Improve Your Workouts with This One Simple Trick

Every once in a while I run across a study that makes me laugh even as it makes me think. Such was one in a gaming journal (admittedly unfamiliar territory to me). The study assessed the comparative impact of varying degrees of “human-like, software-generated” workout partners (e.g. “a nearly-human-like, humanoid partner (NHP), a hardly human-like, software-generated partner (HHP),” against one another and a no partner control as well as a genuine hominid presented virtually. The concept made me chuckle as I pictured the potential animation, but the results gave me something to consider. Subjects’ motivation was higher and generally the same in any of the partnered conditions, no matter how “hardly human-like” the partner. Other factors like perceived exertion, enjoyment or self-efficacy were also relatively constant among the partnered scenarios. The only significant difference measured was persistence, where the virtual hominid took top honors. (Grok would be proud – or just wholly befuddled.) The conclusion, as drolly described in the title of the study, was “Cyber buddy is better than no buddy.”

The study got me thinking about the advantage of social support and group exercise. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, working out with other people can offer a unique and heightened euphoria that goes beyond physical activity itself. Beyond the obvious Primal associations, our group fitness endeavors offer us a better endorphin release, resulting in greater pain thresholds and even an oxytocin kickback for bonding with said co-participants. What’s not to love?

While the body of research directly comparing solitary exercise with group workouts isn’t as expansive as it might be, other studies have likewise supported the benefits of “social” fitness in one context or another while simultaneously highlighting the complexity of the social “experience” in exercise. One study, for example, showed that group exercise participants experienced greater calmness than those who exercised alone (with self-reports prior to exercising controlling for initial emotional state). However, the group exercise subjects reported being more tired after exercise, which researchers speculate may come from the “increased competition or workload” in a social workout situation.

In another study, subjects reported lower perceived exertion when exercising in the presence of another person than when exercising alone. In a second experiment, participants who exercised next to someone who gave nonverbal cues suggesting the workout was easy reported less exertion. Cues suggesting the workout was more intensive didn’t appear to have a significant impact on subjects’ sense of their own effort. While no physiological differences were observed, the study experiments do underscore the psychological influences the social factor can have.

On that subject, it appears we don’t need a ton of individual verbal encouragement but may be better motivated by the desire to keep up with a more skilled partner – particularly a more skilled partner we believe is on our team. Subjects dramatically increased their exertion (by 90%!) when told a partner in another lab visible on video (actually just a looped recording) had biked longer than they had. Likewise, when one group of subjects was told the person in the video was on their team competing against others, they again boosted their performance. At first, the increase was modest, but over time (as subjects apparently felt more invested in the contrived team relationship), their exertion rose to 160% greater than a simple partnered group and 200% greater than the solo exercisers.

Finally, it appears that even the gender of a simple observer placed in laboratory conditions can impact perceived exertion. In one of those “duh” findings, males reported a significantly lower perceived exertion when a female observer was present and a higher perceived exertion when the male observer was present. Both measures were compared to a no-observer control. When we up the ante and look at actual enjoyment, the picture gets a little fuzzy. In one study, both men and women enjoyed exercise less when an “attractive” female (no, the researchers didn’t do the same experiment with an attractive male – I’m just the messenger) was working out next to them than they did working out alone.

Gender and attraction aside, the social exercise advantage as a whole could be seen as either a subset of social support – or perhaps an extension of it. Countless studies have demonstrated the value of supportive relationships in exercise adherence, but the “support” can vary substantially. Consider the supportive spouse who covers extra home duties while you fit in your daily training or the people who comment on your FB gym “check-ins” or a close friend telling you she’s inspired by and proud of your fitness commitment. How about the colleagues at work who you see at the office gym during your lunch hour workouts – the ones who always say hi and offer encouraging words. You bond a bit over the common dedication but don’t really exercise together. Then there are the people who you consider “your people” at the gym. Maybe you lift together or do a class or running club together. Maybe they’re a weekly walking partner or group. You’re all in the same boat (or maybe even officially a team) working your way toward whatever goal – whether it be weight loss or competition level performance. How would you assess the role or influence of these different supports in your fitness life?

