Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Gainzzz

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You’re a teacher.  8th grade math.  Sorry, dude…………..probably not your dream job.

You open the textbook.  And check the pacing guide.  Where are you supposed to be today?  What lesson are we on?

You just finished up the Pythagorean Theorem.  And next on the list?  Characteristics of circles.  Mainly?  Pi.  All things pi.  You know, 3.14.

images (5)Sorry.  Had to.

So, what are your options?  Where do we go from here?  How do we relate this information to a classroom full of children?  And you must remember – these children are almost assuredly not the least bit interested in all things pi.  In this world of Twitter, Instagram, smartphones, and Red Bull, your task appears almost insurmountable.  Good luck.

So, you gather your materials and you start to begin………….and you realize very quickly you have two options.

Option 1:  The Standard Classroom Approach

  • You will begin with a lesson on pi.  Students will be given a definition from the book.  Examples and pictures will be used.  Real world applications will be discussed.  Homework will be assigned.
  • Equations will be given – and the students will be tested on them.  First, with quizzes and short “check-in” type assignments.  The students’ assignments will mimic what they see in the classroom.
  • The difficulty level gradually increases over the course of the unit.  Each lesson builds upon the last lesson.  Fundamentally, the approach is the same, regardless of the lesson – previous lesson is discussed, new information is provided in a lecture format, examples/classwork are completed, and homework is assigned.
  • The lessons always follow the same format – students “take notes” as the teacher completes example problems, students “work through” problems with the teacher’s help, students “take the training wheels off”, and work independently.
  • The unit ends with a cumulative assessment following the conclusion of the lessons.

Seems pretty legit, right?

Let’s take a close look at another option.

Option 2:  The Constructivist Classroom

  • Students are placed in groups of four with mixed ability levels.  They are given two items:  A string and a meter stick.
  • Students are given numerous, circular items around the classroom and are instructed to complete two tasks:  Use the string and meter stick to measure the circumference (perimeter) of each circle as well as the diameter (distance across) of the circle.
  • Students keep this data in a table and are asked to divide their diameter measurements by their perimeter measurements and record the resulting ratio.
  • Students are asked to create conclusions based on these observations.  The line of questioning might resemble the following:
    • “When you divide the length of the circumference of the circle by the length of the diameter, what is the result?
      • Students should arrive at ~3.0-3.2, with the precise answer being 3.14, or “pi.”
    • “If you knew the length of the diameter of a circle, how could you use this ~3.0-3.2 to calculate the circumference?
      • Students should predict that if they knew the diameter of the circle, they could multiply this number by “pi” in order to calculate the circumference.
    • “If you knew the circumference of the circle, how could you use “pi” to calculate the diameter?
      • Students should predict that if they knew the circumference, they would divide this number by “pi” to find the diameter.
  • After creating their own algorithms and equations, the students would test them, and create their own rules for the characteristics of the circle.
  • The unit ends with a cumulative assessment following the conclusion of the lessons.

A tad different than the first option, no?

The first-year teacher, inevitably chooses Option 1 with alarming frequency.  For obvious reasons.

Option One is safe.  It’s comfortable.  For everyone.  The teacher is right at home in front of the classroom, with the overhead projector between them and the students, creating an invisible force field which protects both parties from unnecessary contact and interaction.


download (3)Thank God document projectors were invented.

After a thoughtful analysis, you realize Option Two is the FAR superior educational choice.  But there’s one problem.  The second option causes anxiety.  It creates fear.  It’s unsafe, uncomfortable, and difficult to imagine proper implementation.

The non-educator says, “Option Two!  For sure!  The kids will LOVE it!” – but take a minute and think of all which can go wrong with Option Two.  Unruly students.  Kids out of their seats.  Tying the strings to each other’s hair.  Incorrect data.  The requirement of actual thought, reflection and analysis……….

