Remember that scene in The Matrix where Neo’s having Kung Fu training uploaded directly into his brain and at the end he’s all like, “I know Kung-fu”?
Well, I hate to break it to you, but he was wrong. He didn’t actually know kung-fu. He only thought he knew kung-fu: Meaning, he understood kung fu mechanistically, on a cognitive level he knew how to punch and kick.
But, If he tried performing these moves in the real world, like, you know, actually kicking someone in the face, he’d probably end up tearing a muscle or breaking a bone because his physical body hadn’t gone through the vigorous fitness training and conditioning that accompanies learning martial arts.
But, Aadam, what the hell does this have to do with my fitness goals? Look, if you stop interrupting, I’ll explain. Can you do that?
As I was saying: Just like Neo thought he knew Kung-fu (which we’ve established he kinda didn’t) there are things in the world you think you know that you don’t actually know but are convinced that you do (but you don’t).
And this conflict between what you think you know, but don’t actually know, and what’s actually true, can lead you to make bad decisions. This error in thinking is known as a cognitive trap.
A cognitive trap is when we make an error in our thinking. Like how you totally believed Neo when he told you he knew Kung Fu, then I came and blew your mind and now you’re probably upset. Yeah, uh, sorry about that. Here, have a cookie.
The fitness space is one big ol’ orgy of cognitive traps that causes you to make bad judgements, believe some really wacky bullshit, and do things that may hinder your progress. Here are 10 ways your brain fucks with your fitness goals.
1. The Athlete Body Delusion
The Athlete Body Delusion happens when we confuse a genetic disposition with results – put another way, we assume the ‘athlete’ (you can replace athlete with cover model, movie actor, Instagram influencer, etc.) look the way they do because of the training programme they used rather than in spite of it.
Nicholas Nassim Taleb provided an example of this cognitive trap in his book, ‘Black Swan’, when he falsely believed that to look like a swimmer, he should start swimming. Only to come to the sad realisation that world champion swimmers are world champion swimmers because of their genetic disposition for the sport––world champion swimmers tend to have long arms and broad shoulders, which they then refine and improve on with training.
To illustrate this trap, imagine we have a group of kids, and they all want to become professional athletes in a particular sport.
As they progress and the level of competitiveness increases, the kids whose selection factors (genetic traits) are best suited for this sport will progress. In contrast, the kids who don’t have favourable selection factors will be rejected or become disheartened and give up.
This process keeps repeating until you see the best-suited athlete on TV.
Now the athlete body delusion kicks in and you assume that you have to do what that athlete is doing to get a body like his.
This leads to the second problem: what exactly is The Athlete Body, and how are we defining this ‘look’?
Look at the image below showing three different athletes from three different sports, all exhibiting three very distinct looking physiques.
If I asked you whose physique you most want, I’m confident the majority would choose Ronaldo because Ronaldo’s physique is what people associate with the athletic body: a good amount of muscle mass with low body fat.
But, as you can see from the image, athletes come in all shapes and sizes. Athletes aren’t training for a look; they’re training for performance. And regardless of what your local “functional trainer” told you, the two goals are mutually exclusive.
Second, Ronaldo would look like that regardless of the way he trains. Case in point, look at the hundreds of other football players who train similarly but don’t look how Ronaldo does. (To clarify, I’m referring to sport specificity, as opposed to work ethic.)
The ‘athletes’ you see gracing fitness magazines, fashion ads, and marketing material are all guys (and girls) who already exhibit ‘the look’. They’re selected exactly because their physique is ‘marketable’.
And it sells. Putting Cristiano on the front of your fitness magazine and labelling it with “Do the Ronaldo Ab workout for abs like his” sells magazine copies.
The same thing occurs with fitness models and your favourite Instagram celebrities––they’re selected because of the way they look (or the number of followers they have), not because they did a certain training programme, ate a certain way, or took a certain supplement.
Solution: We know how muscles grow. Lifting weights and getting stronger over time. If you want to look like an athlete, stop training like an athlete and focus on building muscle and reducing body fat.
2. The Jacked Bro Fallacy
Remember in Terminator 2 when John’s running away from the cop (who’s really the terminator sent to kill him) and he runs into Arnold and is all like HOLY FUCKING SHIT THIS GUY HAS A SHOTGUN.
(wait for it).
HOLY FUCKING SHIT THIS GUY HAS A SHOTGUN AND HE’S POINTING IT AT ME.
