Blogs and magazine articles abound that are aimed at changing people’s attitudes about fitness. I particularly notice those that concern attitudes towards strength training. Just recently I complained about the “selling of strength training” and much of my writing concerns strength training “propaganda” as I call it.
More often, however, it is not propaganda. In fact, it’s nothing new at all. “Strength training is good for you,” is about as special as it gets. And perhaps a list of benefits that you can find on 500 other similar sites.
Now there was a time when I thought such general infomercial type articles were just armchair trainers trying to find something to write about. But now I realize that these are really just well-meant mistakes.
I know. That’s a funny thing to say. It’s a mistake, Eric, to try to change people’s feelings and beliefs about fitness? Huh?
No. The mistake is not in the desire. It’s in the execution. You see, many many people are all about fitness and health. Including many unhealthy and unfit people. Their GENERAL attitude about “fitness and health” as a concept may be very favorable. But that does not reflect their behaviors.
People have general attitudes towards general categories of things, such as fitness, or exercise or working out. But, their particular behaviors can reflect their attitude about that particular activity.
I, personally, never jog. Or run. Or whatever. Now, at least. During my youth, I ran everywhere. I never walked! But attitudes and interests change. So now I don’t run or jog. What attitude does this reflect? My attitude towards jogging, of course! My attitude about fitness is well-documented.
When you have an overweight friend spending countless hours on the treadmill that is parked in front of the TV, like some kind of obsessed hamster…telling them they need to get on with the fitness is probably not going to help. As far as they are concerned they are ON with the fitness. Their choice of activity reflects their feelings and beliefs about the convenience and effectiveness of the treadmill. If you think it is lazy that is YOUR attitude, and although you may not recognize it as such, you have made a value judgment.
Your reaction to the treadmill scene is a value judgment that does not reflect theirs at this time. So the moral is: Deal in specifics. Work on people’s beliefs and feelings about particular activities as opposed to others that you feel are unhealthy or ineffective.
You may think in this blog that I go on and on about certain things, like, say deadlifts. Well, I talk about specific things because just posting vague testimonials about strength training would not, to my mind, be effective.
Here is a great example of this at work. My mother in law expresses a very positive attitude about protecting the environment. YET, she refuses to recycle. Because she doesn’t want the stuff to pile up while she waits for the next pickup. The practice itself is just too inconvenient for her. It doesn’t make much sense but it is typical. We form general attitudes but our behavior is based on particular attitudes.
Fitness Trainers Have Attitudes Too
So someone’s behavior regarding exercise and fitness may just reflect their particular attitudes rather than their general attitudes. But what about the attitudes of those who guide these efforts. The trainers? Or the “fitness professionals”?
Well, they have attitudes as well. Don’t we all? And those attitudes can make them or break them when it comes to teaching and communicating. Certain effective behaviors on the part of trainers and other pros can follow from this knowledge about attitudes.
I see more ineffective behaviors than I do effective ones, however. Once such ineffective behavior has to do with what I call the isolation effect. This is not exactly the same isolation effect as described by Hedwig von Restorf but it is similar.
Many pros can get so caught up in their own little worlds that they lose sight of what is generally true or what is generally necessary. If you are surrounded by a certain type of trainee then their needs tend to stand out in your mind. In essence, when you are surrounded by hammers; everything looks like a nail. What’s more, certain trainees have problems or attributes that stand out. They are highlighted by how unusual they are. Problem is that that which is unusual tends to be what sticks in our minds.
In my article “Drop the Labels” I spoke of the ‘athlete’ movement. In a nutshell, this is the message that in order to be successful you must TRAIN LIKE AN ATHLETE and everything that entails.
Clearly, there is a value judgment at work there. That value judgment speaks to an attitude on the value of athletes and athletics. Well, an athlete is a specific entity. Fitness, however, is not. It is, when it comes down to it, a false analogy. An athlete is not similar to someone who does not compete in sport and has no desire to be an athlete.
The athlete attitude may be necessary for some trainers and many of their trainees but that does not mean that it is always necessary or even always positive.
When trainers tell you to affect a certain attitude, they are, of course trying to remove obstacles. But prescribing an attitude is actually limiting, in the long run, as it supplants your own thinking and growth. Placing pre-arranged limitations on one’s perception is more likely to cause them to stall and give up than it is to help them achieve their goals.
This implanting of attitudes also represents an outside control, which will not have the value of an attitude that comes about naturally as the result of your personal growth.
I’ve seen many trainers speak of the “atmosphere” or attitude that is prevalent at their training facilities and how valuable it is. Probably true. That is, WHILE a person is training at that facility.
But I think that many people overestimate just how “real” those attitudes are. And how long-lasting they will be. The attitudes we outwardly display in social situations, especially intense ones, need not bear any resemblance to our real ones! What happens when the atmosphere is gone? When the trainee is pulled out of that environment?
Attitudes, Personality, and Balance
The more we can detach ourselves the more we can examine our own attitudes. This is so very important. If I could say one thing to many of the strength coaches out there it would be this: “Step back, detach yourself, and think dispassionately about yours and your trainee’s attitudes.”
The most learned, logical, and scientifically oriented individuals are influenced by their particular attitudes, which themselves are influenced by a myriad of other complicated psychological processes. Nobody is immune to attitude and nobody can escape it without turning into a drone.