What would happen if you reached the end, the glorious conclusion, the “Ah-Ha!” moment, and you were met with crickets?  What if your desire for the kids to understand the characteristics of the circle innately and without outside influence fell on dead ears?  What if, after all of your grandiose efforts, you asked the students one of those higher-level questions posed in Option Two, and your only response was………..

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Teachers will roll their eyes,
everyone else will laugh.

Teachers are shown this clip
at every meeting they have ever attended.

Ever.  For 30+ years………..




Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), a Russian psychologist, spent his entire, brief life analyzing the human mind and its inner workings.  Dealing primarily with children, he dedicated his career to fully understanding and comprehending how we create knowledge inside of our heads.  After all, we are born as blank slates.  And our ultimate goal, developmentally speaking, is to a be a fully functioning member of our society.

So, where does all of this knowledge and understanding matriculate from?  Vygotsky’s mission was to figure out the optimal methods by which material is read, understood, comprehended, and ultimately, applied to other areas of the child’s life.  His thought was that if we could constantly seek to improve and enhance this process, from ignorance to understanding, we could hasten the accumulation of what is seen as the ultimate in higher-level thinking:  wisdom.

Vygotsky postulated that there was a “zone” that children performed best in.  This “zone” was the point of instruction which was just barely out of the child’s reach.  The child couldn’t perform the educational task alone; they required assistance – a scaffolding – of another.  Generally, the teacher or instructor.

But this zone was much more intricate than simply presenting material at a higher difficulty level.  It was a constant balancing act for the educator in the classroom.  You wanted the child to be intellectually challenged, and yet actively engaged as well.  Push too hard?  Make the questions too advanced?  Your subjects would surely recoil and give up.  Embarrassed that they hadn’t the slightest idea of where to begin.

And on the flip side?  Make the challenge too easy and simple?  In this case, you run the risk of disengagement.  If a problem doesn’t stimulate the mind, the intrinsic motivation required to perform it dwindles quickly.

In educational circles, this is referred to as the Zone of Proximal Development.

Represented here:

images (6)
Image courtesy of www.twofriarsandafool.com



As is highlighted by this representation, at the start of the learner’s journey, 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 as well.  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.

And 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.  Constantly pushing themselves just slightly over their comfort levels.  Being able to accept the unknown and begin to view tasks as possible and conquerable, and recognize in your ability to complete these rather arduous tasks, is an enormous road block to self-awareness, self-assurance, and ultimately, self-confidence.

Vygotsky’s work was groundbreaking, exceptional, and relevant.

And worth noting, is it was accomplished, published, and accessible over 80 years ago.  It has stood the test of time.  Undoubtedly, as an educator progresses more deeply into their career, and they begin to search for more advanced ways of instructing students, they find themselves creating lessons geared more towards this idea, this “zone” of optimal learning.

But this isn’t an educational blog, now is it?




For all of the nonsense out there in the world of health and fitness, this idea, this philosophy of a “zone” of maximum progress and knowledge……….is actually rather obvious.  All one needs to do is take a close look at the memes which float around various social media outlets on any given day.



download (5)Yep, appforhealth.com gets it…….


Skinnymommyfitness.com is on the money, too…………



And of course, Jim Wendler and T-Nation are in on this as well…………



And we could continue if we wished.  This was just a quick Google search.  Those who are immersed in the fitness lifestyle look at these quotes, nod our heads and classify the rest of society as “lazy”.

But perhaps we should start to view this with another lens.  Consider another angle.  Now, of course, there are those that no matter how bad things get, no matter how much fat they pack onto their frame, and no matter how many times their general practitioner begs them to work intently on their health………..it’s just not going to happen.

But for most of society, that’s not the case.

This “zone” of progress, essentially, Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development – and how it relates to the fitness world, is exactly what is needed for your average couch potato to begin their ultimate transformation – from super-slouch to superhero.  But in all honesty, this is easier said than done.

Those who embrace “The Zone” and understand the need to constantly push oneself just a small bit outside their comfort zone each and every day have a few phrases for this sort of a mentality.