Increasingly, there’s an interest in capitalizing on the influence of others. One app company is even marketing the concept of a “fitness tribe,” in which two or more people buddy up (on the app or in the real world) to share their health commitments and the daily actions that get them there. The concept is certainly a practical one, and I happen to believe that there’s something to virtual community when it can supplement our physical social networks and when it allows us to connect with those who share specific interests (e.g. Primal living). While a virtual “tribe” may not offer all the advantages of an in-person experience, the company’s research suggests those who “team up” with others benefit from making their endeavor “social” instead of “solo” by the regular encouragement in their virtual fitness circle and by its frequent extension to real life contact with workout dates and fitness event participation. Many MDA folks have been connecting in these ways for years, and I hear regularly from readers who have gone from signing up for the newsletter to attending PrimalCon and organizing Primal Meetups in their localities for everything from workouts and potlucks. I think this extension into the real physical realm can be key for many people. All this talk of virtual and networked support aside, there’s something to the concrete presence of another person there on the track, gym floor or hiking trail. We’re wired to respond to the physical nuances of another person’s presence even though we respond to virtual (or even computer-generated) versions of social workouts. If nothing else, I always suggest not settling for something lesser when the something better is wholly available. Sometimes the questions is simply, “Why compromise?”

All this raises the question of gradation. What social fitness experiences are the best in terms of psychological support or motivational influence? It’s something that we probably have to ascertain individually, but some experts suggest the more the group has in common in terms of values (Primal, anyone?) and the more substantial their individual investments, the more supportive and beneficial the group environment. In other words, going once to a drop-in fitness class isn’t the same as working out regularly with the same group of people in a team or club setting.

Finally, there’s the question of whether working out in a group is really worth it for those who genuinely prefer the solo time. For many people, their fitness hours are also their only (or at least most valuable) solitary hours. Some of us crave the solitude. Working out offers us needed time to be alone with our thoughts or without any stimulation, save the input of our muscles and our favorite playlists or park setting. To those who would argue that social fitness is an exercise in frustration more than anything else, I’d say there are countless ways to fill the social well. Social or solo, your body will thank you for it.

Thanks for reading, everyone. What’s your exercise preference? Do you experience an added benefit of working out with others? Offer your feedback, and have a good end to the week!

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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46 thoughts on “Improve Your Workouts with This One Simple Trick”

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  1. “Subjects dramatically increased their exertion (by 90%!) when told a partner in another lab visible on video (actually just a looped recording) had biked longer than they had.”

    Isn’t the brain amazing? It gets us to react to competition, whether real or a placebo. We’ve got the Matrix right between our ears!

    Now all we need to do is figure out how to make the rest of the world think they’re in competition with someone, and they (hopefully) will increase THEIR exertion by 90%.

    1. In psychology, this has been long known. There is one interesting caveat here that people are not aware though.

      When people do different cognitive exercises; be it heavy to solve or easy to solve, the presence of a public has different effects on the performance of a person. This is also known as cognitive load and the audience effect, if someone wishes to wiki it.

      Say someone has to solve rather easy exercises (solving easy equations etc.) in that case a presence of other people will enhance someone’s performance.
      In the case of complex exercises (solving quantum mechanics equations) the presence of an audience will (usually) lead to decreases in performance.

      Another interesting thing, when it comes to sex differences – one study recently found that lab mice behaved differently when the experimenter was a female; their bodies released a mixture of hormones which mimicked analgesic effects, which is really interesting as well.

