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The Importance of Context

In the fitness industry, it’s common for people to speak in absolutes.  It can be about training, where people invariably think there is one style of training for everyone.  The same holds for exercise selection where you still see people saying that one exercise is BEST for a certain goal.   It absolutely (ha ha) applies to dieting where whatever diet someone happens to like is therefore the right diet for everyone.  And, frankly, this is nonsensical.  Because the best anything can only be considered within a specific context.  Let me start with a hypothetical question.

What’s the Best Car to Buy?

I’m going to start out today’s article by asking a seemingly irrelevant question but, trust me, I’m merely using it to make a point.  Hopefully, by making it something sort of unrelated to the major topic of this site, people will be able to look at it with a bit less emotional investment.  Ok, here’s the question:

What’s the best car for someone to buy?

Now, unless you’re particularly thick, or just haven’t had enough coffee this morning, you’re probably thinking to yourself something along the lines of “Good grief, what an utterly stupid question.”  Which it would be.

Hopefully the thought process would run towards something like “There’s no answer to that question, it’s going to depend on what the person is using it for, where they live, what kind of terrain they are driving on, how much money they have and a whole host of other questions.”

That is, you’d look at the context of the person and their situation before you gave anything approximating a suggestion.  To give a recommendation without considering those issues would simply be silly.

Put a bit differently, if you went to a car forum and posted the above question, would you expect to get a single answer?  Or would you expect the majority of people to ask you a bunch of followup questions to try and determine your specific needs, and use those needs to give recommendations on what might be best in that context.

Since I’m a fan of repetition, let me put it a third way just in case I’m not clear.  Consider the following two situations shown in the table below where I’ve described two individuals based on a handful of different categories.

The Importance of Context: Car Buying

And what I’ve done is describe essentially two diametrically opposed situations.  The first is your basic model of a soccer mom.   Mid 30’s, mother of two, driving them to school, soccer practice, the grocery, etc.  A situation where the best car would be a reliable and safe vehicle.

Lime Green Kia SoulThe second is a man going through a mid-life crisis.  He’s single and on the prowl, trying to find himself a nice 22 year old girlfriend to make up for his erectile dysfunction.

Could you possibly give the same “best” car recommendation to both individuals?  Of course not.  Because the context of the question matters.

In the first case, the best case choice is assuredly a mini-van that has lots of room and has been ranked highly for safety.  And the second, well, you’re looking at the most expensive sports car the dude can afford to impress young girls and overcompensate for his dick.

For example:

Hotwheels Ferrari

Yes, this is a match box Ferrari.

The Best Car

Clearly recommending the first car to the second person or vice versa would be completely idiotic.  The sports car would be completely inappropriate for the soccer mom and, generally speaking, mini-vans are not chick magnets.  Well, maybe if you’re trying to pick up a soccer mom.  But for the specific target (20 something hot chick), it would not be the best choice.

You could easily draw up as many other specific situations where different vehicles might or might not be the best option.  Off-roading would require a different choice than someone who wants to drive really, really fast on the freeway.  I’m sure you can come up with endless examples and that’s just cars.

On and on it goes but my point is this : the specific context would determine the ideal (or range of ideal) recommendations. There might very well be more than one appropriate recommendation for a given situation.  A soccer mom might choose between different mini-vans for whatever reason.   The same would hold for the midlife crisis guy and his sports car.  But this is more about choosing a vehicle within the same category.

But based on context, there can’t possibly be any single recommendation appropriate for all situations.

Context in Training and Nutrition

So why is it in the field of nutrition and training that the majority seem to think in absolutes where the context of the situation is never taken into consideration?  Because as often as not, it isn’t.

Rather, individuals will state in absolute terms, regardless of context that such and such is good, or bad, or best, or worst.

Squats are good, squats are bad, carbs are good, carbs are bad, saturated fats are good, saturated fats are bad.  Pick a topic and you’ll find extremist, absolutist viewpoints on all sides.

No matter what the topic, invariably someone will come along and feel that there is an absolute answer regarding that topic, regardless of the context.  You can see this running through the comments sections of many of my articles.   No matter what the topic someone will chime in with whatever THEIR singular answer to the issue is.

