Should we really keep it real?

Over the years, I’ve made it a point to be loud and proud about my criticism of the fitness and supplement industries. That’s the main reason this blog and site were started; I’ve always put the truth ahead of sales gimmicks and flashy marketing, in an attempt to introduce some honesty into the field. I don’t regret that or think that I have anything (or at least very much) to apologize for.

I’m also not changing my stance on shady sales practices that I’ve come down on hard in the past. What I’m interested in is the role of thought and belief on results.

In research, we see this exhibited in the placebo effect. This is a bad thing if you’re a scientist working with human subjects, because it will confound your results. If you tell people you’re giving them something with a certain effect, that effect can happen even if you gave them sugar pills, instead of the real thing. People have to be kept in the dark about what they’re getting so it doesn’t screw up the experiment.

I’ve complained about this a lot with supplements because it’s easy to milk somebody out of a lot of money for stuff that doesn’t work. Those hyped supplements are either a bunk Fad of the Moment formulation, or stuff that does work but gets shoved into a diluted and overpriced shotgun package. It’s not cool to pay $60+ for caffeine pills or $300+ for a month’s supply of protein.

It’s easy to see why belief can be misplaced or even abused in those cases. But what about the positive applications of this psychology? If the power of placebo is that strong, and by implication your belief in an effect can influence the body in a real way, then why shouldn’t we use that as a tool?

Brutal honesty is good, and there’s something to be said for seeing through real bullshit. At the same time, I’m really starting to wonder how much those of us caught up in the 100% pure analytical-or-nothing thought processes hamper ourselves by not allowing a little “Bro-magic” into our routines.

I still remember what it was like being a starry-eyed newbie, picking up the muscle rags and thinking that if I really busted ass, got the training and diet dialed in, I could wind up looking like one of those guys. Yeah yeah, save the jokes — point being, a lot of us start out as “bodybuilders” and that’s the motivation to train. Like it or not, there’s an air of motivation around the bodybuilding culture.

The same thing goes for impressive strength feats. I can watch a big squat or pull or overhead press or whatever else and still feel that rush of motivation. That all gets me fired up to train. For an instant, I get that spark of belief where I’m not a broken mess and anything’s possible.

So here’s my question: what’s the line between healthy skepticism and willful delusion?

I mean obviously I’m not going to turn the clock back to where I was at 18, thinking I can be 250 with glute striations if I just apply myself. At the same time, what has cynicism and Keeping It Real done for anyone? You can be completely honest and objective in  your evaluation of reality…and totally miserable. A little self-delusion can do us good.

I’m going to give a shout-out to Chaos & Pain’s blog post which inspired this question on my part,  and because Jamie is pretty much the man when it comes to getting fired up and in the zone. I don’t know if you readers have noticed, but over the last year (give or take) I’ve been moving away from Mr. Science and slipping a lot more into Just Do Things mode.

My Bulgarian experiment a few months back was a product of this mindset; if you’d caught me 2-3 years ago, I’d never have bothered because I knew it wouldn’t work. Once I said screw it, try it and see what happens, I was pleasantly surprised. Turns out that what I knew wasn’t as true as I’d once thought.

And of course this all ties in to my thoughts on the brain’s plasticity and role as the primary governor of the body (which I’ve yet to elaborate on in any detail; that purely exists in my head for the moment). The fact that the mind can verifiably influence physiology is a facet of that, one that could be very useful — hence the discussion.

Being scammed is bad. Paying out the nose for a placebo effect is bad. But is having an optimistic, positive outlook towards your training, your diet, your whole life — even if that means accepting some untruths or outright bullshit — really that bad?

22 thoughts on “Should we really keep it real?”

  1. Maybe there's a happy medium between paying $300 for T-Magic and being open-minded and motivated?

    You'll enjoy this. A TMUSCLE ™ editor wrote a guest blog for Tony Gentilcore, one of my favorite strength coaches/writers (present company excluded, of course). It was a rare opportunity to bug them about their marketing and censorship practices without getting, well, censored, so I figured what the hell. You might enjoy his non-response. Check it out:

  2. I think another related effect is the effect of having strong people around you. If it's an everyday thing to have people squatting 5 wheels or 6 wheels in your gym, I think you'll have better results than some place where nobody ever has 4 wheels on the bar for any lift. It helps you believe in the power of training and that results are possible.

  3. "You can be completely honest and objective in your evaluation of reality…and totally miserable. A little self-delusion can do us good."

    I think generally when people say these things they're to defend their own not so objective pessimistic outlook, low self-esteem or other personal issues. Self delusion is everyone's favorite coping mechanism. And it can often work short term (there's a reason we all do it, after all), but it can be detrimental to long term goals.

    Cognitively, we're beings with limited resources, which means we have to accept "untruths" and "bullshit" on some level if we ever want to get anything done. Otherwise we'd sit around all day trying to calculate our next perfect action. What it sounds like you learned from your Bulgarian experiment is that your ego had developed overconfident, dismissive heuristics regarding new training information. Which is fine in heatlhy doses b/c those allow us to make timely decisions, but they must be recognized for what they are: convenient heuristics.

    Having an "optimistic, positive outlook" is a framing issue, not a truth issue.

  4. I think generally when people say these things they're to defend their own not so objective pessimistic outlook, low self-esteem or other personal issues.

