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Psychological aspects of resistance training

This is an excerpt from Principles and Practice of Resistance Training by Michael Stone,Meg Stone & William Sands.

There is a temptation to focus entirely on an idea of humans as motors when one considers resistance training. However, athletic skills must be performed in the environment of human beings and their cultures, expectations, and predispositions, all of which can influence how well strength ability is expressed. Thus all skilled movement requires command and control. Athletes must select appropriate skills, perform skills in appropriate ways, and develop strength abilities over many years in order to ultimately show continual fitness progress or perform complex athletic skills in the decisive moments of competition. Clearly, resistance training requires more than simply being a powerful motor.

Sport psychology has been defined as "the subdiscipline of exercise science that seeks to understand the influence of behavioral processes on skilled movement" (Hatfield and Brody 1994, p. 188). This chapter covers psychology in resistance training in relation to two major areas: what the research literature says about psychological aspects of resistance training, and how psychological skills might be used to enhance resistance training and strength-oriented performance.

Literature on Psychology and Resistance Training

There is a paucity of specific information on psychology and resistance training. Existing psychological literature on aspects of resistance training provides some insight into areas of mental health and sport psychology, including psychological well-being; self-concept, self-esteem, self-efficacy, and self-worth; body image; and arousal and anxiety. Psychological skills that may serve athletes and others participating in resistance training include goal setting, relaxation, concentration, imagery, and ritualization (Ogilvie and Henschen 1995).

Psychological Well-Being

Although not specifically related to resistance training, school athletic participation has been shown to result in positive effects on school grades, coursework selection, homework, educational and occupational aspirations, self-esteem, applications for higher education, enrollment in higher education, and eventual educational attainment. The benefits of extramural sport participation are better than those of intramural participation, and the positive effects remain after a host of confounding variables are controlled for (Marsh and Kleitman 2003).

Resistance training is often an integral part of these same activities. These results indicate that athletic participation is beneficial for a large constellation of things that one would probably label as positive with regard to mental health, psychosocial health, and achievement.

In a position statement on resistance training in young people, the British Association of Exercise and Sport Sciences indicated that resistance training provides psychosocial benefits to youth participants (Stratton et al. 2004). The group suggested that resistance training offers psychological benefits because the incremental increases in strength provide an easy format for short- and long-term goal setting, the training can take place in partnerships and groups fostering social benefits, and this type of training can be used to educate young people on how the body works in movement. These benefits are particularly applicable to adolescents. The authors argued that children are motivated by the here and now, which would likely make the long-term lag of the training effect of resistance training a potential problem for motivation in young children. However, the authors also indicate that young children may be motivated by resistance-oriented activities such as rope climbing, games, and so forth. They suggest as well that the few studies on exercise and children have shown positive effects on psychological well-being. Additionally, they caution that resistance training programs should be based on sound educational and age-appropriate activities.

Psychological well-being includes aspects of basic mental health. For example, people with anorexia commonly use aerobic-oriented exercise compulsively due to an inappropriate fear of weight gain. Szabo and Green (2002) studied hospitalized anorexic patients and the impact of resistance training on psychological well-being and body composition. They noted that resistance training was associated with an improvement in body composition and psychological well-being. Although resistance training did not provide an outcome advantage, the authors noted that resistance training was a useful adjunct in the treatment of persons with anorexia. In a case study of two persons with anorexia, the investigator noted that weight training may benefit anorexic patients who have had the disorder less than two years and have an authentic desire to recover (Phillips 1988). The potential increase in lean body mass that accompanies resistance training may be feared by some persons with anorexia but benefit those who have reached a stage of desired recovery. Moreover, as the program continues, the individual with anorexia may come to fear the lean mass weight gain less and thus embrace further resistance training and the nutritional interventions needed to support such training.

