suboptimal training

Are You Undervaluing Strength?

By: Nick Soleyn, SSC

Many people start strength training with the idea that it is a long shot. The claim that we as coaches often make that the simple, hard, and effective strength training works for everyone, every time may seem sensationalist. The results may seem extremely valuable, but many people who have never trained before approach barbell training with the same wait-and-see attitude that you might have when you take up a crash diet or some other fitness trend. This perceived risk leads to great motivation in the beginning, especially when you see the initial signs of success, but it can also lead to frustration in the longer run. Oddly enough, knowing that barbell training works, along with a greater understanding of the long-term costs of training, can undermine your motivation—especially if you hadn’t mentally prepared for the long-term demands of training, having bought in for only a limited time when you began your strength training journey.

Valuing Strength as a Certainty

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There’s a gambler inside your head. He loves a long shot and is intrigued by outrageous claims, promises of silver bullets, and magic-pill fixes. This gambler is your consciousness, and the habits of your decision-making are not unique to you. This widespread intuitive behavior is responsible for ab-cluttered infomercials, the latest piece of home fitness quackery, and the lottery. It’s yours, mine, ours, everybody’s; people consistently are persuaded to make all-or-nothing, long shot decisions when the gain is great and the cost is small. 

The problem is that intuition and statistics do not tend to share your headspace at the same time. While not mutually exclusive, first impressions, including gut-feeling judgments, tend to come first, informed by, but not dependent on, the slower rational part of your brain. When you are deciding a course of action, you start with intuition, that first impression that tends to carry a lot of weight in your decision-making process. Your knowledge and experience, your character, and your environment all inform your intuition. But it is also the product of psychological biases. And you cannot turn it off.

We’ve talked about some of these biases before. Most people’s intuition does not rely on nominal costs and benefits or risks and rewards, which is why the lottery is successful and why people won’t buy probability-based insurance. Millions of people play the lottery because the perceived satisfaction of winning is magic-lamp-level high. The letdown when they don’t win, however, is very minimal. It only costs a few bucks to play, and you didn’t expect to win anyway. Statistically, the odds of winning do not justify the two dollars you pay for a ticket. When you consider annuity payouts, taxes, and the likelihood that you will share your prize with other winners, even $450+ million-dollar jackpots do not justify the cost of a ticket, but people are risk-seeking when it comes to long-shot gains.

In contrast, we are typically risk-averse when making decisions about potential severe losses:

“Suppose you are undecided whether or not to purchase earthquake insurance because the premium is quite high. As you hesitate, your friendly insurance agent comes forth with an alternative offer: ‘For half the regular premium you can be fully covered if the quake occurs on an odd day of the month. This is a good deal because for half the price you are covered for more than half the days.’ Why do most people find such probabilistic insurance distinctly unattractive?” (Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, “Choices, Values, and Frames,” Am. Psychologist, vol. 34 (1984)) 

Anytime you are deciding a low-probability occurrence, you are likely overweighting the eventuality or ignoring it altogether. Papers like the one with the quote above find intuitive value weights to be unstable when people are asked to make decisions for which they perceive the probability of an outcome to be very low.

Believe it or not, these concepts affect how many people make decisions about their strength and fitness training. You can frame training decisions into problems of value versus costs, including choices to start strength training, or to continue training, or even programming decisions. We spend a lot of time building up the value of strength training (because it is valuable), but we do not often discuss the costs of training, like the time, energy, and money involved in making your training as “optimal” as possible. In doing so, we may be neglecting the psychology of decision-making.  

Many people start strength training with the idea that it is a long shot. The claim that we as coaches often make that the simple, hard, and effective strength training works for everyone, every time may seem sensationalist. The results may seem extremely valuable, but many people who have never trained before approach barbell training with the same wait-and-see attitude that you might have when you take up a crash diet or some other fitness trend. This perceived risk leads to great motivation in the beginning, especially when you see the initial signs of success, but it can also lead to frustration in the longer run. Oddly enough, knowing that barbell training works, along with a greater understanding of the long-term costs of training, can undermine your motivation—especially if you hadn’t mentally prepared for the long-term demands of training, having bought in for only a limited time when you began your strength training journey. 

