What You’re Getting Yourself Into:
3000 Words, 11-21 Minute Read Time
- Ergogenic aids come in all different packages. Supplements and steroids are talked about ad nauseam, so I have spared you all from that. Check out examine.com or labdoor.com with any supplement questions you may have.
- Listening to music while training has been indicated to help you stay focused and may help you feel the pain of training a bit less. As far as its application to boosting performance goes, it’s limited. It’s highly practical, however, so if you like it, then do it.
- Having a training partner, hiring a coach, or working out in the presence of others is one of the best things you can do. Benefits include more maximal strength, more strength-endurance, improved confidence, and more gains in lean body mass.
- You may love the way you look in your tights or feel great in them, but they aren’t helping your performance any. They may help with recovery, but odds are that they don’t do that either. Maybe save your money and re-consider hiring a coach.
- Our minds are incredibly powerful things and imagery is a very effective strategy to perform better. The right kind of self-induced emotions, whether from video clips or recall, are highly correlated with enhanced physical performance.
What is an Ergogenic Aid?
An ergogenic aid is anything supplemented in training or competition with the goal of improving performance. Basically, it is anything you would do above and beyond whatever is considered the “standard.” Nothing can beat good, hard, periodized training; smart nutrition; and proper sleep. While ergogenic aids generally play very small roles in your overall progress, anything that can help us reach our goals should be considered.
The most commonly talked about ergogenic aids are supplements and steroids. There are thousands upon thousands of articles about supplements on the Internet, and for good reason! Among legal ergogenic aids, they are the most-widely researched and most proven to work. However, because they are already so widely talked about, I’ll spare you from reading more about supplements. Steroids are also a bit boring because here are the facts: they work really well. Not only do they enhance your physiology to astronomical levels, but they also improve your feelings of self-efficacy and your overall psychology about training. While I cannot condone something illegal, if you care to dabble in the most powerful ergogenic aid, steroids are where you should head.
In this article, I want to cover the most pragmatic things that you can use to improve your training that are also completely legal. All of these are pretty commonplace, but, as you’ll read, some may not actually work that well. You may also find that some work much better than you may have guessed. So I encourage you to read on and pick some strategies to try in future training sessions. The topics will be covered from what I believe to be the most common to the things I see the least frequently (not necessarily what works best to what works least*).
Music while training is practically universal. Nearly every gym in America plays the latest radio bops and I would estimate that the vast majority of individuals work out with headphones in (presumably listening to music). Lifters swear by specific songs or genres of music enhancing their performance. Some people, including myself, feel like the music really just helps turn one’s thoughts internally and keeps us focused. Whether music actively amps you up to perform or it simply helps you not get distracted, music should help us in the gym.
A 2012 study from Biagini et al. set out to show that self-selected music could positively impact one’s strength, explosiveness, and mood. Researchers asked study participants to create a playlist of music they would normally work out to. Participants performed 3 sets of bench press with 75% going to failure each set and reported their rating of perceived exertion (RPE) afterwards. No significant difference in reps or RPE in bench press was found between the self-selected music condition and no music condition. However, fatigue indicators were significantly higher post-exercise in the self-selected music condition, which implies that participants were, in fact, training harder despite not having greater performance indicators.
Overall this study shows very little benefit in listening to music while weight training. Essentially, performance wasn’t enhanced and the exercise itself didn’t feel any easier. With that being said, it can be inferred that participants did push themselves more due to greater fatigue following exercise. We aren’t satisfied with being able to go harder, though; we want results! We want performance increases.
Bartolomei, DiMichele, & Merni conducted a study in 2015 observing the effects of self-selected music on maximal bench press strength as well as a strength-endurance test of max reps with 60% 1RM. No significant difference was observed in maximal strength between the two conditions. However, the group did see a significant increase in performance of the reps to failure.
Finally! I have a reason to blast music while I’m training, especially if I’m doing higher volume training with lighter weights and higher reps. Well, hold on; let’s look at the actual results. While the difference between conditions was of statistical significance, performance was only about 5% higher, which equates to approximately 1 additional rep. I’m not saying that one rep isn’t worth it and won’t add up to gains over the long-run, but this is hardly a performance increase to write home to Mom about.
