Much has been written about motivation techniques in sports but bodybuilding is different. Why?
Typically, a sport is centered around some competitive event; athletes are expected to accomplish some exceptional achievement in a given moment: to jump further, run faster, lift heavier weights. Alternatively they are expected to be more skillful than their opponents in some game.
A competitive athlete needs motivation to be better in that very moment or during that very match. This is not to say that he or she will not need proper motivation for the daily routine but the relation between physical and psychological stress, between achievement and reward, between preparation for the competition and competition itself is different than what most amateurs will ever experience in their life as bodybuilders.
In this article I want to give you a glimpse into most common motivational techniques and then to offer you a powerful alternative.
The psychology of motivation
Before I discuss the common motivational techniques, let’s briefly look at the scientific theories behind them.
Motivation is one of the most studied parts of human behavior. This is not surprising: it is crucial for both politics and economy.
The classical theories turn around positive and negative reinforcement. We basically do things for which we are rewarded (think of money, admiration, love, sense of happiness, sense of security) and do not do things that bring punishment (the opposite of above).
Add some more sophistication and you can also motivate people by setting goals as challenge to overcome.
There are systems that divide the motivation into several groups: we can do things because we are forced to, because we are rewarded for doing them or because we love to do them. You can guess what type of motivation brings best results :)
Current approaches to motivation in bodybuilding
Most articles on motivation in bodybuilding will advise you to repeatedly set some modest goals and try to achieve them. Also, they will suggest alternating your training routine to avoid boredom. Finally, they may offer the “social pressure tactics”: tell everyone that you are eating healthy and training hard and you will be just ashamed to stop.
I do not belittle none of those approaches. Still, I feel that they do not fully address the specific needs of amateur bodybuilding/fitness community.
First – setting goals, however small, can prove tricky in the moment you just can’t achieve them.
Second – you need periods of less intensive training (read articles on periodization) and during those periods you definitely shouldn’t try to increase your strength or muscle size.
Third – setting new and new small goals can itself become a boring routine.
The “social pressure” approach can prove exceptionally tricky. What we need most in our training is LONG TERM COMMITMENT. We don’t really need the short term goal of lifting 200 pounds or achieving flat belly. We need long-time commitment to keep the flat belly and to be able to lift 200 pounds when we are 50.
Amateur bodybuilding and fitness training is not about preparing for a competition, getting medal and going home. It’s about developing a physique that matches your state of mind.
Therefore, our attitude to training is something of a marriage. It’s not hard to get married but it’s not easy to keep the fire burning for years to come, in good and bad. If you stay with your partner because “what would people say if I left him/her?” you will be prone to cheating and in worst case you can end up with serious emotional problems.
There is one more method I want you to use very carefully. It’s the motivational method known as “Positive Self Talk”. You saw it in so many Hollywood movies: the hero keeps repeating “I’m the best! I’m the best!” and he really gets the best in the world (his country, his school, his street, whatever…).
Positive self talk can be a powerful weapon but only if practiced correctly. If your weight is 100 pounds and you are either mocked or ignored by everyone else in your gym, repeating “I’m the best!” will not persuade anyone – obviously not you. Subconsciously you will know this is a lie and you will stop believing in yourself completely.
Instead, your mantra should be “I can improve” – because you really CAN improve and get much better than what you are now.
But I promised you something new and better. OK, here it goes. My recipe for your long-term motivation is called
Did you ever notice that modern western people have a serious problem with identity? This is one of many results of social changes our society underwent in 20th century. If you asked a 13th century European the simple question “Who are you?” he would have no problem answering something like “I’m Marcel, carpenter from Lyon”.
Now, if you gave Marcel a piece of paper (and he would know how to write), it would not be a hard task for him to make a list of 5 things he is. His list would most likely look like this:
- I’m a Christian
- I’m a carpenter
- I’m a citizen of Lyon
- I’m son of Pierre, the carpenter
- I’m husband of Marie and father of 5 children
Perfect. Now you try to make your list. I tried this many times with students from Western Europe. They had very hard time to complete the list (ours were longer, 10 items). In the end most of them started like “I’m human”, “I’m a woman” etc.
Why do we discuss this? Because you tend to behave like the one you identify with. We are used to play our roles – whether consciously or unconsciously. You can be a manager during the day and Manchester United fan in the evening. Then you can be a cook during the weekend and again – you are playing a different role.
I want you to put “I’m bodybuilder” not lower than on the third position of your list. Of course, you can better identify with a role of “athlete” or “football player”. That’s not important.
What is important – you really identify with this role. After all, this is what you really are. So accept it. Now, it’s not hard to go to gym because that’s what bodybuilders do. Would you really prefer sitting in the pub drinking gin? I don’t think so. It just doesn’t go together with your role.
Marcel took great pride in being a carpenter. He was a member of carpenter’s guild and participated in all kinds of social events of the guild. You should also take pride in being a bodybuilder. Bodybuilding is a life-style.
Once you identify with your being a bodybuilder, no injury or personal crisis will stop you. After all, you don’t stop being American (or Moslem, Baptist, student, father, feminist, biologist or plumber) because of a knee injury.
You will read (you already do) articles and possibly books on bodybuilding and healthy life-style. It will all become part of you.
The more you know about sport, the harder it is to imagine a life without it. Would you really exchange all the health benefits and your admirable physique for chocolate cake, fat belly and high blood-pressure? I don’t think so.
Knowing who you are makes you feel safer and less confused. You know why you do things and you know your place in the world. It doesn’t have to be your first “identity”. You can still be a pilot, Jew or anarchist in the first place. But you are also an athlete and that’s something.
As an athlete, you don’t necessarily have huge muscular physique. But you are getting fitter and stronger every day. You keep bad habits in check. And you are SOMEBODY.