    2. i must be different… I do much better when I workout by myself. In 2008 (I am 5ft 9)was 190 lbs and shaped like a pear).. and 45 yrs old.. i happened to see myself in the mirror and wondered what I had done.. I was always slim most of my life.. and i felt like i still was.. but the mirror had betrayed my mind.. I decided I needed to change.. I had a gym membership but never went.. I started slow just doing enough to work up a sweat with strength training.. went through the entire book .. (abs diet) men’s health.. (i had just had a bout of diverticulitis), so I stopped drinking, alcohol.. and started a healthy diet.. ever since, to make a long story short.. I lost about 30 lbs, gained muscle, (more than I’ve ever had in my life.. ) kept a log.. to keep track of working out.. 2 to 3 days a week.. stopped working out by 2011 gained some more prob.. due to marriage issues.., went up to 176lbs, but decided i needed to stay healthy to be happy, and in 2012 – 13 decided to start working out again as part of a lifestyle change.. I find out when I workout with someone.. it seems to hinder me, because I can’t do “my” workout, or they never seem to stick to it.. or give up.. since 2009 my total time NOT working out probably total has been maybe 7 months, but, but I have never been back up to my biggest which was 190lbs.. I just can’t seem to workout consistently with a partner… Believe me, I’ve read all the studies that say how productive it will be… It just doesnt work for me.. Since 2012 I have hardly ever missed a workout, I’am in the best shape of my life, I feel great, and its all been done ALONE.. I guess in all scenarios you will find someone that just doesnt fit the norm.. I have found out from experience, when I DON’T workout now, my body responds negatively, ie aches , pains, etc, but when I do, my mood is better, I feel better, .. even when I miss a day or two, (i usually work out with weights 3 days a week, and maybe two days of cardio on days I don’t lift.), I feel different, like my body is reverting.. even though my doctor says, your body does get used to regular exercise, just like missing medicine doses. I guess my biggest plus is I didn’t mind going to the gym as a 190 lb skinny fat dude.. and doing a 50lb bench press until I could do more safely without pulling something. I knew that consistent effort would give me results eventually. I was actually shocked at the muscle i was able to build and continue to build at my age. My workout is probably harder now than guys half my age, but only because it took me a year or more of slow consistent effort.. Alone, and at my own pace.. But that’s just me.. 🙂

  2. I have just started going to sprint with a buddy and it’s incredible how being with somebody can push you to do your best; he is still way fitter than I am, but it’s a huge motivation

  3. Having three young children I can relate to wanting to do exercise alone. I feel that way. It’s my moments of solitude, like the writing I do every morning.

    I have done cycling classes before and know that I do exert myself more in the presence of others, but currently I like the solitude, and getting to the gym is not possible at this time in my life. I like my solo kettlebell workouts, and starting this weekend I am going to add a weekly cycling sprint.

    This article feeds into other articles where the mind shows what kind of influence it has over all that we do. If only we could trick our mind without knowing that we were tricking it.

    1. Imagine an MDA post without a comment from PBR. Now that would be weird!

    2. I’m sorry Ron, I’m afriad I can’t do that – This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.

  4. This ties in well with yesterday’s post. This weekend I’m going to get a dozen chocolate chip cookies, a tall glass of cold milk, and log in to a good MMORPG.

  5. I wonder what the results would show if the subjects were categorized as introverts or extraverts. Introverts drain their energy in social situations, whereas extraverts gain energy. I wonder if extraverts would gain more from this than introverts–it sounds exhausting to have to be “on” for an hour or so, physically and socially at the same time. Since I’ve been visiting my parents though, I’ve noticed that an hour flies by when I’m out walking with my mom. The other day, we took my grandma on a two hour wheelchair ride through the park up some pretty steep hills, and we were both overflowing with energy afterwards. Maybe it’s best for introverts to work with people they know very well, rather than virtual strangers at a gym or online. Then again, introverts often feel more free to share personal things about themselves online than extraverts are (according to Susan Cain). It’s all very complicated, but intriguing.

  6. I work from a home office, so I have a nice block of time in the middle of my days (lunch break) available for exercise. I started doing P90X way back in 2008. I did the full program, 70-90 minutes per day, 6 days per week. I’d get to the end after 90 days, then take a week off and start over again. Lather, rinse, repeat. I did that for a couple of years.

    Then in 2010 I found MDA and read The Primal Blueprint. Changing my diet and other aspects of my lifestyle immediately gave me great results, and I quickly realized I needed to cut back on the constant exercise, as it was no longer necessary (or beneficial).

    I did Starting Strength lifting routines a couple times a week, sprinted, and did a lot of walking and hiking. I got good results, but over time, it just wasn’t nearly as fun as the old P90X stuff had been. I was getting bored, and found myself dreading workout time, instead of looking forward to it.

