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Optimizing Arousal
by: Jamie Santangelo

I’ve got something to confess right now: I don’t like going to the gym all that much. Four years and counting and most days I just don’t have the same drive in me to get there. I guess I’m just not being challenged the way I used to be. I still love the DOMS that follows my days to failure, I love the effect that working out has on my body and the subsequent effect that body has on my sex life. Those simple pleasures are all well and good, but what I love the absolute most is the half hour between the moment I swallow my high dose stimulant and the second that the stimulation first hits my CNS with all that wonderful Dopamine and Nor-epinephrine and I know its time to go.

Some people live for “The Pump”, and those are the people who hit the message boards saying “I just had the best workout of my life on ____” (insert Nitrous Oxide product), the people who use Arnold’s “cumming” quote in their signatures and visualize their biceps as mountain peaks. None of that is for me, as much as I feel visualization is important during a workout, I prefer to do my important thinking before, during, and after my sets while in the gym. Picking up a weight and throwing it around is just not enough stimulation for me.

Some in the psychological community describe my disinterest in the actual lifting of weights as “Optimal Arousal Theory of Motivation.” Crowley and Hoyer described it as “Stimuli that are moderately novel, surprising, or complex will be preferred over stimuli that offer too much or too little novelty.” For this article, the definition of arousal will be the one put forth by Singer and Associates in 1993, who define it as “a multidimensional construct that refers to an energizing function of the mind and body, varying on a continuum from low (deep sleep) to high (extreme excitement). It involves both a physiological response and cognitive processes.” In this diagram you can see just how it is proposed that Optimal Arousal works within the human mind.

This fits with what I enjoy—intellectual aspects of bodybuilding are what keeps me interested in working out. Reading about training, supplements, and nutrition is always more enjoyable than putting the diet/supplement/program into play, and analyzing the results of said diet/supplement/program is much more fun than that. The rule of thumb associated with this theory is that “the more complex the task, the less arousal is desired, and more simple the task, the higher the level of arousal desired” (1). Have you ever performed a monotonous task that you found mind numbingly boring? Now try that task while using a stimulant, EC, Ritalin, even coffee or nicotine in some form. Suddenly it doesn’t seem so monotonous, and your performance is probably going to skyrocket.

Why can one bodybuilder take a stimulant and have the greatest workout of his life while another won’t want to leave his house? People who subscribe to “Optimal Arousal Theory” would attribute this to the chemical having increased your arousal to a level that cannot be created by the task alone. Think of people giving a speech or going on a job interview. Some people will have a cup of coffee and talk so fast that their audience won’t understand a word they say. Others would not be able to think clearly without some sort of caffeine in them. Now disregarding stimulant tolerance, what you have at play here could be considered the speaker seeking optimum activation (arousal).

I bet you can guess who the introvert and extrovert in those situations is. The introvert’s mind already racing, anxiety at an all time high and adrenaline ablaze, adding caffeine is most likely a recipe for disaster. On the other hand, an extrovert’s level of arousal from the presentation alone is not sufficient; the caffeine buzz is a necessary evil as the anxiety caused by the presence of an audience is not enough to cause a heightened state. These are types of people you may have played sports with at some point, the first maybe sitting down with his head in his hands prior to the big game, concentrating. The other probably yelling and pushing other players and getting the team “jacked up.”

The body will seek to attain Homeostasis and to do so both people will do what it takes to put their mind at this point. If you took player B and forced him to sit down and try to concentrate on the upcoming game, you would have an unbelievable level of boredom, and if player A was forced to get in the middle of a large group screaming and hitting other people, his anxiety would more than likely skyrocket and his nerves would be shot. Optimal Arousal will lead people to seeking the hedonistic middle ground between anxiety and boredom, the level at which a person will operate at his or her peak. Now obviously it is impossible to find the peak performance each and every time you workout, but I’m sure you’ll find there is lots of room for error.

As much as I would love to, I know it is not possible to take stimulants before every workout. So what can those of you out there who believe this theory has merit do to attain this peak performance without becoming dependant on stimulants for a good workout? Here are a few tips

1. Buy a portable music device. I recommend an Ipod as you’ll probably be able to fit your entire CD library on it, and it won’t be extinct for a few years hopefully. It’s a helluva feeling being able to choose from any CD you own or have downloaded while in the gym. Loud fast music will get you in the right state of mind and get the adrenaline going.

2. Breathe quicker and heavier before your first set, try and set the standard of arousal when you first walk into the gym. Don’t hyperventilate but increase your breathing to a level that would be on par with your optimal arousal. Close your eyes and try to put yourself in the state of mind you are seeking to attain.

3. Get a training partner who challenges you. If you are seeking to exterminate boredom you need a level of competition, even if it is just friendly. You will be able to feed off his performance and energy and your training will have more of a purpose.

4. Focus more on the outcome and less on the performance. I find I am more easily motivated if I can visualize the outcome of the workout as opposed to feeling every rep and set. If I am cutting, I’ll concentrate on how my abs will look on the beach or if I’m bulking I’ll think about how my normally loose shirts will be just a bit tighter and the compliments I’ll receive on having “gotten bigger.” To me one rep seems like nothing, but the sum total of those 4-10 reps is enough to fight off the boredom of picking up some weights and doing some curls.

5. Think about other stressors in your life while working out. Use them as motivation to fuel your workouts. As I said earlier, I do a lot of my school work and thinking in the gym. This may take away from the workout slightly but your better off than not having gone to the gym at all.

6. Try a new supplement. If your training has been stagnant and motivation is dwindling, throwing some money at a new or intriguing supplement is sometimes enough to get your mind on track again. You’ll obviously want to get the most out of it, and will also see some sort of trickle down into your arousal as your excitement over this new product will have you thinking about it while working out.

7. Try a new and more difficult training program and or diet. If you’re bored with training you may not be putting enough into your bodybuilding as you should. For newbies it is great to simplify things, but for advanced trainers sometimes ‘easy’ is too boring and you need a more advanced diet than “roughly 200 grams of protein, 300 carbs. 75 healthy fats”. Start writing stuff down and challenge yourself daily.

These aren’t the only tactics obviously and I’m sure you could come up with some on your own. I also didn’t dig too deep into the other side of the picture where one seeks to decrease one’s level of arousal, as I really cannot relate to that at all. As this is a theory and not a law, it obviously has some flaws but after looking at all the motivational and drive theories accepted by the psychological community, this one seemed to best fit a bodybuilder’s life socially, physically, and intellectually. Coming to understand what motivates you and how you can best harness that energy for optimal arousal will yield you tremendous gains inside and outside of the gym.

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