    Well yeah, that's what I was getting at with the bit about how depressed people are supposedly more "real" about the reality of their situation; the ego and all the cognitive tricks we use to preserve it are pretty obviously coping mechanisms.

    EDIT: I see that I didn't actually have the bit about the depressed people. Woops. Yeah, that's part of it for sure, though.

    The point was not so much to endorse full-on self-delusion, but rather to exploit some of these heuristics and biases for positive effects, rather than endorsing 100% "honesty" for the sake of it. It seems like you'd be a lot more productive (across the board, not just exercise/diet) by skewing your outlook towards the positive and motivational, rather than being truthful and limiting yourself.

    Yes, very much a framing issue.

  5. Absolutely. This is a big point I've always heard from powerlifters, and I think there is a lot to it. It's both motivation and team coaching, and there is an undeniable effect on results.

  6. ha, pretty funny.

    The happy medium is what I'm getting at. Obviously I'll never abandon any kind of fact-based thought process — but if you can exploit your mind's thought processes with meta-cognitive tricks (which would likely transcend simple "positive thinking" but that's the easiest example to use), then why not consider that another tool in the Performance Toolkit?

  7. Well given your thought process here, it sounds like this technique wouldn't work with you anyway since you know you're lying to yourself and won't believe it, thus undermining it. And since you agree it's a framing issue, the whole lying to yourself becomes unnecessary. So you get the upside without the downside (which also translates to things well outside lifting) with a more accurate thought process.

    Certainly people who don't have this type of self awareness can benefit from what you're talking about to a degree. But there are plenty of costs as well (such as being a sucker for $300 supplements).

    All wankery aside, alls always if something is working, then keep doing it.

  8. I wish EPOC still existed. Those were the days…

    But on the serious side, I worked so damn hard to get that EPOC that I worked damn hard. And religiously, because you HAD to get the next session in before the last one wore off. There was something to be said for working hard and keeping on track with the diet so you don't waste the damn EPOC.

    Sometimes things work for us, but for the wrong reasons.

  9. Haven't seen that before, but thanks for linking it. This is a pretty new area of inquiry for me, so I'm still roughing out the edges.

  10. Like you, Matt, I started lifting weights because I wanted to get jakt. I fell victim early to the supplement scams (I'll never get that $180 I spent on Alpha Male back). I also did 3 sets of 10 of every exercise movement ever written. Due to lack of results, it didn't take too long for me to see through the pixie dust. Sure, I still take fish oil and whey protein, but I know they won't make me look like the veiny guys in T-rag. More recently, my genuflection at the altars of Rippetoe and Wendler have yielded decent results. If I'm guilty of anything, its my quest for that magic set and rep scheme that will allow me wring a little more progress out of my aging body. Experience has tempered my exuberance over the latest supplement fad or workout trend. In a nutshell, I suppose there's no harm in using the rush of starting a new program for motivation or thinking that a certain supplement might give one an edge toward meeting one's goals as long as the expectations are within reason.

  11. I often notice that a lot of people who get great results do not really care all that much about training. They enjoy it, sure. But they do not obsess over it or care to read a ton of books and research a bunch of science. Often these people got lucky to have a good coach or training partner early on who forced them to do the right stuff. They just do the right stuff because they were told it works and then made it work.

  12. I think the problem is, that if you're self aware enough to know/want some placebo effect, you're probably past the point that you'll believe in a placebo.

    On the diet side of things, i think this is part of the reason IF works so well for so many. It's given a hope of partitioning magic, and so people put 100% in to sticking to it and end up getting great results. Probably isn't any physiological benefit over a regular diet setup, but the belief that it's superior leads to better adherance.

  13. I want to clarify a little —

    I'm not actually talking about deluding yourself, in the sense of turning off all critical thinking ability and buying into garbage. I'm definitely not talking about buying into hype around supplements or stupid workouts or whatever.

    What I'm saying here is that getting away from the analytical brain and finding elements that are emotionally motivating, basically adopting the right frame of mind as noted above, is very likely a useful tool. The placebo effect is only an example of this mind-over-matter effect; the goal as I see it should be to find ways of replicating that effect through meta-cognition (thinking about thinking).

    You don't want to lie to yourself, because as noted that won't work. Rather, you want to approach the entire process by dangling a carrot, rather than threatening with a stick. I'm thinking more in the domain of positive reinforcement and finding emotionally-targeted stimuli here.

    I've downloaded a lot of those papers from Oettingen and I want to see what's of interest in there. This psychological and motivational side of performance needs a lot more attention.

  14. Yay. Happy that it helped.

    The whole concept of mental contrasting (acknowledging the current "negative" situation and aiming for the "positive" goal state, NOT just indulging into self pity or fantasy) should get a lot more attention.

  15. It seems you're talking about the balance of faith and logic. Not talking about religion, just the belief about a certain situation, without the facts to 'prove' it. it's a fine line that's easily crossed, but I would say the best people to handle it are the ones who spend most of their time on the logic side of things. But it does take some faith, belief, or a 'fuck it, I don't care' attitude to get out there and try new things, despite the lack of evidence.

  16. I don't think it matters whether supplements work via the Placebo effect or otherwise. The end result has been for many people that they have lost weight.

    As long as the diet pills that have been taken do not contain any health risk I think that they do play a role in a healthy existence.

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