How Perception Can Make Or Break Your Training

Objective factors are not the only ones that have an impact on your training results. Recent scientific studies show that subjective factors, such as perception, can have an important physiological impact as well. We have all heard the mantra of needing to eat big and lift big in order to gain weight and muscles, but for example what happens when you drink a milkshake that contains 400 calories, but you think it only contains 150?

Is there a difference between drinking a 400 calorie milkshake and thinking it contains less calories, or drinking the same milkshake and being aware of the fact that it contains 400 calories?

A study from 2011, set out to measure exactly that. The participants were divided into two groups and given milkshakes of 380 calories. One group was told that their milkshake was 620 calories and “indulgent”, while the other group was told that their milkshake contained 140 calories and was “sensible”.

After they had drunk the milkshakes, the ghrelin levels of the participants were periodically monitored. Ghrelin is sometimes called the “hunger hormone”, as it is secreted when the stomach is empty. Its secretion stimulates the feeling of hunger, so the more of it is released, the hungrier you feel.

The results of the monitoring were pretty interesting. The ghrelin levels of the people who drank the supposed 620 calorie milkshake dropped and they reportedly felt more full, while the ones who drank the 140 calories reported feeling hungrier and had higher levels of ghrelin.

The only difference here was perception. Both groups drank exactly the same milkshake, but the physiological reactions in their bodies were different.

How can this be? “Mind over matter”. The brain is a powerful organ in your body and can do many incredible things. What is happening here is akin to the placebo effect.

The placebo effect has been reported in certain clinical trials, where the test subjects were given a placebo, but their body reacted as if it had been given a real medicine. One possible explanation of this is based on expectations. Possibly, if the patient is expecting something to happen, he can subconsciously will his body to produce similar effects as that of a medication. The mind can produce its own cure.

The brain can also play other little neat tricks, which result in actual physiological processes. Some people actually experience the feel of being touched, when they see others being touched. This is called mirror touch synesthesia and is due to the activity of mirror neurons. Not all people experience this, but many do and maybe you are one of them. 🙂

What about the placebo effect directly in working out? Another study was carried out with a group of power lifters. Each member of the group was given placebos (saccharine) and told that they were getting steroids.

After a period of training, these lifters were told to try to do a one rep max test. All of them lifted heavier than ever before and created new personal records in all the lifts tested.

After that the group was divided into two, with one group being told that they had in fact been given placebos, while the other group continued on believing that they were taking steroids. The results were interesting. The group that was told they were given placebos, lost all their gains and returned to their pre-placebo levels, while the group that continued on believing that they were taking steroids kept their gains or created even better personal records.

The only difference here was mental.

What does this all mean and how can we tie all this together?

I recently read a book called “Mindset: The new psychology of success”, by Carol S. Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University. In the book, she discusses what she calls the “growth mindset”. This is basically a belief that your basic qualities are things that you grow through your own efforts. You are not bound by “talent”, “genetics” or any other outside factors, but instead believe that what you achieve is based on your own efforts.

This is opposed to the so-called “fixed mindset”, which is a belief that most things such as talent are pre-determined and you can do very little to change that.

People with the growth mindset are driven and do not recognize boundaries. They are constantly working on improving themselves. People with a fixed mindset can also grow, but when they feel that they have hit a wall, they end up giving up.

They create their own success by not being hemmed in by imaginary boxes. This does not discount the fact that there are some objective factors like genetics, which do play a role, but in most cases the non-gifted man who works hard will outperform the gifted man who slacks off.

In the studies above, people were given psychological boosts, sort of mini-growth mindsets, which resulted in real live physiological changes in the inside of the body and measurable outside outcomes. The exact explanation of what exactly is happening in the body is still unknown, but the effect itself is real and can result in many good things for you.

What practical lessons can we take away and how can we use this in our training?

The main lesson here is that you are your own creator of success. You need to believe that you can change for the better. Not only will this create greater motivation and drive, but the belief itself can be a powerful creator of positive physiological changes in the body.

You can even use some practical mini-strategies based on the lessons from these studies in order to achieve your goals. For example people trying to gain weight should mentally underestimate the amount of calories they are eating, which will boost the ghrelin levels in their bodies, resulting in them feeling hungrier and eating more.

This can break one of the barriers of some underweight people. Many of them get a feeling of being full rather quickly, which then creates a mental barrier for them. Since they feel full, they don’t ingest the amount of food that they need to ingest in order to gain weight.

On the other hand, people trying to lose weight, can use the opposite strategy and overestimate the amount of calories that they are ingesting, thereby lowering their ghrelin levels and feeling less hungry.

Remember, who you are and what you will become is largely dependent on you. Your mind is a powerful tool and so use it in order to succeed. What you believe is what you are. This doesn’t mean that you can slack off and take it easy, you still need to work hard, but having a positive mindset to go with it can greatly benefit you in your quest and drive you to achieving your goals.

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