Investigators of resistance training among elderly females (ages 75 to 80) indicated subjectively that these women showed increased self-confidence and felt that activities they had believed they could not do were newly accessible (Bracewell et al. 1999). The investigators also noted that the general activity level of these women increased over the duration of the study. Interestingly, the authors also reported that one of the primary issues they faced was that after the women felt comfortable with resistance training, some tended to push themselves too hard. Both general health and transitional health were shown to be improved in elderly women (75-80 years) participating in a weight training program lasting three months (Taunton et al. 2002).

In a study of the treatment of clinical depression, running was compared with resistance training (Doyne et al. 1987). The authors commented that the results were remarkably consistent across measures and exercise groups. Both the running group and the resistance group significantly reduced depression as measured by three depression scales. Although running or other aerobic exercise had been the exercise modality of choice in most investigations of the psychological effects of exercise (Tucker 1987), Doyne and colleagues showed that the resulting decrease in depression symptoms was not due to an aerobic effect. Thus resistance training could benefit men and women who are depressed but cannot run due to environment, body composition, or other restrictions. In a second publication on apparently the same subjects, the women demonstrated a similar pattern of enhanced self-concept through exercise (Ossip-Klein et al. 1989). Again, no differences were shown between exercise groups; however, both groups showed enhanced self-concept when compared to a delayed-treatment control group.

Using self-efficacy theory, Ewart (1989) examined the psychological effects of weight training on cardiac patients. Ewart emphasized the importance of self-perceptions in exercise selection and adherence, as well as in the individual's expectations of costs and benefits. However, self-efficacy theory also emphasizes the idea that a person's self-appraisal of his or her ability to perform requisite tasks has a major influence on whether the person will attempt the tasks. Although personal efficacy does not generalize from task to task, there are four important aspects through which personal efficacy arises: (a) prior successful performance of the tasks or similar tasks, (b) social modeling or being around others doing the tasks, (c) persuasion by a respected other, and (d) internal feedback from the person's current physical and mental state. These factors are significant in resistance training because they roughly translate to using progression to ensure that tasks are well within the person's developing performance envelope, that people train with partners or groups, that respected others provide supportive feedback, and that mood states and other environmental and internal cues are perceived as fun so as to maintain or increase arousal. Although Ewart (1989) noted that there were numerous subject-specific preferences and responses to exercise, he also noted that in his early work on circuit resistance training, psychological measures (i.e., Profile of Mood States) were related to strength measures but not to treadmill endurance or mood. The overall picture of resistance training effects on these subjects was not always clear-cut, however, as changes in mood or self-efficacy were not related to gains in endurance or strength.

In a paper on the compatibility of cardiac rehabilitation and resistance training (Vescovi and Fernhall 2000), the authors indicated that one of the major issues in returning a patient to full function following a cardiac incident is his or her self-efficacy. Thus, one of the goals of cardiac rehabilitation programs should be to present the patient with a wide variety of exercise tasks that are similar to the daily tasks encountered in normal activity. In so doing, the cardiac rehabilitation program will help build self-efficacy so that patients will pursue and not fear strength-oriented lifting, pushing, and pulling activities.

Another investigation of the psychological benefits of weight training involved state law enforcement personnel. The study used a circuit weight training protocol and a control group on a wait list for the exercise program (Norvell and Belles 1993). Forty-three officers who were not regularly exercising participated in the four-month study. Significant increases in both cardiovascular and strength variables were noted. The exercising subjects also demonstrated improved mood, including decreased somatization, anxiety, depression, hostility, and reports of physical symptoms. Job satisfaction improved as well. Officers who dropped out of the program had shown significantly greater hostility, depression, and anxiety during the pretest, suggesting that some self-selection may have occurred. However, the investigators concluded that circuit weight training could provide important psychological benefits to law enforcement officers.

A series of studies conducted by Tucker and colleagues (Tucker 1982b, 1982a; Tucker and Maxwell 1992; Tucker and Mortell 1993; Tucker 1983a, 1983b; Tucker 1987) showed that weight training has a positive influence on psychological well-being of a variety of subpopulations. These studies demonstrate that resistance training can be a powerful influence on participants' psychological states, although the effect is mitigated by a number of other variables.