It seems like the practical application of listening to music, even self-selected music that we enjoy and believe will help us in training, may not actually provide much benefit at all. If anything, we may be able to do slightly more total volume, especially in higher rep work. This can probably be attributed to the rhythmic nature of music matching higher repetition weightlifting. However, the benefit is pretty minimal. The good news, however, is that this is a very easy tool to use! We pretty much all own a smart phone with our favorite tunes at our fingertips and headphones, so even if the reward is very low, the cost of trying is 0.
For many of us, the gym is not just a place we go to train and improve our bodies and lives. The gym can also be a social outlet, especially for those of us that work all day and head to the gym in the evening and may not have much social interaction. While being social in the gym may be distracting for yourself and others, it may have some very real benefit. Whether you have a training partner of your own, just ask your fellow bro to spot you, hire a coach or a personal trainer, or do group classes, you can improve the effectiveness of your training.
Rhea et al. investigated how the presence of an audience and the circumstances (competition or not) would affect performance. Bench press 1RM was greater in a competition environment than a regular training environment, but it was enhanced even more when in the presence of an audience. Performing a maximal lift in front of an audience improve participants’ 1RM by 12.9%. Imagine if you could add even 10% to your lifts just by training with some friends. That would boost my 175kg (385lb) squat up to 192.5kg (424lb)!
Mazzetti et al. performed a study observing the influence of direct supervision of resistance training on strength performance. They had moderately-trained men train with or without a personal trainer for 12 weeks. The results showed that the subjects with the supervision of a trainer had a greater rate of training load increase, which resulted in greater maximal strength gains. Additionally, these subjects also had a statistically significant increase in fat-free mass when compared to those that trained without supervision.
Sheridan et al. looked at the affect of spotters in bench press performance. Researchers found that bench press performance in reps to failure with 60% was statistically greater when spotters were present. Overall, total reps and volume were greater with spotters and RPE and self-efficacy decreased without spotters. Subjects were more confident and trained harder with spotters present. As a result they were able to do more reps and total tonnage.
Each of these studies showed very strong evidence for having some sort of an audience while working out. The benefits ranged from greater maximal strength (1RM), the ability to do more reps and overall volume, confidence both in one’s self and in his ability to train close to failure, and more gains in lean mass. Those are some pretty amazing benefits, but unfortunately it may not be the easiest thing in the world to put into action.
Grabbing a spotter while you’re benching is relatively easy and low-stakes. If you’ve done any of our CrossFit classes, then you can definitely feel the benefit of having friends to work out with as well as having one of our great coaches working hands-on with you. While classes are more expensive than just signing up for open gym, they have those benefits as well as taking the guess-work out of what exactly you should be doing in the gym to meet your goals. Hiring a coach or a personal trainer can also be expensive, but again, it is 100% worth it as the knowledge you can gain as a result and the stress you can save in knowing exactly what to do is worth the price you pay. (If you’re interested in learning more about hiring a coach, you can start the process by clicking here and applying to my coaching program today!)
The one thing that’s really tough to find is a solid training partner – someone that is going to be consistent, hold you accountable, push you, and has the same goals as you do. This becomes especially true the more advanced you become. Taking your training seriously tends to scare people off and then you’re left by yourself again. I used to have great training partners, but as I became more serious, things fizzled out and now I just enjoy my time alone. However, I know that having a training partner would provide some extreme benefits detailed here. For that reason, this category scored only moderately in practicality.
Wearing tights for men and women has been the hottest craze in fitness wear and I will admit they are very comfortable and never get in the way of my lifts. Assuming you have an accepting training environment like PPG, you’re not risking anything in prancing around in compression garments. The question is not if they look or feel good, however. Do they actually help us at all?
