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Struggling with Nutrition and Training: Self-Control and Self-Determination

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Self-control is the biggest culprit when it comes to struggling to meet goals, staying the course, or even seeing some progress. When someone embarks on a new, strict diet, they talk about it, post to social media about it, and remain consistent with it for days, weeks or months.

As abruptly as it begins, they suddenly fall off the wagon.

Usually, falling off the wagon means breaking with a stringent and restrictive diet because it simply was not sustainable. For some, it becomes months or years before trying to diet again. For others, their issues with self-control may manifest with eating “clean” until someone brings cookies home and they eat a sleeve of Oreos.


So how does self-control fit into a powerlifter’s life?

Unless you compete as a super heavy weight, you must make weight.

People fall in love with powerlifting over the ability to train hard and still be able to eat heartily. As an athlete fills out their frame, they start to see their weight reaching the upper ends of their weight class. Once an athlete is at the top of their weight class, they either need to move up to the next class or find a way to maintain at their current weight class. You may see a lifter have a terrible meet because they had to go on a significant cut to make weight. Rather than exercising self-control and sticking with their diets to maintain or even cut weight slowly, they are forced to lose an exorbitant amount of weight in a considerably short period of time.

The lack of self-control means the athlete sets themselves up for a nearly impossible task, which can often result in failure.

Failure could mean failing to make weight, feeling weak to the point of a subpar meet, or feeling sick the entire meet after trying to rehydrate and force down enough food to function. Sometimes an athlete experiences the worst-case scenario: bombing out of a meet because of their significantly decreased performance ability. 

As we are all susceptible to lapses in self-control, how do we ensure these lapses don’t ruin the pursuit of our goals?

Self-determination is the answer to our issues with self-control.


Understanding Self-Determination 

The concept of self-determination is people are self-motivated to change. Without intrinsic motivation (comes from within you), change will never fully take place. This means everyone must make the decision to keep going with their diet and training solely because intrinsic motivation is what leads them there. Recognizing you are responsible for your own success with training and diet, and taking the full responsibility for the consistency is a key step in ensuring long term success.

Human beings have an innate desire to grow, and the “intrinsic goals (i.e., health, affiliation, personal growth) tend to be directly connected to the satisfaction of basic psychological needs.”[1]  At our core, we have a tendency towards positive behaviors and possess a commitment to be better. Based on an individual’s culture and background, each one of us comes with different approaches to get to this point. However, the ability to self-motivate, while having different foundations, is present throughout all of humanity. Intrinsic motivation drives us to succeed and seek out new challenges and opportunities for personal development.

There are elements of our lives that feed into our intrinsic motivation. However, while the motivation itself may be internal, one of the biggest factors in improving intrinsic motivation comes from positive feedback.


Positive Feedback Driving Intrinsic Motivation

For a school child that may be a teacher offering praise, or a parent telling them how proud they are of an accomplishment. As we get older, that positive reinforcement may come from peers or even an organization recognizing our accomplishments.

The result of positive feedback at any age is a feeling of competence. If you are praised for something you have done successfully, you will approach the same task, or something similar, with confidence.[2] That confidence leads to a sense of autonomy, where you no longer need any outside influence to believe in your success. You are motivated intrinsically and believe in your own abilities.

For people attempting to lose weight, this means they develop a new confidence once they start to see result and once people begin to remark on it as well. In this sense, motivation can very much be equated to a snowball effect.

For powerlifters, that snowball effect stems from the hours of training they do.

Hitting weights and reps over and over, perfecting form and moving weight as efficiently as possible is the goal of training. Think back to the newbie gains, and how PRs happened nearly every week for a while. Those PRs triggered an intrinsic motivation for each of us. Continuing to have success further fuels that autonomy and provides confidence to increase the loads we attempt. This is why most advocate for openers in a competition to be a weight a lifter can hit on their worst day. In addition to getting on the board, it fuels that confidence in a way that having to fight for a grindy rep never will.


Exploring Extrinsic Motivation

External factors of motivation (extrinsic motivation) are experiences such as demands or rewards. Knowing there is an expectation of you performing a certain way and working to meet that expectation would be one example. The pursuit of any goal, despite some internal value, is in itself extrinsic. As time goes by, that extrinsic component can become increasingly internalized, making it more sustainable. As motivation becomes more internalized, it leads towards the individual being more autonomous and becoming solely responsible for their motivation.

Now we understand our self-determination stems from the two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. How can we apply this to ensure we reach or exceed our goals?


Using Motivation & Self-Determination to Achieve Goals

We must recognize our pursuits are often going to be extrinsically motivated. 

We don’t typically start a diet because of intrinsic motivation, but rather for external reasons. Those external reasons can still prove to be fruitful for our pursuits, but ultimately, we must move the motivation along a continuum whereby we become more autonomous. The greater the level of autonomy, the more successful we are at achieving what we set out.

For someone new to the gym, the start of their journey may be completely extrinsically motivated, and they may be the least autonomous in their pursuits. However, if they continue to go and put the time and energy in, they will gradually become more autonomous. The motivation will shift from purely extrinsic to more intrinsic. As they continue, it may wholly become intrinsically motivated.

The actions pushing them towards their goals are something they are doing only for themselves, because it brings them satisfaction. This is where quotes along the lines of “once you see results, it becomes an addiction” come into play. As people see results, whether in appearance, on the scale, on the bar, or in the things other people say to them, they internalize that and become more autonomous in their pursuits. This “suggests it is not solely routine engagement in physical exercise and proper diet that drives prohealth behavior, but the internalization of prohealth attitudes, beliefs, and values that are integral to guiding the behavior change process.”[3]

At the end of the day, we are the ones in control of our successes in whatever we pursue including our nutrition and training. We may fall short on occasion, but continuing to pursue the goal will allow us to reach it. Surround yourself with people who will motivate you when you stumble, who will cheer you on in your successes. Social media can be a source of support for this if you can’t find like-minded people in your local gym, or at work and school. Recognize there will be set-backs, but you are the one in control of your own success.


Additional Resources

If you are interested in learning more about self-determination theory itself, a textbook by Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci titled “Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness” is an excellent place to gain a deep understanding. However, Deci also has a book titled “Why We Do What We Do” that is a bit more accessible.

[1] Teixeira, Pedro J., Silva, Marlene N., Mata, Jutta., Palmeira, Antonio L., Markland, David. “Motivation, Self-Determination, and Long-Term Weight Control” International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 9:22 (2012)

[2] Henderlong, Jennifer., Lepper, Mark R. “The Effects of Praise on Children’s Intrinsic Motivation: A Review and Synthesis” Psychological Bulletin. 128.5 (2002)

[3] Garrin, Joshua “Self-Efficacy, Self-Determination, and Self-Regulation: The Role of the Fitness Professional in Social Change Agency” Journal of Social Change. 6.1 (2014)


About the author

David Cogdell is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the metro Atlanta area. He was an overweight child turned obese adult until deciding to make some changes to his life. David lost over 100 pounds adhering to flexible dieting and in the process discovered a love of lifting heavy weights. Powerlifting became a passion for David because of the opportunity to compete against himself while engaging in an exceptionally supportive community. He believes in “Better Living Through Lifting” and is working to lessen the stigma associated with mental health treatment while sharing his knowledge with the community he loves.



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