There’s No Psychological Reward

In 2006 my exercise sessions were done at a fitness center that was popular enough that I was forced to wait until about 15 minutes before closing time to start. I would observe the activity in the room and when I thought I had enough of an opening, I would set the five machines in reverse order and hope that everyone there was more interested in their conversations than in using the equipment that I had planned.

One night as I finished my last exercise and unloaded from the resistance I glanced across the aisle at a man who was seated on a chest press machine looking quite relaxed. He was shaking his head and sort of smiling as he said “There’s just no psychological reward”. I asked for clarification while still breathing heavily. He explained that he observed and understood the protocol that I used, but that he couldn’t find any satisfaction in it; such effort only leading to ultimate failure.

I assured him that I understood his viewpoint and moved on. I wondered later if it would have helped him for me to explain my purpose, but I concluded that this was a classic case of “no explanation is possible”. I convey the story here because I find it an accurate illustration of the distinction between exercise and recreation.

Recreational activity is often confused for exercise. Sports, aerobics, step aerobics, danceaerobics, this aerobics, that aerobics, kick boxing, pilates, yoga, taebo, boot camp, crossfit, p90x, zumba, spinning, running, swimming, just move it, play60, wii, x-box … I could go on indefinitely. Recreation is a good thing. I encourage everyone to get as much as they care to. I don’t understand why people are often offended to hear their favorite activities referred to as recreation? Other activities get confused for exercise also that fit into the categories of work or skill enhancement. The important characteristic is “what’s the purpose?”

The purpose of skill is simply to become more efficient at any given task; from a backhand stroke in tennis to stacking hay bales on a flatbed truck, get the mission accomplished with the least possible expenditure; nothing wasted; nothing extra. The purpose of work is simply to get the object moved from its present state to the more preferred state. The single purpose of recreation is enjoyment. None of these activities have exhaustion for a target. It may be an ancillary effect, but it’s not desirable.

Conversely, exercise has one simple immediate goal and that is exhaustion of strength in order to provoke the reaction of overcompensation. When work, recreation or skill activities are confused with exercise and are taken to an extreme that nears exhaustion the result is always bad. The goal of each is undermined; skill is diminished, work is counterproductive, and recreation ceases to be enjoyable. The worst part is that each becomes dangerous at the same time that its purpose is eroded.

Exercise is not intended to provide a psychological reward. The reward is a physical improvement.

Now returning to the level evaluation list that was begun a long time back. I’ll elaborate on the next five items. Once again read through the list visualizing the process of an exercise session and add a comment with any thoughts.

1)      Avoid distractions
2)      Position carefully
3)      Maintain stationary origin
4)      Mastery over breathing
5)      Proper attire
6)      Avoid firing out
7)      Avoid shifting positions
8)      Avoid re-gripping
9)      Grasp the repetition cycle concept
10)   Avoid momentum

11)   Minimize acceleration

Imagine a slow buildup of your force to just meet the resistance setting and balance it at that level for a fraction of a second and then add the smallest possible increment until movement begins. This is a big waste of energy. It makes for quality exercise. Don’t be in a rush to get movement started, rather exaggerate the opposite extreme. Every change of pace and direction involves acceleration. Realize its existence and master your control over it.

12)   Mastery over turnarounds

Approach each extreme of a stroke with careful precision. Don’t bump into either end. Sneak in to that stroke peak gradually and take the time to definitively meet it before turning around and sneaking back away from it all the time consciously keeping as near as possible the exact same force applied. Reach the bottom out without allowing any sound, but feel that slight difference while maintaining the force in the same direction, and then leave the bottom out without a sound again and not even a hint of jolt.

13)   Constant load

This idea crosses over into minimal acceleration, turnarounds and momentum. Focus every bit of attention on measuring the force applied to the movement arm as if the weight stack is being carried by a strand of wire precisely gaged to be on the verge of snapping.

14)   Mastery over unloading

In the same way that the repetition cycle and the turnarounds are strictly under control, when failure is reached, continue to handle the apparatus as if it’s delicate. The concern here is not for the machine of course but for safety and quality of the exercise. Keep any movement under strict form and make the bottom out silent again. Take that extra second to gradually lower the tension after touching down.

15)   Exit properly

Once you’re unloaded from the resistance mechanism, focus on removing yourself from the machine safely yet quickly. Don’t merge movements together, rather keep them separated. Turn, if needed, then get your feet firmly planted, then stand. Make each one distinct like a robot from a bad sci-fi movie. When you have gained control of your motor functions, step to the next exercise. Your coordination is not expected to be normal at this point. Emphasize the same care as you load into the next. Maybe #2 Position carefully should be first on this list and #15 Exit properly should be second.

16)   Mastery over discrepancies
17)   Avoid changing speed
18)   Mastery over pace
19)   Recognize and avoid energy savings
20)   Exaggerate range and form
21)   Reach legitimate failure
22)   Eliminate facial expression
23)   Move quickly between exercises
24)   Engage squeeze technique
25)   Inroad beyond failure

17 thoughts on “There’s No Psychological Reward

  1. Great article Ethan!

    These are all things I need to keep in mind whenever I exercise.

    I do wonder if you have any thoughts on the following: I have been experimenting a bit with some ideas brought to my attention by Brian Johnston’s Zone Training or JReps. My main reason for doing so is to bypass sticking points in certain exercises. The equipment I use is more conventional and doesn’t always seem to correctly vary the resistance throughout the movement. Or rather I seem to reach mechanical failure quickly rather than failure due to fatigue. Training in “zones” seems like a way to get around this. One way that makes sense to me is to work in different zones for a given exercise from workout to workout. This way the entire range eventually gets exposure to load even though not during the same workout. Any thoughts?

