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Risk Homeostasis and Your Strength and Conditioning Programs

Written on July 27, 2012 at 7:27 am, by Eric Cressey

A few years ago, I read What the Dog Saw, a collection of short stories from popular author Malcolm Gladwell.

In one particular short story, Gladwell introduces the concept of “risk homeostasis.” Essentially, risk homeostasis refers to the fact that modifications that are designed to make things safer often eventually have a break-even effect on safety because of adaptations to those modifications.  In other words, something that should protect us doesn’t because new compensatory factors make things more dangerous.

As an example, Gladwell observers that taxi drivers who are given anti-lock brakes actually wind up with higher incidences of traffic violations and accidents.  Presumably, this occurs because the drivers feel they can drive faster and more aggressively because of this added “protection.”  

In another case, a study showed that adding childproof lids to medicine bottles actually increased the likelihood that children would die from accidental overdose of consuming drugs not meant for them. The added “safety” leads to adults being less cautious with where they hide bottles of pills.

While watching an absolutely atrocious YouTube video with some of the worst box squat technique in history the other day, my thoughts flashed back to this concept of risk homeostasis from when I read Gladwell’s work.  There are actually some remarkable parallels in the world of strength and conditioning.  

1. Wearing a belt.

When a lifter throws on a belt, he assumes that it will make an exercise safer for him.  While the research isn’t really in agreement with this assertion, we’ll roll with this assumption.

In real life, most lifters throw on a belt because it helps them handle additional weights – and at these weights, their form usually deteriorates rapidly, and does so under additional compressive loading.

2. Popping anti-inflammatories and getting cortisone shots.

When a doctor gives you a cortisone shot or recommends oral anti-inflammatories, it’s because he believes you have some level of inflammation, whether it’s a bursitis, tenosynovitis, or other issue. This short course of anti-inflammatories will reduce that inflammation.

You rarely see these issues in isolation, though; they’re usually accompanied by degenerative changes (e.g., tendinosis) or structural changes (e.g., bone spurs) that could also be causing your symptoms.  Unfortunately, your anti-inflammatories don’t know that; they just know they’re supposed to kill off all your pain.  They make you asymptomatic, but not necessarily “healthy.”

Many individuals get a cortisone shot or take a few days of NSAIDs and assume they can just go right back to training hard with no restrictions because their pain is gone.  A few weeks or months later (when the cortisone shot wears off), they’re back in pain (and usually it’s worse than before) because they’ve done nothing to address the underlying causes of the problem in the first place.  They shut off the inflammation and pain, but kept the degeneration, structural changes, and stupid.

The anti-inflammatory intervention is supposed to be part of a treatment plan to make folks healthier, but actually gives them a false sense of security, which in turn makes an injury or condition worse.

3. Lifting alongside an “experienced” coach who has done stupid s**t for decades, but has never been hurt.

It’s not uncommon to feel a sense of security when you train with a coach with tons of time “under the bar” himself.  His training background – and reportedly clean injury history – gives you peace of mind and you buy into his system.  And, you continue lifting heavier and heavier in poor form because he’s proof that it works, right?

Unfortunately, he’s a sample size of one.

His experience should make training safer, but instead, it just leads you to take more poorly calculated risks with your training.

As an example, I did this while goofing around a few years back, but I’d never let one of my athletes try it. There are enough ugly box jump videos out there on YouTube to appreciate that a lot of coaches don’t have the same kind of self-restraint.

4. Wearing elbow sleeves and knee wraps.

Elbow sleeves and knee wraps are incredibly common in the world of strength sports, and with good reason: they can really help with getting or keeping a joint warmed-up.

The only problem is that most lifters use them just so that they can power through the exact exercises that caused the joint aches in the first place.

As an example, a lot of lifters lack the upper back and shoulder mobility to use a narrow grip position on the barbell when back squatting, and the medial (inside of the) elbow takes a beating as a result.  Rather than doing some shoulder mobility drills, they just throw on a band-aid in the form of an elbow sleeve.

5. Picking “joint-friendly” strength exercises.

 There are lots of ways to deload a bit in the context of strength exercise selection. Maybe you do some single-leg work instead of squatting.  Or, maybe you do some barbell supine bridges in place of deadlifting.  These substitutions usually make a strength training program safer.

That is, of course, unless you do them with horrendous technique.  Sadly, this isn’t uncommon.  You see people who meticulously prepare for squatting and deadlifting and heavily scrutinize their technique with video analysis, yet they’ll blow through other exercises with terrible form.  They expect exercise selection alone to make their strength training program safer, but compensate for this added safety by butchering technique.

Of course, these are only five examples of how risk homeostasis applies to strength and conditioning programs, and there are certainly thousands more.  Where do you see good intentions go astray in your training?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.

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50 Responses to “Risk Homeostasis and Your Strength and Conditioning Programs”

  1. Barath Says:

    Leave alone not letting your athletes not do the crazy box jump, you didn’t even let us see it!