Because, when I write, I generally spend a lot of time trying to address the different contexts, places where something might be good (or best) in one situation and bad (or not best) in another.  That, and my general wordiness and tendency to over write is what makes my articles so long: I’m usually trying to address different contexts.

And Then the Comments Come

And without fail someone will come along and throw down an absolute statement about the topic.  Or accuse me of being anti- (or pro-) whatever it is that they are absolutely pro- (or anti-) about.

I can almost set my watch by it: that no matter how clearly I write, or how many times I repeat the same basic idea, that at least one person will manage to take issue with it because I didn’t repeat the single answer that they know is right for all situations and all context.  God forbid I make a single critical comment of what they KNOW is the only right approach.  That’s a paddlin’.

Put differently, folks like that have a rather simple rulebook that they live by.  X is good for everything and everyone.   Y is bad for everything and everyone.  Everything is phrased in simple black and white with no shades of any other color.

To any even remotely related question, the simple rulebook answer comes out.  Regardless of context.  And anyone who doesn’t see the world in that same black and white is defined as criticizing their belief.

Of course, gurus and such cater (well, pander) to this.  By speaking in absolutes, they appeal to the mindset of the people who want a singular simple answer.   Their approach works but it’s still wrong.

It’s a simple belief system and certainly doesn’t require much thought.  Unfortunately, it’s almost always wrong.  So let’s look at some individual examples.

Are Saturated Fats Good or Bad for Health?

You can see a stunning example of this in the comments of my article on carbohydrate and fat controversies.  In that article, one thing I looked at was the issue regarding saturated fats and health where there currently exist two rather extremist viewpoints.

The mainstream view point is that saturated fats are always bad, always hurtful, always negative.  The alternative viewpoint is that they are healthy with zero detrimental effects.

The truth as usual lies in the middle.  For example, consider the following two situations:

The Importance of Context: Saturated Fat Intake

So who have I described.  Example 1 could be any athlete or even highly active individual.  I guess you could include the extant “paleo hunter type” (who was lean, active, etc.) that the “saturated fat is good for you people” base their beliefs on (even as they cherry pick which part of paleo they want to follow).

The second is just the average person in the world: they are likely overweight carrying excess bodyfat (inflammatory in its own right), inactive, have lots of stress, a poor overall food pattern, etc.

In the first context, a high saturated fat intake (or high fat intake in general) might be completely neutral to health and, in fact, the studies show that that is the case.  In one study, for example, in trained cyclists, neither a high-fat diet or a high saturated-fat intake had negative effects on anything.

Presumably the cyclists burned off the fats for energy before they could do any harm anywhere.  In that context, saturated fats are basically irrelevant as is total fat intake.  The athlete isn’t gaining fat, likely has an overall good lifestyle and food intake pattern.  Saturated fat intake becomes more or less irrelevant.

And in the second, as about 30 years of literature demonstrates, saturated fats are detrimental to health.  They cause inflammation, insulin resistance and an excessive intake, especially in the context of the rest of the modern lifestyle, is one of several risk factors for heart disease.  When people are carrying excess body fat, inactive, consuming too many total calories and refined carbohydrates, and gaining weight you simply can’t deny the negative impact of saturated fats.  The research is incontrovertible in this regard.

But the pro-saturated fat people seem unable or unwilling to make or understand this distinction.  In their minds, saturated fats are “good” regardless of the context.   Active, inactive, lean, obese it doesn’t matter.  Saturated fats are good.  And it’s wrong.

The anti-saturated fat people, usually involved in making food policy, tend to be less concerned about the exceptions and are focused on the majority in the first place.   That is, food policy people aren’t writing food recommendations for athletes.

They are trying to write policy for the general public.  And in that sense they are more right than wrong.  Even if they acknowledge that high-fat/saturated-fat diets are neutral for those exceptions, that isn’t the group that they are targeting with their recommendations.

Is this making sense yet?

It’s all about the context.  In a given context, something may be the best thing ever; in another it may be the worst.  There are no absolutes, only context specific situations and context specific right- or wrongs.

Yet, go check the comments section, one individual left something to the effect of “You seem to be siding with the anti-saturated fat people and saying that they are negative.”  Basically, since I didn’t repeat the black and white dogma that he believes, I must disagree with him.