Dick Talens, online coach and co-founder of Fitocracy, has written extensively about the “growth mindset” and how it differs in comparison to the “fixed mindset”.  An individual with a fixed mindset has the firm, unwavering belief that their outcomes are predetermined by their surroundings.  “Things” happen, which ultimately derail progress, and no amount of effort will ever be able to “undo” those “things”.

In sharp contrast, you have individuals with a “growth mindset”.  These individuals view fitness as a “skill”, as an endeavor to practice.  Those with this mindset and ideology understand one thing – they will suck at some point, hopefully the start – and they will undoubtedly improve over time.  The internal characteristics of the individual will eventually conquer all of the external stimuli which can be thrown in their direction.




Ever wonder why this happens?

download (10)Rather graphic.  But you should have seen the other pictures.

Seriously.  Why?  Why does this happen?  Why would someone push themselves THIS far?  THIS hard?  And torture themselves THIS much?

Surely, it doesn’t “feel” good.  An endorphin rush is one thing………but this?  This is insane.

For the fame?  The glory?  Quick, name ONE of the top 10 powerlifters in the world.  If you CAN, you’re one of very few on this planet with that knowledge.

For the money?  Yeah, right.  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 from your community?  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.

When first delving into the world of fitness, a path must be chosen.  You must have a method of physical fitness.  Some choose “heart-healthy” cardio, others “spin”, and some prefer yoga.

There’s P90x users, Crossfitters, Zumba dancers, and Denise Austin video watchers.

And then, of course, there’s that “other” training method:  resistance training.

Heavy resistance training has been making a comeback, a renaissance, of sorts.  More and more men, and increasingly, women, have been praising the virtues of the barbell.  Commercial gyms everywhere have had to invest in new, rubber floors that can withstand the powerful clang of the deadlift on the ground.  (Deadlifts?  Ten years ago, nobody knew what those WERE.)  Fitness center managers have had to purchase new vacuum cleaners to deal with the excessive chalk dust littering the floor.

So, why?  Why has this happened?  Why have so many people been drawn to the iron, led to the “dark side” of barbell training, and started to “smash” weights on a regular basis?  After all, it seemed like just yesterday that “step aerobics” had a stronghold on society.

In order to be engaged, fully engaged, in the developmental process of improvement, one must be regularly challenged just past the point of one’s dependent abilities – on a regular basis.  Whatever was accomplished last time?  Gotta do just a bit more.  The reward lies at the end of this accomplishment.  The feeling of success, of pride, of self-worth, and of ever-increasing self-confidence lay just beyond your grasp.

Thus is the very concept of progressive overload – the fundamental progress-marker of resistance training.  Each week, do just a bit more.  Another rep or two.  Another 5 pounds.  Just a tad.  Just a tiny smidge more than you could do next week.  Nothing foolish, nothing hasty, just slow, incremental progress.

Challenging?  Yes.  But ultimately doable?  Of course.

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.

And when its proponents attain and accomplish their objectives on a regular basis?  The difficult becomes the doable.  The anxiety-inducing becomes the norm.

And the lifter’s psychological outlook on life begins to shift.  Tasks seem easier.  Life appears simpler.  The details become muddled as the big picture become clear.

In short, you become comfortable being uncomfortable.

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?

Simple.  They’ve become addicted to the psychological feeling that making steady, incremental improvements has provided them.  

And they’ve been making those improvements for a very long time.

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.

You may notice there are many folks who begin to weight train for aesthetic reasons.  You also may notice the vast majority of those folks ultimately stop caring about their 6-pack and start chasing big PR numbers.

But what are they REALLY chasing?  The physical manifestation of the psychologically rewarding feeling of steady improvement while in the Zone of Proximal Development.




So far, we’ve looked at nothing but theory.  And theory is just fine and dandy.  But things change in practice – and always remain the same in theory.

