Strength Training Motivation And Goal Setting

Posted on 01 Jun 2010 20:13

Why do you strength train? Are you even clear on the reasons? Do they change from week to week? With so much emphasis on goals perhaps we are missing something even more fundamental and vital. Motivation. What good are goals when you are not even clear what motivates you to do what you do?

It is clear that strength training media is aimed at an extremely narrow audience. The providers of this information base their assumptions on the motivations of this audience. So if we assume that our audience is predominantly made up of football players and the like (and this is not far fetched at all) then we have narrowed down their motivations quite a bit, haven't we?

You know, as part of that media I have a difficult job as a writer. The stuff I write is for "the other guy". The guy who just wants to train for strength and finds intrinsic value in lifting very heavy objects. Ultimately it doesn't matter whether it is a barbell or a rock.

I read with interest a recent entry by Josh Henkin called "the death of the barbell". I have to say, I've heard it all before. "True" strength cannot be had from just a barbell. He talked about 'strength leaks' and other ill-defined concepts. These types of ideas are expressed often by just about anyone wishing to sell the idea of alternate free-weight implements, the leaders of which are the kettlebell and the sandbag.

As it often does, my mind went sideways and I began to wonder if a primary problem was this business of audience, motivation, and how to define strength.

What Are Your Goals? The Difference Between Motivation and Goals

Usually one of the first things we ask a trainee is what their goals are. This may be the wrong question. Four different consecutive conversations with a burgeoning strength trainee might go something like this:

1. I am mostly interested in mass.

2. I don't care about mass that much, I just want to train for hockey (or insert sport).

3. Hockey is not really that big a deal for me, I just want to be strong and muscular in general.

I've had such course changes occur even in the midst of one conversation.

Notice that the responses are not clear cut goals. Those things could be defined as desires or needs that influence the direction of behavior. The trainee is describing his motivations and not simply his goals.

Change those lines to just about any general thing you can imagine. Insert various motivations. Get a picture of the MAJORITY of those who are interested in training for strength! Yes, that's right. The majority. They do not even know exactly why they do it. You'd figure that just might determine the outcome wouldn't you?

Here is the problem: the desire or need to reach a goal may be your initial motivation for strength training, but this initial motivation is like nothing more than a push or force that directs you. It is not an engine that keeps you moving! Indeed, as we progress forward toward our ultimate goals, our motivations change and ultimately the original goal changes into new ones.

As I thought about this, at first, I thought that the media aimed at narrow audiences could be a negative influence on the majority of trainees because they are already unclear on their motivations and would seek to define these motivations based on someone else's value system. Then, I realized that we can never be sure of motivations in the first place. We can only infer them from behavior. And since those motivations change as we go along it really does not matter that much what the initial "push" was, as long as we find ways to sustain ourselves towards a positive mode of self-expression and self-improvement. In other words, there are no wrong reasons to begin strength training. Another thing about motivation is that regardless of what our underlying "big reason" is the things that keep us moving forward are likely to be a vast array of different influences.

I've tried and tried to explain this to people when they tell me they have "lost their motivation". A trainee who began training for muscle mass finds his interest and drive to train waning. He looks in the mirror trying to get fired up to build muscle and finds himself apathetic. He wonders what happened to his motivation.

A couple of things happened. Being big and massive or being strong are not events. The desire to be big and strong is an influence that directed the trainee's behavior toward weight training. Motivations and goals are mixed up in most people's, let alone most trainee's, minds!

Let's contrast strength training with attending college. The ultimate outcome of college attendance is graduation. It's fairly cut and dry. The ultimate outcome of getting big and strong or just big or just strong is the desire to get bigger or stronger! Some trainees go on to realize some other related goal but for those who wish to keep at it strength training is more a life-style of continual improvement than a specific event.