Because, apparently the Internet, among all else that it has accomplished, has made people illiterate.

Because if you read what I actually said, it was nothing of the sort.  But to simplistic minds such as his, if you’re not pro-saturated fat, you’re anti-saturated fat.

No, I’m pro context matters.

Squats vs. the Leg Press for Leg Size

Another good example can be found in the article Squats vs. Leg Press for Big Legs.  In that article, I discussed specific contexts where the leg press might be better than the back squat for the specific (and singular) goal of lower body hypertrophy (e.g. leg growth).  Yet check the comments section.

There you will see people talking about squats being better for whole body strength, a completely different context requiring a different “best” exerciser recommendation.

Many simply ignored my comments about difference in body mechanics.  Usually this one is simple: if they have good squat mechanics, they can’t conceive of anyone that doesn’t.  Or they are simply so dumb they don’t think it matters . And there were a whole bunch like that.

As always, one rocket scientist said I didn’t know what I was talking about because squats involved the stabilizer muscles and that was important for hormone release.  Well not only is the hormonal response to squats irrelevant, involving the freaking hip stabilizers slightly would not impact on it to begin with.

Basically what it all comes down to is that these people believe that “YOU MUST SQUAT OR YOU’RE A PUSSY” (as one giant of the industry put it).  They can’t conceive of any other situation.  So rather than read what I wrote, they simply assumed I’m anti-squat and spouted gibberish.  It happens every time the topic comes up in my Facebook group too.

Basically they missed the context in which I was discussing the issue which was:

  1. Developing leg size (not necessarily leg strength and not full-body strength)
  2. Specific situations (e.g. usually mechanics related) where leg press is a better choice than back squats

I was talking about hypertrophy only.   Not improving the squat.  Not “whole body strength” whatever the hell that means.   Hypertrophy.  One context and one context only.

So far as mechanics, it’s quite simple: people with poor squatting mechanics which usually means long femurs and/or a long torso will not find squats an effective exercise for leg growth FOR THEM.  Their low back will give out first and it’s just a poor choice of exercise FOR THEM.  In that situation, taking the low back out of the equation and leg pressing will be the superior choice FOR THEM.

Does that make leg press the best choice for everyone?  Of course it doesn’t and I was clear to make that point.  If you’ve got good squat mechanics, squats may be a great movement FOR YOU.  The mistake is in assuming that what is good FOR YOU must be right FOR EVERYONE.

But, as predicted, since it was a topic where people tend to have absolutist, non-context dependent views (which usually project what works for them personally, with no recognition that they don’t represent the entirety of humanity), any suggestion of a context specific answer was met with absolutist responses.

These people know that squats are good and leg presses are bad.  The context is irrelevant to them, it’s just that simple.  It’s also completely wrong.

The Importance of Context

If someone told you that “A Jeep Wrangler is the best car to buy.” without considering the context of the specific situation, you’d think they were an idiot.  And they would be.   I mean it’s a cool car and I had one in college.  But it cannot possibly be the best choice of vehicle for all people and all situations.

Yet most seem to have no trouble making similarly absolute statements, with no consideration of the context, in the arena of training and nutrition.  This food is good, this food is bad.  This exercise is good, this exercise is bad.  Name a topic and you will find as many absolutist statements as you want.  And they’re all wrong because they ignore context.

People get very annoyed with me when they ask me some question because most of the time my answer is “It depends.”  Now, I can always tell them what it depends on. But that’s the only honest answer I can usually give.

Yes, there are a handful of exceptions where there is a somewhat absolutist answer.  One in nutrition is that trans-fats don’t belong in the diet.  Nobody disagrees with that.  To that I’d ass that sugary sodas don’t belong in the diet.   I can’t think of any other absolute nutrition statements.  Everything else is context dependent.

With training, the only absolute-ish statements tend to represent more fundamental principles of training.  You have to apply progressive tension overload to grow.  You need some amount of volume.  But how those principles are applied still depends on context.

