How to Train More Effectively Using Classical Conditioning

No matter how dedicated you are to your fitness routine, the simple fact is that humans are creatures of habit. You are bound to encounter days when you need a little extra motivation to make the journey to the gym. If you rely on willpower alone to help you make good choices, you will eventually find yourself depleted!

(A man presumably enjoying his workout with a side of music)

Fortunately, you can customize your "auto-pilot" mode to your benefit. It is remarkably easy to create subconscious motivation and override your conscious decision making processes using something called Classical Conditioning.

It starts with a plan

If you don't already follow a workout plan, you will need to create one or obtain one. Your plan should be realistic, sustainable, and suitable for your current level of fitness.

It helps to have a specific goal to work towards. Are you looking to build more muscle? Are you training to improve your mobility? Do you want to exercise to help you reduce or manage pain? Do you simply want to disconnect from your day-to-day stresses and sweat it out in the gym?

Whatever your reason for exercising more regularly, make sure the routine you create is appropriate for your skill level, age, and any pre-existing health conditions. Once you've come up with the plan, decide on a gym schedule. Choose which days you'll be hitting the gym and set aside the time for yourself. You are worth the time.

What is Classical Conditioning?

Image Credits to Lumen Learning

More generally, classical conditioning refers to a specific type of learning: learning through association. With classical conditioning, repeated pairing of a neutral stimulus (NS) with an unconditioned stimulus (US) creates and reinforces a new association between said stimuli.

Classical Conditioning is usually explained by mentioning Ivan Pavlov's behavioural experiment with a dog: Pavlov noticed that his dog salivated when presented with food. Pavlov was curious, and decided to ring a bell every time he fed his dog.

Ordinarily, no dog salivates to the sound of a bell. With repetition, however, the sound of the bell became associated with feeding. Soon enough, his dog began salivating at the sound of the bell alone. This conditioning was effective because the dog was already motivated by the smell and the presentation of food.  

The Technical Stuff

The unconditioned stimulus refers to anything that already/automatically generates a reaction - the reaction is called the unconditioned response (UR). For example, when you listen to music you like (the US) you experience a mood boost (the UR).

The neutral stimulus refers to any stimulus that does not yet generate a response. When you repeatedly pair the NS with the US, you create an association between the NS and the UR. Over time, the association between the NS and the UR becomes so strong that the neutral stimulus generates the unconditioned response without the unconditioned stimulus present. In other words, you've created a conditioned stimulus (CS) and this CS independently provokes a conditioned response (CR).

Implementing Classical Conditioning in your Training

So, how can you motivate yourself to exercise using classical conditioning?

First, choose your US: it must be something you already enjoy. Take a moment and consider what you reach for when you want to enjoy yourself. Do you already listen to music, audio books, or podcasts? If yes, you could choose a specific genre or artist, or even a specific song to pair with exercising.

Do you strongly enjoy specific flavours? If so, you could choose a distinct pre-workout or protein shake flavour (or some other beverage). If you enjoy smells more strongly, you could apply a small amount of essential oil on an area of your body so that you can smell it when you work out. If you pair your workout with specific music, only listen to that music when you intend to work out.

Remember, the unconditioned stimulus needs to be reserved for the neutral stimulus (your gym sesh). Don't cheat.

The act of working out is your neutral stimulus (NS). We call it neutral here because it likely doesn't generate the same response as the US you've picked (yet!).

Next, pair your stimuli (NS + US --> UR). In short, every time you go work out, make sure you're simultaneously enjoying the thing you chose. Sip on your delicious beverage throughout your entire workout. Smell that essential oil (or whatever you like!) between sets. With repetition, you will create a conditioned response when you work out: enjoyment!

Strengthen the association

You can strengthen associations through repetition and reinforcement. Both are pretty straightforward: make sure you're consistent and that you pair the stimuli every time. You can also reinforce the association by increasing the intensity of the thing you like, possibly through novelty.

The key here is to make sure that the novel stimulus is similar to the thing you chose, but new enough to stimulate your senses. A new album or a new playlist when you've been pairing music with exercise? Excellent choice.

Try it out for yourself - next time you work out, start building a new association. Your own changed behaviour will prove to you how effective classical conditioning can be for learning to love exercising!

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