  2. Eric Cressey Says:

    Barath,

    Not sure what you mean…

  3. R. Smith Says:

    Not many of us awakened thinking we’d read of risk homeostasis today; None of could have known we’d find it so enjoyable.

    RS

  4. Mike Says:

    Eric,

    Barath was referring to the video being only six seconds long. It skips from you looking at the tower to the end. We don’t see the jump.

  5. KB Says:

    I think he was saying the link didn’t work.

  6. Julio Romón Baillo Says:

    She means the video does not work.

    Great post BTW.

    Julio

  7. Dan Says:

    Barath is referring to the fact that the box jump video won’t play correctly.

  8. Jo Says:

    Eric, what a great post and reminder of the things we do for love (of lifting)… I would like to add the common misuse of shoes.. i.e lifting with a padded heel or just anything that breaks a good posture and creates imbalance while offering a range of motion and facilitation of movements that you normally wouldn’t have or be able to do due to short muscles (calves in this case..).

  9. Rock Smash Says:

    Can’t tell you how valuable this sort of post is.

  10. Dean Somerset Says:

    Nice article Eric. Also, you’re calves are somewhat less calves and more cattle in the video. They’re shortly going to turn into holsteins. The jump was fantastic as well.

  11. Dave Says:

    I think what Barath meant was that the video of your jump was 5 seconds, and for some reason it did not play properly (at all actually!).

  12. Shane Says:

    Very thoughtful article. Makes alot of sense. Unfortunately, it is something I see in the gym everyday.

  13. Eric Cressey Says:

    Ha! Thanks, Dean!

  14. Jeremy Says:

    Great list Eric. This is true of advanced bodyweight exercise as well. Slow steady progress with proper form is much better than pushing to hard to soon.

  15. Rees Says:

    Good stuff

  16. Odell Says:

    I think what Barath means is that the video didn’t play properly. We see you set up your approach and then the video immediately skips to the end.

  17. Erin Graham Says:

    Hi Eric, Barath means that the video was so short, the image was just a kind of swift grey blur.

    i really like your posts, always get something helpful from them.

    best,

    Erin

  18. Eric Cressey Says:

    Weird, it’s playing for me. Here’s the original YouTube video page:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yT4JbR4v-gQ&feature=youtu.be

  19. Jo Says:

    Eric, what a great post and reminder of the silly things we sometimes do for love (of lifting)…

  20. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Jo!

  21. KG Says:

    Eric,

    I’m seeing the same problem with the video. It skips forward to the end after only a half-second or so. Can’t get it to work on the main youtube page either. Never seen a video do this before. You managed to break youtube..congrats! lol. Good post!

  22. Ryan Says:

    Eric,

    I too have thought about the implications of using a belt, and feeling safer, and so deciding to lift heavier. I remember being guilty of squatting relatively light (315 when my max is 405) and hurting myself because I didn’t respect the weight and properly control my negative. I friend mine broke his ribs benching 135- same thing he was treating it like a warm up and didn’t respect the weight. Thanks again for the read.

  23. Chi Says:

    Eric,

    I think what Barath is saying is that the video of the box jump did not play. I had the same problem.

    In terms of what your article gets at, I am in total agreement with you on this one. I don’t use a weight belt unless the weight gets up into my 90+% 1RM. Even then, if I can do it without the assistance of the belt, I will. I don’t recommend extra equipment for that same reason. When we allow our bodies to rely on outside forces as a crutch, why should our bodies become stronger and adapt to the increased stress we are putting on it. My philosophy is, if you can’t pick it up or lift it without help, then you’re not ready and need to get stronger.

    I’d like to know your stance on performance enhancement supplements as well b/c my stance is very similar to that of exercise band-aids. Our bodies have a negative feedback mechanism built into it. If we start taking too much of something that it produces naturally, why should it produce more on its own when it is getting it from outside sources, and often times in unsafe amounts.

    Re: NSAID’s, our bodies give us the sensation of pain to let us know that we are doing something that harms the body and that we should stop and allow it to heal. When we take pain meds and keep going, we are essentially not listening to our bodies and pushing it into danger. So as much as NSAID’s help us, they can harm us as well. We need to use them wisely and for their true purpose.

  24. Robert Says:

    Nope, original youtube video fast-forwards itself to the end without actually playing anything.

  25. Eric Cressey Says:

    Reuploaded it. Hopefully this works. It’s playing fine for me!

  26. Sean Says:

    Blindly following accepted truths. Perfect examples would be pitchers jogging after throwing and hitters swinging heavy, weighted bats in the on deck circle. These don’t exactly follow the strength training theme you presented, but, being a fellow baseball guy, Im sure you can appreciate them. I find my high school kids’ batting form goes down the drain when they swing a weighted bat. I only have them swing a fungo bat or the bat they are actually using during their AB in the on deck circle now. I see loopy, long swings less often now!