We can’t escape it but we can learn to be aware of the processes at work, thus directing our learning which therefore directs our attitudes.
There is no more powerful influence on our attitudes than other people. How we feel about another person’s values, credibility, personal characteristics, etc. have a huge influence on attitude formation.
You may not even be aware of it but you have probably changed your attitude about a certain issue or belief based simply on how you feel about another person. What’s more; you’ve done it over and over. So have I. So has everyone.
When it comes to strength, fitness, health…all of the things I am concerned about in this blog, PERSONALITIES are the most powerful influences and the largest stumbling blocks.
I might quote to you, on this blog, for instance, a very scientific-sounding statement about how squats lead to bigger biceps and attribute that statement to, perhaps, Mel Siff (he never said this that I am aware).
And elsewhere on GUS, I might quote that same statement but attribute it to Mike Mentzer. I GUARANTEE that your reaction to it would be different depending on which page you read it on and thus who it was attributed to. It wouldn’t matter how “legit” the science sounded, your attitude toward it would change, for better or worse, depending on who said it.
That’s a pretty well-known effect and it’s fairly simple for us to just say to ourselves it’s not about authority or popularity or any of that. Just evaluate and investigate the statement itself. Be objective. So on and so forth.
That is, however, assuming that the idea expressed is a fairly new and unusual one for us. If you had never in your life heard anyone utter such a concept as “squats give you big guns”, and you right then and there had to decide what you thought about that statement, it would be difficult, but straightforward, to put aside your feelings about the person who made the statement. At least it is in my opinion.
But let’s suppose you were well familiar with the statement. Let’s suppose that you are a person who wholeheartedly believes that squatting big will directly lead to 18-inch arms. However, let’s also suppose I attribute this very sciency statement about the squat/guns connection to Mentzer. And you think Mentzer was simply off his rocker.
Suddenly you have a conundrum. Basically you just got thrown out of balance. This kind of thing is sometimes referred to as cognitive dissonance. You see, if you don’t “like” Mentzer, as long as he hates the things you like and vice-versa, you can maintain a mental balance.
The same would hold true if you liked him, simply in reverse.
But sticking to the idea that you do not like him but you have, heretofore, supported the notion about squatting’s effect on one’s biceps, Mentzer’s support of the idea is going to mess with your mind. Don’t try to tell me it ain’t gonna happen. It is.
It is because you want balance in your relationships with people, even with people you don’t personally know. You don’t need to have a personal relationship with someone to like or dislike them, therefore the same things that are at work with your personal friends and enemies can be at work here.
We know what happens when there is imbalance. Either things move toward balance or things collapse, fall down; what have you.
And in this case, the fact that it is not a personal relationship creates a problem. Usually, we really just don’t care that much whether we agree or disagree with someone we dislike. Because we have the choice to simply not have a relationship with that person.
But when we are seeking to learn and grow we have to deal with authority figures and unfortunately, authority is often an automatic stamp of approval in the fitness world. So we have the path of least resistance. You may have believed in the squats/guns theory but it in your proverbial house of cards it probably wasn’t the most important card.
In this case, it would be easier for you to seek out balance by slowly moving away from the notion that doing heavy squats grow big biceps automatically. You may start really investigating the scientific evidence behind that or seeking out the opinions of others that you DO like and respect. And thus finally you simply abandon the belief or it just fades away. It’s just not that important and it is easier to let it go than it is to suddenly decide you think Mentzer is the bomb. And in this case, I must say, it’s probably a change for the better because I’m sorry folks but you ain’t gonna get 18-inch guns just from squatting alone.
Even if you do believe it, however, the most likely outcome is your simple disappointment when your 18-inch arms don’t materialize.
But other little attitude adjustments that occur because of this cognitive imbalance may be more important. And many such small changes over time have a profound effect. We think that WE are in charge of our learning and therefore our attitudes, but much of the time we are in the grip of processes we are not even aware of. We are busy trying to resolve conflicts rather than affect positive change.
My solution to this (if it can be called one) in terms of strength training and the like, is not what you may think. I’ll bet you probably figured I was going to say “don’t let your feelings about a person influence you too much”. Nope. I don’t need to say that because the simple fact that I’ve called your attention to it is going to make you at least try to do that.
What we have to do, though, is to identify the problem at the root of our learning system. And the problem that is at the root of it is mistaking the leaves and branches for the tree. A simple change in how you direct your thinking will go a long way toward solving this problem.
We have almost unlimited access to information. But the disjointed, watered-down, and incoherent nature of that information has taught many of us to start with the details and then proceed to the big picture.
Basically, when thinking about a tree we stare at the leaves, the individual branches…all the parts. We never develop any coherent idea about what it is to be a “tree”.
The same thing happens in our training. Details like “squats give you big guns” or “if you wait too long between workouts protein synthesis diminishes” have become as important as foundational ideas. But they have VERY little importance at all, in the big scheme of things. Simply put, all these little details, in the big picture, just don’t rate too high alone. As long as we can keep a coherent image of that big picture in mind and always proceed from there to the details rather than the other way around…we simply solve the problem of the cognitive dissonance that personalities create by nipping it in the bud. The secret is not to be so all-fired “precious” about our training practices and beliefs.
Here is a post about a classic experiment regarding cognitive dissonance at PsyBlog:
Also see part two of this article: Postive Thinking in Strength Training: The Tinker Bell Fallacy