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Excluding the Middle

This is an article that both does and doesn’t say much.  It’s something that I’ll likely link back to a lot in the future so I might as well just put it down once.   Want I want to talk about is the common habit of excluding the middle, more formally called “the false dilemma”,  the “either/or fallacy” or a whole host of other things.  It’s one of those things that I see people using all the time in Internet arguments.

Excluding the Middle

The idea here is that people have a tendency to play this cute little game where a given situation can either be exactly one thing (their preference) or exactly one other thing where that other thing is some ludicrous stupid-ass extreme example that they use to attempt to prove their preference simply by how extreme (and dumb) it is.  But compared to something stupid, anything is better by comparison.

As an example, I am apparently quoted as having said that “…compared to the Standard American Diet, a diet of bug spray and skittles would be healthier.”   Basically I am putting together two extremes such that the second one is only better than the first by comparison.  Except that I was joking to make a point…mostly.  When most people do this, they are not joking.

Now, whether or not this is just some aspect of human nature where we want things to be one thing or another, or because people are bad at making logical arguments or what I have no idea.  Nor do I really care.  It’s called a logical fallacy for a reason and I’m going to give you four explicit examples to try to get my point across.

Life is not binary and most things comes in varying degrees of extreme and shades of gray.  As my favorite author once put it “The universe can count beyond two.”  He was using this statement in a different context (to point out that most things fall into a yes/no/maybe type of situation and there are rarely simply yes/no answers) but it applies here too.  Hopefully this little piece will help you count beyond two.

The Hight Intensity Training (HIT) Example

For those who live under a rock, HIT refers to High Intensity Training (not to the confusingly similarly named HIIT or High-Intensity Interval Training).  Developed by Arthur Jones (as much to market Nautilus equipment or anything else) but truly popularized by Mike Mentzer (who called it Heavy Duty training), HIT has more or less become synonymous with doing 1 set to failure of a given exercise.

Interestingly, Jone’s original HIT was not nearly this extreme and actually included a fairly moderate volume of training, maybe 9 sets/week per muscle group.  All of them were to total failure, mind you.   But it only got super silly later on.

In arguments with HIT’ers, if you suggest doing more than one set, you typically see a great example of what I’m talking about.  Specifically, you will often see the statement to the effect of “If you’re going to do more than 1 set, why not do 10, or 20, or 80?”  HIT’ers see the world in two simple binary situations: either you stop at one set or you do as many sets as possible.

Hilariouly: in the modern era, what HIT’ers used as a dumb example has apparently been taken as a recommendation since people think more volume is better so why not do all of it.

But this is a case of excluding the middle. What they seem incapable of grasping is that there is nothing saying that you can’t do perhaps 4-8 hard sets per muscle group in a workout.  To them the only options are 1 set and “All the sets”.  Since 1 set is clearly superior to “All the sets” it is obviously the correct choice.

The Clean Eating Example

The idea of eating “clean” is one that runs rampant in the physique sports.  Simply stated, “eating clean” means eating only unprocessed foods in the diet.  Well, except when it’s inconvenient at which point exceedingly processed foods can be rationalized as being “clean”.

It’s always amusing watching rabid clean freaks rationalize foods that don’t fit their definition (Crystal Light comes  to mind) while eliminating foods (such as dairy) which clearly do fit their definition.  And when you get into arguments with clean freaks and suggest that it’s not required to eat clean 100% of the time, you will often get a response to the effect of “I guess I could go binge on junk food and McDonald’s and pizza at every meal, sure.”

Which isn’t even remotely close to what is being said.

In the clean freak’s mind, there are two binary options: you either eat clean 100% or you’re eating nothing but junk food at every meal every day.  The idea that you might “eat clean” (whatever those words mean to you) 80-90% of the time and include selective “unclean foods” (whatever that means to you) the other 10-20% of the time is simply an inconceivable one to many.  But clean eaters exemplify the worst things about rigid dieting.

They are excluding the middle: it’s clean 100% of the time (except when it’s not) or junk food 100% of the time, you can’t do anything in the middle.  Even though you clearly can.  And most do, and more probably should.

As a bit of a side note, it’s interesting that many of the most extreme “clean” eaters including a “Cheat day”.  On said day they often go out of their way to eat the most junk food humanly possible, often to the point of making themselves sick.  In practice, the amount of “unclean” food they eat in this single day is far beyond what the average flexible dieter is eating in a week.

As well, many fall into the trap whereby if even a gram of an ‘unclean’ food passes their lips, they have ruined their diet and must go binge on everything they can get their hands on.    They need to read my book A Guide to Flexible Dieting.

The Paleo Diet Example

Arguing with rabid paleo folks is about the same as arguing with the clean eating crowd.   First and foremost, they are 100% paleo until they really want to work something in to their diet which they somehow justify.  A favorite example was an appallingly bad book called The Paleo Diet for Athletes.  It argued that athletes should eat paleo but then managed to justify things like energy gels and carbohydrate drinks with the logic that it “was like when paleo man found some honey.”   I laughed so very hard at that because it was so very very stupid.