    • Donnie,
      That’s an interesting method that you’ve described, although I’m not a proponent of the Jreps. It would take some very careful evaluation to figure out what partial range if any would qualify as a zone that varies properly. If an exercise machine has such a mismatch of resistance curve to strength curve that it compromises inroad efficiency, and many are even backwards, then I would expect to find a sticking point within almost any zone that might be chosen. My first thought in such a case is that a static effort would most likely offer the best quality of inroading if it can be fixed in a position near mid-range. The more concentration given to muscular effort, and less to technique, the better. I encourage everyone to save their technique learning for recreational activities. I’ll be interested to learn of any conclusions that you might reach.

  2. Thank you for the detailed response Ethan. I have thought along the lines of your recommendation. It would hard to get much more of a pure effort, non skilled activity than a TSC. After reading “The Future of Exercise” article on the RenEx site, and some of the comments that came after really opened my eyes to the possibilities of TSCs. Made me relook at how to best do dynamic contractions. In order for dynamic contractions to not cause the trainee to outroad or brace, the machine has to be designed in a way to take into account the progressive weakening that takes place during the exercise. Correct?

    • I think it’s the subject’s responsibility to control their own behavior. That’s really what bracing and other discrepancies are; behavior, even though it’s probably not a conscious behavior, it is learned. It is better to have a machine that doesn’t encourage such behavior, but no machine can impose proper form or any element of exercise.

  3. Here is something I have thought about. I think you have talked about some of this in your articles here.

    Muscular contraction is a volitional action of the body. Or skeletal muscle rather. I wonder what is possible for increasing muscle strength without having any external resistance, performing dynamic contractions? What if one had a way of tracking force production while contracting dynamically with no load or external resistance? Any thoughts? Granted I know a properly designed selectorized machine encourages proper biomechanics and consistent form and positioning.

    • I’m a little confused about your question. I’m guessing that by force production you’re referring to strictly force between the ends of the muscle. That might be interesting to know and probably surprising to most, but I’m not sure it would be all that useful since that measurement varies by position, temperature and numerous other factors. When it comes to increasing muscular strength in a very general sense, the bottom line is; how many actomyosin cross-bridges are available for action at a given instant? The body’s genes determine that in response to demands and capabilities. We use force production as part of the stimulation, but it’s not the only factor and it’s not in direct proportion.

  4. Yes my wording was a bit confusing. I tend to do that sometimes, lol. My question is what are your thoughts on the possiblities of performing dynamic contractions without contracting against anything, no load, no weight? I think I may getting way out on a limb here. From my own experience it would be very hard to contract dynamically with no resistance and have to create meaningful tension in the muscle(s). The thinking behind this came largely from some articles and comments regarding the RenEx iMachines. My thinking was taking the idea of contracting statically against an immovable object and applying it to dynamic contractions.

    • What you’re describing is not a no load situation but rather an infinite load or at least practically infinite. We have touched on this before. It would essentially be a machine that would perform the manually resisted exercise that Ken has described. He also alluded, in the dumper series on the renex site, to a multi-million dollar attempt by Arthur Jones to do something close to this concept. It would be an interesting tool given the right details. Regardless of the tool, the quality of the stimulus is still dependent on the subject.

  5. Yes you are correct. We talked about some of this on one of your other article’s comment section :) I understand what you mean by it all coming back to the trainee’s volition and behavior.

  6. If a trainee performs slow, gradual contractions, she or he is causing a greater exercise stimulation and the movement is very safe.

    If a trainee performs a sudden, explosive contraction the exercise stimultion gets diluted because he or she is attempting to make the movement more efficient. While I also see how this is more potentially dangerous, do we still have a diluted exercise stimulation if the resistance is varied in such a way that prevents a fast, explosive movement? I understand that at some point we would cross over into bracing and potential form changes as well.

    • The slow controlled contraction doesn’t guarantee a growth stimulus, but it offers the best opportunity for inroading strength intensely. No one knows how much inroad is required to stimulate growth or if there are multiple levels of stimulation that may be reached. Neither the movement nor the work output determine the stimulation, but they are useful measures for comparison in the attempt to determine what is effective. So poor form doesn’t necessarily dilute the stimulus since we don’t know if a required level of inroad is reached, but it surely lowers the chances of being effective.

      • “Work output”, as it relates to exercise, or I guess doesn’t relate to exercise. The focus should not be on completing reps or TUL, but should be on contracting and maintaining form instant to instant? I don’t remember for sure who first put this idea in mind. Your articles and way of describing proper exercise are very informative and detailed.

  7. “The more concentration given to muscular effort and the less needed for technique, the better.” This is good stuff!

  8. I was thinking about point #13 during my workout the other day. I like how you say to imagine a precisely gauged strand of wire connecting to the weight stack. I come to this site quite a bit and reread stuff.

    • I’m glad you find it valuable. The correct focus (what happens to the subject regardless of what happens to the apparatus) is severely lacking in the industry. It’s difficult to comprehend. It’s more difficult to describe. It’s nearly impossible to actually perform. Ken Hutchin’s “Assumed Objective vs. Real Objective” is most concise. It could be expounded endlessly for practical application.

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