Goals, gradients, and grunts


I spent yesterday evening at the 24 Hour Fitness on Bay Street in San Francisco.

I know—exciting way to spend a Friday night.

There were a surprising number of people there, including all of the usual characters. You had the grunting-while-lifting-heavy-weights guy, the bicep-flexing-while-taking-selfie guy, and the running-on-treadmill-for-3-hours girl.

I was there to do a nice leg workout while listening to an audiobook—which is, actually, a very relaxing way to spend an hour or two.

But I must admit that my workout yesterday was a little less chill than normal. You see, my new coach has me exercising in a totally new way.

I used to do 3 sets of 10 repetitions each for my exercises. That’s the “standard” weight-lifting structure that everyone is taught. It’s elegant. It’s simple. It makes sense.

But my new coach is having me exercise much differently—in a way that doesn’t let me zone out quite as much. 

He’s having me do an initial set of about 20 reps. Based on how that initial set goes, I’m supposed to up the weight and do a set of 15 reps. Then, I’m supposed to up the weight again and do a set of about 12 reps.

The entire time I’m supposed to go by feel, always stopping 1-2 reps away from complete exhaustion.

While lifting weights in this new way, I’ve noticed something kind of interesting: I always seem to get tired and “hit failure” when I get to my rep goal.


So if I’m attempting to do 20 reps, I’ll get tired right at 20 reps. If I’m attempting to do 10 reps, I’ll get tired right at 10 reps… and so on.

This got me thinking about the psychology of goals and something called the “goal gradient effect”—which is the observation that people work harder to achieve a goal they closer they get to it.

This partially explains the “finish line effect”, where runners or cyclists speed up as they approach the end of a race.

It also, I think, explains why I always get tired when I hit my weightlifting repetition goals.

Here’s what I think is going on.

I’m dramatically increasing the force behind my repetitions as I approach the rep “finish line”.

So if I’m doing curls, my first couple of curls are done fairly lackadaisically. When I hit my fourth, fifth, and sixth, I’m starting to get excited… I can see the finish line around the bend. I push harder. Then, as I come into the home stretch, I get really excited. I can see the checkered flag. I push with all my intensity and grunt out the last rep.

This means that, no matter how many repetitions I set out to do, how intensely I lift the weight will be fairly low until I hit the home stretch, at which point I’ll put all of my hernia-inducing force into getting across the finish line.

In other words, Arnold was right when he said: “The last three or four reps is what makes the muscle grow.”

The last few reps are where the goal-gradient effect is strongest, and thus where our motivation and intensity will be highest.

Until tomorrow,


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