Pumping Placebo

A first-hand account of the power of belief

Farid Alsabeh


Photo by Arthur Edelmans on Unsplash

It’s one thing to read about the placebo effect: the well-studied phenomenon whereby our attitudes and expectations alone are sufficient to produce a beneficial effect.

But it’s another thing entirely to experience it for ourselves: to see, in our own actions, how a simple belief can lead to significant changes. And it’s especially surprising when this happens in the weight room.

A yearlong absence from the gym had set my bench-press performance back considerably. But I was close: after several months, I was only 10 pounds away from eight reps of the elusive 225 pounds — ‘two plates’, in the gym-bro vernacular — which had once been my personal best.

After racking the weights, I asked a fellow gym-goer for a spot. He was a blonde lad with long hair, of medium height and athletic build: a high-schooler, by looks and general demeanor.

The first five reps were unremarkable. The sixth went up slowly. Trouble by the seventh. And as the final rep came up, trembling and uncertain, my spotter’s hands were hovering closely below the bar.

His assistance wouldn’t be needed after all. As I got up, he praised me: “Nice dude, you’re pushing 225 pounds easy!” I thanked him for the spot, and he went back on his way.

Admittedly, a stereotypical joke immediately came to my mind: Of course he doesn’t know how to count. After all, it had been 215 pounds on the bar. That’s what it was last week, too, and the week before that. I had been monitoring that weight carefully, methodically, for the past three months.

But the joke was on me. As I reracked the weights, I realized that I had added two 10-pound plates where there should have been two 5-pound ones. My spotter hadn’t miscounted — I had misplaced. And by doing so, it seemed, I had miraculously been able to accomplish something that I thought was still beyond my current strength.

Here, any reader of reasonable scientific-mindedness will object: the story so far hasn’t necessarily shown that the placebo effect was involved. After all, it may instead have been that I was too conservative in estimating my own strength: that the whole time I was staying at 215 pounds, I actually had enough…