Have you ever dreamed you were one of those weird people who find lifting weights fun?
Have you ever tried to start lifting weights only to be “rewarded” with having a funny walk for the next 3 days?
Who enjoys pain? And if training induces pain, why come back for more, session after session?
The truth is, we are primed psychologically to enjoy the rush of training. A part of this is the “high” of training itself. Endorphins are powerful and cannot be denied.
A part of this is the sanctity of discipline. If your body is taken care of, your mind often follows.
But a big part of the excitement for training is deeply ingrained in our psychology.
Consistently striving for a slightly unreachable goal motivates us.
Simply stated: Humans are designed to chase gains.
LEV VYGOTSKY: THE GAINS ANALYZER
Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) was a Russian psychologist.
Vygotsky’s mission was to figure out the best methods for acquiring knowledge, understanding it, and applying it to situations. His thought was that if we could continually seek to improve and enhance this process, we could gain wisdom more rapidly.
Vygotsky postulated that there was a “zone” that we perform best.
This “zone” was the point of instruction which was just barely out of our reach.
If the task at hand was too difficult, we would give up and be defeated.
If the task at hand was too easy, we would be bored and indifferent.
In educational circles, this zone is referred to as the Zone of Proximal Development.
As you begin learning a new skill, the level of competence is rather low. This requires the level of challenge to be low as well.
As the level of competence begins to increase, the nature of the tasks at hand must increase in difficulty. If the level of the challenge doesn’t rise to coincide with the increasing competence levels, you risk being in the “Boredom” section of the graph.
If the level of challenge far exceeds the competence level of the subject, you risk being in the “Anxiety” section, and experiencing the “shut-down” or “pull-back” as previously described.
In order to progress in the most optimal fashion, one must “live” in the Zone of Proximal Development.
If you are always striving just a bit out of your current reach, you will often accomplish your goal. This will keep you motivated, give you confidence, and build a positive feedback loop.
And, of course, you’ll make more gains.
THE ZONE OF PROXIMAL GAINZZZ
Ever wonder why this happens?
Why would someone put themselves through so much pain?
For the fame? The glory? Quick, name ONE of the top 10 powerlifters in the world.
For the money? These guys spend more on protein in one week than they earn in one, full calendar year.
Is it for the BIIIIIIG numbers? The respect? The roar of the crowd? The fear you can strike in the hearts of mere mortal civilians?
But one look at Vygotsky’s work will quickly tell you – the psychological advantages that follow progressively challenging yourself with increasingly difficult material are enormous.
Heavy resistance training has been making a comeback.
Much to the chagrin of a certain purple and yellow big-box gym, fitness center managers everywhere have had to invest in new, rubber floors that can withstand the clang of deadlifts on the floor.
In order to be engaged in the developmental process of improvement, one must be regularly challenged just past the point of one’s dependent abilities.
Whatever was accomplished last time? Gotta do just a bit more. The reward lies inside those gains.
This is the very concept of progressive overload – the fundamental progress-marker of resistance training.
Moreso than any other venue, weight training (namely barbell weight training), is the physical to Vygotsky’s psychological.
The sheer action of progressive overload mimics this “just out of reach” stimulus which begs to be attained.
Back to the original question: Why do powerlifters sometimes push themselves so hard that their eyes “erupt” or their nose begins to spurt blood onto the unsuspecting audience?
They’ve become addicted to the psychological feeling that making steady, incremental improvements has provided them.
The lifter in the picture? He almost assuredly wasn’t going for an astronomical PR. Maybe 10-20 pounds more than he’s done before.
But he’s made these progressive increases so many times over the years, that the weight he’s using is rather large.
Large weights equal large amounts of pressure and torque in order to move them. Generally, the lifter holds their breath. And pushes hard.
And this is what sometimes happens.
All for the psychological rush and concrete evidence of a small, steady accomplishment: The PR.
Gains are one of the most addicting drugs on the planet.
Don’t believe me?
Find someone who’s done “just one cycle” of performance enhancing drugs.
I’ll bet you top dollar you can’t – gains are that damn addicting.
PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS FOR THE TRAINEE
How can you “zone in”, if we’ve never done this before?
