Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Loss Aversion and Strength Training

by Capt James Rodgers | February 09, 2021

bench press handoff

Very often you will hear that a lifter is stuck – something like the bench press getting stuck at 225 lb. It’s usually one of a few recurring numbers. I don’t think I have ever heard of someone’s bench press getting stuck at something like 237 lb. Objectively, there is nothing special about 225 lb other than the fact that it means that you have two big 45 lb plates on each end of the barbell. The number is just arbitrary, determined by the standard manufacturing size of cast iron plates, so why would someone get stuck there?

The Olympic standard bar weighs 45 lb (actually 20 kg). The largest commonly available plates come in 45 lb increments. This has produced an arbitrary series of benchmarks that a lifter can hit over the course of their strength training career at 135, 225, 315, 405, 495, 585, and so on. Adding another plate to any of your lifts is a big deal, and it is a memorable moment the first time a lifter gets something like 315 lb on the squat or 405 lb on the deadlift. Proceeding to add another set of plates to the bar demands further sustained effort and dedication, while the progress to the next step will be at a slower pace due to the principle of diminishing returns.

Lifters getting stuck immediately after these benchmark numbers is probably because of a phenomenon known as loss aversion – the tendency to stop doing an activity and not to risk failure instead of continued investment to produce further progress. This tendency is especially relevant to strength training because of the resources and sustained effort that must be invested in order to continue driving progress. I will bet that almost everyone who has squatted 405 lb for the first time briefly entertained the notion of calling it a lifetime PR instead of just jotting down a note in their training log and calmly getting ready to do 410 lb the next time. Getting to 405 lb was very hard, it was probably the impossible lifetime goal that you jokingly set on your first day as a lifter. Do you really want to go for 495 lb when 405 lb made you feel like you were going to die – what will 495 lb be like? But almost nobody who has made it to 400 lb will give up on 405 lb.

This tendency to quit upon reaching a benchmark is a predictable human behavior. Anderson and Green conducted a study of online chess players to observe this on a massive scale. They studied 133 million games of chess played by 70,000 different players and observed 284,000 PR events. In the context of online chess, a PR was recorded in the form of a higher chess rating. Every player starts out with an initial rating. If you beat someone with a higher rating, you get rewarded with more points than you would for beating someone with a lower rating. At the same time, losing to someone with a higher rating than you will not penalize you as much as losing to someone with a lower rating. Every time you enter into a game, you risk losing and then lowering your rating. The more you play, the harder it is to improve your rating, creating diminishing returns as your experience increases (hey, that sounds familiar!). This creates an incentive to not play after achieving a PR, getting your rating to its highest level ever, since there is a risk of loss with every subsequent attempt.

Anderson and Green noticed some interesting patterns around setting a PR and quitting. A player that set a new PR lifetime high rating experienced a 20% relative increase in the probability of quitting (to not play another game for a period of time from 1-24 hours from the time that they set their new PR). They hit their lifetime PR and quit. Their relative probability of quitting decreased by 20% as they approached a round number (a benchmark) and it increased by 20% after they had made it to their benchmark. They also found that players would slightly outperform expectations as they approached a PR by winning more games or beating tougher opponents than they would be expected to. Getting close to a lifetime PR or benchmark motivated them to play harder and win more.

Making it to a benchmark is a great achievement, accomplished by accumulating PRs. Celebrate it – it took a lot of work and dedication. Getting stuck there is due to a built-in tendency among human beings to avoid risking loss after they have possession of something valuable. Failing to make a new PR after hitting a benchmark is a big emotional letdown that makes it hard to carry on grinding away at a difficult strength training program. In the case of the lifter whose bench is “stuck” at 225 lb, he can rest on his laurels and “wait for 225 lb to get easy” by not trying 227 – at the cost of not ever progressing to 315 lb. If he decides to move on to 227 lb, he risks injury or failure to reach his goal. So he out-thinks himself and decides that it's best to keep what has already been done – stay at 225 lb, not risking the failure.

There is one simple way to prevent this from happening: do not allow yourself to skip a programmed increase in weight after hitting a benchmark. Do not even entertain the thought of doing so. Get that number in your rear-view mirror as soon as possible so that it doesn’t get stuck in your head and becomes an obstacle. There is always a chance that you will not make it to the next benchmark, but the process of getting each new PR is more valuable than the benchmark itself, because each new PR makes you just a little bit stronger, bringing you that much closer to the goal.

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