suboptimal training

Decision-Making and the Opportunity Cost of Strength Training

By: Barbell Logic Team

Decision-making and the Opportunity Cost of Strength Training

People aren’t great at making decisions. We tend to mismeasure risk, underestimate hard work, blind ourselves to our own biases, and stick with things that aren’t working just because we’ve put in some time and energy to them. On one hand, hasty decisions may get you stuck with some pursuit that wastes your time, money, and energy. On the other hand, the inertia of indecision builds with every opportunity weighed and dismissed.

You may not think about the science of decision-making when it comes to strength training, but it affects everything we do. Every choice you make is in lieu of another choice, a discarded opportunity. If you went to see a movie last weekend, you surrendered those few hours to entertainment. You could have spent it being productive, cleaning the house, working in the yard, or learning something new. There is an inherent cost in any decision equal to the value of what else you could have been doing.

This trade-off is known as the opportunity cost of your decisions. It is the product of finite resources, dictated by the reach of your means, the spinning of the earth around the sun, and entropy; everything that you missed out on is everything that you could have been doing instead.

The opportunity cost of strength training has both general and specific considerations. Training consumes general resources like time and energy. You could be doing almost anything else with those hours you spend in the gym, most of them much less physically stressful. Strength training requires certain other costs in terms of what is effective (how you eat and recover), offering specific trade-offs regarding your training goals and the physical changes you are training for. Training for strength means you aren’t currently practicing a skill or developing your conditioning or improving some other facet of your physical fitness—at least not during the hours spent under a barbell. It also means that you’ve organized part of your day around getting a little bit stronger.

If you are reading this, you’ve probably already decided that strength is valuable. Strength training is also a long-term pursuit, and there will be some point in your lifting career when you question the trade-off of strength for something else. This is reasonable. Your priorities, goals, and resources change with time. With that in mind, it concerns us to both the value and the cost of strength training when you are faced with decisions about your progress and your goals.

To help identify the opportunity cost of strength training. Let’s outline some decision-making concepts and reflect on the choices we make with respect to strength training. Our goal is to develop a basic framework through which we can assess the value of strength training in terms of the alternatives, giving an idea of the opportunity cost of strength training, and helping us make good decisions when some training trade-offs are necessary.

Every decision has an opportunity cost

“Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination.”

― Mark Twain

When faced with two or more mutually exclusive alternatives, the opportunity cost of one choice is the loss of value from not making a different choice. To the extent we can assign a value to such things, the opportunity cost is equal to the value of the next best choice. This concept presumes that you have some idea of the relative value of all alternative choices you might make, creating a kind of hierarchy of valuation based upon your realistic alternatives.

When dealing in strictly monetary terms, a hierarchy of value is a straightforward calculation. The opportunity cost of allocating resources one way is the value of allocating them for something else. In a completely standardized existence, everything would have a nominal value and everyone would act rationally making decisions based on the greatest value they would receive. Instead, everyone operates with individual perspectives, beliefs, and preferences and very often do completely irrational things. Much of the study of decision-making comes from this inherent tension between logic and rationality and, well, human nature.     

Though traditionally a concept of revenue and finance, the opportunity cost is a rationalizing force for decision-making. It helps bring some order to how we might weigh intangible costs and benefits associated with our choices. Value, in this broader context, includes both the benefits you get from something and your subjective bias.

Two important considerations rein in the subjectivity of this analysis: Context and awareness. The context of your choices tends to exist within certain definable goals. Someone who chooses to watch Netflix all afternoon may be completely uninterested in leaving the house to train. Instead, the actual context of their choice may be entertainment. Their decision is whether they not should sit on the couch doing nothing or go do literally anything else within their means. It’s “should I binge watch Breaking Bad or Black Mirror?” The time cannot be spent on multiple shows and show the opportunity cost of choosing one is the lost opportunity to watch the other. When your overarching goal is purely entertainment, the relative value of choices that aren’t designed for your entertainment is not part of your decision-making conundrum. Goals define the context and the realm of rational choices.

Similarly, if you are trying to pursue a physical fitness goal, you probably shouldn’t be weighing the relative merit of fitness against the third season of Breaking Bad. Instead, the context of your decisions might be the costs and benefits of strength training versus conditioning or practice or some other physical activity that is relevant to your fitness goal.

The second important consideration is an awareness of the decision-making process. There are caveats to human decision-making. We tend to rely on intuition, even when we aren’t well-enough informed to make intuitive choices. We also tend to stick to certain decisions even if doing so is irrational. We make decisions based on certain skewed perceptions, influenced by how much time or money we’ve sunk into a project whether that project is productive or not. These are the psychological fallacies of decision-making.

Loss Aversion

We don’t like the feeling of loss. More importantly, we tend to prefer avoiding loss more than acquiring equal value. In pioneering work on loss aversion, researchers found that the valuation curve in decision making is considerably steeper for losses than for equal gains. “[L]oss aversion, expresses the intuition that a loss of $X is more aversive than a gain of $X is attractive.” (Kahneman and Tversky, “Choices, Values, and Frames” American Psychologist, vol. 34 (1984), reprinted as Appendix B in “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman (2011).) Loss aversion is the psychological power behind the inertia of choices or the status quo.