    Eventually, I found my way back to using P90X as my baseline workout, but instead of the full program, I only use a few specific videos (the lifting and bodyweight workouts) 2 or 3 times per week, and modify them by skipping or changing certain parts, making them short and intense, and also use the warm-up and cool-down portions. Then I walk or sprint on other days.

    I think for me, it is a nice combination of the best of both worlds. I am working out alone, not trying to impress anyone or worrying about how I look in front of others (I’m an introvert and thrive on solitude), but I am seeing other people on my video screen who are also working out. They are enjoying themselves and the whole thing is very fun and motivational. They are real people to me, doing what I’m doing, right along with me. I know exactly what Tony Horton is going to say before he says it, I know the workout routines like the back of my hand, but even after all these years, I find it fun, enjoyable, and I look forward to it. I don’t have to over-think my routines, I just follow along. I still add a lot of variety to the mix by taking weeks off P90X and doing completely different kinds of workouts whenever I feel like it.

    There is nothing magical about P90X. All of the exercises in it are just standard stuff — lots of bodyweight exercises, squats and lunges, basic dumbbell lifting routines, occasionally yoga or stretching routines. I think it’s the silly sense of camaraderie with Tony and his “kids” that provides me with a tribe of my own, who join me in my living room on a regular basis and keep me motivated.

    As Mark said in an earlier post, the best workout for any given person is the workout that you actually do.

    1. Also, I know that Mark is friends with Tony Horton. Perhaps Mark can chime in with a comment on where he feels Tony might rate on the “nearly human-like humanoid partner” scale…

      1. That is too funny. I to started p90x in 2009. I still do the workouts though not the whole plan. I love it. My husband is getting ready to order p90x 3. I didn’t like 2 as much as the original. I have changed up my workouts and my eating since I finished the original, but I still love the workouts. I do sprints now and run some and way more weight now. Tony and mark should definitely collaborate!!!

    2. Mark? As another 3-year p90x and p90x2er, I’d like to hear it too.

    3. EXACTLY GEORGE.. I don’t even use a video… I just thrive on doing it ALONE.. , But I understand exactly what you are talking about.

  7. As a High School Health and PE Teacher who works out regularly with my 1st block students everyday, I know that I will slack come this Summer in both effort(intensity) and consistency when I will be without the motivation of my students by my side! Of course, so will most of my students!

  8. I like this! I know that when I had a gym membership, I tended to push harder when around others. I also run faster when I run with my husband. 🙂

  9. This is why I love martial arts training – you need partners! But I also love some solo sprints late at night, or in a thunderstorm.

  10. I typically work out alone in a crowded gym, ear buds in because the music they play is wretched.

    But on the weekends when my husband and I go to the gym, it’s a totally different, fun, productive, and enjoyable experience. We are working out for our health, but also for each other’s benefit! It’s fun watching and helping one another (though as a spotter I am severely limited for him)!

  11. This concept makes a lot of sense, but I really do enjoy my alone time. I’m definitely an introvert and nothing bothers me more than someone approaching me in the gym to “help” me or just chat. My favorite activity is definitely a solo walk / jog / hike.

  12. I have 3 young kids so my morning runs/workouts are valuable alone time. I’m also mainly introverted so I feel most energized by solo workouts. But, when in a social environment I push myself more so I benefit the most by throwing in a social workout once a week or so. Definitely need to push myself to make that happen though.

  13. I so wish that specialty gyms were more affordable for this reason (or set up to be subsidized by health insurance at least). In my experience, activities like martial arts and kickboxing are inherently more social and – at least for me – much more likely to be sustainable because of this. I think another dimension of this is that social exercise tends to take on more of a hobby role in one’s life – you’re cultivating some skill, getting better at it, challenging your brain in a way that the treadmill will never ever do.

    I’m honestly really stuck right now with this. I do a lot of walking with my partner, which is great, but I wouldn’t call it exhilarating and there’s not much sense of achievement in it. I’d like to find a group activity that doesn’t mean getting thrown into a much higher intensity level than I currently can meet as that will burn me out pretty fast.

