What you’re getting yourself into:
-3,200 words. 8-12 minute read time. If you’re in a hurry, you can skip to the last section for the takeaways, but they may not make as much sense unless you actually read this one all the way through.
1) Your beliefs influence your physiology directly, and the choices you make. In these ways, they strongly influence your training success.
2) These effects have been noted in almost every area that’s relevant to your performance and progress.
3) Mental hang-ups can harm your success just like a bad training program or diet can. Remove them to unleash your inner superhero.
Beliefs have consequences.
Usually this statement is a segue into a discussion about how it’s important to use reliable criteria for coming to beliefs about the world, because beliefs motivate action, and our actions affect others. More often than not, it’s a launching point for a (typically condescending) discussion/diatribe about some political or religious issue. That’s not what this article is about.
This is an article about the beliefs you hold, and how they influence your ability to make sweet, sweet gainz.
As I’ve talked about before, it’s not appropriate to try to sum up who you are and the results you get from training solely by describing physiological processes. Obviously those things are important, but they aren’t everything. (I realize there’s an argument that can be made for strict determinism, but I think we can all agree that regardless of that philosophical possibility, we don’t know nearly enough about the body to describe it yet in such terms.) What you think, what you expect, and what you believe about yourself can make a huge impact on your progress.
In my recent article on steroids, the majority of the feedback I got was about the section discussing the placebo effect. The purpose of this article is to go a little deeper down that rabbit hole to explore other ways your beliefs influence your training outcomes.
Just to rehash the bit about steroids, placebo studies have shown you can get “steroid-like” strength gains from simply thinking you’re on steroids. In one study, experienced lifters gained 4x the strength in about half the time (100 pounds in 4 weeks, vs. 22 pounds in 7 weeks, across 5 exercises) because they thought they were taking steroids. In another, national-level powerlifters put an average of 10-12kg (22-26 pounds) on each of their lifts (squat, bench, and deadlift) on the very same day because they thought they were given a fast-acting steroids. Two week later, when half were told it was a sham, their new strength gains vanished, while those who still thought they were on steroids managed to hit similar lifts again.
When people thought they were taking steroids, they believed they were going to get substantially stronger…and they did. Some of them were able to lift more on the very same day (putting about 70 pounds on their powerlifting total), and some of them gained strength at ~7 times the rate they had been, on the exact same training plan.
For a more anecdotal treatment of this same topic, you may like this article from about 18 months ago. (My views on some of these things have evolved since then, but the overall message is still a good one, I think).
But your mind isn’t just powerful when it comes to strength gains. It could also play a role in diet success.
In one study, participants all drank a 380 calorie milkshake. However, the researchers put different labels on the milkshakes. One of the labels said it was 620 calories, and the labeling portrayed it as delicious and indulgent. The other label said it was a scant 140 calories, and was a sensible, figure-conscious choice.
After drinking the milkshakes, the researchers monitored the participants’ ghrelin levels (a hormone associated with hunger – the higher your ghrelin, the hungrier you feel), and their feelings of fullness and satiety. The group that thought they drank an indulgent 620 calorie milkshake had steep drops in ghrelin, and reported being quite full and satiated, whereas the group thinking they drank the sensible 140 calorie milkshake maintained fairly consistent ghrelin levels, and reported being hungrier.
Even though they drank the exact same milkshake, they had different expectations of how the milkshake would affect them. It’s not overly surprising that they reported less hunger (a psychological phenomenon – expectency – affecting another psychological phenomenon – perception of hunger), BUT they also had different ghrelin responses. The expectation didn’t just alter psychological parameters, but physiological ones as well.
It’s very likely that the best way to make dieting suck is to expect it to suck, and that expecting it to be more pleasant can actually make it so.
So your beliefs can affect your performance in the gym and your dieting success (assuming hunger influences how well you stick to a diet). They can also affect whether or not you hurt.
In recent years, people have come to new understandings about what pain actually is. The old idea was that pain was solely about tissue damage, and that degree of tissue damage scaled pretty much linearly with the amount of pain you felt. For example, if your quad is undamaged, it’s not going to hurt. If the muscle experiences a little damage from intense training, it’ll be sore. If you push too hard and partially tear it, it’s going to hurt a lot. If something really bad happens and you have a full rupture, things are going to be pretty excruciating.
However, it’s been revealed that pain is a much more complicated phenomenon than that, because pain isn’t “in” your tissues. It’s a perception generated by your brain, after taking into account a host of different inputs. Some of these inputs are from the tissues themselves, obviously (usually by way of nociceptive fibers), but other factors such as your mood, social situation, and expectations also influence IF you feel pain, and HOW MUCH pain you feel.
If you really want to dig deeper into this topic, check out the resources and studies here. If you want the quick and dirty version, I’d highly suggest this article, or this podcast. These are some highlights, though:
1) Up to 40% of people in the ER for massive injuries feel no pain from their injuries
2) Large numbers of people have injuries like bulging discs or torn menisci, in spite of feeling no pain whatsoever.
