Written by Dr. Mike Israetel
His form is TERRIBLE! Why won’t you say something?
When I’m with my friends – especially when on vacation – the workout is serious during the sets, but between sets, we do a little goofing-off and joking. One of our favorite pastimes is to watch other people work out and usually laugh at some of the ridiculous stuff we see being done. Squats on the Bosu ball, “Olympic” (not even close) lifts, 50-rep sets on the adductor machine, quarter reps with lots of yelling; you know, the usual. A while back, when my friends and I were training like this, my friend Alex asked me something I had luckily thought through by then: Why don’t I help out those people who are obviously making egregious errors in either technique or programming? With my (being not so humble here) knowledge, I could help out a lot of people, so why don’t I?
The easy answer to why I don’t go up to people at the gym and offer advice is that it’s just plain rude. I have serious philosophical issues with people who offer unsolicited advice. Not only do I think it’s presumptuous and rude, advice presented in this format is almost never taken, because the person receiving it must take a serious ego hit in order to accept it, which people rarely do (public embarrassment is a bad deal…). However, there is a deeper, more involved reason that I don’t offer unsolicited advice: People are already doing the workout they demand. Here I am using demand in its technical, economic definition: having the willingness and ability to pay the price of a good/service – in this case, the workout they are doing.
Demand, to rephrase its meaning in this context, is the workout people end up subscribing to psychologically and then performing. And the determinants of demand for a certain good are twofold: costs and benefits.
Benefits of a Program
The benefits side of a workout is relatively easy to understand. The most scientifically informed, effective workout has the highest benefit, right? Well, almost.
People make fitness choices not solely on how effective a program is, if for no other reason than that different people demand differing levels of effect from a fitness program. If your goal is to put on as much muscle as possible, then P90X is probably not the best use of your time. However, if your goal is to get reasonably fit, lose some fat, and gain a little strength, P90X may be an economical use of your exercise time. As long as the consumer is aware that the program they choose has a certain outcome likelihood, it is entirely rational of them to choose a program that meets their goals and not the ideal goals of a judgmental onlooker. People can of course be misinformed as to the probable effect of their program, and that is addressed in the upcoming discussion of knowledge costs. Essentially, differing preferences as to outcome guarantee that there will be a variety of fitness approaches in the marketplace, none of them necessarily “better” than others. If your goal is to get in absolutely optimal shape by the time spring break rolls around in two months, you had better hire a contest-prep bodybuilding coach. However, if your goal is to relieve some stress after a long workday, sweat a little, and get more flexible, then you may be better served by signing up for yoga classes at your local outlet.
After analyzing the benefits of a program, most people curtail their thoughts on the matter and proceed to judge others who are doing some workout that’s not up to par, deeming them “in need of intervention.” Perhaps someone is doing a P90X workout when they told you they wanted to look their absolute best, and they only have several months to meet their goal. There are of course far more effective approaches to accomplishing their goal, even considering the person’s preferences. However, before judgment, it is prudent to analyze both the obvious and hidden costs, not just the benefits, involved in immersing one’s self in a fitness program of some sort. As we shall see, truly effective programs usually come with comparable costs.
The Costs of a Program
When choosing a fitness program (or lack thereof) to participate in, consumers consider both costs and benefits. With the benefits generally being the utility of the program, the costs are more nuanced, but equally important in understanding people’s fitness choices. In my view, there are three basic categories of cost involved in selecting and participating in a fitness program (notice that both selection and participation have their costs). These three categories are knowledge costs, opportunity costs, and monetary costs.
Knowledge is never free. Just processing knowledge takes effort and time, even if someone gave you advice at no charge or you found a copy of a training book at the public library. As a matter of fact, just figuring out what books are worthwhile or what trainers/gurus are worthwhile (from which to extract knowledge) takes a considerable amount of knowledge as well. In economics, the knowledge necessary to figure out what products and services are even to be considered for purchase is termed sorting/labeling cost. This process should be a familiar one to many of us; a majority of the readers of this article have no doubt spent more time than they would have liked trying to find out information on potential gyms, supplements, training programs, and even trainers themselves. In order to pick the right training style for you, it is important to engage in some degree of sorting and labeling of the alternatives, be they a serious powerlifting program or a cookie-cutter CrossFit workout. Notice the potentially massive costs of extensive sorting and labeling of alternatives. Even to begin properly categorizing and labeling alternatives so that they can be sorted by variables of interest (price, potential effect, reputation, degree of scientific validity) requires the gathering of a considerable amount of knowledge on training. Right away, we can begin to understand why people opt for cookie-cutter programs and fitness fads; with their particular set of priorities, some people are simply not willing to pay high knowledge costs. People who don’t find it a worthy tradeoff to pay high knowledge costs will often opt for a low knowledge alternative like CrossFit or P90X. Of course with this tradeoff, the average utility (effectiveness) of the programs is much lower, but maximal utility is not for everyone. You don’t buy a supercomputer if your goal is to send emails and play video games. Just the same, you don’t dive into periodization theory if your goal is to lose a couple of pounds and feel better throughout the work day. When your goals are modest and straightforward (low utility), and your desire to pay high knowledge costs is low, a cookie-cutter program (the laughing stock of all fitness intellectuals) may be just the right thing for you. Such differences in preference bring me to the next cost: the opportunity cost of any fitness program.