  27. Kevin Says:

    Eric,

    Great post. More than anything, what I’ve taken from your post, and have realized for a long time without acting on it myself, is that coaches need coaches too. I may know everything under the sun (which I don’t) about strength and conditioning, yet my own stuborness prevents me from being objective about my own training. I should be my best client, but I’m not.

  28. Aron Says:

    One place where I see substitution is working partial ROM through exercises. While partial ROM can be helpful for strengthening weakened ranges of motion. Many people do the exact opposite and only work in the range where they are strongest and negate the benefits of working with a full ROM with lighter weight or a less difficult position (incline pushups).

    From the medical community (physical therapy is my specialty, I see this happen with surgery. People assume that things like spinal surgery are going to correct for the problem, but the patient and sometimes the surgeon neglect the therapy side of the full treatment and people end up with “failed surgeries” because their symptoms return or do not totally remit.

  29. Jen Says:

    Eric, I can’t tell you how much I enjoy reading your stuff. Every post is filled with wisdom, professionalism and just darn good advice for S&C coaches (and fitness coaches in general).
    I especially like #3. I see so many “coaches” out there…who think they can coach simply because they are good at the movement, exercise, what have you. “Here, I know how to do this – therefore I am a qualified coach!” Ugh. More importantly, I appreciate your posts because often times I can ‘check myself’ — none of us are perfect, and we should continually seek to grow and improve our craft. Thanks Eric.

  30. John Goldthorp Says:

    In a sense, I’d even consider overly cushioned footwear to fit in this category. More “support and protection” isn’t so great if it deprives us of sensory information or alters our natural posture or movement. Great topic! (…and the video is working!!)

  31. Jon Says:

    How do you determine if they’re a bad coach though? Based on what I read here, I can intuitively determine when they’re suggesting something terribly wrong, but does one properly vet a coach/trainer?

  32. Tim Dolen Says:

    There seems to be a lot of concern about what Barath is trying to say.

  33. Eric Cressey Says:

    Outstanding point on the footwear, John. Agree completely.

  34. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Jen! I appreciate the kind words.

  35. Eric Cressey Says:

    Excellent points, Aron. Very well said.

  36. Eric Cressey Says:

    Kevin,

    Join the club! The hardest person to coach is oneself. :)

  37. Eric Cressey Says:

    Good points, Sean!

  38. Dawn Says:

    Thank you for your information. Very interesting and informative as usual! You gave me a lot to think about:)

  39. Eric Cressey Says:

    Jon,

    Easier to say than do! One suggestion I make to folks is to make sure that a coach can justify EVERYTHING that he/she puts into a program, and that they can do so without hesitation. If they can’t, it’s a very bad sign, as they’re just throwing s**t on the wall to see what sticks.

  40. Nicholas Abram Says:

    Leave it to Gladwell to get us thinking outside the box. Well as a Massage Therapist, I often see people who are desperate for pain relief. They come to me saying they have tried everything, from NSAIDS to heating pads. Problems arise from using both together which many people I find do this. Along with heating pad overuse which pools blood in local tissue, also not good.

    Not to get too far off subject, but another item that has reached risk homeostasis is fire arms. A tool created for protection, used against the innocent.

    Anyway, thanks for the thought provoking subject Eric. Peace

  41. Frank Says:

    Spot on! The things we do to try to keep our youth. From an aging lifter! FR

  42. John D Says:

    That 50inch box jump is just SICK. fifty inches! thats 4 feet !! wow.

  43. Anthony J. Yeung Says:

    1) Barefoot training for people who aren’t ready for it.

    While it’s certainly better than wearing bricks for shoes, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Especially for someone whose feet had issues.

    2) Having a spotter for a weight a person could not lift.

    Spotters are great. But when they’re doing all the work, you need to scale down.

    3) *Excessive* use of straps.

  44. EP Says:

    EC, #3 reminds me of some articles that I have read from some of the more well known guys in powerlifting (and perhaps you are likely colleagues or friends with them) that seem to almost fetishize the many injuries and surgical procedures they have.

    This seems to be an effort to show how diesel and crazy they are. The thing is if you are really crazy, hyper-macho, go join the military, and do combat.

    Tearing your pec off the bone doesn’t prove anything, except that you know how to injure yourself. It’s like a strength training version of the show “Jackass”.

  45. Rob Says:

    Certainly the case with weight loss clients who use their new exercise regime as a reason to continue to make poor nutritional choices.

  46. Eric Cressey Says:

    Very true, Rob.

  47. Eric Cressey Says:

    Well said, EP! Couldn’t agree more.

  48. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Frank!

  49. Travis Owen Says:

    Great stuff! How about taking more “risks” nutritionally (or you could say being indifferent) simply because something “approved” or marketed as healthy (e.g. the whole grain check mark on sugary cereals for kids, or “100 calorie bars”).

  50. Victor Kizer Says:

    Lifting straps and gloves. I’m not concerned with my clients having “pretty” hands sans calluses that their girlfriend/wife will like and straps because they don’t need to out-lift their grip

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