And then he runs away from Arnold and into the cop, who’s really the terminator trying to kill him, and Arnold’s all like “get down” and shoots the cop?
Yeah? Good, because that whole part where John thinks Arnold is going to shoot him and freaks out is called the representativeness heuristic.
The representativeness heuristic is a mental shortcut we use to judge and/or make predictions about things based on our preconceived notions of that thing.
Put another way: we expect X [x could be anything] to look like the X framework or prototype we have in our minds.
Example: Big scary dude pointing a shotgun at me: bad. Cop who’s probably going to arrest me for all the ATMs I’ve hacked, but I get to stay alive: not as bad.
This same mental error occurs when we see someone with a good physique and automatically assume the person knows what they’re talking about (regardless of the credibility of the information they relay) based solely on the representation of their physique.
‘C’mon. Of course, he knows what he’s talking about – look at him, he’s Jacked! How would he be jacked if he didn’t know what he was doing, huh? Explain that smart guy’.
We assume his jackedness was a direct result of him knowing about training and nutrition rather than in spite of it.
The representativeness heuristic causes us to look at the two most salient variables (physique + knowledge) and ignore all the other factors that could have played an even larger role, like genetics and drugs.
While representativeness heuristics can be useful, I mean, if you ran into a lion on your way to work, you’re not going to stop and wonder what the fuck a lion is doing out in the city, you’d get away as fast as you could.
But, if you’re not paying attention, it can cause poor judgements that could lead to taking on bad advice.
Solution: Separate the physique from the advice. Listen to what they say and ask questions. Why do they say that? If it sounds odd, do your own research and ask other credible authorities you trust and then come to a decision.
3. The DYEL Bias
Just like we assume that someone with a good physique knows what they’re doing, we also dismiss someone with a not-so-good physique as not knowing what they’re doing, even if they do. This is why you’re more likely to listen to someone who “looks like they lift” over someone who doesn’t.
This is the DYEL (do you even lift) bias. And as I’m about to explain below, it can lead to bad judgements if you’re not aware.
Suppose we have two people: Person A and Person B. Person A is ‘genetically gifted’; one look at the weights and he grows muscle. Person B is less fortunate and has average genetics.
Person A starts reading fitness magazines in pursuit of knowledge. After a month or two, he starts seeing great results. He automatically associates his awesome results with the workout in the fitness magazine*. In turn, he keeps reading that line of information and trains accordingly.
As time goes on, he keeps getting great results and preaches these ideas to other people.
The fact he’s getting results doesn’t give him a reason to explore or find new ways to do things: ‘I don’t need to do more research because clearly what I’m doing is working.’
Other people see his results and start asking him for advice. He dishes out the advice he read in the fitness magazine’s because, unbeknownst to him, his results weren’t because of the programme, but his genetics.
Meanwhile, Person B also starts his lifting career by reading the same magazine. He follows the advice to a T and doesn’t get the results he was after, unlike gifted Person A.
So, he starts seeking out more information. Eventually, over the years, due to his lacking genetics, he’s been forced to seek out more information, ask more questions, read, study, and experiment to find what works and what doesn’t.
This is a big reason why many of the guys in the fitness industry who are doing a lot of the research tend not to look as impressive as some of the fitness models you see on magazine covers. Their curiosity and the need for answers to improve their physique led them to delve into the research, to learn and explore because every little thing made a difference.
Solution: The solution to this cognitive trap is the same as the “Jacked Bro fallacy” – separate the physique from the advice and listen to what the person is saying.
4. You’re Fooled by Credentials
Remember back to school when the teacher would put up a math problem and ask you to solve it. And there would always be that one kid who would apprehensively raise his hand to let the teacher know she’d made a mistake.
The teacher would look to the kid, then to the board. Pause for a few minutes, and then say, “oh, yes, you’re right. I made a mistake. Well done to you, kid. At least someone’s paying attention.”
That kid is not only a goddamn hero to the educational system but an example of exactly how you should be approaching everything. Just because someone has millions of followers on Social Media or listed their entire curriculum vitae in their Facebook name, doesn’t necessarily mean they know what they’re talking about.
