What do a rat, a CrossFitter and a gambler have in common?
I know this might seem like a random question, but hear me out for a minute and I’ll tell you why I’m asking…
If you’ve been to Las Vegas, I’m sure you’ve seen the endless rows and rows of people sitting in front of their favorite slot machine or game of choice. It doesn’t matter what day of the week or what time it is. It’s a place where literally thousands of people from all over the world go to throw down their money and let it ride…
Everyone wants to walk out a winner, but the odds are always stacked against them.
That’s why they call it gambling instead of winning.
The reason I bring this up is because I’m planning a trip there this weeked for a UFC event. As I was working on some of the details the other day, it occurred to me just how much gambling and training actually have in common…
Dopamine and the science of pleasure (reward)
To understand what I mean, we have to go back to the 1950’s to a series of studies on rats where they put them in what’s called a “Skinner box.”
This is a box that was developed in the 1930’s to condition rats to do (or avoid) certain tasks. The rats were either rewarded with food or punished with a shock.
The way this generally works is they train the rats to push a lever by giving them food (reward) every time they press it.
Push the lever, get food. Push the lever, get food.
The rats quickly learn how this works and start pressing the lever whenever they’re hungry. This is pretty basic stuff, but then they decided to take it to the next level. Instead of rewarding the rats with food, a pair of psychologists named James Old and Peter Milner modified the box.
They wired it so that when the rats pressed the lever, it didn’t give them food. Instead, pressing the lever delivered an electrical stimulation directly into the reward (pleasure) centers in their brain.
Think of the feeling of pleasure you get from eating your favorite food (or…) and multiply that by a hundred.
It didn’t take long for the rats to figure out that pressing the lever = pleasure.
What do you think happened next?
They pressed the living hell out of that lever! Over and over and over again. Up to 7,000 times an hour in some cases.
Female rats stopped taking care of their young. Male rats stopped paying attention to female rats even when they were in heat.
The rats walked across floor grids that painfully shocked them to get to the other side and press the lever. Many of the rats even stopped eating completely and had to be disconnected to prevent death by self-starvation.
The only thing the rats cared about was pressing that damn lever.
The truth about why we really workout
So by now, you may be wondering, “What the hell does a rat pressing a lever in a box have to do with my fitness?”
Well, over the last few months, I’ve talked a lot about the big problem of under-recovering and how it can kill your results.
But the real question is why do we feel so compelled to go the gym even when our tank is empty? Why do we always think that if doing 10 intervals didn’t produce results, then next time we need to do 20?
The answer is this: in many ways, we’re just like the rats and the gamblers. Once we do something that delivers a reward, we’re driven to keep doing it. Over and over again. Even when it’s at our own expense.
Because nothing feels better than winning the competition…
Seeing your clothes fit better than last time…
Having people around you ask what you’ve been doing different lately…
Smashing a WOD that you couldn’t get through last time…
We’ve all felt the high that comes from seeing all our hard work pay off.
Just like the rat and the gambler, once we’ve tasted it, we’ll do just about anything to keep pressing that damn lever, because we want more.
What happens when we keep doing more until it becomes too much
Dopamine and adrenaline are the body’s two most powerful chemical messengers and they can drive us to do crazy things.
You think rats pressing a lever 7,000 times an hour is nuts? Go watch some YouTube videos of people flying through mountains at 100mph+ dressed like squirrels!
While training might not kill you, it’s far too easy to let our biology trick is into doing too much. We all get addicted to the feeling of having a great workout and seeing the results of our hard work.
This is why we so often fall into the trap of thinking that if some training is good, then more training must be better. If high intensity worked, then higher intensity will work even better.
The problem with idea?
Sooner or later, everyone realizes the body doesn’t work this way. Training twice as hard doesn’t lead to twice the results – and it can often produce worse results in the long run.
Our desire to continually chase the reward can leave us under-recovered, fatigued and frustrated with our progress. Just like the gambler that keeps playing until he’s bankrupt, our biology can trick us into pressing the training lever until it’s too late.
