Using the concept of antifragility with your exercise routine and health

Posted on August 29, 2013

(Last Updated On: April 6, 2016)

I just got done reading the majority of the book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder.


I say the majority because while this book has some cool insights, it’s 433 pages, and probably could have been 100. This is not an easy read. The author, Nicholas Taleb, is a mathematician / statistician / whatever you want to call it. He makes a great case for the fact the mathematically inclined often have a hard time communicating with things other than equations.

The book goes off in so many directions it’s impossible to keep up. Many tangents are stream of consciousness, where Taleb seems so happy with his book you’re forced to conclude he typed with one hand while pleasuring himself with the other.

Also, Taleb makes some inane health statements, which is common in these types of books. Author has a concept, tries to generalize this concept to human health / exercise, yet author has no health / exercise background other than his personal experience. An example: One of Taleb’s health rules is never consume sugar, especially fructose -commonly found in fruit. Yet, he repeatedly mentions his affection for wine and how often he drinks it. Taleb might want to look into what wine is made of. Grapes…which are fruit…which have fructose.

Anyways, there are some ideas worth taking from the book.

The thesis

An event happens to X. One of three things occurs:

1) X is hurt by the event

2) X is unfazed by the event.

3) X gets better because of the event.

Taleb titles these scenarios as:

1) X is fragile to the event.

2) X is robust to the event.

3) X is antifragile to the event.

An earthquake happens. A glass breaks because of the earthquake. That glass is fragile. If the glass was really strong and nothing happened to it? It’d be robust. If the glass got stronger because of the earthquake? It’d be antifragile. (There’s 100 pages of the book.)

An obvious example here is the human body and exercise. The body is, to a point, antifragile regarding exercise. Exercise makes us stronger / healthier / better.

The more specific application here is random events. How can we make ourselves antifragile to things we don’t see coming? Or, if we can’t become better due to random events, how can we at least be robust? So an event doesn’t derail us. The primary way I’ve thought about this is keeping up with a routine.

Making your fitness and eating routine robust / antifragile

Common scenarios which derail people:

  • Weekend events. Barbeque’s, birthdays, etc.
  • Can’t make it to the gym, or make it there late, because of traffic or work.

Here are some ways you can stay robust / antifragile:

  • Have one free day per week. Chances are you’re going to have some event, at least once a week, which is going to make it hard to eat healthy. Rather than fight this, embrace it. Doing so is good psychologically and physiologically. It’s actually better to do this than be perfect 7 days a week. 
  • Rather than perform all your exercises in a 45 minute block, spread them throughout the day. 10 minutes in the morning, 10 in the afternoon, 10 at night. For many it can be especially tough on the weekends to have a solid hour devoted to exercise. 5-10 minutes here or there can be easier.
  • As a trainer, give your clients rough appointment slots. What I do is tell people, “I’m here from this time to this time. You can come anytime between then.” The way you do this is by having small groups rather than one on one sessions. Someone hits traffic and is 30 minutes late? No big deal. Furthermore, a person may end up in a time slot with people they’re not accustomed to. Next thing you know, they hit it off with someone new and end up coming at the latter time on a regular basis instead. And, because they like that person, they’re more likely to make it to the gym.

Big upside; little downside

Taleb is a former trader. He applies his trading experience and antifragility concept to the vagaries of life. The idea being you’re always making bets in life, and what we want to do is pick bets with big upside and little downside. Make a bet of a thousand dollars where you can lose all $1000, and you only own a $1000? Not a good bet. The downside is too big. Make a bet where you can gain $10,000, lose $1000, and you own $10,000? Good bet. The upside is big; the downside is low.

Each time you pick an exercise, you’re making a bet. You’re betting this exercise is going to benefit you. But, there’s always a downside. How much will a certain exercise hurt you?

Benefit and hurt are relative here. Let’s use the most obvious application: Physical pain. We want to pick exercises which have big upside -get us out of pain, improve our fitness- and little downside -if they can hurt us, it’s not much. Within that, an exercise can either put you in pain (fragile), not hurt you (robust), or help you get out of pain (antifragile).

Since Taleb covers them, we’ll use the powerlifts. Bench pressing, back squat, deadlifting.

bench press elbows good

powerlifting squat


For the sake of argument, we’ll say all three lifts can help people get out of pain and or stay healthy. In pretty much all circumstances, this isn’t true, but we’ll go with it. Using the concept of antifragility, so far we have a bet with big upside. After all, getting out of pain / staying healthy is a great thing.

For downside, we’re looking at exercises where if we screw up, there isn’t much to worry about. If our form is bad for a rep, it’s no big deal.

One of the reasons bench pressing, squatting, and deadlifting are used in powerlifting is because they are the three lifts where you can lift the most weight. It’s very hard to lift more weight in other exercises. This is also why people love their advocation. In their mind, more weight = better.

What happens if you have bad technique on a powerlift? Bad technique where your shoulders, knees, or lower back are loaded with hundreds of pounds? Not good things, that’s what. I remember the guys from Westside Barbell (a powerlifting gym) mentioning most of the injuries their guys had was not during maximal lifts; it was warming up. Why? The warm-up sets were when they were most likely to not be as focused. Thus, it was when they were most likely to have bad form. Bad form on a set where they were lifting 50% of their max, and their max may be 800 pounds. 50% of 800 is 400 pounds. 400 pounds is heavy on your joints no matter what.

Taleb uses an example of a stone. What would you rather get hit with: One 50 pound stone, or 50, 1 pound stones? Ironically, Taleb also discusses his love of deadlifting, not realizing his own theory doesn’t back up his own practice.

This is one reason kids so rarely have serious injuries compared to adults. It’s really hard for a kid who can’t produce much force to tear his ACL. In many ways, through exercise selection, you can limit how much weight a person can lift, thereby limiting their injury risk.

I’m all for getting strong, but you need to ask yourself, “Is trying to lift 300 pounds instead of 200 really getting me anywhere?” Hell, is 300 pounds instead of 50 getting you anywhere? Unless you’re an athlete, probably not. 

(For those curious, yes, I have plenty of people lifting heavy. But, they don’t do it often, and their form better be damn near perfect.)

This is good business too. In all the people I’ve worked with there are only three strength goals people have given me. 1) Do a push up. 2) Do a chin up. 3) Bench press body weight. And number 3 was given by one person.

You know what nearly every person I’ve had has said though? “I want to feel better.” It’s better to get and keep people feeling healthy than it is to focus on how much weight they can lift.

Want to train with me? Check out the remote client process.

For a cool discussion regarding this book, check out the interview Daniel Kahneman did with Nassim Taleb: 

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