“Tact in audacity consists in knowing how far we may go too far.”

Jean Cocteau

TTP and Conditioning Research reader Noel sent this erudite email recently to both Chris (of Conditioning Research) and me, in response to the ongoing and hotly debated SS/HIT vs. (among a plethora of other related issues) “functional training” discussions.  If you’re arriving late to the game, you can get a feel for what’s being said here and here.  Anyway, I wanted to pass along Noel’s comments, as they are intelligent, informed, and lend much to the overall discussion on this topic.  Also included is my short reply.

Fellas,

The recent posts about the BBS/super slow movement have irked me to
the extent that I am compelled to write this email. While on the macro
level I don’t really care what they espouse, I don’t think their
claims are getting the critical examination they deserve.

Let me crudely characterise the debate as consisting of two sides:
machine based, super slow, one set of failure based on published
research (Dr McGuff) versus free weights, 5 reps or less, multiple
sets based on coaching experience (Rip). I’m not suggesting Dr McGuff
and Rip are in direct opposition (I don’t know if they even know of
one another), but I want to use two exemplars to discuss this issue. I
hope we can all agree these guys are experts, and they hold viewpoints
that are contradictory. No one has the time to be knowledgeable in all
fields, so normally we defer to experts. When the experts disagree it
is time to examine the primary evidence more closely. The key thing
here is our standard of proof: how strong must the evidence be before
we accept it as true?

Now the BBS guys lean on the published literature. I went to PubMed,
did a search for “resistance training one set failure” and the first
relevant hit I found was:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17369792?ordinalpos=2&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_DefaultReportPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum

METHODS: Twenty-one women were divided randomly into 2 groups: Group 1
(n=10) performed a single set of the leg press exercise once per week,
while Group 2 (n=11) performed a single set of the leg press exercise
twice per week for a period of 8 weeks. Throughout the duration of the
study, an amount of resistance was utilized that allowed for a single
set of 6 to 10 repetitions to muscular failure.

This seems to back up their claims — but it is extremely weak
evidence! 21 people is tiny, and 8 weeks is very short. Consider this:
would you use a drug that had been tested on 21 people? I did a search
for drug trial sizes (and perhaps Keith can say more here) and it
seems a small trial is of the order of 300 people. Technically the
statistical power of this study — that is, its ability to show an
effect if there is one — is very low.

To see the problems this study might have, imagine you had two groups
of people, both of whom can lift 100kg on some exercise, with a
standard deviation of 5kg. Imagine one group trains with protocol A,
and the other with protocal B. After a year the group on A can lift
250kg +/- 12.5kg and the group on B can lift 200kg +/- 10kg (so group
A gained 1.5x the strength and group B gained 1x the strength). The
difference in average strength is well outside 3 standard deviations,
so this should be a very significant result.

Now what do you see after 8 weeks, assuming linear gains?

Group A: Mean = 100kg + [100kg * (8/52) * 1.5] = 123kg
Std. Dev. =  5kg + [5kg * 8/52 * 1.5] = 6.2kg
Group B: Mean = 100kg + [100kg * (8/52) * 1] = 115kg
Std. Dev. =  5.8kg

The difference in means is well within two standard deviations — not
a significant result. So see how the short duration of the study has
made a significant result seem insignificant.

(This is fairly informal. If someone wants to calculate the actual
p-values assuming, say, a population of infinite size [and therefore
the t-distribution becomes the normal] that would be informative and
more persuasive than my argument.)

Also, see this:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14971985?ordinalpos=1&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_DiscoveryPanel.Pubmed_Discovery_RA&linkpos=4&log$=relatedreviews&logdbfrom=pubmed

This quantitative review indicates that single-set programs for an
initial short training period in untrained individuals result in
similar strength gains as multiple-set programs. However, as
progression occurs and higher gains are desired, multiple-set programs
are more effective.

I’m not a researcher in the field of exercise science (or kinesology
or whatever you want to call it) but a lot of the published research I
have seen is of this type. This does not meet my standards of proof.

Now consider the evidence Rip has. It would be rejected by the BBS
guys as it doesn’t meet the criteria for publication: it doesn’t
control for variability, it isn’t statistically analysed and so on.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t evidence though. From his writing Rip
strikes me as a very methodical and very experienced guy. I must admit
I am more inclined to believe him, based on his experience training
hundreds of people over long periods, than I am to believe claims
based on what I perceive as very weak published literature.