How can we “zone in”, if we’ve never done this before?  How do we create the proper balance between difficulty and ability level?  How do we remain actively engaged in the process of fitness, without being either “bored” or “burned out”?

A few actionable items:

1.  Have a support system.

You’ll notice the terms “scaffolding” and “assistance” when discussing the Zone of Proximal Development.  If the student were to be given an appropriate task, a task that challenges and yet doesn’t overwhelm, it’s the understanding that while firmly in the “Zone”, the student cannot complete the task 100% independently.  Not yet, anyways.

The idea that there is at least some level of guidance is an integral part of being in the Zone.

Luckily, in this day and age, someone new to the world of fitness has countless options:

  • Reading a favorite website or methodology/ideology
  • Hiring of an online coach
  • Becoming a member of an online community, such as Fitocracy
  • Finding a workout partner or buddy
  • Enrolling in a fitness-related class

There’s no shortage of options if one digs deep enough.  But you can’t do this alone.  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.

Luckily, in this day and age of the internet, the need for a the physical “helper” and “scaffolder” has been diminished.


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2.  Challenge yourself appropriately.

This falls into the category of “have a plan”.

Beginning a regimen without having a plan is very similar to walking into the grocery store without a list, and trying to buy all the supplies for the week.  Will you get some food?  Sure.

Will you get the results you truly want – fully stocked at-home pantries and refrigerators with all of the necessary materials to provide you meals for the next week?  Not even close.

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.

By the very definition, if you’re not progressing, you’re standing still.  The antithesis to progress isn’t regression……..it’s complacency.


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.

Should we have a training plan?  Yes.

Should we have a nutritional plan of attack?  Yes.

Should we set our goals based on vanity?  Absolutely not.

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 unbelievably deflating is that?

download (6) Now, on the other hand, if each day your goal is actionable, and performance  based…………your goal can be accomplished on a regular, daily basis.

You’re going to get one more rep bench pressing 150 pounds.  Last week, you got 4, and  this week you are aiming for 5.

You’re going to do 5 more pounds on the lat pulldown machine.  Last week, you got 10  reps at 100 pounds, this week, you are aiming for 10 reps at 105 pounds.

You’re going to hold your plank for 10 additional seconds.  Last week, you got 45  seconds, and this week, you are aiming to hold your plank for 55 seconds.

Now, will you accomplish your objective each and every time?  Of course not.

But will you accomplish your objective on a (relatively) regular basis?  Probably.



And what an amazing sense of pride and success that will give you.  You set a goal and attempted a task, that quite literally, at the last session you had, you could not do.  And this time?  You nailed it.

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.  And never waver from the objective criteria which is being analyzed.  Regardless of whether or not you would classify this week as a “fat week”.


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?

Just be sure that as you reflect, you don’t “toss out” anything that simply “scares you”.  The back squat is hands down the scariest exercise you can choose.  And many would argue is the most effective for both strength and physique development.  (Our apologies to the deadlift.)  Unless you have actual, real, verified physical reasons why you should not back squat, be sure to include them in your programming.

And anything else which frightens you.

Because isn’t that the whole point?  To challenge yourself appropriately, and begin to accomplish tasks which cause you anxiety?


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 walk out of that gym on top of the world – you’ll be the Baddest Mofo Out There.

And you’ll have days where nothing feels right.  You’re sluggish.  You’re lackadaisical.  You’re in a funk.  Your strength is off, and you feel terrible.

Accept this as a part of the process.

Always remember, it’s about the journey, not the destination.

You can never focus on the output.  The output is the result of the hard work.  As Vygotsky reminded us time and time again, it’s within these download (7)walls of development, this “Zone”, if you will, that true intellectual knowledge and understanding begin to mold itself.

And if we give up?  We’re cooked.  Done.  Everything we have worked for will be reversed – eventually.

It’s important to make our endeavors sustainable.  To choose a method of fitness we can consistently perform on a regular basis.  Try new things.  Seek new adventures and experiences.  Especially if you haven’t enjoyed your previous fitness endeavors.

