Have you ever had days where you absolutely did not want to go lift? I enjoy lifting and look forward to it, but I have these days all the time. I’m fairly sure everyone does.
Are they your body’s way of telling you to take the day off and get some extra rest and recovery time? Sometimes. But often, they’re just low-motivation malaise, where your physical capacity is fine, but you’re having a rough day for non-exercise reasons. It happens.
When you actually need the rest, I encourage you to take the rest. Listen to your body before, during, and after workouts. If you hear it saying stop, stop. Spend that time doing some light stretching, or some extra sleeping, or going for a walk instead. After all, your body doesn’t get stronger while you’re exercising; it gets stronger by recovering from exercise.
But If you’re just suffering from a lack of motivation, push through and do the workout. Not only is exercise a clinically-proven mood enhancer, the mental discipline of doing something even when you don’t really feel like it is a valuable skill to build.
That said, It’s hard to tell if you’re physically too tired or just mentally tired.
The best strategy I’ve found to identify the difference between the two is to make the decision at the gym.
Make it a rule that you always have to go. Not necessarily do anything, but you have to go. Every time you’re scheduled to go to the gym, go to the gym, get changed, and start working out. From that point, listen to your body. If it’s still telling you to stop, stop. Then and there. Go home.
Don’t skip workouts, but stop any workout you want if you’re not feeling up to it. Show up first, and find out at the gym if you’re actually not up to it or if you’re just in a low-motivation malaise. Don’t make the decision at home.
If all you want is the actionable advice portion of the show, there it is. Stop here, and go start your weekend. That said, the science behind why this strategy works is actually pretty interesting. If you’re curious, keep reading.
Okay, now that it’s just us nerds: your limbic system (sometimes referred to as your paleomammalian cortex or your ‘monkey brain’) is the part of your brain that makes decisions of behavior.
It’s the part of the brain that evolved before we got our big human brains—we share it with all other mammals (hence monkey brain), and as a result, it’s not particularly smart. Fundamentally, it’s seeking to gain pleasure and avoid pain, and it makes those pain/pleasure decisions based on hyperbolically discounted expected value.
Expected value is just that: the value your monkey brain expects to get from doing a behavior, multiplied by the expectation that it will actually get that value. For example, if the monkey will get one banana for doing a behavior, and it expects to successfully complete the behavior 50% of the time, then that behavior has an expected value of half a banana.
Gaining pleasure and pain are more abstract, but their expected value is calculated the same way. Pleasure is recorded as positive value, and pain as negative value. The limbic system then ‘decides’ what behaviors to do or not do based on these subconscious calculations. Still not too different then our logical (cortical) decision making processes. The issues arise when we take into account hyperbolic discounting.
The monkey brain is very short-term focused. It makes sense: biasing the short term is a useful trait in the wild environment in which it evolved—but not so much in the modern day. Out in nature, there’s no guarantee you’re going to survive the day; it make sense to take the near, sure thing instead of waiting for a distant payoff, no matter how large.
As a result, when it ‘compares’ the expected value of two behaviors, or the values of doing an activity vs. not doing an activity, your limbic system heavily values immediate rewards. Experiments have shown that this discounting happens on a hyperbolic curve, dropping off very quickly for immediate rewards and then leveling off at a low, non-zero value.
When you don’t need more recovery but you’re not feeling like working out, what’s happening is that the immediate pleasure of whatever you’re going to do instead of the gym is weighing out the distant pleasure of hitting your goals, even though those objectives are ultimately more valuable to you—because those distant, high value objectives are being discounted hyperbolically.
That’s why you should go to the gym and start working out before you make the decision. Once you’ve started, the equation changes. Alternatives are no longer being considered, and the only thing your monkey brain is trying to ‘decide’ is whether or not it’s worth it to keep going.