  14. Interesting. I always preferred team sports like softball and basketball. I always performed better with others watching. Maybe it’s fear of failure in others eyes. I’m sure my workouts are better in team situations.

  15. My favorite study paired nursing home residents with either a human partner or a partner from the local pound for daily walks. The latter group increased their walking speed (a marker of fitness in the elderly) by 25% which is exceptionally good, the former group showed no improvement. My hypothesis is that one group was more likely to stop for a coffee while the other group stopped only for brief butt sniffing and an occasional pee.

  16. This is why Sierra Club hikes are so good. Usually you’d expect people who join the hikes to have similar views on things, which they sometimes do, but not always, but there’s usually at least the hiking in common.

    The fun thing is that you get people of all ages and abilities. It’s very inspiring to hike with some 80-year old guy with legs like a 22-year old who likes to go sky diving in his free time. If he can do all that, there’s no reason I need to slow down. It’s also fun to hike with a bunch of chatty ladies and go a little slower sometimes. And if I’m feeling like I want to just be alone, I can arrange my pace so that the fast people are ahead and the slow people are behind and I’m in a little bubble of solitude in between them.

    As for virtual workout buddies, this forum and the starting strength personal log forums both help with that. Posting my workout results afterwards on the ss forum and chatting with Rich Mahogany & Company here keeps me showing up and engaged.

  17. For several years, I worked out alone, and I thought I was doing pretty well. It definitely required discipline, but I made decent gains in my fitness (especially with help from sites like MDA).

    However, my eyes were opened to the power of working out in a group when I started exercising with a free men’s workout group in Charlotte (F3 Nation) last summer. A lot of the things that this article hit on were immediately apparent. My intensity went up in the presence of others, and I was pushed like never before by working out with people faster and stronger than me. My fitness gains over the last several months have far outpaced those that I got from years of solo workouts.

    The other power of group exercise not pointed out here is that of accountability. The bond you have with your workout mates makes it less likely you will ditch a workout.

  18. I always attempt PRs when in a group setting. I wish it wasn’t this way but it really is more motivating to push more weight when around others ad competing.

  19. Group exercise has been great for me. I go to a “boot camp” style outdoor workout three to four times a week and really like it. I can’t imagine ever regularly doing that kind of exertion all on my own. On the other hand, I also love, love, love my solo walks. Those I do on my own schedule, and they are my re-charge periods.

    So, personally, I get different things from group and from solo exercise–but all good!

  20. I hate group exercise. It’s one of the reasons I gave up on Crossfit. I don’t need to relive middle school anxiety three times a week. Also, with groups there always that guy who thinks it’s a competition. He’s often the one who works out shirtless.

  21. As soon as I started reading this post, I knew Brandon Irwin’s research had to get a mention! If anyone is interested in reading more of his papers on solo vs. partner exercise and group motivation, we archive them at:

    (Full disclosure, I work in the K-State University library and have the super-fun job of uploading all these things. If you go read the articles, not only do you bump up his numbers but you give my job a purpose!)

  22. I love crossfit and don’t mind group exercise. The people that go are great and encourage me to finish, but I can definitely understand what Patrick P is saying. Some people are always in competition with one another.

    1. I think that largely depends on the Box you attend. I have been to several and have been lucky, as each place had a wonderful group of people who were nothing short of accepting and encouraging. But, as in all things, I am sure there are a few who “spoil the bunch”. For the most part, however, I believe CrossFit is a PERFECT example of the above mentality. Group struggles and achievements are fun and plentiful in CF. Sux for the guy above who had a bad experience.

  23. I can see myself going above 75% max. heart rate too often training with other people. 🙂

  24. Much more motivated to complete all heavy squat reps and sets when women are on the treadmills facing the squat cage lol.

  25. And here I thought there was something wrong with my chin-up bar in the basement. I can never do as many on it as I can in the gym. Now it makes sense.