Okay, so let’s assume that you’re in the market for a fitness program and let’s say you’ve swallowed the knowledge costs of sorting and labeling. You have in front of you a plethora of choices in fitness programs, about which you are now moderately (functionally) informed. Which program do you choose?
A very important but often overlooked factor in program choice is the time commitment that a program requires. Any choice one makes in life is necessarily a tradeoff of another possible choice. Put simply, time spent at the gym pursuing your fitness goals is time not spent at school, work, with your children, or with your bros at the club. Of course from the perspective of costless optimality, a split routine, working different body parts on different days, is the most effective program for hypertrophy. However, it’s premature to judge that guy in the gym doing chest, back, and legs all in one workout. He is likely condensing gym time in order to free time up for alternative activities he finds to be better uses of his time.
With knowledge costs out of the way, you have been able to sort and label candidate fitness programs according to their various capacities to produce results. After considering benefits and opportunity costs, you have been able to narrow your search down to programs that offer you the same class of results (or similar). Let’s say that you are now choosing between various contest prep specialists in your search for the intervention that can provide you with the best beach body for spring break, coming up in just two months. At this point, the final and perhaps most obvious cost in the process must be absorbed: the price!
Monetary costs are perhaps the most straightforward and intuitive costs associated in selecting a fitness program. Fitness programs of different classes certainly vary drastically in costs, but so do programs that aim to provide essentially the same service. Of course, if a program provides the same service at a lower price, it is the no-brainer selection. But aside from that rule, there are more complex pieces of information conveyed by the price of a program. Oftentimes, the price is very highly related to the actual degree of intervention being offered (how extensive the program is). You may wonder why that person in the corner of the gym is working with a $10-an-hour personal trainer provided by the university recreation department and not an experienced physique specialist. The reason may be almost entirely related to price. While delivering very precise and effective services, physique specialists usually charge an order of magnitude more than your local personal trainer. For some people, the tradeoff of using the physique specialist is well worth it, but for others, the opposite may be optimal.
Another complexity is that while hundreds of people call themselves “physique specialists” and “contest prep gurus,” many of them are actually offering radically different services. Even the same specialist may have different packages based on differing levels of precision and resource devotion to the client. From the same contest prep coach, you can buy an hourlong phone conversation and get all of your dieting questions answered if you just need to fill in the blanks and be on your way (if you have previously paid the knowledge costs elsewhere). However, if you are in need of a much more intensive intervention, that same contest prep coach may have a package with full access to email and phone conversation, as well as a scientifically designed, continuously updated exercise and diet program. This package will of course cost another order of magnitude more than the phone consultation, but based on the needs of the particular consumer, it may be worth it.
A Diversity of Demands
When shopping in the marketplace of fitness programs and professionals, customers have a huge variety of choices. As well as the variety of choices in the products and services being offered, customers themselves have a huge variety of preferences as to the sort of fitness product they are interested in. Consumers of fitness products must deal with at least three major categories of cost (knowledge, opportunity, and money costs) on their way to choosing a fitness program. By the time you see them doing something you don’t like at the gym, they have already gone through the entire process of paying those costs. It is the height of presumptuousness to think that with your cursory examination of their choice you can conclude with confidence that they made the wrong one. Mind you, what you are really claiming is that, only having seen them perform one exercise, you are able to make a better decision than they are about their fitness choices. Furthermore, you are supposedly able to do this with no access (like they had) to knowledge, opportunity, and money costs involved, let alone any knowledge of their preferences!
So next time you’re at the gym and you see someone doing some exercise or program you disagree with, either kindly offer your services, or laugh it up to yourself. But don’t think they are doing the wrong thing. Yes, squats on the Bosu ball while doing bicep curls with 2lb pink dumbbells are hilarious, but they may be result of just the combination of knowledge, opportunity, and monetary costs that the person performing them finds ideal.
Born in Moscow, Russia, Mike Israetel is a professor of Exercise Science at the University of Central Missouri. Additionally, he is a competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder, and has been the head sport nutrition consultant to the US Olympic training site in Johnson City, TN. Mike is currently the head science consultant for Renaissance Periodization, and the Author of “The Renaissance Diet.”