Finally, I want to address Chris’ interview with Luke Carlson.

“Q: What do you make of Crossfit?…

A: It is entertaining to me that the three movements that all humans
allegedly engage in just happen to be historically popular Olympic and
Power lifts!”

Two things. First my understanding is that the term “functional
movement” is used by Crossfit to mean a movement that carries over to
other activities. It doesn’t mean that movement mimics other
activities.

I would think anyone could see that deadlifting and squatting are core
movements. I guess Luke has never picked anything off the floor, or
taken a dump.

“The vast majority, if not every HIT advocate that I know utilizes
twisting/rotational movements. We use the MedX Core Torso Rotation
machine – a $7,000 machine that targets the muscles involved in
rotation of the trunk. This exercise is included in the working
scripts for all of our clients.”

The Crossfit orthodoxy here is that training midline stabilisation —
the ability to resist twisting — is key. I did a little test with
myself, throwing punches. It seems that I flex my obliques to avoid
twisting so as to better transfer power from my hips to my upper body.
I’m not trained at punching, but this way felt much better than
deliberately twisting my midsection out of line with my hips.

This response is also highlights an issue that I haven’t seen anyone
address yet — these guys are not impartial. I don’t need a $7000
machine to train my obliques, but the equipment manufacturers and the
gym owners that have invested in them would like me to believe I do.
In fact this is one of the primary reasons I dislike the BBS movement
— they want to make the trainee dependent on the gym to workout. In
contrast a barbell set is dead cheap, and free weights, be they iron,
a rock, or a baby, can be used anywhere. I’d rather be self sufficient
and teach people to be the same.

Finally, let me address safety:

First, there is lack of evidence to support machines being safer than
free weights:

http://www.exrx.net/WeightTraining/Safety.html

Let’s also look at the injury rate, from the same site: 0.0035
injuries per 100 hours. Imagine I’m a real gym rat and hit the gym 5
days a week for an hour. That’s 5 hours a week, or 260 hours a year,
or 13000 hours over 50 years. With that injury rate I would expect
0.455 injuries over my lifetime of training. Worried?

Well, I’d better do some real work.

Regards,
Noel

A nice bit of thought here, to say the least.  And what follows was my emailed response to Noel:

Noel,

Thanks for your intelligent email.

My approach to all things physical culture (and to life in general) has always been to give well-conducted scientific studies serious consideration for real-world implementation, but I always defer to empirical evidence when choosing what modalities/protocols to utilize when “in the field”.  And herein lay the age-old disconnect between what “works in the lab and in theory” and what produces “results in the field”.  An athlete in the real world bears little resemblance to “case studies” (be they human or theoretical) in the lab.  And, too, within any pro-con argument, the “purists” on either side will cede little ground to the “opposing” view/theory.  Live in general, and training in specific, is rarely black or white; it’s more analogous to yin and yang.  My take is that for each specified weakness, there is a good-better-best continuum of options related to how to “fix” that weakness.  This holds true for diet as well as exercise.

Well, there you are folks; weigh-in, comment and kick this one around a bit.  I’m anticipating some good discussion out of this bit of informed criticism.  And thanks again to Noel for allowing me to use his thoughts here on TTP.

Note: I’m sure that Chris will soon have a separate discussion running relative to Noel’s comments over at Conditioning Research, and I’ll link directly to that post as soon as it’s available.  Noel’s put out a good bit of opinion here, and I’m quite sure the discussion will splinter into many directions on each site.

Late entry: Here’s the link to the Conditioning Research post.

In health,

Keith

15 COMMENTS

  1. That’s the problem with much of the so-called science here. There are just an unbelievable number of studies that take a handful of untrained people, give them a few weeks of training, and then find that just about anything helps them. Well, duh. But that doesn’t tell us anything whatsoever about the optimal way for a well-trained person to get faster, stronger, more explosive, etc.

  2. Hi Keith,

    I think I twittered to you the other day my nascent thoughts on just one of the issues that Noel brought up before a crisis appeared at my work and diverted my attention from that which really matters :).