When that trainee first looked in the mirror perhaps he imagined himself having achieved a certain physique. That imagining was enough of an initial impetus to get him fired up to begin a training program but the training as the means to this "end" is hard to sustain based on that initial impetus. In "Pumping Iron" Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke of how he thought of the next ten thousand dollars he would make in order to get through endless repetitions of mindless exercises like triceps dips. Clearly, there is a big difference between a concrete "paycheck" and a more idealistic aesthetic goal that is never truly reached. Although people say that it's the journey that counts, trainees are not taught to experience their training in this way. Instead it is a means to an end. But since that end is never a concrete realization the average trainee doesn't know how to sustain motivation in the long run.

Even though it doesn't matter what our initial motivation is we think it does. This, perhaps, is the nature of the intrinsic versus the extrinsic.

Since the average strength trainee does not train for an extrinsic reward, the initial value that is seen in training quickly loses ground to other life pressures. I compared strength training to attending college. A person can assign concrete value (whether justified or not) to a college degree. The degree then is the reward and there is a series of clearly defined steps to make towards that reward. Sure, there are still decisions to be made and motivation comes into play to drive behavior: What course to take among a choice of three? What elective to take? Take the harder course or the easier course? The options, however, are clearly marked.

The gulf between graduating from college and pursuing strength training, then, is huge. There is not a clearly defined reward at the end. There are no clearly defined steps toward that end. In fact there is ultimately no end. So when you pursue strength training for something other than a competitive and perhaps monetary reason, motivation and goal setting becomes an entirely different thing.

Yet the watered down advice we get in the media would liken training exactly to any other goal where the meeting of that goal is a distinct "event". We are told to set a long term goal and stick to it. The perpetrators of this nonsense obviously do not understand goal setting and motivation!

Look at fat loss. Losing 100 pounds seems like a concrete goal, does it not? Well then compare this goal to something truly concrete, like receiving that college diploma, or even getting your paycheck because you got through another boring week at work. At NO POINT are you handed your "100 pound certificate of achievement"! One hundred pounds, ultimately, is just a number. By the time you reach that number the value you assign to it would have changed and thus your motivation to achieve it because you yourself are changing. It would be much different if fat loss consisted of a series of steps you follow and then one day you go to bed at 300 pounds and wake up at 200 pounds. But you don't and you can't even imagine such an event in any real sense. If you weigh 300 pounds you probably have a difficult time imagining yourself weighing 200. What does that look like? Or feel like? Can you put your finger on it?

You can't. And yet most people enter into fat loss setting their goal as just that sort of thing. It's something that they can just barely conceptualize. Something far off and intangible. Yet, it is much more concrete than most strength training and mass gaining goals! At least we are dealing with numbers. In fact, many mass seeking trainees resort to numbers so that the 150 pound guy wants to be 200 pounds "lean mass". You can understand why as it is easier to shoot for 200 pounds then it is to shoot for "big and massive". Yet even numbers are a weak motivator. They do not sustain.

Still, we hear "set a long term goal!" I've rarely if ever met a non professional strength trainee who had any real sense of a long term goal. Probably never. And in my experience those who profess such goals are the very one's who dive in head first to a training program. They are effusive and energetic. And they are here today gone tomorrow.

Short term and medium term goals are actually MORE important than long term goals for these trainees. But what is more important is where the motivation comes from. Those who assign intrinsic value to their training are the ones who tend to stick with their training for the long run. We are always saying around GUS that "we like lifting heavy things". It probably sounds like we are just trying to be "good old boys". But the truth is we are trying to drive home a subtle point. We do it because we see the thing itself as being rewarding. It has its rewards and it IS its reward. That is not to say that we have found the fountain of motivation but just that we find it a tad easier to motivate ourselves than the trainee who "just wants to be big and strong". So when people waffle on about "true strength", to us they are just whistling Dixie. It is what we make of it and we want to make big heavy barbells move around. If you like to make heavy kettlebells or sandbags move then the only difference is your mode of expression.

Lifting heavy weights has some of the same motivational traps as anything else. Fear of failure is one of the main motivational traps I've come across.