Even Doctors, when asked simple nutrition questions, fail the test. What about research and science, bro? What about the news? Surely they wouldn’t lie to us. Well…
Health researcher, Timothy Caulfield, has a term he calls The Cycle of Hype. This is how the cycle of hype goes:
Researchers and research institutions feel the need to be seen as producing instantly relevant knowledge and applications for that knowledge. This results in messages (through academic papers, enthusiastic press releases from the university and from research funders, and interviews with the media) that overemphasise benefits and underemphasize the risks and limitations of research.
These messages are picked up by the press and transmitted to the public. The public’s appetite for news about exciting science goes up, and the incentive to hype is increased accordingly.
In the short term everyone in the cycle of hype benefits from the hype, the researchers gain notoriety, the media gets a good story, but, of course, the cycle does not benefit the public.
The media plays an active role in the cycle of hype. The news industry – be it TV, newspapers, or the internet – is enormously competitive. Stories must be sold not only to the public but to editors and producers.
This being the case, the media has a tendency to represent scientific events in extreme terms.
The majority of what you hear and see on TV is ‘entertainment’, and the rate of new discoveries in health and fitness is despairingly slow compared to the demand for new and interesting stories. This disconnect causes…well, this to happen.
- Listen to the claim: Regardless if someone has a gazillion followers, a PhD, has been on your favourite talk show, and your friend Becky swears by their plan if they’re making outlandish claims, like, oh I dunno, harvest the sun’s energy to realign your chakra’s, lose fat, cleanse your soul, and cure cancer – they’re probably, most likely, definitely full of shit.
- Think for yourself: There’s this thing called ‘herd mentality’, and it’s when people don’t listen to the voice in their head telling them something is incorrect or dangerous. Instead, they follow the herd so they’re not ridiculed. This is why Becky is sitting butt-naked on her patio, trying to photosynthesise fat loss: she saw a group of her other friends do the same thing and instead of thinking, “Hey, this is pretty fucking stupid and goes against everything I learned in biology”, decided that because everyone else is doing it, it must be right. The lesson: Don’t be like Becky. Fuck Becky. Think for yourself, and when you hear that voice in your head telling you something doesn’t seem right, listen to it.
- Questions things: Nobody wants others to think they’re stupid. And so, people avoid asking questions. I can empathise with this. Instead, I would recommend messaging the person in private and asking them to clarify. This is better for two reasons. First, you feel confident asking the person the question, and they can clarify anything if you don’t understand. Second, other people aren’t going to chime in and confuse you further.
5. You Can’t Trust Yourself
You know how at Thanksgiving or Christmas or any other time of the year filled with exuberant frolicking and an ungodly amount of food that you eat until you’re sick, and just as you pass out from the food coma you think: ‘I’m never eating that much food ever again’ only to go raiding the fridge 30 minutes later. What the hell is that about, right?
The hell it’s about is you, like everyone else, suck at imagining yourself in the future.
When we make a prediction about the future, we base how we’re going to feel in the future on how we feel right now, and because we’re making these predictions based on how we’re currently feeling, they’re never really accurate. Actually, they’re most definitely always wrong.
This inability to imagine the future is what psychologists have termed an empathy gap: The inability to empathise with your future self in the moment when you’re driven by your present desires, causing you to choose immediate gratification over your long term goal.
So this happens:
You’re adamant that this is the year you’re going to start eating well, exercising and lose the extra 20lbs.
And it works, right up until you’re faced with a situation involving tasty food.
Now the delicious food seems so much more appealing than the abs you desperately wanted just mere moments ago.
Solution: Set failsafe’s now. Because you can’t trust yourself to make a rational decision in the heat of the moment, the better you plan while you’re in a state of sanity – the more chances of sticking to it.
If you know you’re going to be at an event or in a situation where you may be likely to overeat, plan for it.
6. Abs Aren’t The Solution To All Your Problems
This is you right now.
When you imagine the future, your brain does this really annoying thing where it takes what you think will happen and supercharges it––why? Your brain’s a dick, that’s why. So, this happens:
You imagine an extremely exaggerated future. Yes, one in which you’re making out with your crush under a rainbow as a unicorn flies over you because fuck logic.
And, this isn’t too bad because this whole imagination on steroids is, in part, what motivates you to start and keeps you going when things suck. But then, you lose fat, get abs, look awesome…and this happens.
