Effects of Exercise Focus on Strength Training Performance

Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., Jim Annesi, Ph.D., Rita LaRosa Loud, B.S., Lynne Powers, RPT, and Sheryl Rosa, B.S.

Dr. Westcott

Effective fitness instructors come in various shapes and sizes, but they tend to have a few characteristics in common. For example, good teachers typically provide concise exercise explanations and precise exercise demonstrations to help participants clearly understand the desired physical performance (1, 2, 3). In simplest terms, they have mastered the art of show and tell, and use their communication skills to educate and motivate their clients.

Another factor that influences participant behavior is positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement may take many forms, including a smile, a pat on the back, a sincerely stated “good job”, or acknowledgement of attaining a predetermined goal.

A related teaching technique is referred to as performance feedback, which requires specific instructor comments on the clients exercise execution. Checking a participant’s heart rate, counting out leg press repetitions, saying, “your movement range is a little short,” “your repetition speed is just right,” and “your breathing pattern is perfect” are all examples of instructor feedback. Basically, the purpose of feedback is to tell clients what they are doing correctly or incorrectly with respect to posture, technique and other aspects of their exercise performance.

Taken together, these teaching behaviors (exercise explanations, exercise demonstrations, positive reinforcement, performance feedback) indicate a certain level of exercise focus. Instructors who give frequent exercise explanations, exercise demonstrations, positive reinforcement and performance feedback provide a high-focus exercise environment, whereas instructors who perform these behaviors infrequently provide a low-focus exercise environment. Research has been unclear as to whether high amounts of (often repetitive) feedback or low amounts of (often very specific) feedback are more beneficial to participants’ physiological progress and/or exercise maintenance.

Experimental Research
Within the context of a more comprehensive research project, we recently studied the effects of high-focus and low-focus exercise environments on strength training performance in beginning adult exercisers. The study subjects were 71 men and women (27 to 84 years of age) who completed a 10-week strength training program for previously sedentary adults. All subjects completed detailed medical history questionnaires prior to acceptance in the research program. Each participant was carefully assessed (Microfit computerized fitness analysis) in a private testing room before and after the 10-week training period for the following fitness parameters: (1) bodyweight; (2) body composition; (3) resting blood pressure; (4) muscle strength; (5) and joint flexibility. Data was analyzed for significant within-group and between-group differences.

All of the subjects trained in small classes (3 to 6 participants), under close supervision (1 or 2 instructors), two or three days per week (Tuesdays and Thursdays or Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays), in a private exercise room. All of the classes were one hour in length, during which the participants performed 12 resistance exercises for their major muscle groups and did approximately 20 minutes of moderate effort aerobic activity (treadmill walking or recumbent cycling).

The strength training program consisted of the following exercises performed on standard weightstack machines: (1) leg extension; (2) seated leg curl; (3) chest cross; (4) chest press; (5) pullover; (6) lateral raise; (7) biceps curl; (8) triceps extension; (9) low back extension; (10) abdominal curl; (11) neck flexion; and (12) neck extension. Each exercise was performed for one set with a resistance that permitted 8 to 12 controlled (6-second) repetitions. Whenever 12 repetitions were completed with proper form the weightload was increased by about 5 percent (typically 2.5 pounds).

Each participant in the a.m. classes trained under conditions of high exercise focus (frequent instructor interactions related to exercise performance), whereas subjects in the p.m. classes trained under conditions of low exercise focus (frequent instructor interactions on topics unrelated to exercise performance). The p.m. program participants experienced the same initial exercise instruction as the a.m. classes during the first 2 weeks of training. However, the p.m. instructors provided minimal amounts of exercise- focused information during the following 8 weeks (just enough to ensure proper training technique and progression). Although they interacted frequently with class members, the conversations were typically on topics other than exercise performance.

Research Results
Of the 81 subjects who began this study, 5 dropped out of the a.m. classes (high-focus group) and 5 dropped out of the p.m. classes (low-focus group), leaving 71 participants who completed the 10-week training program. The training compliance rate (percentage of exercise sessions attended) was 85 percent for both treatment groups. The 45 subjects in the a.m. classes were about 80 percent female (mean age 59.7 years), and the 26 subjects in the p.m. classes were about 90 percent female (mean age 55.5 years). The high-focus group (a.m. classes) made significant improvements in percent fat, fat weight, lean weight, muscle strength, joint flexibility and diastolic blood pressure, whereas the low-focus group (p.m. classes) attained significant improvements in percent fat, fat weight, lean weight and joint flexibility. As shown in table 1, the high-focus group achieved significantly greater improvements than the low-focus group in percent fat
(-2.7% vs -1.7%) lean weight (+4.0 lbs. vs +2.2 lbs.), muscle strength (+9.0 lbs vs. +2.4 lbs) and diastolic blood pressure (-8.0 mmHg vs +1.5 mmHg).

