Some of you may not know this about me, but my graduate work is in Game Theory and the Biology of Human Behavior. Nowhere are our behavioral patterns put under the microscope more than in the gym and in relation to our exercise, diet, and fitness routines. Exercise and diet are hard work, they prey on our emotions, and in response our bodies and minds can react in ways that are quite primal and self-sabotaging.
I was stoked to see this article about Prospect Theory in the Gym, at Stretch Exercise Eat. Notable Quote:
People tend to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains (loss aversion). Some studies suggest that the negative impact of losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as the positive impact of gains. Thus, if you have made some small gains, you will tend to behave conservatively and forego taking risks that could result in additional gains (the curve on the right is convex and flattens out quickly). Conversely, if you have sustained a loss, then the psychological pain is likely to push you to take unreasonable risks in an effort to get back to even (the curve on the left is concave and takes a steep drop, before it flattens out)
I have often described my own coaching style as highly coach-dependent. This is because I never write in percentages nor do I have waves of periodization locked into the routine itself that are designed to force certain “peaking” periods.
I don’t like that type of thing. I prefer instead to keep an eye on my lifters and decide (on a daily basis) if today is a heavy or a light day. I DO have periodization in my programs, and I DO believe in hormonal manipulation. But, it needs to be done manually, not on autopilot.
In my opinion, those routines with massively complicated percentages look great on paper, but they are so generic that they rarely work for the average lifter.
Sure, my athletes have routines in-hand. The routines tell them things like sets and reps and what exercises to perform, even rest periods. But, how heavy? How hard? If I write in 5 sets of 2 reps for the snatch, does that mean that every set of 2 is at 90% of max? Does it mean to ramp the weight up over the 5 sets? Or does it mean to start heavy, then drop down to 80%? What the hizzell!?
Left to their own devises, the athlete would need to make these decisions on their own based upon how they are feeling that day. But, as the article above indicates, the athletes own feelings are misleading indicators. They are far too biased (… generally. I have some unusually intelligent athletes who are rather good at gauging themselves honestly, but the point stands.)
Many coaches get around this athlete bias by designing routines with specific percentages written right in. For instance, instead of me writing 5×2 in the snatch, I would write 5×2 @ 85%. Or, alternatively, I could do something more complex like 2×2 @ 75%, 2×2 @ 80%, and 1×1 @ 90%. That’s still just 5 sets of 2, but we’ve become rather specific about what I want. Seems like a good thing, right?
I will do this on rare occasions when percentages can’t be avoided (like doing a Joe Mill’s type routine). But, if I can avoid them, I will. I’ve found too many people lock onto these percentages like an Anaconda on Ice Cube! They forget that the percentages can’t possibly be an accurate reflection of what they are capable of, they are simply guides. No two humans are identical. And even if they were genetically identical, their different ecologies would dictate different levels of fatigue on any given day.
The routine might say 5×2 @ 85%, but the the first athlete could be way too tired to make that happen safely, and the second might be feeling far too good for that to be enough work.
Humans are not machines.
The most important aspect of my job is getting to know (well) what each of my athletes can and can’t handle, how to gauge their level of fatigue (or lack of it – sometimes athletes will think they are having a crappy day, when in fact they are not), and to work with them on keeping their progress going forward. This is the art of coaching that goes beyond the science, and it is the hardest part of the job.
In light of Prospect Theory, I’m here in part to overrule their own decisions about what needs to happen in any given day because the athletes can’t be trusted! (I don’t always have to, of course. Again, my athletes are oddly well put together people.)
We have a blueprint on paper. But, if I see them dying, I’m going to cut it short – even if they want to continue. By the same token, if I see that they are not pushing themselves, I’m there to ramp it up.
With rare exceptions, my athletes that make the greatest progress are the ones that get the most face-time with me. This isn’t because I am somehow so magical, I’m the Weightlifting Guru, or because this time allows me to impart secret bodhisattva knowledge to them! It’s because I can, on a daily basis, adjust the blueprint to more accurately reflect where they are in that particular moment. I’m the objective observer who isn’t swayed by their inner evolutionarily-created ego.
What if I ain’t got a coach?
If you don’t have access to a good coach, I’d advise finding a training partner you can trust to give you honest feedback.
Most of us err on one side or the other in terms of our tendency to push ourselves. Either we push ourselves hard all the time, but can’t seem to stomach taking a light day (or worse, a day off!), or we’re the opposite, we are always afraid to push ourselves to the limit (this can be out of a fear of injury, pain-avoidance, laziness, etc).
The first group usually makes the greatest progress simply out of shear will. But, they also end up with massive, and sometimes life-long injuries that tank their careers. CrossFit and long distance sports are filled with people in this camp. For whatever reason, CrossFit, marathon running, cycling, etc attract a lot of “type-A” personalities that believe anything less than 100% makes you a pussy. Bad, very bad.
The opposite group rarely injures themselves, can make decent gains at first, will likely live long healthy lives, but also rarely get passed the beginner or early intermediate stages in anything – no champion can train like a lazy-ass. They just won’t push themselves. Out of a misplaced paranoia, or outright laziness, they need external stimulation to get going and lift heavy weights and go hard – and thereby improve.
Training partners and coaches make all the difference for both categories.
Beware the ‘Bro’
But be careful! What you DON’T want is the “bro” type dudes for training partners. These are the morons who do nothing but push you out of a stupid sense of macho bravado. Once in a long while, that pushing is great to get you through a tough workout, or to get you to hit a personal record. But, day-to-day it is worse than your own mind because it is one-sided. You only have the pushing, not the pulling back. A good training partner will be able to tell you to stop what you’re doing because you look too zonked today – the bros can’t handle that, it just wouldn’t be Legendary.
You can’t trust yourself, is the point. Once you start making gains, you will subconsciously sabotage any further progress by becoming too conservative at the wrong times and not aggressive enough at the right times. And when you feel like you have had a setback or you are in a rut, your mind will trick you into thinking you need to make drastic changes or take big risks to get back on top.
It’s hard to be level headed about yourself. An objective outside voice can be like your own personal mellowing-out drug simply by being able to “tell it like it is.”
In other words, you want your training partner or coach to be the one person who won’t lie to you when you ask them, “Do these weightlifting shoes make me look fat?”
Yes, yes they do …