And when people ask me questions, I can’t give a good answer to a question without knowing the specifics, without knowing the context.   Are they a beginner or are they advanced?  What does their current training look like?  What are their goals?  What are their biomechanics?  Age, gender, etc.  It all goes into the equation in my head.

When I Write

When you read articles on this site, you might notice that I tend to spend a lot of time looking at pros and cons of different things.

As well, folks will often get confused when two of my recommendations may seem to contradict one another.  What they are missing is that what I might suggest in one specific context won’t apply in a different specific context.

And what I would tend to suggest in that second specific context may not apply to the first.  There is no contradiction there.  It’s simply different suggestions based on the context of the recommendation being sought.

A good example of this recently came up on the (now defunct) forum.  Someone was confused about my differing recommendations regarding stacking ephedrine with tyrosine.  Because in one context (general dieting), this can be a good combination.

But in another (specifically the protocols outlined in the Stubborn Fat Solution protocols), I say not to do take the combination.  But there is no contradiction here, just context specific recommendations.

Because what might be perfect for a given situation could be the absolute worst choice for another situation.    Whenever someone starts speaking in absolutes, it’s clear that they aren’t thinking about the situation, they’ve ignored the context. In their mind, there’s only one answer (usually what works for them or whatever propaganda they’ve absorbed to the point of repeating it without thought) and the context be damned.

More Questions

There are lots of other questions that have context specific answers.  Here are a few:

  1. How many carbohydrates do you need?
  2. Should you use a small, moderate or large dietary deficit?
  3. Is Rapid Fat Loss right for you?

and many others are all questions that are context dependent.  And the “right” answer depends on that context, the situation, and the person in question.

Is the person large or small, insulin sensitive or insulin resistant, doing a lot of training or very little, whats’ the intensity of that training, what are their goals, how much time do they have to train, can they change their training schedule to fit a specific diet, what genetic issues might there be, individual preferences are all specifics that affect what might or might not be the best.

But even if you find an answer for that one given situation, it’s critical to realize that it still isn’t the best answer in absolute terms.

It’s only best in that context.

Getting to the Point

So if there’s a point to this article, it’s this: when you see someone proclaiming that something is best, or worst or ideal or not, it’s important to consider the context of the situation.  Both theirs and yours.  Because it’s entirely possible that they’ve found the right solution for their context.  But that doesn’t mean it’s the best solution for yours.

I’d finish by saying that trying to force-fit a solution that is perfectly appropriate for one context into a context where it doesn’t fit is usually a recipe for disaster.   It becomes a round-peg, square-hole problem; you’re trying to make something fit that simply doesn’t fit that context.  It would be like the soccer mom trying to make the sports car work for her situation, I guess the kids go in the trunk)

One example is my own Ultimate Diet 2.0. It’s an involved cyclical diet and certain things with regards to training and diet have to be done at certain times for it to work.  Basically it requires certain scheduling in terms of when you can train and what kind of training you have to do on certain days.

What often happens is that people with no control over their training (e.g. college athletes who have to train on the schedule set by their coach) want to do it.  And I tell them to pick a different diet.

Without the ability to control their training to the degree required by UD2, it can’t be done optimally or even at all.  It’s the wrong choice for that context and I’ll generally point them to the Fat Loss for Athletes series on the site.

The Rapid Fat Loss Handbook is another example.  It too has certain requirements regarding training and what should or even can be done with training needing to be cut back to extremely minimal levels.

People unable to cut back training to the degree required by the book (by choice or requirements) do poorly on it.  It’s the wrong choice for their specific context and they have to do something else.

I truly can’t overstate the importance of context.  Hopefully I’ve made that point.

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17 thoughts on “The Importance of Context

  1. ::Applause::

    Oh how much better the fitness industry would be if everyone considered context.

    Great article Lyle, this point definitely needed to be brought into attention.

  2. Well put.

  3. Awesome article Lyle.

    This has taught me a lot.

    Thank You.

  4. I`m not sure what point you were trying to make in that article but leg press? Really? Squats are superior poriod! Doh!!!

  5. Was this article great or what? It depends…
    I am in the ”twas great” crowd. 🙂
    Incidentally, I find it strange that you haven’t done anything on kettlebell training. Would be super to read your perspective.

