How to Read a Research Paper


This piece is purely opinion, however I think it can be very helpful. More now than ever, people are searching for evidence-based practices. This article is made to help you not only ingest (read) more research, but also help you digest (understand) the research you are reading.

Read the Abstract

I know many people are against doing this first, but before jumping on my back, hear me out. Most practitioners reading the research are not reading it for a literature review. They are reading it to get a better understanding of specific concepts. Reading the abstract is a great way to get a quick understanding of whether or not what you are about to read is even applicable/interesting. If it doesn’t fall into either of those categories, then there is no need to continue forward. THE LEAST IMPORTANT PART OF THE ABSTRACT IS THE RESULTS/CONCLUSION. The abstract gives you enough information to be stupid. If you find the article interesting, then read it. If you only read the abstract and base your understanding off of that one paragraph snippet, then you are no better off than you were before.


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The abstract is not much more than an oversimplified summary. It gives you enough information to sound uninformed.


The introduction is a great place to start if you have little understanding of the research in that specific area. The introduction is basically a Cliff Notes version of the paper’s literature review. It should tell you what they are looking at, why they are looking at it, and what others before them found when researching something similar. If you are very well versed in the background of the literature, then it might not be necessary to get into this section. A quick skim can help you get your bearings and if you find something of interest you can look at it in greater detail.


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The introduction acts like a GPS. It will navigate you through some of the previous research to get an understanding of why this study was done


The methods section is a must read for everyone. This is where you really get an idea of what the researchers actually did. In this section you will be able to uncover exactly how and what they were testing. Just because the introduction said they were testing one thing, it cannot be verified until you read the methods. A good reader will be able to see the methods and quickly understand what Concept they were looking at.


Most studies are based around concepts and ideas. Normally, they are not actually investigating a specific item. For example, a study looking at the differences in vertical jump height between training programs using a trap bar jump compared to a back squat are not actually looking at the trap bar jump versus a back squat. They are looking the whether or not the concept of training a high velocity, ballistic, triple extension movement (trap bar jump) is more beneficial for the vertical jump than training maximal strength in a non-ballistic movement (the back squat). If you get hung up on the actual exercises they perform or the special piece of equipment they used, then you will get lost in the research. Instead, understand the core concept of the paper and draw connections between other papers core concepts and see if there is a trend.


Trap Bar Jump
Barbell Squat Jump
Exercises above use different pieces of equipment, but are training the same concept (Image 3 on left and 4 on right)


Read the conclusion next and save the results for later. The conclusion will typically provide you with the significant results of the study, along with the actual numbers of what they found. However, unlike the results, which is typically the raw statistics of the study, the conclusion will be written in a much easier to understand fashion.


After the conclusion, read the results. This can be really useful and helpful when validating your understanding. There have been times I have read the conclusion and then referenced the results just to find out I clearly did not understand the conclusion the first time. The result will sometimes have hidden findings. These are the kind of findings the researchers did not notice, or did not intend to look at. For example, in an optimal load validation paper, exercises at different percentages of their one rep max were analyzed. In the conclusion, the authors noted what loads that were associated with optimal power outputs. However, if you read the results you would notice that the slope of force output in a clean was shallower than that of the other exercises. In other words, per percentage of one rep max, the clean has less drop of in force from load to load. The nerd I am thought this was pretty interesting.

Understanding the Concept

After reading the paper, you should take a minute and reflect on what the concept of the paper was, whether or not other papers you have read a paper with similar concepts, whether or not you agree with the concept (if not why?), and how you can apply the concept to your training.

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Once you understand the concept you can start connecting the dots

Discussion and Application

This part is where the researchers discuss what their findings means, what they think the findings can apply to, and what steps should be taken next. Not all papers include these two sections and sometimes they are synonymous.


The limitations section is basically the portion where the researchers tell you what could have influenced their data and how someone could better design the next study looking at a similar topic. For example, many limitations in research are sample size, training level of participants, and ages of participants.


If there are any interesting references you came across during the read, be sure to check the references at the bottom. This is a great way to begin finding papers that interest you.


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