3) Putting people in a situation where they expect to feel pain can make them feel pain, even if there is no activation of the nociceptive nerve fibers themselves.
4) Simply explaining what pain is, and that it’s not synonymous with tissue damage, can decrease the perceptions of pain in many people.
Here’s why this is so important for athletes, and especially coaches: since pain is based, at least in part, on expectations, you can increase the chances that you or your athletes experience pain needlessly because of the nocebo effect. The nocebo effect is sort of like the crappy version of the placebo effect. With the placebo effect, you expect good things to happen, so good things happen. With the nocebo effect, you expect bad things to happen, so bad things happen.
A recent meta-analysis found that the nocebo effect could have a moderate to large effect on how much pain someone experiences. Because of this, I’m of the opinion that using fear of injury to get someone to perform an exercise correctly should be your very last resort. For example, if someones knees are caving in when they squats, instead of saying they’re going to hurt something (ACL, MCL, meniscus, etc.), use performance-based language. Tell them that if they keep their knees out, they can get their hips more involved in the movement and squat more, or something of that nature. Now, it may be true that what they’re doing is increasing their risk of injury (tissue damage), but you don’t need to beat them over the head with it, because you could wind up giving them knee pain by influencing their beliefs, even if they never end up experiencing a real injury. There may be a time and place to eventually say to an especially stubborn individual, “stop doing that exercise that way, or you’re headed for snap city,” but that should be your last resort, not your first.
In recent years, it’s been en vogue to tout the research about “ego depletion.” Ego depletion is the idea that willpower is a limited resource that can be used up. If you use too much of your willpower resisting the urge to punch your coworker in the face, you’ll be more apt to splurge on your diet, because you won’t have enough willpower to resist the cheesecake in your fridge. If you use all your willpower dialing in your diet, you won’t have enough left to really push yourself in the gym.
However, new research is calling that notion into question. Your beliefs about how much willpower you have and how willpower works (i.e. whether it can be depleted or is essentially unlimited) can actually affect how much willpower and restraint you’re capable of displaying.
Behavior change strategies built around notions of ego depletion have been very effective, though. It’s not a concept to completely discard by any means. These strategies usually involve limiting how many hard choices you have to make every day that might sap your willpower. For example, if you’re on a diet, but you have a box of cookies sitting on the counter or a cake in the fridge, every time you see those things, you have to choose to not eat them, even if you’re craving them. So to mitigate the effects of ego depletion, you might only buy things that are on your diet, so that you aren’t constantly seeing stuff around your house that you shouldn’t be eating. You have to make good choices when you’re at the grocery store shopping, but you don’t have to make those same choices multiple times per day when you’re at home. When it’s time to indulge, you might either go out, or buy a quantity of indulgent food that you plan on eating in one sitting. It’s based on making it as easy to succeed as possible, rather than making it easier to fail.
However, if you can adopt strategies like that without also subscribing to the notion that your willpower is a fragile, limited resource, you may be even better off yet. Think of yourself as someone with infinite willpower and restraint, but still adopt strategies that make it easy to make good choices and hard to make bad choices, and you’re getting the best of both worlds. Focusing too much on the concept of ego depletion may actually be a nocebo of its own, artificially limiting how much willpower you’d otherwise be able to use.
Who you are
We all tell ourselves stories. They’re important for us to frame our concept of who we are. We don’t remember and survey all of the events in our lives and every thought we’ve ever had, and treat them as a totally flat landscape. We pick out the ones we find the most important, and assign meaning to them to frame who we think we are as individuals. Those events and thoughts, and the values you ascribe to them, inform who you see yourself as, and what you think you’re capable of.
The important thing about this process is that it’s not an objective process by any stretch of the imagination. We pick and choose what we weight more heavily, those decisions influence what we’re more apt to remember, and the whole narrative informs where you think you’re capable of achieving. The exact same set of circumstances could be viewed through entirely different lenses, crafting two entirely different personal narratives.
You see this a lot in people who were raised in tough situations. Some people see it as a challenge to rise up and overcome, and every little step up the totem pole frames them as someone who’s capable of beating the odds and continuing on an upward trajectory. Chris Duffin, an amazing powerlifter and all-time world record holder in the squat in the 220 class, seems to typify this personal narrative and orientation toward the world. Other people see it as a world where the deck is stacked against them, they’re the victims of things outside their control, and they can never hope to rise up. This seems to be the case of a lot of people who feel caught in the vicious cycle of poverty (for good reason). The “truth” (though obviously it’s context-specific, and a multitude of things factor in) is probably somewhere in the middle – there are a lot of ways people are more privileged and have more opportunities than others, but there are almost always opportunities for people who are willing to take risks, work hard, and aren’t beaten down by the world.