Collins (1993-1994) described psychological issues among resistance-trained athletes in three categories: recreational lifters, those engaged in resistance training for sport, and competitive lifters. Recreational lifters may be served by resistance training if they place emphasis on upper body strength and attractiveness; however, novices who cannot measure up may feel threatened. The fact that early progress in resistance training among novices is usually rapid and obvious makes resistance training for this group particularly attractive. Thus, Collins recommends that instructors provide plenty of positive feedback and use incremental goal setting.

Athletes from other sports often use weight training as a means of enhancing their sport performance. This group is usually dominated by mesomorphic athletes because they tend to progress more rapidly than ectomorphic or endormorphic athletes. Collins argues that athletes tend to be drawn to those things they already do well, which may explain this tendency. Additionally, Collins cautions that because progress in weight training is so obvious and measurable, slumps and staleness are easily apparent and thus may lead to overtraining and feelings of failure and burnout. Some athletes may become overly obsessed about achieving personal bests in their lifts and may soon find that progress slows considerably. These athletes may be more susceptible to self-imposed frustration due to unrealistic expectations. In competitive lifting, the athletes' responses may be similar to those of weight trainers for sport, but even more dramatic. Collins recommends that since weightlifting may be somewhat boring and extremely fatiguing, athletes may need to learn concentration and imagery skills in order to maintain their focus during training and competition. Emphasis on specific technique areas may also help focus attention during training and competition.

Self-Concept, Self-Esteem, and Self-Efficacy

Self-concept denotes a set of thoughts held by oneself and about one's self in mental, emotional, and physical realms (Trujillo 1983). Self-esteem refers to the individual's evaluation of his or her self-concept. Self-efficacy is similar to self-confidence in that self-efficacy is a level of certainty that one can perform a task or behavior (Ewart 1989).

Trujillo (1983) compared running, weight training, and nonexercise groups on self-esteem using the Tennessee Self-Concept Scale. She showed a common pattern that did not differ statistically between running and weight training, and both exercise groups showed improved self-esteem relative to the nonexercising control group.

Changes in self-concept may be dependent on muscle group. Van Vorst and colleagues (2002) showed that while strength may increase in certain muscle groups, individuals may have a threshold above which these changes affect self-concept and below which no self-concept changes are evident. Moore and Bartholomew (2003) studied physical self-perception via self-esteem measures and noted that physical changes in terms of strength tended to outpace psychological changes.

Weight training experience was not related to physical self-efficacy among males in a comparison of various self-efficacy scales with the number of semesters of weight training experience in high school (Black, Gibbons, and Blassingame 1998). However, the use of semesters of weight training as a variable for comparison may have been too coarse a measure to evaluate this question in depth.

In a study of both body cathexis and self-esteem among college students in weight training classes, Melnick and Mookerjee (1991) showed that weight training resulted in significantly higher self-esteem and body cathexis as compared to values in a nonexercising control group. These changes were attributed in part to the increased strength fitness of the subjects. Moreover, according to the authors, their study supported the idea that self-esteem is a multidimensional construct that is at least somewhat reliant on alterations in the physical self. Tucker performed two similar studies on male weight trainers and nonexercising controls (1982a, 1983b). The weight trainers showed significantly higher scores on every self-esteem variable. However, many of the variables showed nonlinear relationships, and Tucker indicated that future studies of psychological effects of exercise must pursue higher-order models.

