Small, Long Term Changes and the Power of Science
"I tried that supplement, and it didn't work."
"I focused on closer stance squats for 3 whole weeks but they didn't get my legs any bigger."
Before most people buy into a new supplement or technique in the fitness world, they usually like to try it out themselves, first. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, but this approach must be used with caution if it's to work best. There is one particularly important limitation of "trying things yourself." Often, then changes elicited by a new technique or supplement, even if used correctly and in a way that gets best possible results, have three caveats:
a.) Changes are very small and hard to detect
b.) Detectable changes take a long time to present themselves
c.) No acute changes occur with the new intervention
For example, if you take whey protein with your training, you can probably expect (on average) to put on between 1 and 3 more pounds of muscle per year, especially if that protein supplement brings up your daily intake from sub-standard into the recommended range for weight training athletes. Now, you know whey protein works, all the studies on it are pretty much in consensus about this, and almost every serious weight training uses it. You recommend it to your cousin, and he starts taking it. He hates the taste and hates spending the extra money, so convincing him was a really uphill battle.
Your cousin is taking the whey protein and training hard. One week, two weeks, three weeks... How much muscle is he gonna grow this month that he would not have under his normal regimen? Well, if we take one of the best case scenarios and say he's slated to gain 4 pounds of muscle per year he otherwise would not (a VERY good result from supplement use), then he's actually going to gain, on average, only 1/3 of a pound of muscle per month. Think about that... one of the most powerful supplements on the market, and all you have to gain from it is 1/3 of a pound of muscle per month. Let's even say that your cousin is quite patient given the circumstances and he waits 3 WHOLE MONTHS before drawing a conclusion. What are the detectable features of gaining a pound of muscle? Well, outside of advanced laboratory measures, pretty much none. He'll be stronger, but not enough to really stand out. One pound of muscle is well within the 3-5lb daily body water fluctuation most people experience, so he'll neither be able to tell it on the scale nor on his physique. So he quits taking whey protein, and can you really blame him? Even with a pre-workout supplement, you can at least feel it doing something right away. Creatine can give you amazing pumps within a week, but whey protein... nothing you can detect, even within months.
But because he quit whey protein, and if you do the same, you're missing out on an average of perhaps 22 lbs of muscle mass per year. If you train for 5 years, that's 10lbs of muscle... holy crap, that makes you look and perform much differently! Let's say you're a competition bodybuilder. Most bodybuilders don't hit remotely within their peak development until at least 10 years of training. Folks, that can be 20lbs of muscle if whey protein (and especially more total protein) is used during that time. That's a whole different weight class and a COMPLETELY different look!!!! So is it really a good idea to try supplements by feel and "try them myself first?"
Same thing goes for training differences. Squatting with a closer stance definitely brings up your quads. But noticeable changes can take months... how many people are gonna stick that out?
Here's where science can help. Scientific studies are done on dozens of people at once, with many circumstances (like diet and training) controlled for (the same for everyone), so that even the smallest differences can be detected within a several month study. If one group gains 3 lbs of muscle in 2 months and another gains on 1, the usual study has the ability to detect that change and figure out if it's meaningful. Point is: science can tell you what works even if you can't feel it yourself.
Now, is it a good idea to take on "faith" (the wrong term, really, because no faith is required here), or rather, on an understanding of statistics, all of what science puts out? Probably not, because multiple studies can say a supplement or training technique works, even though later studies show it actually might not. Definitely might not be a good idea to simply use everything in your training that has some studies behind it.
What is a good idea is to use the supplements and techniques that have a huge volume of studies behind them and have an overwhelming consensus on effectiveness. Creatine, Whey Protein, Caffeine, and a couple of other supplements have such a large volume of studies confirming their effects (and such a small number contradicting them) that they are worth the investment even if you don't feel them. The first several doses of antibiotic don't make you feel any better, but it would be foolish to stop taking the medicine. Just the same way, keep eating that whey protein... it does pay off over time.
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