    There would seem to be a huge amount of psychology of previous investment when one purchases a $7,000 machine for the purpose of working a single muscle on a single client at a time. I don’t mean to be cynical or snide (it just comes naturally), but there would seem to be a large amount of impetus for a company that makes multi-thousand dollar task-specific machinery to want to sell as much of said machinery as they could.

    Intuitively, I am suspicious of “Big Pharma”, which leads me to be suspicious of “Big Gym” as well. The same mindset that leads to high-dollar doses of perscription w-3 fatty acids might also lead to high-dollar doses of Leg Presses. Am I saying that Lovaza isn’t perfectly good fish oil that will yield health benefits? Absolutely not. I’m sure it is a very effective FDA-approved peer-reviewed scientifically-sound product. But at the end of the day, you can get 8-dollar fish oil from Buy-N-Large that performs the same functionality. Am I saying that a $3000 leg press machine isn’t effective? No. But is it $2900 more effective than a barbell? I don’t know, and I doubt anyone else does either. Indeded, one thing that irked me on a personal leve about Chris’s interview with Luke was Luke’s mere mention of the dollar amount spent on a single machine, as if there were a linear dollar-amount/dose effectiveness curve.

    Similarly, the typical (I am not talking of specialized institutes or training environments such as the one Dr. McGuff seemed to be involved with in Body By Science) gym/studio that houses Nautilus-type equipment has an enormous initial financial outlay for enough Nautilus machines to service X number of machine-specific movements on Y customers simultaneously (X*Y machines), as well as the enormous footprint for such machines, leading to high overhead, necessitating cost-cutting measures elsewhere, usually in the form of unqualified, untrained hourly employees without the knowledge to tell clients how best to utilize the enormous equipment investment. This leads to the common sight of a bewildered client wandering around a gym, utilizing random machinery, often incorrectly. Although, in my days at the University of Texas, I did appreciate the opportunity to indulge in the hypnotic activity of watching the UT Cheerleaders in Gregory Gym utilize the Cybex Abduction/Adduction machines.

    Now, the above was definitely not a condemnation of the BBS/HIT methodology, just what I believe to be a common side-effect of the widespread adoption of the machinery in large numbers. I believe that the BBS/HIT methodology works (and I have given the book as a gift to many of my relatives, hoping to get them started on the program, as it short circuits their “I don’t have time” BS). Do I believe it to be a one-size-fits-all solution? No.

    Ultimately, I find it a dubious prospect that there is a one best way to train. Sean Sherk’s training routine differs from Rich Franklin’s workout (Goodness, Machines! Bicep Curls!) differs from Paulo Filho look at the rusted, second-hand equipment that total badass uses) differs from Fedor (who uses ONLY sport-specific trainig) differs from Sakuraba (who was said to not train at all, and smoke a pack a day), differs from, well, you get the idea. Does using a 7,000 dollar machine to exercise the core work? Sure. Does snatching a corroded 95lb barbell and throwing it work? Well, apparently so. Lots of stuff works, and works well. What works best depends on the individual preference and proclivities of the trainee.

    I believe that anyone committed to doing a dietary and exercise program in a methodological, intelligent, informed way will meet some form of success, no matter what the medium they utilize to pursue their goals. HIT or not, barbell or not, anyone who pursues their goals haphazardly, without a plan to meet them will largely result in failure.

    In terms of safety, I think it’s possible to hurt yourself anywhere. Anytime you make a machine idiot proof, nature comes up with a superior idiot. I remember working out at the Fort Hood gym with my dad (the military spares no expense in stocking their gyms) and even at the age of 14, looking askance at the rotator cuff-specific machine. Now there’s an accident waiting to happen.

    Also note that Nautilus DOES sell Free Weight Equipment (and it’s very pretty, albeit a bit expensive compared to the ones I use (and admittedly not 100% comparable).

    Anyway, just a few random thoughts. If I can get one of my overweight friends to workout, I consider it a victory, no matter if they pick up a bar or set the pin on a Cybex.

  3. The link on Conditioning Research is now up. I sort of want to keep my discussion in one place.

    Chris seems to be focusing on strength gain vs. motor pattern, the most convincing part of the case. I will have to read the existent research on this. It is the case that a deadlift is far different than a double-leg takedown, motor pattern wise.