If you hate cardio, stop doing it.  If you loathe lifting, drop the barbells.  If you think yoga is a waste of time, there’s no reason to “namaste”, my friend.

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.




One could make a correct assumption that the trainee isn’t the only one who often misses the Zone of Proximal Development.  Coaches aren’t immune from not understanding, psychologically speaking, how this process works.

Coaches often give a directive, or an order, and then whine and complain when it’s not carried out.  Now that you have a bit more of an idea about how human knowledge, understanding, and wisdom is gained, perhaps you can see a bit more clearly.

If your client isn’t actively engaged in the process of their own health or fitness, they aren’t being appropriately challenged just beyond their comfort level.  One of two things has happened.  Either the information you have given them is too simple/easy (possible, but not likely), or you’ve given them too much, and they are starting to feel anxiety (generally more likely for the beginner).

You have to run before you can sprint, jog before you can run, walk before you can jog, stand before you can walk…………you get the idea.

So, before you shrug your shoulders and say, “Oh, well.  This person is just LAZY, and is destined for failure…….”, ask yourself – have you done the following?

  • Have you asked and addressed your client’s current standing, health and fitness wise?  Do you know his/her abilities?
  • Are you aware of your client’s knowledge level?
  • Have you given your client “homework” and “tasks” to accomplish, instead of giving them “expectations” and “demands”?
  • Have you asked open-ended questions in an attempt to engage and build trust?
  • Have you provided clear and concise rationale behind your methods when asked, or are you “put off” when you get an inquiry?
  • Have you engaged the client in the decision making process themselves?  Or has everything been handed to them?
  • Have you asked your client for self-reflection, or checked in with them, whether it’s the “four week mark” or not?

A few actionable items that coaches can easily integrate into their programs, to help their clients be in the “zone”.

  • Give your clients the opportunity to set their own macros, or at least help them to make adjustments independently, if needed.
  • Eliminate using “online macro/calorie trackers” with clients – force the issue of counting and tracking your food independently, daily, in order to promote this crucial skill.
  • Set daily, reachable goals with your clients.  Make them aware of the goals before you begin.  Acknowledgement of the task which is “just beyond” the person’s ability level is a crucial step in this process.  The individual must be very aware they will be attempting something they haven’t accomplished in the past.
  • Give your clients options when faced with an issue.  Have them choose one of the options, and have them provide a rationale as to why they chose in that manner.
  • Encourage your client to join an online community, such as Fitocracy, to be with other, like-minded individuals.
  • Be positive – at all times – no matter what.  Negativity has no place in a client/coach relationship.
  • Always find the successes in what your client has done – and publicly announce them – assuming they are comfortable with that.
  • Whether you charge $1,000+ or mere pennies for your services – ALWAYS remember – that your profession is not about YOU.  It’s about THEM.  You are here to serve.  If you dedicate yourself to this philosophy and ideology 100% of the time, you will reap the benefits in the long run.

Although Lev Vygotsky’s work was primarily with children, the takeaways from his massive body of evidence are quite simply as relevant today as they were in the early 20th century.  Work hard.  Don’t be afraid of failure.  Take risks.  Attack your tasks with vigor.  Enlist the help of others.

These concepts, although not foreign to all, at times appear to be missing in our society.  Our inundation with instantaneous gratification and the avoidance of any strenuous and anxiety inducing situation has created a real void in the satisfaction of our personal
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Anything worth doing should frighten you.  Just a little bit.  Which doesn’t mean there should be avoidance.  In fact, just the opposite.  The anxiety should be the very REASON the task is handled first.

We should all become a bit more comfortable being uncomfortable.

The path to true greatness lies just outside of your happy place.





Constructivism:  Theory, Perspectives, and Practice.  Catherine Twomey Fosnot.  Teacher’s College Press, 2nd Edition.  2005.

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