The Secret to Holding a Plank Longer

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I used to occasionally work out with my friend Hardeep, who, when I would slow down or make noises about giving up, had a motivational tactic that never failed. He’d tell me he’d done the same set of exercises with our friend Sofia, who’d breezed through it. “Sofia can do it,” he’d taunt. “Why can’t you?”

Much later, I learned the truth: He was lying. He’d never even been to the gym with Sofia; he was just telling me that to irritate me into finishing the workout. And it totally worked. This is essentially the message behind some new research: You can peer-pressure people into exercising harder and longer.

The paper is published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise, and psychologist Christian Jarrett summarizes the findings today at the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest. Jarret writes:

Sixty-eight regulars (nine men) at a Pilates studio were asked to perform two plank exercises, and to hold each for as long as they possibly could.

The participants were given a three-minute rest between each attempt. The key intervention is that between planks, half the participants were given the "social norms" message that 80 per cent of people similar to them (in terms of age, gender and Pilates level) had achieved a 20 per cent longer time on their second effort. The other participants were told nothing of this kind, or anything else.

On average, the participants who were told that their peers had been able to hold the plank longer on their second try held the pose 5 percent longer than they had the first time; the group who hadn’t been told anything, on the other hand, saw an 18 percent drop in hold time on their second attempt.

Jarrett points out a potential snag in the methodology here: Since the second group wasn’t told anything at all in between tries, we don’t know if the first group was responding to the social-norms message or if this is simply evidence of the power of any form of motivational statement. But judging from my own nonscientific experience excerpted above, peer pressure seems like a pretty effective way to trick some of us into a tougher workout.