The Fear of Failure Trainee

You may think that fear of failure would cause someone to set easily achievable goals. Nothing of the sort. You see, fear of failure is something of a characteristic that follows a trainee around. If you are afraid of failure you are ALWAYS afraid of it and the apparent difficulty level of a task doesn't make you less afraid of it.

And here we have the cognitive trap. Such trainees, instead of trying to set goals that are easily achievable or even moderately difficult, will tend to set their sites on unrealistic if not near impossible goals. Think of it this way. If they pick the easy goal and fail how bad will they feel? How silly will they look? If they are going to fail they want to fail at the REALLY HARD STUFF. Nobody can blame them, see? Not even themselves. If these trainees then fail to meet these huge goals we have the 'sour grapes' episode.

The Fox and the Grapes

Fear of failure leads to unrealistic goals. Setting unrealistic goals leads to failure. Failure then causes the trainee to restructure the situation in his mind so that what was a positive goal is now seen as a negative goal. The story of the fox and the grapes illustrates this perfectly. The fox jumps for the grapes high up on the vine. They are clearly too high but he gives a valiant effort but fails to reach the grapes in the end. "I didn't want those grapes anyway," he says, "they were probably sour!"

Constantly wobbling between several different goals is the result. Now I am bulking. Now I am cutting. Now I am training for strength. Now I am training for mass.

The external cultural influences on this are largely overlooked, though. There is such a confusing mix of cultural attitudes toward training for maximum strength. For those who are influenced by this the result can be a sort of never ending approach and avoid behavior.

The strong, powerful, and muscular Hollywood hero is mostly a positive image in American culture. Yet, the physical process of training that underlies this has a negative stigma attached to it! Rambo and Conan were never seen to lift any weights and yet Stallone and Schwarzenegger obviously did. Even for Conan the transformation was somewhat magical owing to the brutal work of his slavery. He was "molded" into the physical specimen he became by forces beyond his control.

Sword fighting, catching bad guys, and that kind of stuff just turns some guys into Rambo while other guys remain Paul Blart, Mall Cop.

So you can see the dichotomy at work here. Trainees are attracted to the ideal yet repelled by the process. Society rewards the results while stigmatizing the practice! This is how the approach and avoid cycle gets started. The further the trainee moves away form the actual physical training the more power the "positive ideal" has over him. The closer he gets to the training the more power the negative outcome of this process becomes. Trainees are constantly complaining about the stares they get at the gym or the unsolicited advice about lifting "too heavy". The commercial gym is certainly not set up with goal oriented training of any kind in mind, and especially training for absolute strength. And if you want to see the reality of a commercial gyms attitude toward strength training, look no further than the recent Planet Fitness commercials. It goes further than the gym however and I myself have had many people comment on how I "look strong and must work out". But if I tell them that I train for strength with heavy barbells and the like their chin goes up and their eyes glass over.

Exactly what is at work here I am not sure. Perhaps people simply want to believe the commercials and advertisements they see promising easy, quick, and painless results if they buy a piece of training equipment or a gym membership. The reactions to those of us who actually strength train, then, may be a sort of irrational resentment of the messenger. So, we have the sour grapes attitude at play again. Or perhaps they are just making conversation and really don't care if and how you train. There is always someone who will surprise you but the best response to such comments is a simple shrug of the shoulders!

Obviously those of us who have been at strength training for a long time and are passionate about it do not care about cultural views toward such training. It is the trainee who is attracted the the idea of strength and that ideal symbol of physical strength rather than being attracted to the actual practice, process, and real world results of such training that are vulnerable to these negative attitudes. When you think about it in this way the question "how do I get strong?" becomes quite a silly and transparent one which really translates too "how do I appear to be strong?" Most trainees who have a clear concept of their motivations to strength train do not ask such general questions!

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This page created 01 Jun 2010 20:13
Last updated 24 Feb 2015 00:36

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