Body Image

In a study of males in beginning weight training classes and nonexercising controls, Tucker (1987) showed that males improve body image concepts significantly in conjunction with their participation in resistance training. This study also showed that preexisting characteristics of the subjects helped predict the psychological outcomes of resistance training. For example, those males who entered the study with low levels of strength fitness showed the greatest increase in body cathexis ratings. However, Tucker noted that males who came into the study in good physical condition began with higher levels of self-confidence and satisfaction with their existing body image status. Thus, those who are already strong and in good physical condition may show a ceiling effect with regard to body image enhancements following resistance training. In a separate study, Tucker again demonstrated that body image characteristics are complex, with the athlete's preexisting somatotype and fitness interacting with changes in body image as a result of training (Tucker 1983b). In a study of lifters versus walkers, Tucker and Mortell (1993) showed that walkers improved in endurance while lifters improved in strength, but lifters tended to improve more in body image than walkers. Tucker and Maxwell (1992) demonstrated that general well-being and body cathexis scores were significantly improved after a 15-week weight training course, along with strength values. Moreover, they showed that the best predictors of general well-being were lower parental income, greater loss of body weight, and lower posttest skinfolds. The best predictors of body cathexis were lower pretest body cathexis, greater body weight at pretest, shorter stature, less experience in weight training, and lower posttest skinfolds.

Body image dissatisfaction was studied by Bietz Hilton (1997) in an investigation of the influence of lectures and weight training versus weight training alone. Body image and body composition were assessed in a 14-week beginning weight training course. The results showed that five of the 10 components of body dissatisfaction were significantly improved over the course of the study only in the combined group. No significant differences in body dissatisfaction were observed in the weight training-only group. A similar finding of satisfaction with body image was observed among elite women weightlifters (Stoessel et al. 1991).

Arousal and Anxiety

Arousal is the level of intensity of behavior or physiology, while anxiety is defined in two dimensions, state and trait (Hatfield and Brody 1994). State anxiety is a subjective experience of dread or apprehension. Uncertainty usually accompanies state anxiety. Although state anxiety appears negative, its effects on performance can be negative, neutral, or positive. For example, a certain level of anxiety will accompany competitive performance, attacking a new weight, or performing a new skill. It is a common belief among athletes that they need a little anxiety to perform at their best. Trait anxiety is a more permanent psychological characteristic that is part of one's personality. Trait anxiety might be looked upon as the background anxiety against which state anxiety is expressed. Anxiety can also be classified as cognitive (e.g., psychological, as with apprehensive thoughts) and somatic (e.g., muscle tension, increased heart rate, restlessness, and the sensation of butterflies in the stomach).

Arousal and anxiety are thought to operate as an optimization problem relative to performance. In other words, arousal and anxiety need to be at optimal levels in order to optimally enhance performance-neither very high nor very low (Hatfield and Brody 1994). This has been codified in the inverted-U theory (Hatfield and Brody 1994; Yerkes and Dodson 1908) and in terms of Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning (IZOF) (Hanin 1995). The two models agree in the basic idea of optimal levels of arousal and anxiety, while the IZOF model goes further by embracing task difficulty, past experience, skill level, and so forth. However, the efficacy of these models remains controversial (Arent and Landers 2003). Resistance training appears to have a positive influence on arousal and anxiety.

Anxiety and arousal are coupled with the concept of stress. Stress can be defined as anything that causes a person to react (Selye 1956). Both state anxiety and arousal are responses to stress. Everyone needs to learn to cope with stress, and this occurs via state anxiety, through controlled arousal, against a background of trait anxiety. In a study of coping strategies used by athletes from different sports, weightlifters had a lower mean score on avoidance-coping than other groups of athletes (Antonini Philippe, Seiler, and Mengisen 2004). Gender differences in coping strategies were also demonstrated, with women using more emotion-focused strategies and men tending to use more problem-focused coping. Avoidance-oriented coping involves seeking out other people who may be able to help, or simply engaging in another task, or both. Sport psychologists have assumed that avoidance-oriented coping is less functional in a competitive setting and therefore that lower scores on this coping strategy indicate a better overall profile for competitive success. However, agreement on this idea is not total. For example, it is thought that being able to distract oneself from mistakes using an avoidance-oriented approach may help athletes such as tennis players quickly return attentional focus to the game. However, low avoidance-coping may also indicate the extent to which the athlete believes he or she has control over the competitive situation. Clearly, a weightlifter has considerable control over the competitive situation and therefore may not engage in avoidance-coping because it is simply less effective.

