Enfeebling Supports

Recently I’ve been radicalised against shoe-padding.

The argument is: when you increase your shoe-padding, your feet will be more comfortable in the short-term. But the extra padding degrades your foot-muscles. So the “supportive” shoes are slowly making your feet weaker, which pushes you into buying shoes with even more padding. Which makes you more comfortable in the short term, but….

I’m going to call any supportive device that degrades your ability to perform the activity un-aided an enfeebling support.

Of course, this also implies a definition for a better kind of support: a strengthening support not only helps you do something while supported, but also makes you better at doing the thing “by yourself” once the support is taken away.

It’s easy to find (claimed) examples of enfeebling supports:[1]

  • Along similar lines to padded shoes, it’s claimed that bras degrade your chest-muscles, causing your breasts to sag more (which makes you seek a pushier bra, which causes more muscle degrdation, which….)

  • Tech legend and friend of the blog T.D. worries that chatGPT is degrading people’s coding skills, making them slightly better at coding right now but worse (and more dependent on prosthetics) in the long run.

  • Some people claim that soft processed foods are making our jaws weaker, pushing us into eating more soft processed foods, making (etc etc etc)

  • Overprotective parents seem to degrade their children’s ability to navigate the world, by “supporting” so much that the children get worse at doing things for themselves, and become even more reliant on the parents.

Notably, it felt harder to come up with examples of good supports, but there are two that I’m fairly sure are good -- pullup assist bands and weightlifting shoes -- which exemplify different categories of genuinely supportive support.

If you can’t do a body-weight pullup unassisted, you can use a kind of “pullup assist band” that takes on part of your weight. This exemplifies a category of supports that make a challenge more manageable, and where (cruically) you can modify the degree of help they give you so that you’re doing more and more of the work yourself over time.

Doing a pull-up with an assist band still increases your strength, and presumably increases your strength more than just dangling on the bar and failing to pull up at all would. Assistance bands are a strengthening support because when you take the band away again, you will be more-able to do an unassisted pullup than you were before.

A second type of strengthening support is embodied by weightlifting shoes. More competent people than me can probably explain exactly what weightlifting shoes do, but the rough idea is that they raise your heel and this improves the biomechanics of your squat.

Unlike the pull-up bands, the shoes aren’t taking over any of the work of the squat, they just support your body into a position where it’s able to do more work by itself. The shoes help you lift better and gain more muscle, which means that if you later lost the shoes you’d be able to squat more in socks than you’d been able to previously.

There’s something deeply tragic about enfeebling supports, nudging people into a bitter spiral where they’re ultimately worse off than when they started. It’s striking to me that there seem to be many examples of enfeebling supports in the wild, but I’ve never found a word or phrase to talk about them in general.[2] Hopefully just having a phrase for them will make them easier to spot, and easier to avoid.

  1. these are all just claims, I don’t know if any of them are true, including the thing about the shoes ↩︎

  2. if you know one, let me know! One of the strangest parts of blogging is the knowledge that there might already be a name for the thing you’re thinking about, but there’s no good way to search for it, except to send it to thousands of strangers and then find out if one of them knows a name already. ↩︎

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