Reductionism vs Holism

Philosophy in strength & conditioning…WTF?  Hold on someone might accuse us of using or brains for something more than just adding up colored plates.  Don't worry…stick with me for a few paragraphs and it will all make sense.

Whether you like it or not there are two schools of philosophical thought at play in modern strength & conditioning…Reductionism and Holism.

Reductionism is the philosophical position that a complex system is no more than the some of it's parts.  In S&C this is reflected in schools of thought such as FMS.  While not its entire scope of operation, much of the implementation of FMS is based on identifying tight or weak structures and pursuing their abstract improvement on the basis that those improvements will transfer to more complex athletic tasks.  While quiet a bit removed, the origin-insertion anatomists maintain a similar train of thinking…muscle starts here finishes there, therefore we strengthen that isolated movement and everything else will work.  This is often referred to as isolated muscle training (I can hear the "boo's and hisses" from the crowd).

Quick, move on to what they want to hear!

Holism is the antithesis perspective, promoting the position that complex systems cannot be understood solely in terms of their component parts.  Ahhh…lets squat, deadlift and do muscle ups and we will be able to do anything???  Clearly this school of thought is championed by the "hard-arse" and "tough-guy" contingent that can't see beyond the barbell.  At a more science based level the text Anatomy Trains by Thomas Myers reflects a Holism perspective in that the author describes the nature of connective fascia in the body and how it links multiple joints and structures in the body in sequence and that any alteration in function within that sequence may produce symptoms quite removed from the specific site of the issue.

So who's right! 

My view is that it is central to elite S&C coaching that you must be capable of operating seamlessly between both schools of thought.  I will further classify this statement by saying that I have found it central to my longevity to be able to understand and utilise both schools of thought within the contact field sport genre of athletic endeavour.

How about some examples to make my point…

For the Reductionists…
I recently read somewhere a quote from a strength coach (I apologize I can't recall the reference) that he questioned whether muscles fail to fire, and I believe he suggested lifting more…clearly a Holism perspective.  I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt in some athletes, particularly young and poorly conditioned ones, key muscle structures do fail to fire, and probably more accurately fail to fire in the correct sequence or at a sufficiently high rate (read Franz Bosch's work on reflex strength for a more comprehensive point of view).  Further, I would contend that when faced with any number of pathologies (the type generated in contact sports) key muscle structures DO FAIL to fire!  Take any one of the following…quad cork, PCL strain, ACL strain, patella tendon trauma, the VMO can be seriously inhibited, particularly in the face of a joint effusion.  While relatively normal function may be restored to the knee joint, failure of the VMO to fire can lead to significant secondary issues associated with the patelo-femoral joint.  In cases like this you need to do whatever it takes to get that isolated muscle to kick back into gear otherwise any further progression is redundant.  When faced with a  patella trauma recently I used very aggressive EMS (electro-muscle stimulation) as warm up and during a modified deadlift to ensure I got the VMO working as required.  The Reductionist mind set dictated I had to get the isolated element of the system working before I could move onto the whole.  

For the Holists…
Lateral hip stability is a cornerstone physical capacity that can prevent injuries ranging from ACL ruptures to complex groin issues.  To be effectively developed it cannot be stimulated by isolated tasks.  Once general co-ordination in the glute-med is achieved, movements should be advanced quickly to include not only external resistance but also reflex activities such as landing and cutting. 

So where does this leave us.  A good mate of mine who has served extensively with the Australian SAS Regiment once told me that in the field whenever you use binoculars be sure to take them off and look at the whole picture.  That has always stuck with me.  Keep you mind open to the isolated detail but never lose sight of the big picture.  

You can read about all the philosophical approaches (as mentioned above) but really there is no way to learn it other than experience.  Employ clear cause and effect logic.  Don't get sucked into becoming a groupie.  Clearly there are some fine professionals from whom you can learn plenty, but don't become such a militant supported of said professionals that you disregard logically thinking altogether.  

Remember, for professionals working in field / team sports the end game is the performance on the field and everything you do should be aimed at that...if that means a player does an awesome deadlift so be it...equally if another athlete can not deadlift figure out the "work around" and get them on the field!

Regards

JW

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Jason Weber
Jason Weber

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