Black and White Thinking in Fitness

Did you ever think that the squat is the best exercise? That you need to avoid junk foods to build a great body? That having a bad day in the gym will not make you progress? Or that a diet needs 100% adherence in order to be effective?

If the answer is yes, you need to know about black and white thinking.

What is Black and White Thinking?

In psychology:

Black and white thinking is the failure in a person’s thinking to bring together positive and negative qualities into a cohesive, realistic whole.

What this means is that, instead of seeing something in its entirety, we tend to split it into two parts – one part positive and one part negative. Then, by thinking in an absolutist fashion, we will label that thing as either all positive or all negative.

Typical examples of black and white thinking involve judging in terms of:

  • Good or bad
  • Right or wrong
  • True or false
  • Perfect or terrible
  • Success or failure

As you can see, there is no room for flexibility here. Everything is either black or white with no middle ground. Additionally, black and white thinking implies that the two parts are mutually exclusive. Meaning, if something is black it cannot simultaneously be white and vice versa. To better illustrate this concept, let’s use the famous Rubin’s vase.

What do you see?

Depending on how you look at it, you will see either a vase or two faces looking at each other. However (and this point is crucial) you will never see both shapes at the same time. Either you see the vase or you see the faces. Furthermore, if you change your perspective and see the faces when you would previously see the vase, you will no longer be able to see the vase and vice versa.

Conceptually, this is exactly what happens in our brain when we think black and white. Something is either good or bad, true or false, right or wrong, etc. Then, if we change our mind, we jump to the extreme opposite and come to diametrically opposite conclusions. As a result, what was good is now bad, what was true is now false, and so on.

The Problems with Black and White Thinking

As you can imagine, black and white thinking is not a healthy habit. Because of its extreme nature, in fact, it can affect our lives in ways that are both limiting and potentially dangerous.

This is true for three main reasons.

Firstly, black and white thinking drastically narrows our perspective. Most things in life are not either black or white but rather made up of shades of gray. Therefore, if we only see things in black and white we miss out on alternative ways to see the world, which might be just as good (if not better) than our current perspective. Black and white thinking often creates a false choice between A and B, when in fact C might be a better option.

Secondly, closely related to the first issue, black and white thinking makes us excessively rigid and less flexible. The reason is simple. If we don’t acknowledge the gray areas in life, there is no middle ground. This makes us stubborn and dogmatic. Consequently, we will believe everything needs to be a specific way and everything else is completely wrong. As we will see, this absolute lack of flexibility sets us up for failure and can totally undermine our efforts.

Lastly, black and white thinking can seriously damage our sense of self and well-being. Black and white thinking is thinking in extremes. This means we will experience a constant emotional swing as we jump from one extreme to its opposite. Again, this is not healthy. It is no coincidence that black and white thinking goes hand in hand with multiple mental disorders. Among others, depression and narcissism (which I suspect to be not so uncommon in the fitness community).

However, if black and white thinking is so limiting and potentially dangerous, why do we find it so attractive?

Why Do We Think Black and White?

An interesting trait of human psychology is that we tend to over-simplify stimuli in our social world. For some reason, our mind seems to like simple, categorical ways to divide information. But why does this happen? In other words, what makes black and white thinking so attractive to our brain?

The answer is simple – avoiding stress.

As I explain here, the body doesn’t handle well excessive amounts of stress. Beyond a certain point, stress can disrupt the homeostasis (our internal equilibrium) and the body fights to maintain the homeostasis more than anything else. This brought the body to develop, over the years, a series of defensive mechanisms to better deal with stress. One of them is black and white thinking.

As we know, figuring things out is stressful and figuring complicated things out is even more stressful. If we think black and white, though, we don’t really have to look at things in their complexity. We just have to decide whether they are black or white. This saves us a lot of stress by giving us the illusion we have everything figured out and we don’t need to struggle anymore.

However, the sense of control we experience is false and only temporary. In fact, life doesn’t fit into a box and the world is more complex than just “black or white”. Therefore, being overly simplistic can be the basis of major problems.

Occasionally, there are times when black and white thinking is actually useful. When facing a life-threatening situation, for example, we must make a snap decision and act fast. In these cases, black and white thinking is helpful as it narrows the choice between “fight” and “flight”. Most of the times, though, this is not required. Instead, a more balanced approach is a better option.