A second issue is a fallacy of “optimal or nothing.” This belief is the idea that effective strength training only looks one way: 2 hours per day, three to four days per week, with your life outside the gym revolving around perfect nutrition, eight hours of sleep, and maximized recovery. Many lifters have an idea of what strength training should be, and they become discouraged if they cannot dedicate the time, energy, and effort to it in full. Like other training decisions, we can frame this as an issue of costs and value. 

If you are struggling with longer-term training, or the idea that you are “sub-optimal,” and therefore not getting the value you want from strength training, consider that your struggles might be biased by the gambler in your head. Careful consideration of the value and costs of strength training can help you frame decisions about your training a little bit clearer. If you believe you aren’t training optimally, ask yourself whether you are dedicating the resources to strength training that reflect its value to you and, if so, how you can operate best within the parameters of those resources. 

I Can’t Train Optimally!

There is a well-known hypothetical of “sunk costs” in behavioral economics: 

“A man joins a tennis club and pays a $300 yearly membership fee. After two weeks of playing, he develops a tennis elbow. He continues to play (in pain) saying ‘I don’t want to waste the $300!'” (Thaler, R. 1980, “Toward a Positive Theory of Consumer Choice,” Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 1:39-60 (1979).)

The author uses the hypothetical to describe the irrationality of human choice, that paying for a good or service will increase the use of it regardless of the utility (or even dis-utility) of doing so. He describes the model of most of the fitness industry. People will pay for accountability and the opportunity for improvement without much expectation of actual results. Their engagement with the gym, for example, hopes for success but quietly anticipates failure. The gym knows that even so, people will keep paying for a membership long after its value is shown to be null. And, because it is ubiquitous in the industry, people expect and accept this arrangement. 

What happens when you engage in something useful like strength training? There is a reckoning between costs and benefits. Because strength training, done properly, is worth the time, money, and energy you put into it. The shift that occurs for most people is a conscious expectation of value for the costs of training, as it should be. They often do not recognize, however, that they began their strength training pursuits in a different mindset, one predicated on the assumption of risk and loss. 

The change means that now they are seeking value for their time and effort, and the informed lifter wants to train “optimally.” As an example of this, I discovered barbell training through CrossFit. For a time, CrossFit was life. I beat myself up as often as possible with high-impact, unfocused, random workouts. For a time, I got pretty fit doing them, too… at least compared to where I had been before starting. Later, after I discovered Starting Strength, got a whole lot stronger than I had ever been before, and learned about the principles of training like Stress-Recovery-Adaptation, I found that I couldn’t muster the same intensity for a random exercise like CrossFit that I used to. My newfound apathy was because I found the effort somewhat pointless. Beyond getting hot, sweaty, and tired, the workout wasn’t going to benefit my training. It might hurt it. The simple shift in perspective also changed what I found valuable and changed my motivation. I was fortunate enough to be able to choose how I wanted to train, but there is such a thing as paralysis by analysis when it comes to fitness.

As coaches, we help set a course or plan for someone’s strength training, but we are the support crew. We share our tips and tricks for training, our mental approaches, and we help motivate you to do things that you might not do without a push. As a result, we often speak to the high ideal of training “optimally,” giving the absolute most attention possible to strength training and your recovery needs, because strength is the most important physical adaptation, but it takes hard work and dedication to make it work for you. This perspective is true, but it can also be problematic for people who agree that strength is valuable but who are unable to meet the standard of training optimally—whatever that might mean to them. 

