Is Motivation an Overused Term in Strength Training and Fitness?

Posted on 10 Jun 2013 13:22

The text of this of this blog post is a transcript of the video talk presented here, which explores whether the word motivation is a misunderstood and overused word in fitness and strength training circles. Motivation is treated as if it is a black-and-white concept, and a person is either motivated or they are not motivated. It could be, however, that motivation is much more complex than this and the word used alone, without qualification, may be too vague, or too broad to be of much use.

Motivation is a Part of Pop-Psychology

Have you ever heard of pop-psychology? Ever heard of psychobabble? Well, for sport and exercise psychology, the word motivation is a part of that. People throw around the word as if it is a simple thing and as if just saying the word means they are "doing something about psychology."

Some psychologists have argued that the term motivation is vague and overused when it comes to the gym, the locker room, life. I agree. Every article, speech, or utterance about the word tends to come from a different definition. Motivation has become a sports psychology buzzword for those who don't really have any other words to choose from. It's either so broad it pretty much encompasses the whole field of sports psychology or so narrow it becomes useless.

Listen to the Voice Version

Did you know that there are over 30 theories of motivation? If not more. That means, 30 different organizational (or "operational") definitions.

The main thing to realize is that motivation is not a distinct thing. It's not as if "you are motivated or you are NOT motivated." It's more a process. If you go to the gym, then you must be motivated to do that, right? So to say "I lack motivation" doesn't quite describe your problem, if you have a problem.

Motivation is Specific, not General

Goals are a part of motivation. You go to the gym. Showing up doesn't mean you are motivated to have a good session. So what did you hope to achieve by showing up? Perhaps your primary goal, on the day, was to avoid guilt! The avoidance of guilt is not exactly the same as the desire to achieve something positive. And this is, by the way, part of why I reject the use of guilt tactics to get people to exercise. The "motivation" that guilt brings is to avoid the negative emotion of guilt as much as it is to achieve something.

And this brings us to one big problem with all this talk of motivation. People think that motivation is general. And they think that attitude is general. NO. They are not. They are both very specific. Your attitudes about the specific actions and tasks you undertake in your training are specific to those things. Your motivation is a part of your attitude, as well. Therefore motivation is specific. The more meaningful the task is to you, the more motivated you will be to achieve within that task! I really want this to hit home. You see all these articles about which exercises or what kind of training is the most effective. Exercising is not like buying an appliance and checking consumer reports for all the low down. I guarantee that the thing you enjoy more will be more effective if that enjoyment means you will stick to it. But effective for what? Well, that's another story…

Even Incentives Motivate in a Specific Way Depending on Situation

This brings me to the many contests and other incentives on many websites, etc. that seek to motivate through an incentive-based approach. What you'll find is that while a person might be attracted to, say, a fat loss challenge, they may not be attracted to a lifting challenge. This underscores that their perceptions and beliefs about the two things are different, and their "theory of achievement" are different for those things.

Theories of Motivation

I have talked about task-oriented behavior and being intrinsically motivated (self, or inner motivated) and extrinsically motivated (other, or outside motivated). This is also sometimes called an internal or external locus of control. As you can see, many terms, many theories. The terms task involvement and ego involvement are also used, as by Nicholls.1

Ego involvement should not be confused with other forms of extrinsic motivation such as incentives (reward based). Other labels and slightly different concepts have also been developed by some theorists, such as learning oriented versus performance oriented; or mastery focused versus ability focused. Ames and Archer have used the terms mastery goals and performance goals.2 Most all of these are different iterations of achievement goal theory

First, notice that even though we are discussing motivation, the term "goal" is used in describing the theories. You are motivated to do something because of the desire for a certain type of outcome, or a goal.

The point is, motivation is not a one off thing. We tend to think of a person as either being motivated to exercise, or not motivated to exercise, but it is highly contingent on the situation, the environment, and the specific tasks involved. As well, motivation to learn, and motivation to perform, can be quite different. If you are a trainer, you know the frustration of trainees that don't have the patience to learn something new, they want to skip right to mastery. Load up the bar and go for broke. Clearly, they are motivated to lift, they just aren't motivated to learn the lift and spend some time mastering it before demonstrating that mastery. Some people may not have a general motivation to learn. This does not mean that they cannot have a "state" motivation when the importance of learning a specific thing is conveyed to them.

Motivation to Learn versus Motivation to Perform

You may wonder why I suddenly started focusing on your motivation to learn. Well, it seems to me that while many people join a gym with a great deal of motivation to achieve something, they lack something just as important. Long-term success in whatever fitness or performance pursuit you are into involves a process of self-discovery and learning. Experimentation itself is a type of learning. If you are motivated to achieve a certain type of goal, but are not motivated to engage in a process of discovery that leads to that achievement, you may ultimately fail to adhere to the pursuit of your goal. I hear the phrase, "just do it" all the time. Well, then what?