Anyhow, arguing with paleo dieters pointless.  If you suggest that a diet can safely include some refined grains, you will usually be met with a statement to the effect that “I’d never eat a diet that is 80% carbs.” or something roughly to that effect.   Mind you that’s not what is even remotely being said.  That’s just what they heard.

The paleo eater seems to see the world as one of two things: you are either a strict paleo eater consuming nothing but meats, veggies, fruits and other paleo-approved ™ foods or you’re living on nothing but refined grains.  There is no possible middle ground.

It’s one or the other, if you’re not 100% paleo, you’re 100% at the other extreme.   Apparently that whole concept of an athletic diet where you eat lots of protein, fruits, vegetables AND some amount of grains is simply inconceivable to them.  Despite the fact that athletes and bodybuilders have done that for decades.

They are excluding the middle: your diet is either 100% paleo (except for the exceptions they justify) or you’re eating 80% refined grains.  There is no possible middle ground that they can conceptualize.

The HIIT vs. Steady State Example

Despite the similar acronyms, I am now talking about High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) rather than the HIT weight training crew.  And for some years there has been an idiotic either-or kind of argument raging about the issue of steady state vs. HIIT.  Basically, and this is mostly a marketing thing/a backlash to the over-emphasize on low-intensity cardio of previous years, folks have flip flopped and coaches are advocating all HIIT all the time.

Coaches will argue to the effect of “I would never have an athlete do low intensity work because marathon runners have a poor power output” or something roughly to the effect.   You’ll see similar stupidity aimed at folks aiming to lose fat where the statement is something akin to “Hours of low intensity work burn off muscle.”  As if the only way to do aerobic work is by doing hours and hours of it every day.

These are the folks who will put up that idiotic picture comparing sprinters to marathoners to show that one is muscular and the other is skinny.  And then try to conclude that aerobic training makes you skinny.  It’s wrong for a number of reasons not the least of which is that marathoner run 20+ hours/week which has nothing to do with doing 45-60 minutes of aerobic work three times per week.

In the minds of such people, there is no way to do 45-60 minutes of low intensity work a few times per week even if dieters and contest bodybuilders have done exactly that for decades.  Nor can a mixture of low-intensity work (i.e. 2-4 sessions/week) plus some HIIT (i.e. 1-2 sessions per week) possibly be done.   You know, like basically every endurance athlete in the world trains.

They are excluding the middle: It’s either nothing but interval sessions at every workout OR you’re training for the Tour De France and doing 30 hours per week of aerobic work, you can’t do anything in the middle.

What’s My Point?

Duh….Stop excluding the middle.

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17 thoughts on “Excluding the Middle

  1. I have found that fitness is not one-size-fits-all.  That’s been my philosophy for almost 15 years, as a fitness-industry professional and current owner of a chain of gyms in the Washington DC area. 
    While working with my many clients over the years, I have found that most  have a hard time finding and understanding what’s right for them in terms of their personal health and fitness lifestyle regimen.  
    To address this problem, I launched a website where I interview top health, fitness, and nutrition experts who share their philosophies, methodologies and secrets.   I also offer an opportunity to promote a product or service that I’d be comfortable recommending to my clients.  These interviews have proved to be beneficial to clients, and members of the general public who want to educate themselves and then decide what’s right for them.
    I would love to have you share your fitness philosophy with my enthusiastic and curious audience. 
    The time commitment is about 45 minutes to an hour on a Skype with video connection.
    I’m really looking forward to interviewing you.
    Judd Borakove

  2. This post is the most brilliant I’ve ever read… or the stupidest.

    (See what I did there?)

  3. Right on target.

    Funny thing about the HIT people is it never occurs to them that a person might REALLY REALLY ENJOY lifting weights and being in the gym, and not be the least bit interested in minimizing the time spent lifting.

    “Why would you devote an hour to exercising when you can do it in four minutes?”
    “Maybe because I enjoy exercising.”

  4. “This is going to be one of those seemingly pointless posts that doesn’t say a whole lot”

    Not at all.

    Very Nice work!

  5. Isn’t “Stop excluding the middle” excluding the middle? How about “exclude the middle, but only when appropriate”, wouldn’t it be better?

    Example: I don’t smoke. But there’s certainly a middle between not smoking at all and smoking couple of packs a day. Should I accept the middle and enjoy a couple of cigs every day, certainly that would be better for me … or not?

  6. H.I.I.T. enthusiasts are some of the most arrogant and dogmatic people you could ever have a discussion with. While I think H.I.I.T. is a highly effective and time efficient way to do cardio it is certainly NOT the only way to skin a cat.

    I personally like to do what you said Lyle, and that is 3-4 session of H.I.S.S. (High intensity steady state, which is an acronym that I first heard bandied about by Tom Venuto) and three sessions of H.I.I.T.