Most studies looking at the efficacy of compression gear are looking at indicators of recovery, so we’ll start there. Generally, compression is more studied following aerobic activity, but I was able to find a few studies looking at compression during weightlifting tasks. Carling et al. had participants perform eccentric elbow flexor contractions (basically the lower of a biceps curl) with or without a compression sleeve on. No significant difference was found in muscle soreness, arm volume (an indication of inflammation), range of motion, or peak torque after 10 minutes, 24 hours, 48 hours, or 72 hours. French et al. had participants perform a high volume squat workout (6×10 with their 100% bodyweight on the bar) while wearing compression tights. No significant difference in muscle soreness or 5-rep max was found after 48 hours. Kraemer at al. had participants wear a whole body compression garment (picture a wetsuit) and put them through an 8-exercise whole-body workout with heavy resistance. After 24 hours, there was a general decrease in muscle soreness and fatigue and increased vitality ratings.
Only 1 of the 3 studies examined showed any indication that compression could assist in recovery. Furthermore, it was the least practical of all of the garments observed. It’s fairly easy to go to a sporting goods store and find tights or a compression sleeve, but a whole body compression garment? I’ve never even seen one meant for sport. So there is very weak evidence that compression can help with recovery, but can it help with performance?
One study from Kraemer et al. looked at a lower-body (compression shorts) garment’s effectiveness in improving performance when participants performed 70% squats to failure, knee extension, and knee flexion exercises measuring total work (training volume) and peak torque. No significant difference in reps of squat, peak torque, or total work done was observed between compression and regular gym shorts. In short (pun intended), compression does not help reduce fatigue in weightlifting tasks nor does it help with performance.
So while it is fairly easy and cheap to get your hands on some compression gear, the effectiveness of it as an ergogenic aid is negligible at best with only 1 of the 4 studies examined in this article indicating any benefit. If you feel good in them, like the way you look, or like the functionality of not having baggy clothing on then by all means, have at it. Just don’t expect any performance or recovery benefits.
Imagery refers to inducing certain thoughts and feelings either on your own or with some sort of external source. If you’ve ever heard a coach tell you to “dig deep” or “go to that place,” then you’ve probably tried using imagery before. You may think about a time somebody wronged you to call upon anger, or you may bring yourself back to a time you felt unstoppable to summon those feelings again. Whatever it may be, we’ve all done it either in the gym before a big lift or before a presentation or an exam. We all feel like psychological arousal helps, but what does the research say?
Cook & Crewther performed a study where participants watched various type of videos pre-training and then observed their testosterone and cortisol levels as well as their 3-rep max back squats. Erotic, humorous, aggressive, and training/motivational videos significantly increased testosterone compared to control (aggressive and training/motivational being the highest). Aggressive and erotic videos reached statistical significance when compared with the control for increasing cortisol levels as well. Squat performance significantly increased following the aggressive, erotic, and training/motivational video clips compared with control. Overall, the observed testosterone changes closely mapped the performance results.
This study has a couple of implications. The first being that increased testosterone levels tend to be associated with greater increases in performance of maximal or near-maximal weightlifting tasks. We know that endogenous testosterone taken as a supplement helps, but that gives us super-physiological levels. This testosterone increase is very minor and still keeps us within the natural range, but it was still effective in making participants stronger. The second implication is that certain types of imagery can probably make us perform better, especially aggressive and training/motivational video clips. While it may be cheesy, watching that workout video before coming to the gym may have some very real, positive effects on your training. If you’re going to choose the erotic clip route, just remember that private browsing will clear your search history, but it won’t stop the person standing behind you from seeing what’s on your phone. You’ve been warned.
What if you don’t want to rely on being able to watch videos on your phone prior to a big lift? Rathschlag & Memmert performed a study looking 1) participants’ abilities to induce specific emotions and 2) how those self-induced emotions could affect their performances in different sport tasks. Participants were asked to recall personal emotional episodes to induce happiness, anger, neutral, anxiety, and sadness. Once they had these emotional episodes in mind, they performed 3 different tasks: a grip test, a counter-movement jump, and a handball throw. Researchers found that the emotional manipulation was successful by using a 9-point Likert scale. Additionally, performance of all three physical tasks increased during the happiness and anger conditions.
