The Science Of Workout Motivation: Tell Your Trainer To Shut Up!

Here's a workout fact that might shock you: a recent study revealed that individuals trained by silent but skilled trainers outperformed those assisted by vocal trainers.

You can do it!

Just one more rep!

You’re looking good.

Do it, do it!

Come on, you’ve got this.

The one-liners above are just a sample of the clichés personal trainers utter to clients during training sessions to motivate them through a workout. Motivation is after all one of the primary reasons why people seek out personal training services, and pay big bucks for them.

A friend recently confided that she paid over $3,000 for approximately 42 personal training sessions. When you do the math, that’s roughly $71 per session which doesn’t seem like much, but that’s the discounted rate for buying the sessions in advance and in bulk.

Motivation is one of those tricky and elusive things that can wax and wane almost daily. Due to its illusive nature, motivation is often a source of speculation in every field, from fitness to business. People want to know how to stay motivated. They want to understand the reasons why motivation wanes and more importantly, how they can become motivated if it’s lacking.

Yelling Trainer

As an MBA and physique competitor, this convergence of fitness and business always grabs my attention. It’s not surprising then, that I was drawn to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “If You Want to Motivate Someone, Shut Up Already.”

In the article, the lead researcher from Kansas State University presented findings from a study which examined the impact words of encouragement can have on performance during a workout. By its very nature one could assume that “words of encourage” would do just that—encourage—but, in reality the opposite is true.

The research, lead by Brandon Irwin an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Kansas State University, determined that words of encouragement do not inspire people to perform better during a workout.

“We didn’t expect this, but it’s a really clear result. Constant encouragement did not have the intended effect of inspiring [exercise participants] to improve,” said Irwin.

As part of the study, Irwin asked participants to perform two sets of planks and to hold the position for as long as they could. Participants were divided into two groups. Group one performed the two sets of planks alone. Group two performed the first set alone, but with the second set, they were paired with a virtual partner who was an expert at planks. Participants with virtual partners were paired with either a silent partner or a partner that used words of encouragement similar to those referenced at the beginning of this article.

Participants with virtual partners held the plank position longer than those that performed the two sets solo. Participants that were partnered with a silent, yet skilled planker, held the plank 33% longer, while those with vocal partners did them only 22% longer.

The takeaway here is that a strong, silent partner is the way to go.

Helpful Trainer

Anecdotally I can attest to the benefits of having a “silent and superior” training partner. Less than a year ago, I started working out with an absolute beast in the gym that managed to push me to my limits during each workout in almost absolute silence. I don’t think you can count snarky glances as verbal encouragement.

During our initial workouts, I watched as she moved effortlessly between exercises and pushed herself to the limit, as I bellyached and lagged behind. It was in these moments where I took a hard look at myself and began to ask tough questions regarding my performance. My training partner wasn’t coaching me, nor was she providing personal training, instead she was offering me something much more valuable. She was leading by quiet example.

So, by this point, I am certain that you are asking yourself a couple of questions. The first of which might be, why did those with partners perform better? If you’re asking that question, I’ll say thank you for leading me to my next point.

Being partnered with someone who is perceived to be superior was found to be a major motivating factor in the study. According to Professor Irwin, people want to compare favorably with others, so they’re more likely to try harder and to do more if their partner is performing at a higher level. This finding, however, doesn’t address why there was a decrease in performance when participants were paired with a vocal partner who was also superior.

“Our theory is that these subjects didn’t register that the encouraging words were directed at them; they thought the partners were encouraging themselves. This made [them] think the partners were less capable,” Irwin says.

Additional studies will need to be performed to investigate the correlation between direct verbal encouragement and exercise performance. In the meanwhile, Irwin suggests that personal trainers be specific when motivate clients. He suggests that trainers use client’s names whenever possible versus defaulting to standard clichés.

The findings of this study are certainly counterintuitive but hold promise for anyone seeking to motivate others or be motivated.