    I don’t care how hard you train you can only burn so many calories in 20-30 minutes. A 45-60 minute session of moderate to moderately high steady state will burn as many if not more calories, both during and after the session. You cited a study a while back that quantified the “afterburn” effect of steady state cardio and it was higher than many people thought.

    Like most things in life the answer lies in the middle. A mix of steady state and H.I.I.T. will keep your body guessing, your mind engaged and will enable you to recover more readily from one bout of cardio to the next. Doing H.I.I.T. everyday is just begging for an injury and is downright foolish IMO. Moderate intensity steady state can be done more often without fear of injury or overtraining.

  7. Excellent article, something that has always baffled me nice seeing it outlined clearly… now it’s time to link some folks to it and watch them fall victim to this paradigm yet again.

  8. I’m not a regular reader, so maybe this question has been answered before, but I’m curious what your take is on paleo’s gluten aversion.

    If you read the paleo literature, you see gluten take the blame for every variety of auto-immune disease, and it seems to hint that everyone either has at least a minor case of celiac disease.

    I’m curious what your comments on that would be. Are their claims overblown? Is the science they base their claims on shaky or flawed?

    From the reading I’ve done, it seems like a dominant theme is that “Either you remove gluten from your diet completely, or you will endure a laundry list of chronic illnesses.” If we accept even a weakened version of that statement, I think we’ve accepted that gluten is somehow toxic/poisonous. I think that would mean that arguing about what middle-ground level of gluten consumption is okay is just arguing about what level of a daily poison dose wouldn’t be THAT bad for you.

  9. Hmm, false dichotomies, black/white thinking, straw-man arguments. I like the middle, like the grey. I’m annoyed by people telling me to cut carbs, even fruit, because white bread has no nutrition. I don’t mind gluten, don’t mind sat. fat, even enjoy a slice of pizza from time to time, which doesn’t mean I’ll die of a heart attack at 50. Had a conversation with a friend about the new lending laws, and what it means for mortgages, and I thought they were fine, as I don’t think people should buy things they can’t afford. Which, in his mind, means that I think poor people should be sterilized! Not quite the same kinda thing, but makes me shake my head at the [il]logical jump there.

    As far as nutrition/fitness, I see blogs occasionally from all meat eaters going to raw vegan overnight, and vice versa, and I also shake my head. Such extremes!

  10. This seems familiar to another article i had read a couple of years ago

  11. I agree: it’s important not to pose a false dilemma.

    It’s also important to remember that averaging the mainstream viewpoints doesn’t get you any closer to the truth. “All things in moderation” is only a good rule when you have no idea how to rationally evaluate any of your choices. For instance, I don’t see anyone recommending a moderate amount of smoking as part of one’s training regimen.

    What is valid, however, is saying “Perhaps what I’m doing isn’t 100% optimal. I don’t care, because it takes me more time and effort to ‘do it right’ than I gain in return.” The rational way to argue for a moderate approach is usually diminishing returns.

    JS –

  12. Great article Lyle. I see this with a lot of people, and most ‘fad diets’ seem to fall into this fallacy.

  13. I have an all or nothing mindset, but I know that’s a fault and I don’t tell my clients it’s black or white. Thanks for the balanced article – It’s good to see in writing how crazy your thinking is and put it in perspective

  14. Excellent article. I’ll pass it on to all my “Paleo” and “HIT” friends. Thanks for writing this.

  15. Moderation is good, it helped me break through my weight loss plateau. By which I mean the sugar rush from my once-every-three-days chocolate bar results in some crazy workouts.

  16. Hey Lyle,

    I took a few hrs to read thru alot of your articles. I understand where you’re coming from about moderation. I think ppl in general can be too dogmatic at times. but honestly, the paleo diet is the real deal and it isn’t because of the “carbs”. In a nutshell, I have been on the paleo diet decently strictly for about 2yrs, same with my family. Aside from reversing my obesity and leptin problems, it even helped tremendously with my mom, and cured her from her depressive episodes. she never struggled with her weight, but when you have depression, you’re clearly not at your best health.

    after doing alot of research, i do believe grains have a self-protective/chemical effect on your gut that causes low level gut inflammation…i.e. leaky gut. over time, this can affect the biochemistry in your body and lead to problems from depression to obesity, immune issues, and pretty much every modern disease out there. sure we don’t know all the details yet in medicine/nutrition but the main argument in paleo is to avoid a leaky gut. there seems to be newly arising research suggesting the important connection known as the brain-gut axis, that is often overlooked. if you are suffering from depression, doesn’t hurt to try the paleo diet (maybe add lots of starchy vegs if u need more carbs to run on). anything is better than the Western method of drugs, drugs, drugs aka symptom relief. Take care

  17. What are you saying? That we should just focus on the middle all the time? Do you only eat the core of an apple and throw the rest away?….Just kidding, great article. I finally know the difference between HIT and HIIT

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