The Philosophers of Science have left us with a number of distinguishing characteristics; namely: 1) Supernatural phenomena should not explain; 2) A method must be used to get past our experience; 3) Confirmation follows observation; 4) Prediction follows observation; 5) Hypotheses must be falsifiable; and 6) Openness to criticism.

The role of Science in Strength and Conditioning, and on this site

Strength and conditioning is fundamental for preparing athletes to perform at their best. It is also important to provide better quality of life in special populations and improve fitness’ -Sir Clive Woodward

Improving both health and performance requires applying the correct modality, volume, and intensity of exercise, and the correct timing of various interventions. Too little stimulus results in no training response, too much can lead to over-reaching and over-training. To strike the balance, the S&C professional must understand the biological consequences of various training stimuli in various groups and this requires knowing more about adaptations to these stimuli, as well as ways to monitor and measure these adaptations. There are two ever-present lines of scientific inquiry in the field of S&C; one pursues fundamental questions, while the other seeks to apply and validate fundamental principles in practical and innovative ways (research in the field of S&C is rising fast, see a related post here). The role of science in the field of S&C, then, is first to abide by its empirical tenants outlined above, and to move from fundamental to more applied questions, and ultimately provide sound recommendations to athletes and coaches to improve health and performance.

But how much evidence is required before an athlete can justifiably apply it in their training program? There is no easy answer to this question, although with a little bit of help we can sometimes tell when a training intervention/product might be trying to take us for a ride (read the power balance bracelet case study here); this is where The MMA Training Bible comes it. Our aim is to present the scientific rational for and against a given training intervention/product, so you don’t have to waste your time and money on something that will have no effect on your performance.

Reference: Goldman, S.L. (2006). Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It [electronic version]. The Teaching Company Limited Partnership. Hartlepool, UK

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