Why Taleb is wrong on primal exercise (and Sisson is right)

Nassim Taleb (of Black Swan fame) has an article on this website that describes his personal exercise regime: 10-15 hours per week of “walking without any effort”, and “very, very, rare weight lifting events”“typically in a hotel” – that were “often very short, less than 15 minutes” and that were “leaving [him] completely exhausted”. Then he would be “sedentary for weeks and hang around cafes”.

Whilst this is on the surface very similar to Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint workouts, it differs in two crucial dimensions: (1) intensity, and (2) focus. To be fair, Taleb’s workout is probably closer to Sisson’s than to the classic every-day-the-same-effort gym routine. But the point is: gym-routine has moved on, and whilst maybe not yet entirely understood by the traditional “Globo-Gym” patron, the fact that you need to constantly modulate exercise load (and type) to achieve optimum performance is uncontroversial – just look at CrossFit, or Westside Barbell for something more sport-specific. So if you are of the traditional Globo type,  Taleb’s routine might be progress. If not – Sisson or CrossFit is clearly the better choice.

Now let me get rid of Taleb’s first implicit argument first: he claims it works. I do believe that (even though I have to point out that he only claims to have lost “excess” fat but he does not give a definition for excess – let’s give him the benefit of doubt here – the photos could support either story). But then, it is well known (see eg Rippetoe) that every program works for a beginner and – even more important – that body composition (and in particular fat level) is primarily driven by nutrition, not exercise (see eg Taubes). And as we have seen that Taleb (whilst looking somewhat trim) is no Schwarzenegger (and no Sisson either) I would say that the “beginner’s gains” is plausible (“failure-to-reject-the-null-hypothesis-on-the-given-data” would be the scientific term for that).

Now lets take the two prescriptions in turns. I first want to focus on the lack of focus in Taleb’s routine – at least when I have read this, I had in my mind a (very funny – dont ask) image of Taleb going crazy for 15 min on whatever Kettler machine he finds. And believe me – I have done my fair share of business travelling, staying in the same kind of hotels that Taleb stays – their gyms are not generally well equipped, in five stars (this means they have a pool though).

Now IMHO (well, I haven’t been there either), Taleb’s description of the primal lifestyle is a bit simplistic:

[they] sprinted when chased or when chasing (once in a while in an extremely exerting way), and walked about aimlessly the rest of the time.

The latter part of the sentence is mammoth-sh+t IMHO. Primal lifestyle required skill, and a lot of it. I would doubt Taleb (or myself for that matter) could kill a squirrel with a stone throw, successfully get a javelin where it is meant to go (especially with your heart rate maxed out, and from a distance where the mammoth or sabre tooth tiger is not going to kill you in a split second) or launch an atlatl. All of those things required strength and – specific and generalmovement skills. You don’t get those by doing your equivalent of Taleb’s go-crazy-randomness-workout in the hotel, or walks through the Jewish quarter of Venice. You get them from one thing, and one thing only: Practice. A lot of practice. And maybe even some supporting exercises – I am pretty certain that men at the time had an elaborate system of training their children in the use of their weapons. After all, they did not have to bother with history, maths, geography, foreign languages in primal junior school, so they had ample time to concentrate on sports.

And as I have just mentioned it: I am certain that the primal guys had sports and competition. Apart from the obvious advantages that has for upping the skillset of the tribe, how else would the women of the tribes choose whose gene-pool they want to help extending. Primal sport is pure signalling – read your economics 101. I kid you not: remember having seen this documentary of one of the recently discovered tribes, and they had their equivalent of the Highland Games (and by the way – ask Dan John about the benefits of kettlebell training for those, or for throwing a javelin). Essentially, a guy would shoulder a big tree trunk – probably 1/2 of his weight, or more, and run with it for a couple of miles. The prize: the women of the tribe (at least some of them) were all over him in a wild orgy afterwards – I am serious. I bet you those guys did spend a lot of time training for the competition, and not Taleb-style.

As for the second topic – intensity, or better, volume (which is intensity x time; Taleb does intensity, but too rarely IMHO, and he does not do the middle intensity/middle duration stuff at all where you can in fact accumulate volume). Of course Pareto principle is at work: you get 80% of the gains with 20% of the effort. And in this respect I would think that Taleb’s strategy is actually pretty good: if your goal is to get fit with a very limited investment of time (assuming you don’t count the walking, or do it whilst your are reading something you need to read anyway) then this might be the way to go. But if you want to get really fit, you simply have to get more volume in, otherwise your body won’t adapt.

This is where Mark Sisson comes in: he uses the same principles, but he does real stuff. I mean, compare Ultimate Frisbee every Sunday to “walking without any effort”. Mark uses the same principles as Taleb, but with two crucial differences: more skill, and more volume. But this is why Mark is a very gifted coach and exercise professional, and Taleb is an outstanding thinker in a rather unrelated field. And despite all what I have said before commands respect – that someone so removed from “real” physical exercise can get is so right!

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12 thoughts on “Why Taleb is wrong on primal exercise (and Sisson is right)

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  9. You do realize that gains are nonlinear or even discontinious to ‘intensity’ (force). So doubling the weights might not only for example quadruple your gains but might even trigger something all new together (metabolic pathways).

    If power is the result your after then practice high power.

  10. Also for your genetics its do or die. If you can train that hard you probably have some meganisms to adapt or stop doing it.

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