Before discussing the results of this study, it’s important to note that the tasks in this study may not be totally applicable to our purpose of enhancing performance of weightlifting. While the tasks performed were physical in nature and generally test strength and power, they’re not super specific to our goal. With that being said, there are two very interesting implications of this study. 1) The mind is extremely powerful. Just by recalling emotional episodes, participants were able to induce very accurate and powerful emotions. 2) Feelings of anger and happiness can possibly improve our performance in physical tasks.
Both studies examined showed some positive correlation between certain types of imagery and performance of physical tasks. Whether you want to watch videos before or during your workout or practice inducing certain emotions on your own, it could be very well worth it. It’s also a highly practical tool to use as we virtually all have smart phones with access to the Internet and at any time we can bring up a motivating video. While inducing specific emotions may take some practice, there’s really no risk other than being labeled the guy that sits with his eyes closed between sets (not at PPG of course, but other places).
There are tons of ergogenic aids out there. I covered some of the most common and most effective ones. Just a reminder, though, that the influence of ergogenic aids is small. Nothing will ever beat hard training. Nothing will ever beat proper energy balance. Nothing will ever beat getting adequate quantity and quality of sleep. If you can nail the basics down, these things can put you over the top in terms of the magnitude and efficiency of your results.
So what should you do? If you could only implement one of these things, I would suggest trying to find a training partner. If you can, it’s by far the most effective thing you can do from this article. If you can’t find a training partner, hire a coach or a personal trainer. It’s virtually guaranteed gains and while it may be pricy, you can invest in a coach and maybe buy a few less pairs of compression garments since those don’t seem to work so well. Next, I’d suggest working in watching some motivational training footage prior to your hard workouts as part of your warm-up routine. Maybe you ride the bike for 5-10 minutes to get your heart rate up when you get to the gym and you pull up a YouTube video to get you mentally prepared. Then while you finish warming up, you listen to some music that gets you excited to work out.
- Biagini M.S., Brown L.E., Coburn J.W., Judelson D.A., Statler T.A., Bottaro M., Tran T.T., & Longo N.A. (2012). Effects of self-selected music on strength, explosiveness, and mood. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26, 1934-1938.
- Bartolomei S., Di Michele R., & Merni F. (2015). Effects of self-selected music on maximal bench press strength and strength endurance. Perceptual and motor skills, 120, 714-721. doi: 10.2466/06.30.PMS.120v19x9.
- Rhea, M.R., Landers, D.M., Alvar, B.A., & Arent, S.M. (2003). The effects of competition and the presence of an audience on weight lifting performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 17, 303-306.
- Mazzetti, S.A., Kraemer W.J., Volek, J.S., Duncan N.D., Ratamess, N.A., Gomez, A.L., Newton, R.U., Hakkinen, K., & Fleck, S.J. (2000). The influence of direct supervision of resistance training on strength performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 32, 1175-1184. gov.libproxy.temple.edu/pubmed/10862549.Sheridan A1,
- Marchant D.C., Williams E.L., Jones H.S., Hewitt P.A., & Sparks S.A. (2017). Presence of spotters improves bench press performance: a deception study. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, N.A.
- Carling J., Francis K., & Lorish C. (1995) The effects of continuous external compression on delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). International Journal of Rehabilitation & Health, 1, 223-235.
- French DN, Thompson KG, Garland SW, et al. (2008). The effects of contrast bathing and compression therapy on muscular performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 40, 1297-1306.
- Kraemer W.J., Flanagan S.D., Comstock B.A., et al. (2010). Effects of a whole body compression garment on markers of recovery after a heavy resistance workout in men and women. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24, 804-814.
- Kraemer W.J., Bush J.A., Triplett-McBride N.T., et al. (1998). Compression garments: influence on muscle fatigue. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 12, 211-215.
- Cook, C.J. & Crewther, B.T. (2012). Changes in salivary testosterone concentrations and subsequent voluntary squat performance following the presentation of short video clips. Hormones and Behavior, 61, 17-22.
- Rathschlag, M. & Memmert, D. (2013). The influence of self-generated emotions on physical performance: an investigation of happiness, anger, anxiety, and sadness. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 35, 197-210.