The Plus Of Placebo Effect
by Tim Henriques T-Nation
If you'd managed to keep one eye open during science class you likely would've heard of the placebo effect.
A placebo, according to Wiki, is "a simulated or otherwise medically ineffectual treatment for a disease or other medical condition intended to deceive the recipient." The placebo effect is the idea that even though an individual took something that was supposed to be "medically ineffective," the placebo still elicited a positive outcome.
While the strength of the placebo effect can vary greatly between subjects, the concept is no less legitimate and is a common effect in medicine with the use of painkillers, acupuncture, and even anti-allergenic treatments. Interestingly, a placebo effect can occur even when subjects knowingly receive a placebo versus those that don't receive any treatment at all.
Let me be clear. I hate the term placebo effect. The very word 'placebo' has a strong negative connotation, invoking images of an unscrupulous company trying to deceive the hapless consumer.
In training, impressive results are often dismissed by saying "it was just the placebo effect," as if the results are somehow less real because of that.
I much prefer the term belief effect. This implies that it was the subject's belief that caused real physiological changes in the body. This is a powerful and positive (and real) concept that should be further examined and embraced.
Belief Influences Physiology
The book The Biology of Belief by Dr. Bruce Lipton brought this to my attention. Dr. Lipton was a cellular biologist at Stanford and his research showed that, among other things, stem cells could turn into muscle tissue or fat based on the environment they were placed in.
Lipton's book is loaded with interesting ideas, but for me there are two very big take home points:
We don't know what we think we know about genetics, and the notion that genetics are simply predetermined programming running in the background controlling our physiology isn't accurate.
Your belief – your perception – influences and affects your physiology.
We already know the latter on an intuitive basis. If your home phone rings at 4 PM, if you happen to be home, your physiological reaction is likely minimal. Your heart rate and hormonal levels will remain essentially unchanged.
But if the phone rings at 4 AM, now what's your reaction? The stress is the same – the ringing phone – but your perception of that stress can cause a cascade of very real physiological changes.
Who's calling at this hour? How will this new information affect you? Now your heart rate is up and hormones are being released as a response to the exact same stressor.
Culture, Teams, and Individuals
Culture can be defined as a shared sense of values and beliefs. It's a powerful idea, and when a group of individuals comes together under similar shared beliefs, much can be accomplished.
If you've ever been part of a team when it felt like everyone on the team was singularly focused on achieving the same goal, that feeling of synergy is very empowering.
Two common examples of this are the "Miracle on Ice" hockey match when a young American squad defeated the heavily favored Russian team in the 1980 Winter Olympics, and in Super Bowl 42 where the New York Giants (a wild card team and 12 point underdogs) defeated the mighty 18-0 New England Patriots. In both examples it appears that the teams believed they could win, even when the widely held opinion was that they could not.
One of the jobs of the mind is to create a sense of culture for the body. If your mind and body can share a sense of values and beliefs, if your belief system is singular and focused and unwavering, it may help your physiology perform better.
We hear coaches tell athletes all the time that they must believe they can do something, but does belief in one's self and one's ability really matter? Or are you just a complex physiological machine and your performance is what it is?
I say belief does matter, and in many instances it's very significant. Allow me to give you some examples.
In sports there have been certain barriers that, once broken, suddenly get surpassed by a surprising number of athletes. The 4-minute mile is an obvious example.
Initially it was thought to be unbreakable, but as athletes got closer and closer, they realized it would be broken – and suddenly, a good number of athletes did so in close succession. Today college level athletes break that barrier with some regularity.
Did we uncover some new magical way of training the cardiovascular system or some new diet that improved everybody's mile time? Or did people simply accept that running a mile in less than 4 minutes was possible, and then started doing it?
Let's look at another example.
100 Meter World Record Timeline
Time Year Time Elapsed
10.8 1890-1905 15
10.6 1906-1910 4
10.5 1911-1920 9
10.4 1921-1929 8
10.3 1930-1935 5
10.2 1936-1955 19
10.1 1956-1959 3
10.0 1960-1967 7
9.9 1968-1990 22
9.8 1991-1998 7
9.7 1999-2007 8
9.6 2008 1
9.5 2009 1
Above are the world records by year for the 100 M dash for men. When they're listed this way I see a possible trend: the sprinters tend to beat the current world record by about .1 seconds, and they tend to do so when another sprinting generation emerges (about every 10 years or so).
