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- Type of study. As stated above, the study has to be an RCT. An abstract won’t always come straight out and call a study an RCT, so look for the key word randomized. If you can’t find it, it’s not an RCT and the results aren’t worth your time.
- Were the researchers blinded? Single blinding means the researchers did not know whether the participants they were testing belonged to the test or control group and is an absolute requirement for reducing bias and establishing internal validity. Like using an RCT, this is a necessity and the results of a study that doesn’t use it shouldn’t be trusted.
- Who were the participants? Remember, we’re looking for good external validity here. Does the study population represent the general public, you or your athletes, or a group that you don’t even work with? If the participants don’t sound like you or your athletes, the results won’t necessarily apply to you.
- What was the level of training of the participants? One of the golden rules of exercise research is to never, ever use novice athletes. Novice athletes will respond positively to just about anything. Seriously, never buy into the results of a study that used novice athletes.
- What is the difference between the test and control groups? This is going to tell you what the study actually examined, and it’s not uncommon for a poorly designed study to end with the results reflecting something completely different from what was intended. Was the topic of the study the back squat, but the results were determined by testing leg press or leg extension weight? Seriously, this stuff is out there.
This all may sound a bit cynical, but in all honesty, that’s the scientific way. You need to examine everything closely, ask hard questions, and be a difficult sell on any idea. To do anything else is to be a sucker for every fad that comes along. Practice looking at studies, asking these questions, and thinking critically about the quality of the study and meaning of the results. Keep at it and you’ll be crunching through studies like a pro in no time.