  26. I like working out with others in the room. Helps me to do a full workout and push myself to where I need to be. If I’m by myself I can talk myself into doing a “good enough” workout. I’m not a person who cares to chat while I’m walking, climbing stairs or doing weights, however, I do like to interact with others here and there during the workout.
    I would like to find someone in my area to workout at the same time in my area at about 4:30 AM since that’s the time I can do it, am awake anyway, everyone else in my house is asleep. So far no one seems to have that availability, rrrrrr
    Plus, chicken woman that I am, I don’t like walking around predawn to and from the clubhouse where the weights are. 🙁

  27. Thanks for this article! It was a very interesting read. I have been doing crossfit at home for about 8 months. My husband is a former personal trainer so he has set up a nice space for us with all the essentials. We don’t work out together, though – for us this serves as much-needed solitary time. However, I often wonder how much faster I would progress doing crossfit in a group setting. I have also read a lot about the various positive benefits of the box communities. I’m an introvert and a homebody so I’m really on the fence.

    1. Try it Heather. Sometimes just seeing others and their progress creates more motivation in yourself. If you don’t like it, well you know what to do. 🙂

  28. I knew there was something to it!

    I have long had the experience that I can exert myself more on the treadmill or elliptical if I’m watching women’s sports on TV (Soccer is best, followed by track and field, gymnastics and WNBA). The way I’ve explained it in my head is that, if I’m on the field with a bunch of guys, I don’t really mind if I’m the weakest and the slowest. But if I’m on the field with a bunch of girls, I really don’t want to be slower or have less endurance than average!

    My wife thinks it’s dumb, but now I have at least one PubMed abstract to support me!

  29. I guess each person reacts different. I like to work out alone. I believe the increased concentration surpasses the “group thing”. But, that’s me.

    On the other topic: I don’t think technology replaces human contact. Today we rely too much on technology and keep using it to replace human interaction.

    Go to a gym and find real buddies!

  30. I am plenty motivated to work out alone. I can push myself harder than anyone else could motivate me too. And working out alone means finding my own boundaries, not pushing past them to injury. I spent years in yoga trying to do deeper backbends than the next gal… it just doesn’t work for me. Plus, many injuries. Oh, and injuries when I ran competitively too. Some of my friends don’t understand my current lack of competitiveness. “What are you doing it for?” Um… because it’s my hobby? Because I like it? Because it’s like brushing my teeth?

    The way I workout now alone, I doubt anyone could keep up with me. (Sometimes I pretend someone else is there and I am hissing, “Suck it up,” at them.) I understand some people need workout partners (human or not), but I’m definitely not one of them. I can’t even listen to my Nano anymore when I work out. I just get into the zone, and it starts almost every day with a cup of strong coffee and some pigeon poses (you know, to center a bit), and five (warmup) exercises later, perspiration is evident. Buy the Men’s Health Big Book of Exercises. Build your own routines! That’s what I did, and I love this way of working out–also, like another commenter–my other favorite way to exercise is a solo walk outside (well, I do take one willing dog with me.) That’s heaven.

  31. On the weekends I go on walks with my wife which are relaxing and enjoyable. The rest of the time people just get in the way and I’m at my very best working out alone. If you need someone else to train with and thus motivate you then you’re gonna have problems down the road. I’m sorry but I don’t need an extrovert telling me I’m better off being someone I am not. I’m all about the quick hard workout and on to the rest of my day

  32. I’ve been using an app called Zombies Run 5K, and it’s awesome. I could never get myself to workout consistently, but CrossFit was too much of a beatdown. Now I can’t wait for my next run! Two people back at the base are talking to me and telling me when to run or walk and when the run is over. There’s a developing story line, oh, and the occasional zombie. I wish there was a Zombies Bodyweight or some such thing. Kickstarter anyone?

  33. Maybe I should read full articles before commenting. However, I have so many posts to catch up on (like 50) and so much to do…
    Maybe some of us should watch Mark’s promotional videos during our workouts. They’re pretty peppy, including fast-paced stereotypical tribal beat music, shots of impressive physical feats like jumping onto a slack-line, and repetitive gratuitous, totally unabashedly intentional muscle shots that make you go “whaaat” and “wow” and so on. It’s like a commercial for 300. That’s not just teasing, it’s a sincere review.
    During unstructured workouts when I lived in a house with a computer I used to browse the WOWs while resting between sets to get ideas.