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What is the zone of proximal development?

When I was at Colgate University earning my masters in their education program, I was taught Lev Vygotsky’s concept—the zone of proximal development. (No, he isn’t a Russian strength coach but a psychologist.) At that time, it was one of the first concepts I actually bought into because it made a whole lot of sense to me. I’ve used it in my years as an economics teacher, and I’ve applied it to my strength training philosophy.

The zone of proximal development is the area between what people can do independently and when they need help. When they’re trying to learn, people are in one of three states—comfort, zone of proximal development, or frustration. The same thing occurs when we’re working out. We’re in our comfort zone (not pushing ourselves), we’re developing (working hard), or we’re frustrated (trying weights that are too hard and giving up).

Perhaps this analogy will help. My grandfather loves his crossword puzzles, so I decided to try a week of them in the local newspaper. Monday’s crossword puzzle was easy. I barely had to think (comfort). Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s puzzles were harder, so I really had to work. I had to combine letters, look things up, and learn to complete these puzzles (zone of proximal development). Friday rolled around, and I had no clue what the first few hints meant. I became very frustrated and gave up (frustration).

Living in your comfort zone

Have you ever been to the gym and seen people not pushing themselves? That may be the most rhetorical question of all times. Of course! Many people like to be comfortable, so they’ll run until they break a sweat and then stop. They’ll stop increasing their weights once it becomes hard and then cut their workouts short to go home. This portrays people who live in the comfort zone. They don’t push themselves, and they won’t grow physically or mentally from training. These people need to step it up to the next level!

Training in the zone of proximal development

As explained before, the zone of proximal development is where growth occurs. The boundaries of this zone are fluid, and you should be able to progress as you move up in weights.

Here are some tips to stay right in this zone:

1.      Understand that you’re competing against yourself. Don’t play down to anyone or compare yourself to someone who has been training for a lifetime.

2.      Always work on tightening up your form. Even when I was at Elite, they were always giving lifting cues. This helps the lifter keep tight form and concentrate on moving the weight.

3.      Be passionate. I don’t care about what but be passionate and give yourself a reason to workout. Perhaps you’re passionate about your family. Understand that being fit will help you live a healthy life, which leads me to my last point…

4.      Train with a purpose. Notice, I didn’t say “go to the gym with a purpose.” I see too many people busying up gyms for the purpose of social time. If you want to be a creepy guy hitting on girls, go to Hooters or somewhere else but keep your ass off of the squat rack.


Up until this point, I hope this article has been common sense for most people. Here’s where I see the dedicated and hard workers start to make mistakes. Some people think it’s all about the bottom line numbers of how much they can lift.

I have a colleague who came over to train with us. He slapped 300 lbs on the bench and stated, “Just get in there and bench it. No need to warm up. If you can’t do it right now, you can’t do it!” Needless to say, he couldn’t do it.

I like the “go getter” attitude, but that isn’t training. What about warming up? What about progression and working up to a weight? Your training program shouldn’t be one set and done. If I had missed that first lift, I would have become frustrated, and it would have shot my entire training day in the ass.

I’ll finish with a saying that I’ve heard from coaches on all levels: “Just play within yourself.” If you keep that in mind while pushing yourself, you’ll succeed. If you try to do too much, you’ll end up screwing up, and if you do too little, you’ll end up losing.

So again, “just play within yourself…” as long as you aren’t a sissy.

Joe Hashey is a certified strength and conditioning specialist as well as a “no nonsense” style trainer and owner of Synergy Athletics. If you want 200 plus pages of innovative and effective training, check out his Bull Strength Manual ( Head over to Synergy Athletics ( and get on Joe’s newsletter while he’s giving away four free bonuses!

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