The Power in Numbers: The Kohler Effect
No, you do not suddenly become stronger or faster when in the presence of others — though that would be amazing if it were true — but you are likely exerting more effort than usual. Juliet Starrett of San Francisco CrossFit addresses the Kohler effect and its positive impact on gym performance in a recent blog post:
We often get calls from potential new SFCF athletes who are interested in CrossFit but are concerned that group-style exercise classes just aren’t for them. These calls most often come from men who (I think) have images of 80s-style step aerobics or jumping around on a mini-tramp with Britney Spears “Toxic” playing in the background. I try to re-assure them that a CrossFit-style group class bears no resemblance to the typical group exercise class at a regular gym, that working out in a group helps athletes push themselves harder, etc. and then I suggest that they come try it out to see what I mean.These same athletes almost universally report that, while they never envisioned themselves working out in a group (much less liking it), they have a complete shift on this idea when they come to a CrossFit class.
During a workout at a CrossFit-type gym awhile ago, I realized that group fitness classes work because people challenge each other, consciously or subconsciously. This came to me when a woman in my group, who also happened to be nine months pregnant, was seriously out-lifting me. As my muscles began to give out, I thought, if she can do it, I certainly can’t quit now.
Turns out my competitive epiphany is backed by science.“For the partners who were the weak link in the group…their motivation wasn’t only greater than in the other two groups but it actually increased over time.”A study out of Kansas State University says we work harder when working out with a partner we perceive — rightly or wrongly, it doesn’t matter — to be just a bit better than we are. The study builds on what’s known as the Kohler motivation gain effect — the idea that less-capable individuals perform better in a group setting — and found hitting the gym with someone thought to be better than ourselves boosts endurance and intensity by as much as 200 percent.
“We were pleasantly surprised by how big the motivation gains were,” said Irwin, “but I think the most interesting thing was that for the partners who were the weak link in the group, the fact that their motivation wasn’t only greater than in the other two groups but it actually increased over time.”
There is a threshold, however. Previous research has shown that working out with someone who is at your level or much, much better doesn’t really motivate us. The key is to find someone you consider just a little better, so meeting or beating their performance is an achievable goal.
Makes sense — you want to be challenged by your fellow athletes, not crushed. Are you challenging yourself enough?