This same dilemma takes different forms during a lifter’s training career. At some point, strength training takes a backseat to something else, even if that something else is just temporary like a new baby, a death in the family, travel, or another sport. The problem isn’t that you do not value strength; the problem is that the opportunity cost of training optimally is too high. Your next alternatives are urgent or valuable enough that you cannot dedicate what you see as the necessary resources to strength training.

You now have a decision to make: Do you continue training even if you can’t do it as well as you might want to? Do you restructure your training to better fit your life, even if that means you won’t make gains as well as before? Or do you suck it up and work harder? To answer that, you have to dig a little bit deeper into the problem. The first question concerns the value you place on strength training itself. 

Are You Undervaluing Strength Training?

In the study of behavior and decision-making, most studies seem to show that we aren’t particularly good at making decisions based purely on the value of one choice over another. If people were entirely rational beings, then we would be completely predictable: If Option A matches or exceeds Option B in every way, then people should consistently prefer Option A, and their decisions shouldn’t change with a simple change in the description of the problem; two versions of the same choice should always yield the same outcomes. Researchers regularly show that this is not the case. Consider the following concurrent problems:

Imagine that you face the following pair of concurrent decisions. First, examine both decisions, then indicate the options you prefer:

Decision (i) Choose between:

  1. A sure gain of $240
  2. 25% chance to gain $1,000 and 75% chance to gain nothing

Decision (ii) Choose between:

  1. a sure loss of $750
  2. 75% chance to lose $1,000 and 25% chance to lose nothing

(from CITE). 

Most people will pick options A and D, showing a risk-averse behavior when it comes to a sure gain over a  gamble and risk-seeking behavior for a gamble over a sure loss. Now consider the following problem:

Choose between:

  1. 25% chance to win $240 and 75% chance to lose $760
  2. 25% chance to win $250 and 75% chance to lose $750 

Option F is clearly superior to E and, indeed, all respondents who pay attention choose option F. Option F, however, is identical to Options B and C in the first problem added together. When these tests were first run, only 3% of respondents chose both options B and C in problem 1. Whereas 100% chose option F over option E. 

The problem is that we don’t value probabilities and definite outcomes the same way, even if their numerical value can be equated. When outcomes are uncertain, we tend to make decisions similar to how we view probabilities and gambles. 

The problem in the fitness world is that people tend to treat strength training (and indeed any physical pursuit) as having an uncertain outcome. We have the perpetual attitude of “I’m going to try this thing and see how it goes.” In which case, we are willing to value the activity based on probability. When it is a long-shot, and we have little invested in it, we are motivated, but as the cost of training increases, our enthusiasm wanes in the face of perceived uncertainty concerning the outcome. 

Valuing strength properly for decision-making purposes means understanding that strength is a certainty. If you train, you will get stronger. It works every single time. What is uncertain is the weight on the bar at any given time. If you start training with a particular numerical goal in mind, you put strength training into the realm of probabilities. If you set a modest goal, it will not motivate very much. If you set a seemingly impossible goal, you may find a lot of motivation at the beginning of training, but as you progress and training become very difficult, you will find that you are flagging in the face of the improbability of it.

Strength is not defined by the weight on the bar but by the process. Think of training as the intentional effort of how you choose to exist as a physical being. When you decide that you want to be strong and you engage in a strength training regimen, you will get stronger. You have to because your biological processes are not subject to the same decision-making conundrums as your consciousness. When you stress your system in a manner consistent with strength training, and you allow your body to recover from that stress, you will get stronger. How much stronger depends on many factors, but the process is knowable and predictable.     

That doesn’t mean you should have no goals when you lift. You should set goals, you should smash your goals, and you should set new goals. Doing so is part of the fun of lifting. When it comes to how you value your strength training, however, understand that you rise or fall to the level of your physical activities. If you choose to train for strength, you will get stronger. If you decide not to train for strength, you won’t; and depending on what you do instead, you may get weaker. So, don’t undervalue strength training as a “what if?” You will get stronger.

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