Granted, it isn't a perfect correlation (Usain Bolt is an exception), but the fastest sprinter on the planet 60 years ago ran a 10.2 in the 100 M dash. At this year's Olympic Trials the sixth place runner for the US ran a 10.02.
That means the fastest person on the planet a half-century ago wouldn't even come close to qualifying for the Olympics for this country today!
While this significant increase (in sprinting, a half-second is an eternity) can be partly attributed to superior training and nutritional support, a key factor is sprinters now intuitively believe that it's possible to run just a little bit faster than the other guy.
To me, this is the belief effect in action – the athlete believes that he's capable of a certain physical ability and it becomes a reality.
But that belief may also limit ability. If you told a sprinter in the 1950's that one day the world record would be 9.58 – at a time when the record was 10.2 – they'd likely think you were crazy. It wasn't realistic to think about running that fast back then, and nobody did it.
The belief effect is not just a track and field phenomenon – examples abound in the weight room. Matt Kroc wrote about his version of the belief effect in an article for T Nation, saying he used to analyze wrestlers in high school – if they sucked he knew he should beat them, if they were good then they should beat him.
However, one time he got his opponents mixed up and wound up easily beating one of the toughest wrestlers in the state because he went into the match feeling confident, assuming the guy sucked. He then went on to lose to the crappy guy, thinking that this opponent was the tough one.
The Downside of Belief
The belief effect may improve performance but it can also significantly impair it.
Tiger Woods' performance the last couple years is a good example. Before his divorce, Tiger Woods was almost unstoppable, clearly the best golfer in the world, and well on his way to being the best golfer ever. When he was 'on,' it was basically a foregone conclusion that he would win.
However, once his personal escapades became public, the mystique seemed to wear off. The public no longer believed he was infallible, and it seemed he no longer believed that about himself either and his game deteriorated badly.
Certainly his muscles didn't suddenly change nor did he lose his ability to drive and putt a golf ball, yet it seems that Woods' very public separation and divorce strongly affected his golf game in a negative way.
Today, Tiger seems to be searching for a new equilibrium, a new internal 'sense of values,' and it remains to be seen if he'll be able to return to his former level of play or if that ability has left him for good.
What's the Point?
I wrote this article to give you, the lifter, a message. The message is simple: believe in yourself. Believe in your workout program. Believe in your coach or your trainer. Believe in your diet. Believe in your supplements. Believe that your hard work will pay off and you will achieve your goals. And believe that believing in you makes a difference.
I don't mean a superficial, say the words kind of belief. I want you to believe these things at your core, when you look in the mirror and just know it'll happen, there's no doubt in your mind.
I admit it's easier said than done. As a science-based guy, I'm skeptical when I come across new information that doesn't fit with the way I understand the world. I used to see that as a strong point about myself but now I'm not so sure.
One of the negatives of knowledge is that it always seems to come with limits, and once you're aware of those limits it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's interesting to note that in the placebo effect research, if a patient battling depression was improving after being given a placebo and was then told that they were taking a placebo, they quickly fell back to feeling depressed. The belief effect is unfortunately fragile.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Vince Anello, former IPF World Record holder in the deadlift. Vince deadlifted 810 pounds in competition at a bodyweight of 198 and claims to have also hit 880 pounds at the gym.
When I asked him what he felt was the most important thing to succeed in lifting, he didn't point to a magical training program or training gear or the intake of some miracle nutrient. Instead, he said:
"There are hundreds of routines out there and champions have been produced by opposing theories, the common denominator is the mind. You need to have a bulldog mindset. Bite onto a goal and don't let go until it's realized!"
It isn't easy to believe in yourself, and I make no claim to have fully mastered this. But if one can develop faith in themself at a very deep and unquestioned level, and then work toward a goal, the body has an amazing ability to accomplish things, things that might've been previously believed to be impossible.
I'll finish with a quote I give to my class:
What man's mind can conceive, in his heart he does believe, in time he will achieve.