In one of our previous posts we talked briefly about the effect of choosing a training modality that you enjoy (here). As mentioned there I want to elaborate a bit on why it makes a difference and on how you can apply it as a individual who works out or as a trainer, so the post is less about the effect of training on the emotional status but the other way round: How do emotions affect training results? I believe the answer can be found in the field of Neurobiology. German scientist Gerald Huether who left the laboratories in order to share the findings of the last decades with the public explains in various lectures how the brain learns.
Unfortunately there is only very little material of Mr. Huether in english language. I could only find one very short video which is quite superficial compared to his longer speeches but i guess you’ll get the idea.
I’ll also try to give a brief summary of his explanations on how the brain learns.
We often imagine the brain to work like a muscle meaning the more we use it, the more it will improve. It was thought that learning success came by repetitions and hard work.
According to Mr. Huether that is not true. Our emotional status in the moment of learning and our feeling about the material we are trying to learn is much more important. The key word is enthusiasm. When we feel enthusiastic about learning a new thing certain substances (hormones/neurotransmitters) are released in the brain that vastly increase its plasticity and therefore lets us learn new things much faster.
Children experience this “shower” of substances as Mr. Huether sometimes calls it at a much higher rate because everything is still new and exciting. Unfortunately this rate drastically decreases for most of us during the years we spend at school because we are told to study material that has no actual or practical meaning for our lives at that moment.
Most of us can probably relate to this as we had some subjects that were much easier than others. For fellow students it was maybe the other way round. That might have been due to the content, the way it was presented or due to the teacher or whatever changed our emotional status and therefore the chemistry in our heads.
And what about training?
So now we learned that we cannot treat the brain as if it was a muscle. But when working out we do actually use our muscles or not?
While that is true it is our nervous system that controls those muscles. Without activation by the nervous system there is no muscle action. Complex movements are orchestrated by the brain which needs to sequence all kinds of muscle actions in a very exact way to successfully execute the movement. This needs to be learned like any other complex task and therefore the same principles apply.
Now I believe that it is far less important as long as one is staying with very simple movements such as an isolated biceps curl on a machine. The muscle will still grow even if we don’t enjoy this exercise at all. Anyways, I still assume that our feelings matter in this case because emotions affect the nervous system, which controls almost anything in our bodies. Unfortunately I have not found any material on this subject so I have no clue if this is true and to what extent (I would be very interested though, so please comment if you found something on the topic). However the more complex the movements become the more we should take these findings of neurobiology into account. Someone who tries to learn a back-flip will probably have a very hard time if he truly dislikes gymnastics, which is probably the case for most people who didn’t have the best sports teachers at school.
For a person who wants to work out there are plenty of possibilities to make training more enjoyable. I’ll just list some of them.
- Finding a group: Training with people you like and who you share similar goals with can be obviously motivating. You go there not only to get the work out done, but also to meet people, socialize, make friends, have chats, encourage each other etc.
- Surrounding: The environment we train in can have quite some influence on our emotional status. Here is a nice article on ScienceDaily about the benefits of training outdoors. When it comes to indoor training there are also different preferences. Some people like to train in the huge brand-new five star gym while others find motivation in a small, smelly old-school gym in the basement of an industrial building.
- Setting goals: This one is very important. I recommend short and long term goals. Long term goals are often the ones that come to mind first. Like doing one-leg pistol squats, run a certain distance, have a certain look, etc. Short term goals are milestones on the path to reaching the long term goal. When we take the example of the one-leg pistol squats short term goals can be reaching the sufficient mobility in the ankle and knee to reach the end position. Short term goals also let you experience moments of success more regularly.
- Know what you are doing and why: This is somewhat linked to goal setting. It is also about knowing the benefits of an exercise. Doing one-leg squats doesn’t just look cool. Many physical activities like running, skating or kicking a foot-ball require strength and stability on one leg. Knowing that one leg squat variations are closer to those activities will surely increase the motivation to learn these exercises especially if you are into running, skating or football. This might require some study of basic anatomy and bio-mechanics but often observation and logical thinking is enough (like linking activities on one leg with single-leg strength work).
- Variety: It’s obvious that doing the same stuff over and over gets boring at some point. While it is helpful to stay focused on set goals you can also leave some room to play around and explore how different movements or exercises feel like. This can in return lead to new goals.
- Finding instructors: Finding competent teachers for what you want to learn can obviously save you a lot of time and possibly frustration. When looking for a teacher there are w few things to consider. Does he/she have actual experience in what you want to learn? Note that a certificate is not always a good indication. Certificates are often just an easy way of making money for the institutions which hand them out. Pay more attention if the teacher is or was able to execute what he is teaching. What are the results of his/her other students? How does the person react to questions? Do you like this person and the way he or she teaches?
As a trainer
As trainer you basically help your participants with the above mentioned points. You can improve the group atmosphere, motivate your participants directly, adjust the surroundings, play music, vary exercises, invent games or challenges etc. Also assist them with realistic goal setting especially with short term goals which are the small but important steps that lead to the big picture.
Another very important aspect is being authentic and realistic about one’s own abilities and experience. That leads to comfort and confidence in teaching, demonstrating and explaining. Students will usually notice that (at least in the long run) and trust you more as a trainer.
One thing has to be said first, I am not trying to tell anyone to avoid challenges because they are not fun. It is more about choosing meaningful challenges. Meaningful to you! It is much easier to put in the hard work when knowing what it’s for. A second step is to adjust the surroundings according to personal preferences.
These measures improve our training experiences in two ways. First, training will feel less like labor what makes it more likely that we actually do it. Second, training is more effective if its fun because of the increased plasticity of the brain in such moments.
I hope this post will help you with your future training. Thanks for reading!