How much can you think about while exercising?

Posted on July 10, 2013

(Last Updated On: April 6, 2016)

proper exercise technique

A huge part of exercising is executing proper technique. To do so you’re often told to think about certain things -cues- which will, hopefully, cause you to practice good form.

How many cues can you think about at the same time? How many cues can a person process and effectively implement during a given exercise?

Limits of the brain

Anyone who trains people on a regular basis should realize pretty quickly how many cues a person can handle. And this actually isn’t too individualistic. It’s not that Person A can handle 8 cues and Person B 2. There is very little variance in this regard.

A common number out there in the memory world is 7 bits of information. If someone gave you a bunch of different sounds, the most you would be able to manage would be 7 of them.

Ok, so I can think about 7 cues then, right?

In order to process all 7 sounds you would have to give up processing everything else. The girl with the yoga pants? A person’s facial expressions? The bright lights? Being on your period? Have to block it all out, which is no easy task.

Next, 7 is the upper limit. This is the most, not the average.

For the purpose of this post, let’s bring the number down to 6. I think it’s fair to say the majority of people aren’t going to regularly hit the upper limit.

We also need to consider other factors can affect our cognition. Your ability to process information often declines with age; being stressed decreases how much you can focus on, etc.

Because most of the population is not 18 years old, and not only are many people stressed, but exercising is a stressor itself, let’s bring our number of bits of information down from 7 to 4 or 5. Leaning towards four, as this seems to be a common estimated average for how many items the brain can juggle at once.

The atmosphere of exercise

Let’s consider what else may be going on when performing an exercise. Typical gym factors:

  • The background music. “This song sucks.”
  • Lighting
  • Other people moving around. “What the hell exercise is that person doing?” “Shit, that person is hot!”
  • How your body feels. “Ugh, I hate this exercise. It burrrrrns.” “I’m sweating so much.”
  • Vagaries of life. “My boss is stressing me out.”
  • Do I look alright? “I hope that person sees me bending over.”
  • Counting your reps. “What number am I on?”

That’s 7 things right there, and we haven’t even gotten to exercise technique yet.

Experience changes what you think about

Over time the list above will decrease. As a person becomes trained, they get more comfortable in a gym, more comfortable with an exercise, they learn to block things out. Often people stop worrying what they look like, the background music becomes mute, other people are irrelevant, and the stressors of life are unconsidered for that hour or so.

Our list may decrease to something like:

  1. Counting reps
  2. How body feels.
  3. One other typical factor may remain. Perhaps you’ve blocked out other people but find yourself jamming to a song.
  4. Exercise technique cue #1.
  5. Exercise technique cue #2.

Bringing us to a very common limit found anecdotally: The most someone can think about, form wise, when doing an exercise, is 1 or 2 things.

While squatting you can’t think about knees out, chest out, back arched, eyes wherever, your depth, spread the floor, bar placement, foot placement, etc. You can maybe think knees out, chest out. And be happy if you get both of those right.

When you try to focus on 6 things you end up focusing on nothing.

Choose your cues wisely.

Is it time to stop trying to figure out what you should think about and let someone else do the thinking for you?

Or maybe it’s time to pick a program and follow it. 

For more on the capacity of consciousness, check out the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

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Posted in: Miscellaneous, Pain