Why Punishments Never Work!


After some serious discussion with multiple people this week, I wanted to create a post  on the whole “punishment scenario” in fitness. I saw a trainer yesterday making his client row 100m for every gram of sugar his client ate. It just didn’t make sense so I immediately gathered some reading and consulted some people and wanted to share my findings.

My goal as a trainer is to get people to their goals and to allow them to move faster, better, and as efficiently as possible versus on their own, if on their own at all.

If you remember anything from your elementary science days, it’s that we use rats, dogs, etc. both for rewards and punishments. They ‘avoid’ the punishment by doing the assigned task. Except there’s one thing wrong with that in regards to us:


What does the research say?

Research says this about rewards and punishments:

  • Only works for short periods of time
  • Is primarily effective for children and animals
  • it’s best used for basic motor skills (fall of riding a bike, get hurt)

But I’m referencing this post into more daily adult tasks, beyond exercise. Exercise and nutrition are simply my specialties.

I read a research study about a crossfit box motivating clients to eat better by punishing them with burpees for every bad calorie they ate at the end of the month. Guess what? A lot of people were doing burpees.

Let’s think about why this is?

No one cared. The end justified the means. They simply shrugged their shoulders and did some burpees at the end of the month. 

This accomplishes 3 major negative things:

  • Exercise is a form of punishment
  • You can buy your way out of a bad diet or habit
  • Eating healthy has more strict rules than 3rd grade math.

Is that what you want a client to think? NO WAY!

Here’s a fact: Rewards illicit the same part of our brain as chemical drugs used for highs. 

Also, pain avoidance activates the brain’s fear center. 

That’s why so often we freeze up when we are scared or frightened.

So how do we avoid this?

For one, you must build a solid relationship. I always pride on knowing my clients like my best friends. There’s no need to punish someone in that regard. They trust and depend on you, and do not want to let you down. No need for a punishment when you have this superpower of relationship control.

Recognize growth rather than reward: Celebrate a great accomplishment. This allows for reinforcement versus a reward or punishment. Clients will benefit more long term from this.

Here’s an example:

“Congrats on finishing your first 5k in under 30 minutes! I will pay your entry fee into your next 5k so we can zoom even faster into it!”

-This gets the client pumped for the next one, versus:

“if you finish this 5k in under 30 minutes, I will pay your next fee”

-This allows the client to simply say ‘meh, if I don’t, oh well’. This is NOT the type of reaction we seek.


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