A few actionable items:
1. Have a support system.
When you are constantly challenging yourself, it helps to have others on board with you. There is strength in numbers.
Some options for this include:
- Reading a favorite website or methodology/ideology
- Hiring of an online coach
- Becoming a member of an online community
- Finding a workout partner or buddy
- Enrolling in a fitness-related class
The odds of success greatly diminish if the subject is 100% solo in their endeavors. Human interaction is a basic, integral piece to our ability to thrive as a society. Its presence will enhance your experience tremendously.
2. Challenge yourself appropriately.
Be sure you have proper programming parameters – and know exactly what you will be doing each day.
Each workout should push you just a wee bit further than you were pushed during your last training session.
Whether that manifests itself to 5 extra pounds on the barbell, an extra half-mile’s worth of walking on the treadmill, or shortening your rest periods by 5 seconds on the current circuit you’re doing.
Your workout should be reasonable. Your “extra” for each training session should have a purpose.
Each session is a puzzle piece in the Great Realm of Fitness. Your “extra” should be difficult, but attainable. Challenging, and yet realistic.
3. Set performance based (not aesthetically based) goals.
Although your REAL reason for training may be to look awesome in that bathing suit, or one day have a 6-pack, we need to be sure we don’t include that in our actual goals.
There’s nothing inherently wrong about vanity.
Except for one, small, glaring contradiction: If your ultimate goal is “Get a 6-pack”, and you are 40 pounds overweight, how long do you think getting that washboard stomach will take?
If you consistently have to look at yourself in the mirror, day in and day out, and answer the HARSH truth – that you’re nowhere NEAR your goal, how deflating is that?
And what an amazing sense of pride and success that will give you. You set a goal and attempted a task that last time, you could not do.
You will begin to change your mindset when this happens on a regular basis.
Your approach to your life will start to shift.
You will begin to lose your anxiety and fears, and ultimately build your self-confidence.
You will start to realize that a “task” is just a “task”, and nothing more.
There’s no reason to fear failure. Failure is an outcome, and a possibility. But if you allow the fear of failure paralyze you, you may never get off the couch.
Side note: Do this for long enough, and that 6-pack you’re searching for? It’ll happen anyways. Sort of like a “bonus”.
4. Take rational, objective data and eliminate emotion.
Emotions have no place in proper health and fitness. Which is a complete and utter paradox.
Most begin in the world of fitness due to the desire to change. There is an unhappiness about one’s current standing, and there are loads of emotions attached to the individual.
Taking objective data points and making any training and dieting alterations based on those objective data points (AND NOTHING ELSE) will hasten progress quicker than any other decision-making parameters available.
It is highly recommended to ditch the scale, keep a training log, take body measurements, and adjust as necessary.
5. Reflect often.
Constantly ask yourself how things are going.
Is there anything that’s working exceptionally well? Anything which needs to be tinkered with? Rep ranges? Rest periods? Exercise selection?
How about your diet? Are you abnormally hungry often? Is your strength and performance continuing to improve in the gym? Are your body measurements progressing as they should?
How’s your consistency? What “slip-ups” or mishaps happened this week? How can we plan ahead and improve our consistency and our compliance next week? Are there any small strategies we can implement in order to ensure proper progress takes place?
Being mindful is a necessity for long-term success. Be calm, rational, and analytical about your fitness.
6. Never give up.
You’re going to have good days. You’re going to have bad days.
You’ll have days where you PR 3 lifts in one day.
And you’ll have days where nothing feels right. Your strength is off, and you feel terrible.
Accept this as a part of the process.
You can never focus on the output. The output is the result of the hard work.
It’s important to make our endeavors sustainable.
Choose a method of fitness we can consistently perform on a regular basis.
If you hate cardio, stop doing it. If you loathe lifting, drop the barbells.
Engagement is a crucial part of the process. Too much, too little, or an inadequate “buy-in” can all derail the process to a certain degree.
So, find something that you like. And do it. Forever. Allow it to become ingrained into the fiber of your very being. Let it be a part of your soul. Make it an unwavering truth, a constant in your daily life.
And never give it up. No matter what.
Yours in gains chasing,
Constructivism: Theory, Perspectives, and Practice. Catherine Twomey Fosnot. Teacher’s College Press, 2nd Edition. 2005.