Seeing Shades of Gray with Critical Thinking

The black and white thinking mind has no balance in its thought process. Everything is one-sided and extremely rigid. Life, on the other hand, is full of nuance and shades of gray. So how do we find a balance between the black and white extremes?

A good way to start acknowledging the gray areas of life is critical thinking.

Critical thinking is the objective analysis of facts to form a judgment.

This is done in three steps:

  1. Collecting data
  2. Evaluating data
  3. Forming an objective opinion based on the data available

Essentially, with critical thinking, we take the time to gather and evaluate information instead of jumping to black-or-white conclusions. Most importantly, we base our opinions on sound facts rather than gut reactions. This helps in widening our perspective and acknowledging those gray areas between the black and white ends of the spectrum.

Most things in life are not 100% good or bad but contain elements of both. As a result, they are not either good or bad but rather good under certain circumstances and bad under other circumstances instead. It all depends on context.

For example, it’s very common to hear that the squat is the best exercise. However, is the best exercise for what? And for who? Certainly, the squat is great for someone who knows how to execute it properly and needs to improve at it. However, how good can it be for someone performing it with poor technique? For someone with very limited joint mobility? For someone with preexisting back or knee injuries? Or for someone who simply doesn’t need to get better at squatting?

See, it doesn’t have to be one extreme or the other. There is a middle ground, too. Which way of thinking will lead to a better long-term outcome?

Black and White Thinking in Nutrition

We have talked extensively about the limits and dangers of black and white thinking. Yet, black and white thinking pervades the majority of information. Of course, information on training and nutrition is no exception.

In particular, when it comes to nutrition, there are two main ways black and white thinking can undermine our efforts:

  1. Rigid meal plans
  2. Rigid food choices

Let’s talk about each.

Rigid Meal Plans

Rigid meal plans are those dietary plans where everything is fixed. From breakfast to dinner, they tell us everything we are supposed to eat, in which amount, and at which time of the day.

Rigid meal plans are very attractive because they are easy and straightforward to follow. In fact, we don’t have to learn about nutrition to follow a meal plan. Furthermore, we don’t have to stress out planning meals for ourselves as it’s all ready. However, rigid meal plans inevitably carry two problems with them.

The first problem is that we cannot expect to follow a meal plan 100% accurately, 100% of the times. We are not robots. If we are not flexible, our life will revolve around our diet and we will burn out. Even if we don’t, life happens and something (holiday, wedding, etc.) will eventually make it impossible for us to stick to our plan.

The second problem is that meal plans don’t tell us what to do when we are “off the plan”. And this is where black and white thinking can lead to disasters. In fact, if we think black and white, we will see ourselves as either “on the plan” or “off the plan”.  If we are on the plan, we are good. If we are off the plan, we are bad.

So, let’s say our diet prescribes an apple at noon and we had an orange instead. Are we on the plan or off the plan? The two fruits might have the same nutrition profile. However, because of black and white thinking, we could think we screwed our diet and might as well have a pizza. Now, we are definitely off the plan! The point is meal plans should serve as guides. The same is true for macronutrient targets (macros).

Rigid Food Choices

Another common form of black and white thinking in nutrition is rigid food choices. Essentially, rigid food choices means dividing foods into two categories:

  • Foods we can eat
  • Foods we cannot eat

The criteria we can use to make this distinction can vary. For example, if we are vegetarian, we will remove meat and fish from our diet. Instead, if we are paleo, we will cut grains, legumes, and dairies. More generally, though, all rigid food choices are based on the same black and white thinking flaws. That is, some foods are good and some foods are bad.

Of course, there are instances in which this distinction is appropriate. If we have any allergies, for example, there are certain foods we obviously don’t want to eat. Most of the times, though, there is not a valid reason for doing it.

Take the “clean eating” mentality for example. If you ask someone in the fitness community what to eat, chances are they will come up with a list of “clean foods” to eat and “dirty foods” to avoid. Surely, this approach can work. However, do we really have to think so extreme?

And what makes a food good or bad, anyway?

If you think about it, very few foods are measurably bad for us. Especially if we have no allergies or metabolic diseases. Most bad foods are in fact “junk food”, which we consider bad because of lack of nutrients (micronutrients, protein, and fiber). So, yes, junk food is not ideal. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean we should completely avoid it.

