Eric Cressey did a lovely post the other week about the new addition to his family. He and his wife have recently got themselves a puppy.
The best way to train a puppy is to endlessly repeat the same action, the same cues and the same movements, praising them with love and treats when they get it right, until the puppy gets it right every time without needing the treat. The point that Eric was demonstrating in his post was that in the same way that puppies learn by the consistency, repetition and persistence, resistance training will also improve (especially in beginners) by consistency. Turn up like clockwork, do your workout, maintain a consistent diet and things will improve.
Of course, once you get past a certain point then there will be times when you need to make some tweaks. For example, my squats weren’t going to get better again until I sorted out my thoracic spine mobility, but I was consistent with the exercises I did to improve my thoracic spine mobility and, sure enough, I’m starting to see the results. Even there, consistency and persistence was the key.
Another vital lesson that I think we can learn from training animals but which Eric didn’t delve into is that of positive feedback and praise. It was this lesson which caught my imagination so I’m going to take the space of a brief post to explore it a bit.
Positive reinforcement – another lesson we can learn from puppies?
Back in late 2006 I remember reading a feature article in The Guardian newspaper. The columnist had experimented with positive reinforcement to train her husband.
Rather than complaining when he got things wrong she started to completely ignore when he did things. Instead she praised him and thanked him every time he did something right. An example might be if he never did the washing up and instead left everything piled up on the side. She would stop complaining about the tower of dishes but may also stop obligingly washing them. After a while he might do some. At that point she would thank him and provide some sort of subtle praise or treat.
The psychology it is that humans thrive on praise. We lap it up. Her husband might like the feeling he gets from the praise or treat and do the washing up again. And again.
The company I work for are very good at personal development. As a result I regularly attend courses for things like identifying and adapting my personality type, how to motivate other people and how to provide constructive feedback.
Something which I’ve learned is that a majority of people thrive on receiving positive feedback. Tell them that you really like the way they do something or thank them for something they’ve done well and they will do it that way again in an effort to continue to please. A few people are much more strongly motivated by other things, but even they will still be motivated in some small way by a bit of positive recognition or thanks.
Where I am on the spectrum
I confess that I am right at the top of the spectrum. I’ll do anything for a bit of praise and I know that this is the reason that I sometimes wear myself out. Like an over-eager puppy I’ll try to do absolutely everything for everyone so that I can bask in the praise.
I’ve learned to get a bit of control over myself in the last few years. Having identified that I have this trait I’ve learned to assess which things will also give personal satisfaction. I’ve also learned to identify which things I would do where there is nobody to lavish that praise. Let’s face it, if society “says” I should do the ironing every week but Chris has enough shirts to get through 3 weeks then why not leave it for a week? Especially if that gives me the time to do something else which is more important to me as an individual?
Unfortunately what I haven’t learned to do so well is to praise myself.
Self-praise – how it impacts on training and diet
I don’t think I am alone in saying that self-praise and positive reinforcement is a difficult thing to do. Especially for a woman. Every woman I’ve spoken to about this sort of thing has admitted that they are too hard on themselves, always setting the bar too high, berating themselves when they don’t achieve but rarely acknowledging the successes.
For me this means that when things start to go wrong I get frustrated and uptight which makes things worse, rather than just having a minor hiccup. A good example would be the recent hiatus with my squats. I lose my ability to keep things in perspective, I pick up on every error, I don’t notice when form or quality are good and often change the way I’m doing things in a negative way to fix a tiny “problem”. With my diet and figure I might suddenly become fixated by a tiny lump of fat, ignoring the excellent progress I’ve made so far with fat loss.
Tricks to help with positive reinforcement
At times I’ve used the following ways to help me reach my goals without hitting the wall:
- keeping detailed training records to remind myself of how much I’ve improved;
- weekly records of fat loss measurements with comparison to previous cycles to keep it in perspective;
- videos and photos of exercise form – even now I get a kick from my earliest photos of squat depth which are more of a half-squat; and
- bouncing ideas and concerns off Chris who has the benefit of not being emotionally attached to the issue.
Relying on other people for positive reinforcement
Just a final point on that last one. We can control ourselves, but not other people.
Not everyone is aware of positive reinforcement. A good trainer should be praising you for the good achievements in the gym as well as commenting on and correcting poor performance. If they aren’t, try saying something to them to make them aware of your needs. If they adapt their coaching style to include some positive reinforcement then you may well find your performance improves faster.
Are you motivated by positive reinforcement? Do you think it would help you with fitness and diet progress? I’d love to know if you also struggle with praising yourself and if you have any other tricks to help.