Exercise Feedback | Monitor your Progress for Strengths & Weaknesses

Feedback Factor

The mind is the most powerful factor for anything you aim for in life.

When people make extraordinary progress in their training, it's a sure bet that they have solid information systems to support them. Information is power, and gains in the gym are not immune to this equation. So let's see how you can develop the sort of information system that will accelerate your gains. We'll start with the basics and then concentrate on the main event: the feedback factor.

Information and Performance

Whether you train as a bodybuilder, a powerlifter or an Olympic lifter, your progress will be greatest if you have a clear-cut goal. Indeed, the importance of goals is so well accepted that it's the most commonly discussed information system element in weight-training circles.

On your way to meeting your long-term goals, you must set subgoals and define accomplishments to mark your path. Most intelligent trainees get this far, but the next step-under-standing why each accomplishment is important-sometimes gets short shrift. If you do something because "that's what Lee Haney does," that fact might inspire effort for a while; but it's beneficial to know why Lee Haney does it and even more important to know why you should too.

Even a rudimentary information support system like this will put you ahead of someone who is just working out "to make progress" and who numbly marches through the routine his buddy scratched out for him. If you really want a high-octane information system, however, you need to add a feedback loop-something that tells you whether you are on the right track and how close you are to your goals.

The Hawthorne Effect

Half a century ago the General Electric Company conducted a worker productivity study at its Hawthorne, New Jersey, plant. Not only does this project stand as the most famous and influential investigation of its kind, but it also-after correct interpretation-provides dramatic evidence supporting the power of feedback for boosting performance. Here's what happened at Hawthorne and how it applies to your getting bigger and stronger.

The researchers in this study were interested in learning what influenced the plant workers' productivity, so they moved a group of them to a special room where variables such as illumination and rest periods could be manipulated and the results could be measured. It turned out, however, that no matter what the researchers did, productivity improved-even if the lighting and rest conditions were poor!

For years this curious set of results was interpreted to mean that if you just paid attention to people they would produce more. In some circles the study was cited as evidence of how Mickey Mouse most productivity-enhancement schemes really were-since anything and everything seemed to help in the Hawthorne study.

After resting comfortably on its laurels for 50-odd years, this interpretation got a strong jolt when an enterprising researcher named Parsons reexamined the original study and demonstrated that, lo and behold, along with whatever else was being done in that experimental room in Hawthorne, 1) the workers were getting feedback on their performance, and 2) their pay was tied to their performance. Suddenly the so-called Hawthorne Effect was cast in a whole new light, and what had seemed to be a spongy set of results now stood on the bedrock of behavioral theory: When you tell people how they are doing and make it worth their while to perform well, their performance is boosted-usually dramatically.

The Iron Application

"That's acute story," you say, "but I'm interested in biceps, squats and power cleans-not assembling electrical relays. What's the Hawthorne Effect got to do with me?" The answer is, it's got plenty to do with all of us because the moral of the story is that proper feedback loops are probably the most powerful element in an effective information system. Here's how it works in the gym.

Let's say that you look in the mirror, and based on what you see you decide that more muscle mass is in order. Since you know about the importance of setting clear-cut goals, you want to define a quantitative goal-not just something wishy-washy like "get bigger."

You know that some of the most fabled bulk-building programs in history can pile on around five pounds a week, so that becomes your starting point for exemplary performance. Working the numbers around a little, you decide to try to pack on 15 pounds of muscle in the next month. You carefully select a routine designed to take you to your goal and settle on one that you've heard has worked wonders for a lot of people. What you may not realize, however, is that the routine you selected also makes it clear why you need to have a complete information system. Here's why the feedback loop is so important.

When you are striving for large muscle mass gains, your principal benchmarks are going to be the changes in your appearance, measurements and bodyweight that occur. Naturally, then, your primary tools for evaluating your progress will include the mirror, the tape and the scale. Because you need to keep track of not just where you stand at the moment, but also-and even more important-what sort of progress you are making, you need to use these feedback tools at different points in time to track your progress. You've got to be systematic about it, and that includes not just writing down your observations and measurements, but also analyzing the raw data to determine if you are on the right track.

The next step is either to maintain your course of action if things are going well or to make adjustments if your progress toward your long-term goals is falling short of the standards you originally set. You apply the same approach whether you are cutting up, bulking up or specializing on a bodypart.

If your primary interest is bodybuilding, then you will definitely want to take photographs at regular points in time and especially at key junctures in your training-before and after major bulking-up/trimming-down programs and each time you compete, for example. As obvious as the photo records may seem, you would be amazed at how many not-quite-up-there bodybuilders are completely haphazard about taking photos, relying instead on their memories when it comes to how much sweep they have added to their thighs or how their biceps have a whole new peak this year.

And don't use the excuse that you don't have Mike Neveux at your disposal. We're not talking major artistic expression here-merely that adequate documentation would be a major boost to most bodybuilders' feedback systems. Also, you shouldn't feel that you don't want to be photographed because you don't quite look like a Mr. or Ms. O contender yet. Consider these photo-graphs as being as personal or confidential as, say, your checkbook or your diary.

If you are a lifter, the bottom line in any feedback system is whether your PRs (personal records) are increasing. For that purpose analyzing your training log and contest results will indicate whether or not you are progressing toward your goals. In addition to tracking this bottom line, lifters also need to keep an eye on the technical aspect of their performance - an area that becomes relatively more important as the technical aspect of the lift increases relative to the strength component. For example, since technique is a major factor in the snatch but a minor one in the deadlift, getting technical feedback is much more important for the snatch than for the deadlift.

The expert's eye is very useful for providing technical feedback, so naturally, it's invaluable to have a knowledgeable coach at hand. One of the ultimate feedback tools is having a videotape of your performance and then getting expert analysis of it that points out both your strengths and weaknesses.

Even if you don't have access to a world-class coach, however, don't underestimate the value of videotaping your performance. Study the video, and for added insight compare it to a tape of an exemplary performer. Let's say you live hundreds of miles from the nearest qualified Olympic lifting coach, and you're trying to learn how to do squat snatches. Let's also say that it turns out that your major weakness is your speed. When you watch yourself on the screen and then look at a world champion, the message will hit you between the eyes. Armed with vivid images of yourself compared to the experts, you will be able to tackle the problem head-on.

When it comes to getting feedback on your performance, remember that a little knowledge is not a dangerous thing. Instead, it just might be the most potent training tool you'll ever find.

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