Ever felt completely exhausted and yet you just had to get to the gym anyway? Trained for months on end only to realize you have nothing to show for it? Had a nagging injury that just never seemed to fully heal because you wouldn’t let it?
If so, that’s dopamine at work, convincing you that you must not be doing enough.
3 Ways to actually get the reward (results) you’re looking for
Fortunately, you don’t have to be like the gambler that loses all his money, or the rat that’s willing to starve himself to death to try to get the cheese. Recognizing that your biology can work against you is the first step is to making sure that it doesn’t.
Here are my top three strategies getting the results you’re looking for without killing yourself in the process:
1. Use technology to give you objective training feedback and keep you honest
We’ve all been trained to believe that the only thing that drives our results (and thus our reward) is our training.
However, training is only half the equation. When you spend all your energy on training and dealing with all the stress of life, you don’t have enough left over to recover.
You get yourself in a hole – what I call a recovery debt.
When I analyzed over one million HRV data points from my BioForce HRV database, they all pointed to the same thing: What most often prevents people from reaching their goals isn’t their training – it’s their lack of recovery.
We may be hardwired to think we just need to do more work to get the reward, but the answer isn’t to just keep pressing the training lever.
It’s to focus on your recovery as much as on your training.
This is exactly what I created Morpheus – to be the voice of reason that helps keep you out of a recovery debt.
Think of him as the friend that will drag you away from the craps table at 4 am before you lose your house.
Morpheus helps you manage your energy so you always have enough left over to recover and get the results you’re looking for. You can learn more about Morpheus and how he’ll help balance your training and recovery here.
2. Focus on doing more of the right things
When people complain about their training results, the first thing they often blame is their training program. Maybe it wasn’t hard enough? Maybe they weren’t doing the right exercises? Maybe there is some secret Russian program from the 1980’s that can increase their squat 100lbs overnight?
It’s like the gambler saying he lost all his money because he was playing the wrong game.
The reality is that there are so many other things that contribute to the overall results people see. We all know that things like sleep and nutrition play a huge role in results – as much or more than training itself.
Yet how many people truly focus enough on nailing down the basics and doing more of the things we all know we need – getting enough high-quality sleep, eating enough nutrient-dense foods, taking the time to turn stress off and relax.
Next time you feel like you need to train more, take some time to ask yourself what’s truly limiting your results? Is training more really the answer? Or are there other areas of your life you can focus more on improving?
Getting better results is never about just blindly doing more. It’s always about doing more of the right things. Unlike a rat in a box, we all have more than just one lever to push.
3. Plan to do less
One of the easiest ways to avoid the pitfalls of always trying to do more is to actually plan to do less. A lot of people feel guilty if they miss a day at the gym, or if they don’t push themselves to their limit each and every workout.
The solution is simple: plan ahead to “deload” every 4-6 weeks. This is especially critical if you don’t have an objective measure like Morpheus to tell you how much stress your body is under on a daily basis.
Don’t make the mistake of waiting until you feel broken down and frustrated with your results to do less. By the time you get to that point, it’s too late. You’ve already done too much.
By planning your program around doing less every few weeks, you won’t feel like you’re letting yourself down when you’re not in the gym every day. In fact, I suggest starting your program by picking when your recovery weeks will be and working backwards from there. This will force you to focus on recovery and recognize that by doing less, you’re actually accomplishing more.
One more thing: nothing reinforces the reward of a recovery week more than when you get back in the gym and smash your old PR’s.
Fight back: How to stop yourself from doing too much
It’s human nature to keep pressing the training lever as long as we’re getting the results. The real question is what do we do when they slow down or stop?
Do we just keep pressing the same lever over and over again and hope something changes?
Following the three strategies I’ve laid out above will help keep you from spiraling into a recovery debt. In the long run, the gambler always loses, but you don’t have to.
If you want to take the next step in your fitness and learn how to build a complete recovery program, make sure to check out my brand new course Recover to Win. I’ve taken everything I know about recovery and getting the most out of every single workout and put it all into one course.
This is the definitive guide to recovery. Learn how to accelerate your recovery and start winning the game of fitness.