As Dan Gilbert explains in Stumbling on Happiness:
We assume that what we feel as we imagine the future is what we’ll feel when we get there, but in fact, what we feel as we imagine the future is often a response to what’s happening in the present
Solution: Use your fitness goals as a way to self-improvement, not as a way to fill a void or find happiness. By the way, in case you didn’t notice, that’s a quotable right there, so if you want to tweet that to look all philosophical, deep, and cultured: you should.
7. Marketing Hype
In the eighties, Coca-Cola was dominating the soft drink market and its rival, Pepsico, was pissed. Pepsico knew it had a superior product, taste-wise, so why the hell didn’t the public see this, too?
To put an end to the matter and finally prove to everyone the superiority of their product, Pepsico decided to run an experiment: a blind taste test titled “The Pepsi Challenge”.
In over 200,00 blind taste tests, 62% of people said they preferred the taste of Pepsi. But when these same people knew what they were drinking, they preferred the taste of Coke.
What the researchers concluded was people didn’t really care about the taste as much as the brand.
Coca-Cola simply had better marketing, and when people saw Pepsi and Coke side by side, they automatically associated Coke to be the superior brand regardless of taste.
So, why am I telling you all this? Because, just like the participants in the blind taste test study, you fall for a similar trap: marketing hype.
This is why when you see your favourite fitness model, with his rippling abs, or her geometrically perfect ass, brandishing a pack of the latest skinny-organic-natural-tea supplement, you rush off to buy, thinking it’s what you need.
This is why you keep putting butter in your coffee in the hopes to lose fat. Or why you spend triple for the expensive sciencey-sounding creatine when a cheaper version works just as well, if not better. Or why you’re adamant you should buy organic, even when it’s no better than conventional. Or, why you buy fat burners, which are no more than sexed-up caffeine pills.
Solution: Pay attention. And if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Because really? Do you honestly believe your favourite celebrity got those peeled abs or toned buns by using some weird muscle contracting vibrator machine?
8. Fuck Your Genetics
If you’ve ever been to a circus and are like me, you’ve probably thought the same thing: Woah, it’s an Elephant. And woah, that thing is huge. It must weigh a gazillion tons and be strong as shit: why the hell hasn’t it crushed its captors and escaped?
To answer that, we have to travel back to the 1960s where Martin Seligman and his team were expanding on Pavlov’s research. You know, the guy who would ring a bell, and his dogs would start salivating.
But, instead of trying to make dogs salivate, Seligman decided to restrain them with harnesses and zap them with electricity (yes, Martin was a dick). He would ring a bell and then zap the dogs. He kept doing this until he only needed to ring the bell, and the dogs would react as if they had been zapped, even if they hadn’t.
Once the dogs were conditioned, Seligman put one dog into a large box with a little fence dividing it in half. The dogs could see over the fence and were able to jump over it. One-half of the fence was electrified.
They zapped the dog expecting it to jump over the fence to escape. It didn’t. The dog just laid down and braced itself through the ensuing shocks.
The researchers then put a dog who hadn’t been conditioned into the box and zapped it – this dog jumped the fence right away.
The conditioned dogs had learned something called “learned helplessness”. Learned helplessness is when a person or animal (like the Elephant at the circus) experiences repeated bouts of negative or painful stimuli that they cease trying to change their circumstances. Basically, you’re kind of like Seligman’s dogs.
How many time have you blamed your genetics for not being able to lose fat or build muscle? Oh, really? Ok: Do any of these sound familiar?
“Well, I’m just not the sort of person who has abs.”
“I’m a hard gainer.”
“I’m just naturally fat.”
“I’m just meant to be skinny.”
“I’m too old for this fitness stuff.”
“I’m not one of those fit people.”
These are examples of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is a result of attributions. Attributions are the conclusions we arrive at about why certain things happened.
There are two different types of attributions – stable and unstable (actually, there are four, but for our purpose, these two are the ones that matter).
A stable attribution is when a person concludes that an event or behaviour is out of their control, and they can’t do anything to change it. An unstable attribution is when a person acknowledges that the event or behaviour was under their control, and they can change it or, at the very least, try to.
When someone blames their genetics for why they can’t build muscle or lose fat, they’ve made a stable attribution. In contrast, if that person acknowledges that the training programme or nutrition plan might have been stupid, they’ve made an unstable attribution.
The person who begins to believe it’s their genetics slowly begins to put in less effort at the gym because what’s the point? No matter how hard they try, it’s all pointless because of their genetics. The less effort they put in, the worse their results, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the self-fulfilling prophecy starts a downward spiral in which something that was never true ends up becoming true.
