Psychologists have known for a long time that emotions can play a critical role on our outlook in life. Most psychology research has focused on what motivates people in the workplace. And let's be honest going to the gym, putting in the time, energy, and effort is similar to any other work you do on a daily basis. That is why your emotional outlook before the gym can be critical. In fact two famous psychologists, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, who study motivation said the following:
Psychologists have validated this over and over again in studies. Still they often look at an individual's emotional outlook over an extended period of time. For bodybuilders that motivational drive comes from reaching a new physique goal. But we all have days where dragging your ass to the gym can be a chore. Thankfully two researchers in the United Kingdom have studied just what it takes to increase motivation in the pre-workout period1. They also wanted to determine how emotional stimuli could influence critical hormones like testosterone and cortisol.
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It's always nice when researchers use legitimate athletes to conduct their experiment and this study did just that. Instead of using morbidly obese or first time trainees, they used professional level rugby players that on average weighed almost 220lbs. They were also experienced weight trainees (average 3 rep squat was 315lbs).
The researchers tested their 3 rep squat max at the first training session and on the last training session with a total of 8 training sessions spaced three days apart. They also took saliva samples before each emotional stimulus was administered. The emotional stimulus was quite simple, and something that any of use can utilize before a workout. They split the men into 6 groups and sat them at a computer for four minutes. The stimulus used was simply YouTube clips depicting various settings for 4 minutes each:
- Control Group - Blank screen
- Comedy - Clip from The Big Bang sitcom
- Sad - Clip of starving children
- Erotic - Clip of exotic dancing
- Training - Clip of a UFC fighter training
- Aggressive - Clip of big rugby hits
The Results That Matter
What they found was not only useful, but also interesting. First the king of male hormones - testosterone. The athletes' experienced significant increases in testosterone after watching the comedic, erotic, training, and aggressive training clips. And the group who watched the sad video clips actually experienced a decrease in testosterone. Overall the group who watched the aggressive training clip experienced the greatest increases in testosterone.
Maybe this is why we see so many people break personal records during the college and NFL football seasons? Well they answered that question for us too. They tested each athlete's 3-rep max in the barbell squat. The researchers found the athletes that watched the erotic, aggressive, and training videos had significant increases compared to the control group. All video groups experienced a positive training effect compared to the group that watched the sad video clip. And overall, which notably correlates to the higher testosterone level, the aggressive video clip was attributed to the greatest increases in 3-rep squat max.
Free Pre-Workout Motivation
Now that we have been armed with this knowledge we can leverage it to train harder, and achieve greater gains in the gym. You might think that you can just pick any aggressive training video before each gym session, but it's better to pick something that you yourself will find most meaningful. Even the authors of the study note that there was a large inter-variability in the response to each video. For example, this group of rugby players watched aggressive rugby hits. If you are in the U.S., you're not likely to find rugby hits appealing. So find something you find significant such as a YouTube video featuring of the best hits of the past week in the NFL. Or your favorite IFBB pro bodybuilder throwing weights around. In other words pick something that appeals to you that features hard training or an aggressive scene. The best part about this is that it's free. And there is no shortage of motivating content available across the web. And since we are outside the stringent controls of a research experiment we can watch longer videos or several of them before hitting the gym. The likely response will be even greater. So next time you are sipping on your pre-workout drink, grab some videos off YouTube and find some free motivation.
Cook CJ, Crewther BT. "Changes in salivary testosterone concentrations and subsequent voluntary squat performance following the presentation of short video clips." Horm Behav. (2012): 17-22.