  4. I tried to post this comment earlier, but it did not appear (whereas my later one did). Please excuse any spam that I might be introducing to the queue. Is my comment being held due to length?

    Hi Keith,

    I think I twittered to you the other day my nascent thoughts on just one of the issues that Noel brought up before a crisis appeared at my work and diverted my attention from that which really matters :).

    There would seem to be a huge amount of psychology of previous investment when one purchases a $7,000 machine for the purpose of working a single muscle on a single client at a time. I don’t mean to be cynical or snide (it just comes naturally), but there would seem to be a large amount of impetus for a company that makes multi-thousand dollar task-specific machinery to want to sell as much of said machinery as they could.

    Intuitively, I am suspicious of “Big Pharma”, which leads me to be suspicious of “Big Gym” as well. The same mindset that leads to high-dollar doses of perscription w-3 fatty acids might also lead to high-dollar doses of Leg Presses. Am I saying that Lovaza isn’t perfectly good fish oil that will yield health benefits? Absolutely not. I’m sure it is a very effective FDA-approved peer-reviewed scientifically-sound product. But at the end of the day, you can get 8-dollar fish oil from Buy-N-Large that performs the same functionality. Am I saying that a $3000 leg press machine isn’t effective? No. But is it $2900 more effective than a barbell? I don’t know, and I doubt anyone else does either. Indeded, one thing that irked me on a personal leve about Chris’s interview with Luke was Luke’s mere mention of the dollar amount spent on a single machine, as if there were a linear dollar-amount/dose effectiveness curve.

    Similarly, the typical (I am not talking of specialized institutes or training environments such as the one Dr. McGuff seemed to be involved with in Body By Science) gym/studio that houses Nautilus-type equipment has an enormous initial financial outlay for enough Nautilus machines to service X number of machine-specific movements on Y customers simultaneously (X*Y machines), as well as the enormous footprint for such machines, leading to high overhead, necessitating cost-cutting measures elsewhere, usually in the form of unqualified, untrained hourly employees without the knowledge to tell clients how best to utilize the enormous equipment investment. This leads to the common sight of a bewildered client wandering around a gym, utilizing random machinery, often incorrectly. Although, in my days at the University of Texas, I did appreciate the opportunity to indulge in the hypnotic activity of watching the UT Cheerleaders in Gregory Gym utilize the Cybex Abduction/Adduction machines.

    Now, the above was definitely not a condemnation of the BBS/HIT methodology, just what I believe to be a common side-effect of the widespread adoption of the machinery in large numbers. I believe that the BBS/HIT methodology works (and I have given the book as a gift to many of my relatives, hoping to get them started on the program, as it short circuits their “I don’t have time” BS). Do I believe it to be a one-size-fits-all solution? No.

    Ultimately, I find it a dubious prospect that there is a one best way to train. Sean Sherk’s training routine differs from Rich Franklin’s workout (Goodness, Machines! Bicep Curls!) differs from Paulo Filho look at the rusted, second-hand equipment that total badass uses) differs from Fedor (who uses ONLY sport-specific trainig) differs from Sakuraba (who was said to not train at all, and smoke a pack a day), differs from, well, you get the idea. Does using a 7,000 dollar machine to exercise the core work? Sure. Does snatching a corroded 95lb barbell and throwing it work? Well, apparently so. Lots of stuff works, and works well. What works best depends on the individual preference and proclivities of the trainee.

    I believe that anyone committed to doing a dietary and exercise program in a methodological, intelligent, informed way will meet some form of success, no matter what the medium they utilize to pursue their goals. HIT or not, barbell or not, anyone who pursues their goals haphazardly, without a plan to meet them will largely result in failure.

    In terms of safety, I think it’s possible to hurt yourself anywhere. Anytime you make a machine idiot proof, nature comes up with a superior idiot. I remember working out at the Fort Hood gym with my dad (the military spares no expense in stocking their gyms) and even at the age of 14, looking askance at the rotator cuff-specific machine. Now there’s an accident waiting to happen.

    Also note that Nautilus DOES sell Free Weight Equipment (and it’s very pretty, albeit a bit expensive compared to the ones I use (and admittedly not 100% comparable).

