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Take the “Work” Out: Priming Exercise Performances

Posted by Adam Naylor  February 5, 2014 03:55 PM

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New verbiage in gyms around the country is long overdue. How we set the stage for fitness activities shapes both one’s ability to adhere to exercise and to maximize performance in the gym. Ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) is the often used technical term for the self ratings given by exercisers about the physical intensity they gave during exercise and this rating can be impacted by how activities are primed.

Machoness seems to be a hot marketing tool when it comes to selling exercise… unfortunately “tough” may be a poor way of creating excellence in the gym. It is not difficult to imagine a fitness instructor preparing an exercise class by announcing, “O.k., let’s get down to work!” or a strength coach wearing a Dr. Evil smirk while instructing athletes, “It’s going to brutal circuit today. Be ready.” These are socially accepted utterances and well intentioned nudges towards toughness… yet there may be costs to the exercise that follows.

The power of suggestion is strong. Studies of perceived exertion have found that verbally cuing heavy or light workloads in the gym will shape both physical efforts and emotional responses. The announcement of a tough lift is likely to induce a bit of added struggle and suffering. How fitness activities are introduced will shape mental schemas that can help or hurt athletic performances. This extends far beyond the pop psychology wisdom of “be positive,” but rather drills down to the subtleties of how perceptions influence exercise behaviors. Priming negative attitudes can encourage inhibited performances – miring one in mediocrity rather than allowing physical potential to thrive.

Perhaps it is time for a paradigm shift in how we talk about exercise. Subtle and purposeful changes in the language of exercise can facilitate a bit extra effort and lead to more enjoyment. How often do you slip into the language of teeth gritting, grind it out attitude? What language could you abandon in order to prime your optimal exercise attitude?

When putting on one’s running shoes or stepping into the gym it is not time for one to get to “work.” Tough talk may sell gym memberships… but it often fails to maximize fitness performance. Perhaps when grabbing the gym bag on the way out of the house it is more valuable to remember that it is time to get to “play.”

NaylorMug.jpgDr. Adam Naylor leads Telos Sport Psychology Consulting and is a Clinical Assistant Professor in Boston University’s School of Education. He has a decade and a half of experiences working with professional through amateur athletes – of note: US Open competitors, NCAA champions, Olympians, Stanley Cup winners, and UFC martial artists. Beyond sports, over the past five years he has served as a corporate performance and wellness consultant. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ahnaylor.

Staying fit is an important part of staying healthy. This blog will offer exercise tips from experts as well as share the personal journeys of Globe staff members committed to fitness. No matter your age or energy level, we invite you to join in and share your own story. How do you find time to work out? What are your daily challenges? Let us know and read along -- and together, we can all get moving.


Elizabeth Comeau is a social media marketing manager at She will be blogging about her personal fitness journey and using a device called a FitBit to track her weekly goals and progress (see below). Follow her journey and share your own. Read more about Elizabeth and this blog.

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