Regarding physical fitness and training, loss aversion is part of the motivation against carving out time to train when training is not your habit. It is painful to “lose” that time that you usually spend doing something else. Concerning the status quo and making changes, it may be important to recognize the inherent weight you put on not changing and considering instead your choices more directly in terms of how they help you reach your goals.

Loss aversion may also be why people will choose one method of fitness and stick with it long after it has proven to be impractical for their goals. When you’ve invested time, money, energy, and maybe a bit of your identity into something, you may avoid change even when a change will help you reach your goals. This is known as the sunk cost fallacy: The more time and effort you put into a project, the less likely you are to abandon it, even when it isn’t working or it makes rational sense to change your tactic. As coaches, we often notice this effect when we try to tell a runner who just bought new shoes that he should take a break from running to focus on strength training (or someone with a membership to a gym, dojo, or studio that specializes in some other form of fitness). The cure for loss aversion is a clear understanding of the relative value of your alternative choices.

Anchoring

Another fallacy of decision-making is anchoring. This is when you ascribe value to something based on previous experience rather than objective criteria. For example, you used to do Zumba for fitness, but then you found CrossFit. CrossFit is vastly superior, and, therefore, you value it highly. But it may not be objectively good for your goals. Instead, your aim should be to allocate value in terms of your goal, not how good something is compared to something else. Instead of deciding whether one option is better than another, the question is what option has the highest value in terms of your goal. It may be an option that has not yet been presented to you.

The Planning Fallacy

People tend to overestimate how much they can do in the short run. Often this is because we tend to emulate examples of success. We take a snapshot view of what someone else is doing right now, examine their habits, their perspective, and their maxims, thinking that their template will lead to our success. Or we simply tend to be optimistic about our own goals, abilities, and desires. This can lead to hard work in the short term but frustration and disillusionment when we don’t follow our optimistic expectations for progress.

Consider strength training and the regularity with which people take up training with the preconceived idea of where they will end their Novice LP. They’ve seen what someone else in their general demographic has accomplished and set their short term goals with someone else as a reference point, regardless of experience, training advancement, or their own unique abilities. The planning fallacy takes value away from the pursuit and places value on the timeframe.

The cure for the planning fallacy is an educated third-party perspective. The optimism bias of this fallacy is generally offset by an outsiders’ pessimism bias. Also, an educated third party can provide a reason-based outline for reaching your goals along with timely feedback on your progress, helping you maintain a long-term perspective while celebrating short-term gains. Certainly, a coach is helpful for strength training and physical fitness goals. Barring that, learning enough to give yourself a more detached perspective can help you navigate your training progress and avoid the frustrations of the planning fallacy.

Decision-Making and “Maintenance”

As you may have noticed the psychological fallacies of decision making are remedied by an understanding of the processes that help you reach your goal. When it comes to training for fitness, everyone is served by at least a basic understanding of adaptation, how we can induce and direct physical changes in our bodies. Going farther, if you learn about the value of strength versus other kinds of physical adaptations, and understand what is required to meet your own goals. You begin to develop a solid framework for decision making in this arena.

Take, for example, the idea of “maintenance.” Matt and Scott talk about the myth of maintenance this week on the Barbell Logic Podcast. Maintenance is the idea that once you reach a certain goal, you are going to change how much time and energy you put into training. Instead of training to get stronger, you are just going to maintain the strength you’ve achieved.

As coaches, we often loathe the idea of maintenance, because it places training into a state of complacency. The problem is that the idea of maintenance comes from a misunderstanding of the body’s process of change. Your body adapts to the demands you place on it, rising or falling to acute and chronic circumstances. You can experience this yourself by experiencing a forced layoff from training after a big PR—a vacation maybe, or being struck down with a nasty illness. After two weeks’ absence from training, you will not be as strong as you were. Maintenance is the idea of no longer pursuing adaptation.

Once a lifter has settled for maintenance, the same mechanism that supports loss aversion can make it difficult to motivate them to recoup lost gains. We know that at some point circumstances, life, or age-induced entropy are going to try and steal back your gains. You don’t always have to push for lifetime PRs, but if you value the strength you’ve built, it is important to maintain the habit of strength training.

Similarly, many people new to strength training set their maintenance goals based on their previous untrained states. This is the concept of anchoring, believing that “if I can just do [X], that will be enough.” This ignores the individual nature of strength training. There is no number that should define what is strong enough for you. Instead, where you are in the process and how well you engage with it is a better measure of success. If you haven’t yet finished your Novice LP, you have no idea what your potential really is. Stopping early just because you hit a particular number would be doing yourself a disservice.

Setting a maintenance goal, even if it is a substantial goal, also invokes the planning fallacy. You should not arbitrarily set massive goals and then start plugging away at them. Reasonable, numerical goals—those big PRs we all chase—are notable landmarks and can provide valuable short-term motivation. The long-term plan for training, however, is NOT a number. It’s a perspective. The value of a long-term plan is the day-to-day becoming the year-to-year becoming the decade-to-decade process of improvement. At some point, it is training itself that is valuable. Your long term training plan should take you from gaining strength to gaining perspective.

How we make decisions and, specifically, how we can value strength training in the context of our physical goals is a big topic. The idea of maintenance is one example of how an awareness of decision-making fallacies and an understanding of the process involved in getting stronger can help you make better decisions with your training. We will explore these topics again in future posts.

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