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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