    Anyway, just a few random thoughts. If I can get one of my overweight friends to workout, I consider it a victory, no matter if they pick up a bar or set the pin on a Cybex.

    • Patrik,
      Elaborate on your “accommodating” comment, please. I thought I stated my position relative to my take on the effectiveness of SS/HIT/BBS clearly, no?

  5. Hi Keith,

    Reading Noel’s email, I felt like I was reading an email I was yet to write (except mine wouldn’t have been that eloquent, thoughtful and logical).

    I think by nature you are diplomatic and not given to extremes — which is admirable, but you gave, at least, me the impression that you thought his approach was roughly equal to yours.

    Which clearly isn’t the case.

    I thought McGuff made some good points about dosage etc etc — but I think what he espouses is largely BS. Yes, he does a great job hiding behind so-called “science” — which in my mind, is nothing but sophistry.

    Three admittedly snarky anecdotes to consider:

    1) His 12 minutes a week is reminiscent of There’s Something About Mary:

    Hitchhiker: You heard of this thing, the 8-Minute Abs?

    Ted: Yeah, sure, 8-Minute Abs. Yeah, the excercise video.

    Hitchhiker: Yeah, this is going to blow that right out of the water. Listen to this: 7… Minute… Abs.

    Ted: Right. Yes. OK, all right. I see where you’re going.

    Hitchhiker: Think about it. You walk into a video store, you see 8-Minute Abs sittin’ there, there’s 7-Minute Abs right beside it. Which one are you gonna pick, man?

    Ted: I would go for the 7.

    Hitchhiker: Bingo, man, bingo. 7-Minute Abs. And we guarantee just as good a workout as the 8-minute folk.

    Ted: You guarantee it? That’s – how do you do that?

    Hitchhiker: If you’re not happy with the first 7 minutes, we’re gonna send you the extra minute free. You see? That’s it. That’s our motto. That’s where we’re comin’ from. That’s from “A” to “B”.

    Ted: That’s right. That’s – that’s good. That’s good. Unless, of course, somebody comes up with 6-Minute Abs. Then you’re in trouble, huh?

    [Hitchhiker convulses]

    Hitchhiker: No! No, no, not 6! I said 7. Nobody’s comin’ up with 6. Who works out in 6 minutes? You won’t even get your heart goin, not even a mouse on a wheel.

    Ted: That – good point.

    2) From the BBS blog (http://www.bodybyscience.net/home.html/?p=413)

    They show video of one of their trainers:

    “Blair is a great guy and a terrific athlete. He recently returned to Nautilus North after three years in Australia where he worked for Sea World as one of the trick skiers in their ski shows. He’s an excellent barefoot skier, wake boarder, and accomplished at jumps. While he was in Canada he played “A” level ice hockey (an informal study that Blair did with hockey players is mentioned in Body By Science). Blair trains on average once every 7-10 days and typically performs a “Big 3″ workout.”

    I am sure this guy is a great athlete, but it shows, not in a good way, that he trains on average 7-10 days via the BBS protocol. He looks just like McGuff — no musculature.

    3) This response is unintentionally hilarous:

    ““The vast majority, if not every HIT advocate that I know utilizes twisting/rotational movements. We use the MedX Core Torso Rotation machine – a $7,000 machine that targets the muscles involved in
    rotation of the trunk. This exercise is included in the working scripts for all of our clients.””

    Whoa! Woweee! A $7,000 machine! If it were a $14,000 machine it would be twice as good! Sign me up!

    Sheeeeessshh.

    • No musculature? Looks like Blair Wilson has similar muscle to what I get doing exercises that actually support my activity. I can get more shaped, visible muscle from weight training, but found it didn’t give any noticeable benefit. Frankly if I could build useful muscle in a short workout I’d do it. Maybe do weight training once a week to shape it a bit for showing off.

  6. Keith,

    I’ve submitted a long comment with a number of links, and it has not yet appeared. Perhaps it got sucked up in the spam queue? I didn’t THINK I wrote so much like a spambot 🙂

    Patrik: Obviously training methodologies should be judged by their efficacy, not whether they use machines, free weights, kettlebells, prayer, thighmaster, hawaii chair, etc! I believe that in an earlier thread regarding this subject I stated something about not judging a book by its cover. Obviously Anderson Silva does not look like the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world, nor does Fedor look like the most dominant heavyweight MMA fighter, well… EVER (and he utilizes ONLY sport-specific training, as well as *gasp* jogging, and I believe pullups and pushups in his training regimen).