And this is what it comes down to: own your shit. The more you keep blaming your genetics for your lack of progress, you’re edging further into learned helplessness. And the more you tell yourself the situation is out of your control, the more you start to believe it, and now, like Seligman’s dogs, you give up.
Solution: Fuck your genetics. Are you going to be the next Arnold? Probably not. Are you going to look like your favourite fitness model? I dunno, you might, you might not, you might even end up looking better than them. And that’s the thing: you’ll never know until you put in the effort and try. You can bitch and moan about how your genetics suck, but that isn’t going to change anything.
Maybe your genetics are awesome, but your training plan is idiotic. Maybe your genetics are great, but you’re all up in your feelings instead of trying to make a change.
9. The ‘I Deserved It’ Paradox
Ever gone for a run and then ate a ‘treat’ because you thought you ‘deserved it’? Or how about that time you dieted for a week and then spent the weekend “cheating” because you just dieted for a whole damn week, and you obviously deserve this.
This is what I call The I Deserved It Paradox.
In Psychology, this paradox is called “self-licensing” and occurs when people do something good like exercise, and then negate the good by doing something not so good, like overeating.
Researchers in Taiwan studied this phenomenon and found that when smokers took multivitamins––in their minds a healthy choice––they also believed the vitamins reduced the risk of cancer and so, not only continued to smoke but, smoked twice as much as before.
Solution: The lead researcher from the study above said: “Smokers who take dietary supplements can fool themselves into thinking they are protected against cancer and other diseases. Reminding health-conscious smokers that multivitamins don’t prevent cancer may help them control their smoking or even encourage them to stop.”
So, here’s your reminder. You’re welcome.
10. The ‘Secret’ to Your Goals
A few years back a self-help craze took the world by storm; promising health, wealth, happiness, riches, and all the virgins in the Seven Kingdoms.
The craze was a book called ‘The Secret’, you wanna know what the secret is? You sit around thinking of all the things you want, and if you think hard enough, the universe manifests all of your wishes because, apparently, we somehow forgot the universe does that sort of thing. How stupid of us.
This same line of thinking has also manifested itself in the fitness world. Now everyone’s all up on Instagram posting motivational quotes that don’t even mean anything.
The result: you have a bunch of fitness people telling everyone how effortless fat loss will be because all you have to do is stay positive; you’ll never be hungry again because just be positive; tired and grumpy? Well, just click those heels, Dorothy, think happy thoughts and everything will be A-ok.
Well, sorry to be a Debbie Downer, but that stuff doesn’t work because it’s bullshit, and it’s not how real life works (in case you had any doubts). So let’s step out from Wonderland kids and return back to reality.
In his book, Unhooked, Psychologist Frederick Woolverton, whose work deals with addiction, makes an interesting point about how this false positivity can backfire.
What hurts people most are secrets and lies, and what finally heals is honesty. One has to find a way to live with the truth, not fight against it
…If you know in advance that you are going to be physically and emotionally uncomfortable, there are many ways to prepare yourself to make your suffering more bearable.
He then goes on to tell the story of one patient whom he was helping work through a smoking addiction.
At her first therapy session with me, I gave Susan my standard warning: “you are going to feel like hell for a year”. During our subsequently weekly sessions, I explained my theory and methods further. She later said that my warning that she was supposed to feel like hell for a year was what helped the most.
It made her feel like her reactions were normal and allowed. Since she knew in advance she was going to experience twelve months of agony, she had time to prepare and change her plans, expectations, and outlook. In essence, she made room in her life for more agony and discomfort. This time stopping did not shock her or take her by surprise.
She knew what to expect and made a specific, detailed plan for how she was going to cope”
Solution: Anti-visualise. Instead of fantasising about achieving your physique goal. Do the opposite.
Visualise not achieving your physique goal. Yes, I’m telling you to imagine failing. Now. Once you’ve got this image in your head, write down all the potential reasons this could have happened.
Written them all down? Awesome. Now you have a list of all the things not to do on your fitness journey.
This is Anti-visualisation. You start with the possibility of failure in mind, and once you’re aware of all the things that could go wrong, you can set up a failsafe now, in advance, increasing your chances of success instead of them cropping up unexpectedly and throwing you off.
WHEW. And we’re done. Now excuse me, I need to have a word with the universe because it still owes me a cheeseburger from 2002.