Perception vs. Reality: The Problem with Things That Make You Happy But Are Still Wrong

by Mark Rippetoe | May 04, 2022

lifter at the bottom of a squat

Let me tell you a fun story. I was squatting last year, and I happened to have two spotters that night – I normally train by myself, so there were witnesses. My work set was to be 325 for one triple, and the warmups felt like shit. You know the situation: 135 feels weird, like it's been 6 months since you did it, 225 feels slow, and 275 feels heavy, like it's the work set weight. But the program calls for 325, so you load it, like a serious lifter does, and get your head wrapped around the idea.

I did so, and after a couple of minutes of what passes for prayer I tightened my belt and took it out of the rack. It was heavy, and it felt like shit. I rode the first rep down, drove up out of the bottom, locked it out, and told the spotters, “Get closer, this feels like shit.” Second rep felt worse, slow and hard, and I said, “This last one might not go, so get close and watch me.” I took the last one down, drove my ass up and finally locked it out after what seemed like 10 seconds, racked it, and said, “My god, guys, I'm glad you were here. How did it look from your side?”

“They all looked the same to me, about like they always do.”

What? That's impossible. They felt slow as shit, real heavy and slow.”

Other guy said, “Yep, all three were the same speed, about like you always squat.”

Both of these guys, experienced lifters, told me that despite the fact that my subjective perception was of a very heavy, grindy, shitty set of 3, they were all three the same speed and were not either grindy or shitty. I couldn't see it, they could, and there was no video to prove them wrong, so I was wrong. It happens – especially when you are relying on your own perception of events that are internal to yourself and not objectively observable, measurable, and recordable by you.

I have been training for 47 years now, and involved in the professional end of training for 44 of those years as a trainer and a coach. I have performed and watched more reps under the bar than you have, and if anybody should be able to trust his own perception of the difficulty of an effort under the bar, it is me.

And I can't. Neither can you.

Anyone who is actually training has had basically the same experience: you start your workout according to the program, which calls for work sets at a weight a little heavier than last time, and which are based on your previous performance – what actually happened last time, the actual data and not your perception of the events. And all your warmups feel like shit. You felt like shit when you got to the gym; maybe you didn't sleep well, missed lunch, had a fight with the old lady, or any of a wide variety of adverse events. So many variables are involved in our perceptions of the environment that it is impossible to even identify all of them, much less control them. Yet you did the workout anyway, because you're a serious lifter – it's Monday and you train today.

Despite your perceptions about the situation, you took the first work set out of the rack and did all 5 reps, complained about how they felt, rested the appropriate time, maybe a few minutes longer so you had more time to complain, took the second set out and did all 5 reps, complained some more, thought about going home, got disgusted with yourself, rested a little extra again, and took the last set out of the rack and did all 5 reps, thinking that you couldn't possibly get all 5 reps but doing it anyway – because that is the nature of training, and you're a serious lifter.

Standing there before the 5th rep, your subjective perception told you it probably wasn't going to go. But your programming told you that there was no reason it shouldn't go. It was just one more in a long series of 5-pound jumps, all of which had previously been completed. You have practiced correct technique under competent coaching and managed your recovery processes as best you can, which has generated a long string of successful 5-pound jumps, and this one was no different.

Except for your subjective perception. So what do you do? Go with your emotional reaction to your quite unreliable sensory input, or go with the data you have carefully generated and collected over the months of the training you have invested in? If you are standing in front of the last rep and you decide to rack it, you have decided to not collect the data, because the data on the last rep is only obtainable after the last rep has been attempted.

If it makes you feel better, you can assign a numerical value to your subjective perception, to make it seem quantitative. But putting a number on a subjective perception is like putting a prom dress on a hog. It may make you feel better about your date, but you still have a hog in the car. It's the cheapest of illusions – data is numbers, but not all numbers are data.

If you make the rep, that's data. If you miss it, that's data: the number on the bar and the number of the rep, not your grandiose assessment of your subjective perception. If you rack it instead of finishing the rep, not only are you a pussy, you are an uninformed pussy because you don't actually know what would have happened. Unless you had decided to do something stupid, your training tells you the rep should go up, and your data-based training is more reliable than your subjective perception of your ability. Sorry to tell you this, but sometimes you have to attempt things you don't know you can do – that you think you can't do – and under the bar is the perfect place to cultivate this skill.

Your objections will be predictable:

What if I get hurt? You are going to get hurt. You're going to get hurt whether you train or not, because everybody gets hurt. You learned this as a child. If the risk of injury is unacceptable to you, don't leave the house. But, people get hurt in the house all the time, so I don't know what to tell you.

Should I just ignore injuries and train through them if they happen during a set? No, and that is obviously a stupid question, since it will prevent productive training from continuing. The point of training is to progressively add weight to the bar, not injure yourself. This discussion assumes correct technique and attention paid to recovery, as mentioned before. Even if you do everything correctly, you are going to get hurt eventually if you train hard enough to make progress. Sorry, but that is a fact.

What if I actually miss the rep? Then you get to learn something. You missed the rep for a reason, be it technique, a failure to execute the rep at the limit of your capacity (you pussed out, and in your heart you will know this), or the legitimate miss of a rep outside your ability to lock it out. And missed reps don't cause injuries – you know this too, so don't use that as an excuse. Whatever the reason, the miss is data upon which to base your next workout, while racking it teaches you nothing.

If you want to test my assertions here, start recording all your work sets and compare the video to your experience under the bar as soon as the set is finished. You will find the sets that felt easy looked easy, and that the sets that felt horrible may or may not look horrible at all. You will come to realize that the more you can remove subjective perception as a factor in your training, the more reliable your progress will be.

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