The Simple Way Pavlov’s Dogs Can Improve Your Performance

You have probably heard something about Pavlov’s dogs. But did you know his work might have a powerful application to your training? Ivan Pavlov is a famous Russian scientist who won the Nobel Prize in 1904. He was a natural born scientist who made many discoveries in the field of physiology. He is most commonly known for an accidental discovery, which is now called classical or Pavlovian conditioning.

The Power of Associations

When he made this discovery, Pavlov was investigating how much dogs salivated in response to different types of foods. Being a scientist, he created an apparatus that would collect the saliva from the dog so it could be accurately measured. Every time he entered the room, he found that the dogs were already salivating – before he even gave them any of the foods in question.

At first this seemed like a messy annoyance. But Pavlov’s keen observation led him to figure out that his presence was a signal to the dogs that food was coming. He took this information and began associating other objects to the food. His most famous association was ringing a bell to make the dogs salivate.

Ivan Pavlov and his dogs
Pavlov at work in his laboratory.

In another lab, John B. Watson, known as the father of behaviorism, and Rosalie Raynor took Pavlov’s idea to extremes. Watson boldly predicted that he could take a child and turn him or her into anyone by using these powerful techniques:

“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”

So what does this have to do with strength training? The understanding of associations could have a powerful effect on our training. We need to create a place to train where we are cued to be productive and strong. If you get used to training in a place where you spend time socializing, relaxing, or stretching, then these associations may make it difficult for you when you attempt to lift heavy. Similarly, when we relax, we want a place where we feel calm.

In the video below, Pavel discusses this concept in more succinct terms:

Prime Yourself for a Powerful Performance…or Not

Priming is another phenomenon that affects our unconscious processing. Jon Bargh and colleagues had people unscramble sentences related to being older (sentences with words such as old, wise, bingo, retired, wrinkle, and ancient).1 When the participants left the lab, the researchers timed how long it took them to walk to the elevator. People who had been primed with words related to being old walked significantly slower than people who had not been primed with those words.

This was such a surprising effect that the researchers ran the study twice to verify the results. It is a bit scary to think that reading a few words might change the way we act.

In a Dutch study, people were asked to think of words related to being a university professor or words related to being a “hooligan.” When they were then asked to take a trivia test, the people who had been primed with the university-professor words answered more questions correctly. Similar priming studies have changed a wide gamut of behaviors.

Can we really be primed to move slower or be smarter so easily? And if so, can we also be primed to move better?

What This Research Means to You

Pavlovian conditioning and priming can be powerful tools. For your training, you will want to follow Pavel’s advice and keep it separate from the place where you do mobility. Set up a relaxing area with cues to help you relax. In my area for stretching, I have Pavel’s books on stretching and Jon Engum’s Flexible Steel around me. These remind me of how to relax into my stretch. You could also add music that you associate with relaxing.

Pavlov's Dogs and What It Means About Your TrainingYou might also want to prime yourself before training. A recent study found that when rugby players watched training videos and recordings of previous rugby matches, they had higher 3-rep-max squats than if they watched neutral clips.2

Doc Michael Hartle, Chief SFL, prefers listening to Metallica when lifting. Other SFGs report listening to music that makes them a bit angry. I have not heard of anyone who listens to Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift for lifting heavy weights (although my local Gold’s Gym tends to play it). Priming yourself with certain types of music may help your lifts. Save the lighter music for the drive home after lifting heavy weights.

Before training, you could also:

  1. Read some training advice to get you motivated for your work, such as those by Zsolt Derzsi or Fabio Zonin.
  2. Watch Oliver Quinn, Mike Sousa, or Artemis Scantalides on social media to prime your presses.
  3. Be inspired by athletes you admire. Tony and Mira Gracia decorate their Portland gym, Industrial Strength, with covers from MILO showing strength athletes.


You don’t have to build specialized strength and relaxation temples. However, you can work on cues to prime yourself for the task at hand. Create lighting, smells, music, and visual cues that are positive and productive influences. Don’t learn to socialize in your training area. Don’t learn to fail either.

Team Leader Hector Gutierrez recently described how he never likes to quit in his training area. Even if he is tired and wants to stop, he will take a break, regroup, and finish his training. If you cue yourself to fail, you will be cued to fail. Similarly, if you are used to training to failure with a spotter, that spotter will cue you that it is okay to fail. Always leaving one rep in the tank will cue your body to always finish your last rep.

1. Bargh JA, Chen M, Burrows L (1996) Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71: 230–244. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.71.2.230
2. Cook, C. J., & Crewther, B. T. (2012). Changes in salivary testosterone concentrations and subsequent voluntary squat performance following the presentation of short video clips. Hormones and Behavior, 61(1), 17–22.
3. Dijksterhuis A, van Knippenberg A (1998) The relation between perception and behavior, or how to win a game of Trivial Pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74: 865–877. doi: 10.1037//0022-3514.74.4.865
4. Pavlov, I. P. (1897/1902). The work of the digestive glands. London: Griffin.
Craig Marker
Ph.D., Team Leader
Craig Marker, Ph.D., Team Leader, CSCS, is a fitness enthusiast who has spent his life trying to help people improve their lives. As a professor, he works with students on how best to understand research and place it into context. He has published over fifty articles, chapters, and textbooks on psychology and research methods.

As a researcher, he understands the cutting edge of strength, sports performance, body composition, and nutrition. As a psychologist, he has focused on research and treatment of anxiety disorders, which positions him to understand motivation and the fear of making life changes.

Craig’s upcoming book, the AntiFragile Self, takes on the topic of building a stronger person in the mental and physical domains.

As a certified StrongFirst Kettlebell Instructor, Craig views kettlebells as one tool in the trade of forging a better person. He uses the Functional Movement Screen and multiple corrective movements to make sure his students are performing at their best for the rest of their lives.

Visit his intentional community in Atlanta: Armour Building.

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