A reader responds (and makes a good point)

Every time I send out an email, I get a number of responses.

Some of them are positive, some of them are critical.

I love them all.

Yesterday, I received the following note. My comments to follow.

“I think you are simplifying programming in exercise regimes quite a bit.

I understand you are building little real life vignettes to attach otherwise theoretic concepts, but I feel you are butchering the parts unrelated to psychology somewhat here.”

Yes. You’re right. I’m not a professional bodybuilder or exercise instructor, so my understanding of these matters is not perfect.

But I think that the reader brings up a good point. And it’s true: I do simplify things in many of my emails for the sake of instruction.

I simplify things the same way that Daniel Kahneman, Dan Ariely, and Robert Sapolsky do.

Every single situation we encounter in our daily lives contains dozens of variables. Listing out each of these variables and talking about the relative impact of each would be exhausting and boring. It wouldn’t teach you so much as it would show off my understanding of things in a completely self-indulgent manner.

That is not my goal.

My goal is to teach you how about concepts that researchers have painstakingly unraveled in laboratories throughout the world. A single concept can never paint the full picture of what’s going on, but it can explain some of what we see out there.

So, in the case of the weightlifting example yesterday, a number of things could have contributed to my exhaustion at my “rep goal” (in addition to the goal-gradient effect):

  • The weight I chose to lift for that specific exercise
  • How much sleep I had gotten the day before
  • The other exercises I had previously done
  • Etc.

But talking about each of those things wouldn’t have taught you anything interesting. You know that lifting heavier weights is harder than lifting smaller weights. You know that someone’s previous exercises will impact how well they’re able to deal with their next exercise, and so on.

But even if we incorporate those variables into our model of exercise exhaustion, a question still remains: Why do people (like me) always hit exhaustion right at the repetition number we set out to do?

Are we perfectly able to pick the right weights for each and every exercise? Are our prediction powers that good?

That seems a bit unbelievable to me.

It seems like there’s something else going on… and that’s where our handy-dandy friend, “the goal gradient effect”, comes into play.

If we end up exhausted regardless of whether we do 3 sets of 40 pounds, 30 sets of 50 pounds, or 1 set of 60. It seems like something psychological, not physical, is going on.

And, indeed, we have psychological research that hints at what that might be. It shows that we change behavior as we approach goals, no matter how arbitrary they may be. We’ll work harder in the final stretch… which means that most of the exhaustion-inducing effort of exercise will come towards the end.

Yes, I realize there are exceptions here. If you do 2 repeitions of 50 pounds instead of 30 repetitions of 50 pounds, you probably won’t be as tired. That’s an extreme and absurd example.

But in the normal range of exercise variance, you will see the effect I’m referring to.

I know that some of you will send me a note saying “but as you get more exhausted towards the end of a set, you’re going to have to lift harder. Doesn’t that explain why you lift with more intensity—your muscles are more tired?”

To which I would say: Do you put more energy in your last reps because because your muscles are tired? Or are your muscles tired because you put more energy into your last reps?

In conclusion: Yes, I oversimplify, just like Dan Ariely, Daniel Kahneman, Robert Sapolsky, and every other writer that isn’t writing for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Yes, I will continue to simplify so that you can learn about a concept each and every day.

No, I will not change my approach.

Until tomorrow,


PS: If you like these emails, you will love what I have to offer on Patreon. Your support would mean the world to me... and you can get access to my future products/books before they're released, and join in on a monthly Google Hangout Q&A I'm going to start doing.

Jason Hreha