    I do find the BBS methodology fishy for some purposes for reasons that I can’t quite put my finger on (and will try to elaborate about in a future comment/post on my own blog). As it is it is the finest piece of work I have read as an accessible, sustainable life way. Personally I love working out, but have friends and family that hate it. If they can get a complete and superior workout in a small amount of time, it is that much greater probability that I can convince them to actually do it.

    Certainly Anderson and Fedor (and Florian and Penn) do not look like genetic masterpieces (whereas GSP, the current welterweight king certainly does, as does Sherk, whose back looks like a bag of tennis balls). I believe that this puts McGuff, et al’s cry about the “Graveyard” in a questionable light. These athletes have reached the pinnacle of their sport via different styles and completely different training methods to suit their unique circumstances. It is for this reason that I would assert there is no “one size fits all” solution, and I believe that BBS did trivialize this concept somewhat.

    • Ryon,
      Thanks for the heads-up on your post. I tend to forget to routinely rifle through the spam for the “keepers”.

      Patrik,
      It seems that Ryon and I are of the same opinion on this matter, though we hit the issue from different angles. It’s not that I don’t think that SS/HIT is a legitimate protocol — I do — but only if used in certain circumstances and with a particular trainee population. Where Doug (McGuff) and I differ is on (1) SS/HIT’s applicability “across the board”, (2) direct benefit carry-over into sporting applications, and (3) and I’m not sure how to word this…long-term use? From what I’ve seen, any potential benefits available via SS/HIT are quickly tapped-out. Now admittedly, most people I work with (myself included) are of a pretty advanced training age, so no protocol will continue to provide gains for long. I’m just saying that SS/HIT is no different in this regard.

      *Just as a side note, where I do feel that SS/HIT is a good “go-to” protocol option is during “in-season” (I’m especially thinking football, rugby, here — but maybe MA and MMA as well?) training, where injury rehab and fatigue recovery must be balanced against the maintenance of strength. Anyone who’s been involved with this knows it’s a Sisyphean task, especially during a long, grueling season. Maybe this is an area we can explore a little more.*

      And something else I’d like to toss-out; a bit of anecdotal observation (here comes the “horse science”): I know that in myself, and people who I have worked with, that, although it’s totally necessary in a “big picture” sense, to pursue strength blocks at certain times within the overall training cycle, these blocks are detrimental (not a lot, but indeed measurable), to explosive moves/endeavors such as sprinting, vert, broad jump, etc. This is a one step back now, to gain two steps forward later, balance — delayed gratification, if you will. And this is something that had to be pounded into my head when I played ball, because during a strength-emphasis block, I felt (and can still feel, nowadays) the (relative) lack of…CNS coordination, timing, pop, snap, whatever…not sure how to label this feeling, but it’s real, and it’s measurable via the tape and the clock. I won’t even get into how pursuing a hypertrophy-oriented block will foul-up your athleticism. It friggin’ wiggs me out when I see baseball players performing BB routines, but that’s a topic for another time. Anyway, the carry over effect from explosive lifting is real, demonstrable both in “feel” and with hard measure. The problem is (and this was my big, “seeing the light”, collegiate moment) that one can’t simply live on explosive movements and hope to continually reap better results. One step back to gain two forward — that’s my first 8 years of training experience crunched into one, short sentence. My contention is that SS/HIT can be part of the “one step back”.

  7. I’m not sure why people still see HIT as machine-only training. HIT can be performed with a barbell just as well (and I think Doug shows that in the book). This seems to be the crux of a few argument (machines = money investment = emotional investment) that simply isn’t the entire picture.

    *Goes back to his westside barbell session*

    • Although, admittedly, SS/HIT with conventional weights is a little more complicated due to spotter issues. But I agree, though, it is a viable option.

  8. I’m not sure why people still see HIT as machine-only training.

    @Skyler

    Er, maybe the promotion of and predilection for $7,000 (!) machines by Doug et al…..nah…that couldn’t be it….

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