In a weight training study of prepubescent female gymnasts aged 8 to 13, using the Sport Competition Anxiety Inventory (SCAI), the participants showed an overall increase in all strength variables and an overall decrease in competitive trait anxiety (Henderson 1995). There was no change in competitive state anxiety. The decrease in competitive trait anxiety occurred mostly in the first 10 of the 20 weeks of the study. However, the investigators attempted to generalize to competitive situations and thus may have encountered uncontrolled confounding variables. A second study of prepubescent female gymnasts by O'Nan and colleagues (2000), involving weight training and competitive state and competitive trait anxiety, showed again that as strength increased, competitive anxieties decreased, although the findings did not reach statistical significance. Low trait anxiety was also demonstrated among elite male weightlifters (Hall, Church, and Stone 1980).

Several other investigations have focused on weight training in relation to anxiety and mood states. Lyon (1995) studied the effects of six weeks of aerobic conditioning, weight training, and a structured stress management program on fitness and psychophysiological responses to cognitive stress. Lyon found that all of the interventions were successful in reducing state anxiety and state anger. Interestingly, the nonexercise stress management program was similar to the two exercise programs in reducing state anxiety and state anger. Koltyn and colleagues (1995) investigated a single bout of weight training relative to state anxiety and body awareness. State anxiety was not reduced after a single weight training bout, but body awareness was significantly improved. Using the Profile of Mood States, Tharion and colleagues (1991) examined the influence of two types of weight training protocols among novice lifters. They found that a 5RM protocol with lower total work resulted in less attenuation of mood states than a higher total work protocol. Moreover, they found that males tended to respond better in terms of mood states than did females. Hale and Raglin (2002) examined the acute state anxiety responses to resistance training and step aerobic exercise. In this study, both resistance training and step aerobic exercise resulted in acutely reduced state anxiety. The state anxiety responses were stable across the eight weeks of the study.

Although psychological information on resistance training is not overwhelming, one can conclude that there are a number of potential benefits from resistance training in terms of mental health, self-concept and its derivations, and anxiety and arousal. Resistance training may be an important tool in assisting people in psychological development and maintaining mental health.

Psychological Skills

Sport psychology has a great deal to offer the athlete involved in resistance training. The goal of an athlete is an ideal performance state. This goal is achieved by both psychological and physiological efficiency, or a minimum of energy investment to accomplish the target tasks (Hatfield and Brody 1994). The ideal performance state is marked by an absence of fear, appropriate attentional focus, positive self-talk, powerful self-efficacy, and an automaticity of movement. In order to achieve the ideal performance state, the athlete should learn and excel at several psychological skills and in varying environments (Ives and Shelley 2003). These skills are goal setting, relaxation, concentration, imagery, and ritualization (Henschen 1990, 1995a, 1995b; Heil 1995).

Goal Setting

Goal setting involves a process of choosing and embracing progressively greater challenges. Goal setting has been shown to facilitate performance by establishing target behaviors and outcomes (Gould and Vory 1995). Goal setting helps direct and focus attention on the things that really matter. However, while goal setting might seem to be a somewhat obvious idea, goal-setting implementation is far from trivial. Resistance training lends itself particularly well to goal setting due to the inherently measurable nature of weight training-sets, repetitions, weight, rest interval, speed, and so forth.

Achieving goals has a lot to do with setting effective goals. One should bear in mind the following issues when setting strength training goals or helping athletes set such goals.

• Realistic goals. Goals should be challenging but realistic. Unrealistic goals can often be demotivators rather than motivators. Moreover, when realistic goals are achieved, this sets the stage for further goal setting that tends to continue to increase the likelihood of further achievement.

• Short-term versus long-term goals. It is wise to set only a small number of long-term goals (perhaps one to three), and long-term goals should be easily broken down into short-term goals. Short-term goals serve as the building blocks for long-term goals. The goals should be stated in measurable and behavioral terms, not vague generalities. At any given time, an athlete should be working on only three or fewer goals.