  6. Having never used kb’s for more than warming people up before real training, I’m in no position to comment.

    I will say that most of the KB folks come across as ‘when you have a hammer, everything is a nail’ types to me. Any question, no matter the context: KB’s are apparently the answer.

  7. The Importance of Philosophy

    “There are no absolutes, only context specific situations and context specific right- or wrongs.”

    Is that an absolute?

  8. Btw, I was being sarcastic above.
    Great article as usual Lyle.

  9. Amarpal :That’s abut as deep as the philosophy in the Matrix. So try “All absolute statements are wrong.” on for size.

    Paolo: I know.

  10. Excellent…and SO relevant! I ran across a blog yesterday where she asserted that “40 year old women should only eat 46 grams of protein a day”. Um…….yeah…maybe if that 40 year old woman was 4’8″ and weighed 90 pounds.

    One size fits all DOES NOT WORK! Thanks for the good reminder.

    I am linking to this post today, as well as to an interesting post over at Whole Health Source:

    BTW…I have been working with kettlebells this past month…and holy moly….they are indeed worthy of being called “weapons of ass destruction”. 🙂

  11. Lyle “it depends” McDonald….

  12. Re saturated fat, what about this recent meta-analysis, which found no association with heart disease?
    ” Insufficient evidence (< or =2 criteria) of association is present for intake of supplementary vitamin E and ascorbic acid (vitamin C); saturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids; total fat; alpha-linolenic acid; meat; eggs; and milk."

  13. Would have to read the full paper to comment more fully but also note what I wrote

    “And in the second, as about 30 years of literature demonstrates, saturated fats are detrimental to health. They cause inflammation, insulin resistance and an excessive intake, especially in the context of the rest of the modern lifestyle, is one of several risk factors for heart disease. ”

    Heart disease is only one part of what I was talking about. Even there, it’s context specific. Insulin resistance in the context of a low-carbohydrate diet may be adaptive/beneficial; in the context of a high-carb diet, it may be detrimental.

    For example:

    J Nutr. 2009 Jan;139(1):1-4. Epub 2008 Dec 3.
    Saturated fatty acid-mediated inflammation and insulin resistance in adipose tissue: mechanisms of action and implications.

    Kennedy A, Martinez K, Chuang CC, LaPoint K, McIntosh M.

    Department of Nutrition, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro, NC 27402, USA.

    This review highlights the inflammatory and insulin-antagonizing effects of saturated fatty acids (SFA), which contribute to the development of metabolic syndrome. Mechanisms responsible for these unhealthy effects of SFA include: 1) accumulation of diacylglycerol and ceramide; 2) activation of nuclear factor-kappaB, protein kinase C-, and mitogen-activated protein kinases, and subsequent induction of inflammatory genes in white adipose tissue, immune cells, and myotubes; 3) decreased PPARgamma coactivator-1 alpha/beta activation and adiponectin production, which decreases the oxidation of glucose and fatty acids (FA); and 4) recruitment of immune cells like macrophages, neutrophils, and bone marrow-derived dendritic cells to WAT and muscle. Several studies have demonstrated potential health benefits of substituting SFA with unsaturated FA, particularly oleic acid and (n-3) FA. Thus, reducing consumption of foods rich in SFA and increasing consumption of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meats and poultry, fish, low-fat dairy products, and oils containing oleic acid or (n-3) FA is likely to reduce the incidence of metabolic disease.

  14. Well written, well explained. This philosophy can be applied in general.

  15. So funny how all of this is common sense to people who have made it their life to find out the right, and wrong ways to be healthy.
    There is no substitute for education when it comes to health issues and people really do owe it to themselves to find out as much as possible about whatever form of diet and exercise they want to embark on.
    I have always been an athlete and sometimes I have been a “big” athlete but finding the right balance has allowed me to continue to work out harder in my 40’s than I ever could in my 20’s.
    Keep up the good work. I’ll be sending peeps to your site for your great expertise and succinct style.

  16. Your article was well written and a great reminder to me to ask more specific questions when I am asked for quick solutions such as “How much many times should I exercise each week if I want to lose weight?” Thank You.

  17. So where is the context in relation to the absolute statement, “in the end, its still cal in vs cal out?”

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