The important thing about personal narratives is that they tend to be self-perpetuating due to confirmation biases. We tend to seek out and remember information that confirms thoughts we already have about the world, and forget or avoid information that conflicts with what we think and believe in the interest of minimizing cognitive dissonance.
A lot of this has to do with the idea of your locus of control. Locus of control is basically your concept of who is in charge of your life. Is what happens to you a simple result of the actions you take and the choices you make, or is it the result of more powerful forces you can’t do anything about? Someone with an internal locus of control is someone who ascribes their successes to their hard work, and their failures to their own shortcomings. Someone with an external locus of control is someone who ascribes their successes to luck, and their failures to other people, outside forces, or the fact that the task was too hard. Again, neither of these is “right” or “wrong” in any objective sense. It’s more a lens you use to understand the events in your life.
This is important to us (athletes and coaches), because it can have a lot to do with success in athletic pursuits. For example, there’s not a significant difference between people with an internal and external locus of control in regards to how anxious they get about competition, but people with an internal locus of control tend to interpret the pre-competition jitters as a good thing – something that will help them perform better – whereas people with an external locus of control interpret the same feelings as something that will harm their performance, psyching them out. Also, people with an internal locus of control are more apt to make decisions that will benefit future performance, such as sticking to a rehab protocol following injury.
It is worth noting, as well, that locus of control is domain-dependent. Some people can feel in control of their athletic pursuits, but out of control in the rest of their lives, or vice versa – you may feel like you are in control of your job and social life, but out of control in the gym. I’m not a psychologist so I’m not even going to touch the “rest of your life” stuff, but as a coach it’s my job to help foster this self-concept in the gym (strategies for doing so would be an entirely different article, however). Help your athletes come to expect success, see their outcomes as a results of their own hard work, and feel like they’re in control of their results when they’re dealing with stagnation or injury, so they’ll be more motivated to do everything within their power to continually reap the rewards they expect from their hard work.
Your Inner Superhero
Everyone has both physical and mental limits. The physical limits aren’t worth losing sleep over, because you really can’t do anything about them. If something is outside the realm of possibility with the genetic hand you were dealt, it’s just not happening, and there’s really not anything you can do about it.
However, the thing about physical limits is that you have absolutely no freaking idea what they are. Although differences in genetic potential are very real, you don’t know what hand you were dealt until you play it, and play it with the expectation that it’s a good one.
Adopt ideas that help you along the way, rather than holding you back. As we’ve seen from placebo research, pain research, nutrition research, and willpower research, the things you think have a huge impact on the results you achieve. Since the story you tell about yourself isn’t true or false in any objective sense, tell yourself one that gives you a ton of potential, and that puts you in control of your life and your results.
The first step is simply to be aware of how powerful your beliefs and expectations can be. That was the purpose this article was meant to serve.
Obviously you can’t chalk it all up to psychology – physiological factors are very real, and you can’t simply “out-think” a poor program or diet. But these psychological factors interact with and influence physiological factors in a really major way. You can’t focus solely on one set of factors while ignoring the other.
Remember your successes without getting cocky, don’t dwell on your failures, and put yourself in situations that make it easy for you to think of yourself as a winner. Don’t do programs that drain your confidence, don’t make it harder on yourself to make good food choices, and don’t think of yourself as someone with feeble amounts of willpower and restraint. Don’t concern yourself with things that are outside your control (like your genetic draw), and always assume the sky is the limit, and that your own choices and hard work are the way to get you there.
When I talk about “Unleashing your Inner Superhero,” I don’t necessarily mean that anyone is capable of accomplishing anything. Your Inner Superhero is you without mental shackles. It is what your body is capable of, with the help of facilitative ideas and beliefs, rather than the burden of debilitative ones. Because of how psychological factors can impact your physiology, the simple act of believing your training plan or diet will be effective will increase the odds that it will be. Unleasing your Inner Superhero starts with believing you have an Inner Superhero to unleash.
Finally, to bring this full circle, beliefs motivate actions. Your beliefs have their own innate power, as can be seen in the milkshake study, the placebo steroid study where people got 5% stronger on the very same day, and much of the pain research. However, your beliefs also affect how you behave, and whether you’re willing to do the things necessary to reach your goals. If you feel in control of your results, you’ll take the proper steps to set yourself up for further success. I think that’s what we’re seeing in the placebo steroid study where the participants gained strength at a ~7x greater rate, and it also seems to be implied by locus of control research.
If you really feel like you are capable of doing great things on the power of your own hard work (especially if you don’t think your willpower to make good choices is a precious, limited resource that you’ll run out of by working too hard), it motivates you to take the appropriate actions to reach your goals and make the progress you want. If you feel like you’re a slave to misfortune, blaming genetics, other people, or circumstances, you’re almost certainly shortchanging yourself and limiting how many sweet gainz you’re going make by imposing false mental limits on yourself.
Achieving your goals starts not just with a plan of attack, but also with a deep belief that the plan of attack will be successful.
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