• Performance versus outcome goals. Performance goals are also called process goals. Outcome goals are sometimes called results goals. Performance goals are basically improvement goals. Outcome goals might include winning a particular contest. The athlete should concentrate on performance goals as opposed to outcome goals, primarily because performance goals are considered to be under greater control of the athlete, while outcome goals are seldom under such control. Environment, cheating, bad officiating, and other factors can render an athlete's control of a competitive situation moot (Gould and Vory 1995).

• Flexible goals. Goals should be elastic so that the athlete has the options of moving faster or slower, pursuing slightly different goals, and undertaking targets of opportunity. Goal setting is not a foolproof endeavor. Athletes may have set goals without knowing how difficult they might be, or without knowing that resources may become more limited in the interim. Injury, illness, and other factors may also force a revision of goals.

• Individual goals. Goals should be applied to individuals as much as possible. Clearly, applying individual goals when members of a group are pursuing the same outcome may be redundant and unnecessary. However, individual goals are more common in resistance training because of individual differences in experience and abilities.

• Goal assessments. Goals should be measured at regular intervals. Setting goals without monitoring and measurement does not serve to establish when goals have been achieved. The process of goal setting and goal assessment should be cyclic, in that each time a goal is achieved a new goal should be set.

Goal setting is among the first steps in implementing principles of sport psychology in resistance training. Goal setting should be encouraged so that continual progress is both demanding and measurable.


Relaxation is considered one of the foundational skills in mental skills training. It may seem somewhat paradoxical to talk about relaxation in a book about resistance training, but coordinated movement requires that while some muscles contract, other muscles must relax. Moreover, the correct muscles must be summoned at the right time and in the right magnitude. Coordinated movement requires that the athlete be able to selectively recruit and inhibit muscles.

Relaxation techniques are generally used to reduce anxiety and arousal to a more controlled level so that the athlete can better attend to those crucial aspects of performance that lead to success (Dishman 1983; Drozdowski et al. 1990; Hardy and Jones 1994; Hatfield and Brody 1994; Henschen 1995b; Ogilvie and Henschen 1995;Orlick 1980; Weiss 1991). Relaxation techniques assume that relaxation and tension are opposites and cannot occur simultaneously, and that by learning relaxation techniques the athlete can summon the appropriate level of tension when needed (Henschen 1995c). Relaxation is perhaps the oldest of the mental training techniques, dating from ancient China as qi gong and from India as a component of yoga. Relaxation techniques include the following three:

• Breathing. One method of relaxation training is diaphragmatic breathing, also called belly breathing (Hatfield and Brody 1994). Breath control and deep breathing techniques, usually involving deep inhalation followed by slow exhalation, have been shown to reduce heart rate and muscle tension due to feedback pathways that link cardiorespiratory control centers to the brainstem (Hatfield and Brody 1994). Together, these lead to increased vagal tone and increased parasympathetic nervous activity, resulting in a lowering of arousal and anxiety and a more relaxed state (Henschen 1995c). Breathing awareness comes with practice. This method can be practiced at almost any time, and as the athlete becomes more aware of breathing patterns the method naturally moves into training and performance.

• Progressive relaxation. Contrasting relaxation with tension is the goal of progressive relaxation (Henschen 1995c). The athlete makes note of the feelings engendered by tension and relaxation so that the contrast between the two ultimately helps him or her to summon tension and relaxation in appropriate amounts for a given skill or task. The methods are quite straightforward. The athlete adopts a particular posture, usually lying supine, and then progressively and systematically tenses and relaxes each muscle group. One can begin with the feet, systematically tensing and then relaxing muscles of the feet and lower legs. The next step is to move upward along the body, shifting tension and relaxation cycles from one muscle group to the next. When the process has included the entire body, the final cycle should result in relaxation of the whole body. This method can be practiced multiple times each day and can be used as an adjunct to achieving sleep.

• Autogenic training. Autogenic training is a relatively new technique that originated in the 1930s in Germany; it is a method that involves self-hypnosis through use of a formulaic induction. One repeats a

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