It all comes down to trying to shove people in the right direction. Let's back up and talk about incentives some more. I don't want to sound like I am completely against this. They are big for fat loss and all of that. Lots of sites are continually doing promotions and "body transformation" challenges or other contests or incentive-based initiatives to motivate people. I know some people who I respect who do this kind of thing. So the contestants get some reward like a free book. Sometimes incentives are a short-term means to help achieve something more long-term but sometimes, to me, ultimately, it's a lack of what people really need. And it is usually short-term thing. You have to realize that an achievement focus for an athlete, who is continually competing, is different from a temporary state for a non-athlete where the competition is fleeting. For the athlete, this may give them a competitive edge, but such an edge is dependent on there being a competition!

So, once it's over…the value is fleeting and its impact is fleeting. No contest no motivation. I am not saying that people are wrong for doing that kind of thing and it is certainly fun and you may attract the attention of a few people here and there who will end up "internalizing" some of it and achieve lasting change. But I think that people have been misguided into thinking that motivation equals excitement. And vice versa. However, while excitement can be an impetus once the excitement (novelty) is gone where is the impetus? To me the mistake in that kind of thinking is believing that what people really need is a little shove in the right direction. If that is all things were about then everybody would be in shape and nobody would be obese. Because we get little shoves all the time. Just seeing somebody in shape when you're out of shape is a little shove.

A bunch of little shoves end up backfiring after a while. People end up pushing back. With attitudes that are the opposite of what the "incentives" were supposed to cultivate.

I picked out two words that I think are key to what I said just now. Value, and fun. I am all about strength training or fitness pursuits being fun. In fact, I think that is one of the main keys. But the way I go about making it fun is to do things that have personal value. Also, I said that it doesn't give them what they need:

So what do I think strength trainees need?

1. Tools: If you don't have the things you need to be successful but have to rely on others for it then it is a bit difficult to be continually motivated. You know people think I rail against cookie cutters for practical training reasons. No. I rail against them because they don't give you the tools. They don't allow you to experience your training. You cannot be intrinsically motivated by your training if you are a spectator to it. It must be experiential.

2. Non-monotony. If it is not, at some level, a creative process you can never hope to be internally motivated by it. Something that involves a creative component is, by definition, non-monotonous. The experience and the rewards it brings must be sufficiently varied.

3. You have to be in charge. At least some of the time. Daily, I get messages asking "what should I do". Sometimes I reply, "what do you want to do?". Most don't want to hear that and I could just go on giving instructions, to the best of my ability. If I were getting paid I'd do that. But when I was no longer in the employ of the trainee, where would they be if they'd never made a decision? They might have reached their initial goals, after all, they have me as a trainer! But they would be beholden to me or others to reach further goals. Making a decision and then living with and learning from the consequences of that decision is another part of becoming intrinsically motivated.

4. Performance goals. This is the biggest one to me. This is the one I repeat over and over. Setting performance related goals is the number one key. You had this challenge with pullups that you had to solve. You set a goal to fix the issue. This is a performance-related goal and you HAD to be motivated internally to do that! Nobody was waiting to carry you out of the gym in triumph and you didn't have your own string and horn section playing in the background. I was writing a post related to achieving goals and I called these Rudy moments. There are very few Rudy moments in life and in training. Most of what we accomplish only we ourselves are aware of or even care about. If you don't get that how can you hope to keep going?

To sum it up, motivation is not about catchy slogans. It's highly complex and individualistic. It's so complex that the very word motivation can be useless unless we are very clear on the why's and wherefore's. I could go around telling people to just do it and stop making excuses, too. My next psychology post, by the way, is on the word excuse. Telling people to just do it and stop making excuses, would really be more about me and how I feel than about other people. What do you want to do? What is meaningful to you? All these catchy slogans are other people expressing themselves. How do YOU want to express yourself? That is the first question to answer.

1. Nicholls, John G. The Competitive Ethos and Democratic Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989.
2. Ames, Carole, and Jennifer Archer. "Achievement Goals in the Classroom: Students' Learning Strategies and Motivation Processes." Journal of Educational Psychology 80.3 (1988): 260-67.
3. Smith, Daniel, and Michael Bar-Eli. Essential Readings in Sport and Exercise Psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2007.
4. Roberts, Glyn C., and Darren C. Treasure. Advances in Motivation in Sport and Exercise. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2012.

This page created 10 Jun 2013 13:22
Last updated 29 Mar 2018 21:39

© 2020 by Eric Troy and Ground Up Strength. All Rights Reserved. Please contact for permissions.