Consuming bad foods becomes a problem, but only when they dominate our diet. So, instead of excluding them altogether, why not including more healthy foods? Having “bad foods” in moderation improves flexibility. Which, in turn, helps with consistency and adherence.

Black and White Thinking in Training

One of the main reasons people fail their diets is because of their rigid mindset approach. However, black and white thinking is not isolated to the topic of nutrition. Just like with nutrition, in fact, there are two main ways black and white thinking can affect training:

  1. Rigid training programs
  2. Rigid exercise selection

Let’s talk about each.

Rigid Training Programs

Similarly to rigid meal plans, rigid training programs are those training programs where everything is fixed. From Monday to Sunday, they tell us everything we are supposed to do in the gym. Which days to train, which exercises to do, how much weight to use, how many repetitions to perform, etc.

In the fitness community, these programs are better known as “cookie cutter” programs. The idea behind them is that if we all do the same things, we will all have the same results. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.

The first problem with cookie cutter programs is that we are all different and respond to training differently. Therefore, no single program can be optimal for everyone. Surely, it is possible that what gives us the best results is very similar to what other people are doing. However, something else might work even better for us.

The second problem is that even the most optimal program is not always going to be optimal. We are not robots. Some days we are capable of doing more. Other days, we barely match our average performances. We don’t always know the reason for these fluctuations. Nonetheless, when they happen it’s important to have some flexibility.

For example, say our program prescribes an intensity equal to 85% of our 1RM. Typically, this weight results in about five maximal repetitions (5RM). On good days, though, we might be able to do seven or eight. Conversely, on bad days, only two or three. So, when are we on the program and when are we off? And when are we making progress?

The fact is some days we need more work to make progress, some days we need less. Flexibility allows us to adjust training to match our needs on any particular day.

Rigid Exercise Selection

The last aspect of black and white thinking we need to address is rigid exercise selection. Rigid exercise selection means dividing exercises into two categories:

  • Good exercises that we must do
  • Bad exercises that we must avoid

Needless to say, this black and white thinking mindset will cause us nothing but troubles.

Firstly, there are no absolutes. There is no exercise we absolutely have to do. Similarly, there is no exercise we absolutely have to avoid. There are only exercises. Among them, the only ones we actually “have to do” are those specific to our sport.

Take powerlifting, for example. Any powerlifting program must include the squat, bench press and deadlift. However, it’s not because these exercises are better than others. It’s just because powerlifting is a sport where you squat, bench press and deadlift heavy weights. If you want to get better at these movements, you obviously have to practice them.

Secondly, there are no absolutely good or absolutely bad exercises. The same exercise can be good for someone and simultaneously bad for someone else. Actually, the same exercise can be good or bad, depending on the situation, even for the same individual! It all depends on context.

To understand how this is possible, consider the following:

  • Limb and torso lengths
  • Muscle origins and insertions
  • Muscle fiber types
  • Joint mobility
  • Weak muscle groups
  • Technical skill

All these factors determine the most effective exercises for each individual and the safest way to perform them. And they all vary from person to person. Therefore, not only there is no best single exercise, but there is also no single best way to perform it.

So, definitively, certain exercises and certain lifting techniques will be effective for large groups of people. Yet, again, no single way of doing things is best for everyone.

Conclusions

Black and white thinking is an absolutist mindset that divides everything into black or white categories. This gives us the illusion we have everything under control. In reality, though, it only limits our perspective and sets us up for failure. This is true in life, just as is true in the gym.

In fact, black and white thinking is particularly dangerous for us fitness enthusiasts. Just think of how many articles have titles like “Top 10 foods to avoid” or “Top 5 exercises to do”. All these articles look at foods, exercises, diets or programs in isolation. The problem, however, is that these concepts don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist as part of a whole. This is why it’s so important to use critical thinking and understand the aspects of context and individuality.

The fitness industry has every interest in convincing us there’s only one way to do things. Especially, if there is something they can sell us. If it was that easy, though, we all would be doing the same things and we all would be strong, lean, and healthy. And this is sadly not the case.

Sure, cookie cutter solutions can work. However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. At most, there are one-size-fits-many solutions. And still, there are many different factors to take into account. The truth, while hard to admit, is that very few things are universally right or wrong. In fitness, just as in life, the most appropriate answer is often “It depends”.

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