Does Your Workout Suck?

I spoke with a client yesterday about his resistance training program. It seemed like he had a solid plan and was making good progress. But I did disagree with one aspect of his approach, which was his workout motto: Working Out Sucks™. His motto is a reminder that he won’t achieve his goals without working hard enough to be fairly miserable for at least part of the workout.

workout
workout

I have to admit he has a point.

Personally I have never found a way to run 400s without noticing how much they suck. Before running I tell myself: “This is just once around the track, it won’t last long, so I can just go 100% the whole time!"

But about halfway around the track I have abandoned the 100% idea, and by three quarters I have come up with at least ten good reasons to just stop running completely. If I finish with any intensity at all, it is only because I have mentally prepared myself to endure a little misery.

I relayed my experience to a college track athlete and he said "yeah, if you don’t really feel like killing yourself after 300 yards, you’re not doing it right."

So there is some truth to the idea that working out sucks, at least if you have performance goals and want to push your limits.

But the problem I have with this motto is that it overlooks the value, even in a performance context, of doing exercise that is actually fun. The value is this: if your workout is so awful that it takes a lot of self-control to perform, then when the workout is over, you will have less self-control left over for other things that also require self-control, such as doing your job, being nice to annoying people, resisting binges on unhealthy food, or getting motivated to do the next workout.

This is because self-control is a limited resource. There is an very interesting body of research on ego depletion, which shows that when people engage in an activity that requires self control, they perform worse on subsequent activities that also require it. For example, if people watch a funny movie while trying not to laugh, they eat more tasty treats in the break room.

Self-Control-dog
Self-Control-dog

Here’s a cool study looking at a similar phenomenon in the context of exercise. Two groups of people walk around a lake. One group is told they are "exercising", the other that they are having a “scenic walk.” Guess who eats more food after the walk/exercise? The exercise group choked down 35% more chocolate pudding. Maybe they were thinking "workouts suck, so I deserve some pudding."

And here’s another way to look at it. When exercise is fun or playful it is actually rewarding, which reduces your need to look for reward from less healthy sources, like beer or pizza. In fact, getting rewarded while exercising will increase your motivation to do it again, which means that rewarding workouts fill your motivational tank instead of depleting it.

Some research on "rat parks" appears to show that when rats live in a fun environment with plenty of opportunity to play, they do less heroin than when they are stuck in boring cages. I find it a bit shocking to learn that heroin use has become so common in rat communities, but the results of the studies are interesting.

Here’s how I use these ideas in my workouts. I basically try to keep things as fun as possible without compromising the basic intention of the workout, which is to get some hard work done that will help me perform better at various sports. I task myself with some exercises that take lots of discipline to finish, and then reward myself with some fun parts that allow me to get valuable work done without dipping too much into my limited stores of self control.

So what should my workout motto be? Workouts suck ... a little? All work and no play makes Todd a dull boy? Let me know your motto in the comments.