Histrionics Don’t Help
Randall Strossen, Ph.D.It’s not about broadcasting how much pain you’re in
Some years ago I trained in a gym that had a front room for the (big, carpeted, filled with machines and mirrors), a side room for the aerobics classes (spacious, light and airy) and a back room for the weightlifters (small, dank and stuffed with three lifting platforms). The front room was all spit and polish, and the gym owner was always doing one of two things: vacuuming the rug or polishing the mirrors. Occasionally he did a third thing: cursing whoever had sneaked in the chalk and sullied his janitorial jewel. By contrast, the back room was unkempt and always smelled of Tiger Balm or dirty socks, and if you’d forgotten your T-shirt or sweats, you could probably find something on the floor that would fit. As you might guess, people often dressed up to use the front room or the side room, but dressing down would have been more appropriate for the back room.
For the most part, the regulars got along whether they were in the bodybuilding, weightlifting or aerobics segment. It was just accepted that each group had its own goals and its own way of doing things. The weightlifters were interested only in how much they could lift—their domain was moving big weights, and some of them were pretty good at it, with more than one having represented the United States on world championship or Olympic teams. One day when they were minding their own business—wearing torn-up, smelly clothes, getting chalk everyplace, dropping heavy weights from arm’s length overhead, etc.—they heard the most agonizing sounds imaginable issuing from the bodybuilding room. It sounded as if some brave soul were enduring torture under the Inquisition. The lifters piled out of the back room to see what Herculean labor was taking place in the land of chrome.
What greeted them was not a primitive—like themselves—bouncing around armloads of big plates on each end of the bar. Instead, they saw a handsome young man doing flyes with a pair of 15-pound dumbbells. On each rep he made sounds that suggested imminent death. The lifters went back to their 400-pound clean and jerks without uttering a peep, even though there was some feeling that the kids in the child-care center probably could have outrepped the young bodybuilder.
Such histrionics in the weight room aren’t limited to situations like that one. Undoubtedly, the biggest group of actors these days comes not from the bodybuilding end of the spectrum but from guys who see themselves as lifters. They spend so much time and energy talking about how hard they train, you wonder how they ever have any time and energy left to actually lift anything. They don’t just talk the talk; they drop to the ground, gasp for air and give the groan of death with the best of them. Have them do a few reps on a machine, and they’ll give you a display of agony you’re unlikely ever to see in such truly punishing events as, for example, the Tour de France, the Ironman Triathlon or the Olympic marathon. In fact, this group has such capable actors, you’d think the wrestling world would be able to find more than one future superstar within its ranks.
“So, what’s the big deal?” you ask. “Doesn’t that just get them psyched up for a better performance? Isn’t that why all those powerlifters bang their heads on the bar before they squat or have their coaches give them a smack in the chops before they come out for a lift?”
It’s true that grimacing, grunting and groaning, even as they’re tying their shoes, can be considered freedom of expression—much like the color they wear. As for improving their performance, you’re dead wrong. In fact, in most cases those shenanigans will only take the edge off their efforts. They’re essentially energy leaks.
The idea of the Yerkes-Dodson law is that up to a certain point, increasing arousal improves performance. At that point, however, continuing to increase arousal increasingly diminishes performance. The law also tells us that optimal arousal levels are lower for more complex tasks than for simpler ones. Basically, fueling the emotional fires often makes for a less than blazing performance.