Based on these findings it would appear that strength training under conditions of high exercise focus may produce more physiological improvements (e.g., percent fat, lean weight, muscle strength, diastolic blood pressure) than strength training under conditions of low exercise focus. In this study, higher levels of exercise focus were associated with faster rates of physical fitness attainment, whereas lower levels of exercise focus were associated with slower rates of physical fitness attainment.

It would therefore seem obvious that fitness instructors should provide high levels of exercise focus, and this is true if participants’ physiological improvement is the top priority. However, psychological data from another aspect of this study offer a different perspective (6). Subjects who received low levels of exercise focus experienced significantly greater increases in revitalization and significantly greater decreases in feelings of physical exhaustion immediately after their strength training sessions. Such after-exercise changes on these feeling states have been associated with long-term exercise adherence (4, 5). Also, only the low-focus group had significant reductions in depression and tension over the course of the 10-week strength training program. These are important considerations with respect to emotional wellness and exercise adherence, especially for previously sedentary adults who need to establish an exercise habit for ongoing wellness.

It may be that high levels of exercise focus challenge new participants in a way that increases their training effectiveness but decreases their training enjoyment. Whereas highly motivated athletes may want as much exercise focus as possible, new exercisers may feel more comfortable with infrequent exercise-related interactions.

While more research needs to be conducted on this topic, we suggest that fitness instructors provide new exercise participants with moderate exercise focus. For example, two or three pertinent and positive feedback statements per training session may be sufficient to enhance clients’ exercise effectiveness without altering the psychological benefits associated with self-directed physical activity.

We further recommend that the majority of focused instructor interactions address the major aspects of proper exercise performance, without being too technical during the first few weeks of training. We also believe that better results may be attained from exercise-focused comments that reinforce the participants’ training efforts. Finally, we believe focused statements that do not disrupt the clients’ exercise flow are probably more effective from both a physiological and psychological perspective.

Because clients are individuals, some may respond positively to high-focus exercise environments and others may not. Be sensitive to each exerciser’s response to the teaching technique and do your best to instruct accordingly.


  1. Annesi, J. (1999). Evaluating ability to support client adherence. Fitness
    Management, 15(11), 36-38, 41. Also available: http://www.fitnessworld.com.

  2. Annesi, J.J. (1999). Relationship between exercise professionals’ behavioral
    styles and clients’ adherence to exercise. Perceptual and Motor Skills,
    89, 597-604.

  3. Annesi, J. (2000). Hiring trainers who motivate clients. IDEA Fitness
    Manager, 12(1), 5-7.

  4. Annesi, J.J. (2002). Relationship between changes in acute exercise-induced
    feeling states, self-motivation, and adults’ adherence to moderate
    aerobic exercise. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 94, 425-439.

  5. Annesi, J.J. (2002). Self-motivation moderates effect of exercise-induced
    feelings on adherence. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 94, 467-475.

  6. Annesi, J.J., Westcott, W.L., Loud, R.L., & Powers, L. (2002). Effects of
    association and dissociation formats on resistance exercise-induced
    emotion change and physical self-concept in older women. Manuscript
    submitted for publication.

Table 1. Mean pre-training and post-training fitness scores for high exercise focus and

low exercise focus groups (71 subjects).
Association Group Dissociation Group
Variable Pre Post Change Pre Post Change
Bodyweight (lbs) 180.0 178.9 -1.1 197.0 196.1 -0.9

Percent Fat (%) 30.4 27.7 -2.7 *E 31.7 30.0 -1.7 *

Fat Weight (lbs) 56.1 50.9 -5.2 * 64.9 61.6 -3.3 *

Lean Weight (lbs) 123.8 127.8 +4.0 *E 132.2 134.4 +2.2 *

Strength (lbs) 46.0 55.0 +9.0 *E 48.2 50.6 +2.4 *

Flexibility (in) 30.1 33.4 +3.3 * 38.2 40.6 +2.4 *

Systolic BP (mmHg) 136.3 130.9 -5.4 130.4 127.7 -2.7

Dias. BP (mmHg) 76.5 68.5 -8.0 *E 73.1 74.6 +1.5

* significant within-group change (p <0.05)

E significant between-group difference (p <0.05)

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Written by Wayne L. Westcott PhD

Explore Wellness in 2021