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The Upholder Tendency in Health and Fitness

the upholder tendency loves planners

Are you a total rule-follower who religiously wakes up at 5 a.m. daily and never forgets to schedule your routine dental visits? If so, you may fall into the upholder tendency!

Because they’re responsible by nature, upholders do a good job of hitting health and fitness goals. However, there are a few pitfalls to avoid. This post will talk about harnessing your upholder powers to become healthier and more fit.

What’s the Upholder Tendency?

In her book the Four Tendencies, author Gretchen Rubin explains that every person falls into one of four categories (“tendencies”) based on how we respond to expectations we set for ourselves, as well as those imposed upon us by others.

(Some examples: “I’m going to lose weight this year” is an inner expectation, while your doctor telling you to lose weight is an outer expectation. Planning to go Rx in a workout is an inner expectation, but your coach telling you to scale is an outer expectation.)

The four tendencies include:

  • Upholders, who do pretty well at meeting both inner and outer expectations.
  • Obligers, who meet outer expectations but struggle more with inner expectations.
  • Questioners, who are more likely to meet inner expectations than outer expectations.
  • Rebels, who resist both inner and outer expectations.

As a registered dietitian, trainer, and gym owner, I very much believe that self-awareness about your tendency can help you to reach your health and fitness goals. In my 4-part series on the Four Tendencies, I’ll share some tips for staying accountable to your goals based on your tendency.

If you’ve never read Rubin’s book and don’t know your tendency, you can find out with this easy 3-minute quiz! Stop what you’re doing and take that right now.

Okay, got your tendency? Awesome! We’ll begin our series with my own tendency, which is upholder.

Variations Within the Upholder Tendency

Before we dig deep into the upholder tendency, I have a quick but important side note. You might be reading this so far and thinking, “I’m an upholder, but I often fail to meet expectations.”

That was my first thought when I took the quiz!

That’s because I’m an upholder-obliger.

We all have a dominant tendency, but we can sometimes share traits with neighboring tendencies (see diagram above). In this way, a person can be an upholder with obliger tendencies or an upholder with questioner tendencies.

The upholder-obliger generally does a pretty good job of meeting expectations but is much less likely to drop the ball on inner expectations. By contrast, upholder-questioners will occasionally bail on outer expectations that don’t make sense to them.

Be sure to read our posts on obligers and questioners if either of those descriptions resonates with you.

Keep in mind that everyone (even the upholder) struggles to meet expectations sometimes. Upholders struggle less with meeting them overall, whether they’re self-imposed or come from outside influences.

The Upholder Tendency in Health and Fitness

Though upholders make up only 19% of the population, I suspect many of them are CrossFitters.

If you’ve done CrossFit for a while, you know that hard work is part of our ethos. Consider this:

  • Our coaches, our classmates, and even our programming create outer expectations for us.
  • We also have standards (inner expectations) for ourselves, including how often we work out, how much weight we lift, how hard we push ourselves, and how we will modify movements.

How do I identify a likely upholder in the gym? It’s someone who doesn’t go MIA from the gym and who generally follows instructions well. The same goes for my nutrition clients: They show up for all of our check-ins and do the work.

Pretty awesome, right?

Though it is great to be consistent, there is a potential downside to upholderism (is that a word?) in health and fitness: Upholders can be rigid to a fault. I automatically assume (sometimes incorrectly) that one of my athletes is an upholder if I have to convince them to rest or stop pushing through pain. Upholders show up…even when it doesn’t make sense to do so.

This may seem intense to other tendencies, but discipline is freedom for upholders. We thrive on schedules, routines, and rules. For this reason, expectations don’t typically weigh too heavily on an upholder, and upholders have a bit of a leg up when it comes to reaching goals.

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Upholder Tendency

If you’re getting the sense that the upholder tendency can serve someone well in the gym, or it can be a detriment, you’re right. Every tendency has its strengths and weaknesses.

Let’s take a look at a few strengths and weaknesses in the upholder tendency

Pro: Rarely skips a workout.
Con: May come to the gym even when it doesn’t make sense to do so.


We touched on this a little bit before, but it bears repeating. Upholders can be so set in their routines that they sometimes show up to work out when it’s better to stay at home.

I’ve seen upholders in the gym at 5:30 a.m. after a poor night’s sleep or with a bad cold (pre-COVID, of course). As an upholder myself, I have to force myself to take rest days.

The problem is, these behaviors increase your likelihood of overtraining syndrome and injury.

If you’re an upholder and this resonates with you, I suggest you schedule rest days in your calendar and stick to them. Keep in mind that your best strength and performance gains occur not during training but during rest (and that nothing will set you back more than an injury).

Pro: Works hard.
Con: Sometimes a little too hard.

You’ve heard the Nike slogan “just do it”?

In another intersection between fitness and the Four Tendencies, the Nike rally cry is another of Rubin’s mottos for the upholder.

Indeed, upholders are really good at just doing it. They don’t shy away from hard work, and they rarely burn out (remember: “Discipline is my freedom.”).

Again, this can come at a cost. As a trainer, I’m most worried about upholders when it comes to training through pain or pushing themselves to Rx when maybe it’s not the best choice (STOP DOING THOSE THINGS, UPHOLDERS!).

My advice to you? Stick to the workout’s intended stimulus, listen to your coach, and listen to your body. It’s not worth getting injured over one workout.

Pro: Great at lighting fires under other people’s rear ends.
Con: May end up revolting because of it.

Other tendencies LOVE asking upholders to be their workout partners, based on the (often false) assumption that the upholder will motivate them to be more active.

But here’s the thing: Upholders don’t always love motivating other people. Because self-accountability comes naturally to upholders, some in the upholder tendency don’t understand why other people need so much supervision and cheerleading.

Upholder-obligers can also experience something Rubin calls “Obliger Rebellion,” when obligers fail to set boundaries and completely backlash against outer expectations. If you’re an upholder who is growing resentful that your running partner always wants you to send text reminders for workouts, it’s best to speak up before you bail on running altogether out of spite.

(The same goes for upholder-obligers who feel that a coach is pushing too hard—expressing your concerns as soon as they come up can save you a lot of grief).

Pro: Highly compliant with nutrition protocols.
Con: Jumps in without doing the research.

It’s no surprise that my upholder nutrition clients generally keep up with the action items we create together to reach their bigger goals.

If we decide the client is going to eat 6 servings of veggies per day, they do it. When I suggest they pass on the biscuit if they want the tots, it’s usually no problem.

However, upholders can sometimes get in a pickle when they jump on internet diet bandwagons. In my experience, upholders prefer diets with clearly defined rules and restrictions (that sometimes don’t make a lot of sense). And this can create lots of unnecessary problems, including social conflict/isolation, nutrient deficiencies, and long-term health risks.

Your best bet here is to stick with evidence-based strategies from credentialed, licensed professionals (I know a girl, and she’s also an upholder).

Pro: Tendency most likely to do their mobility
Con: There’s absolutely no downside to this.

Keep on keeping on.

Pro: Good at meeting inner expectations…
Caveat: …as long as they clearly define them.

If you gain nothing else from this article, know this: You’re much more likely to succeed at your goals when you clearly articulate your inner expectations.

It’s easier to lose sight of your goal of losing 20 pounds when you don’t know your why, and what you’re willing to do to achieve that goal. You’re not going to make it to the finish line of an ultramarathon if you just kind of sign up on a whim.

How Coaches Can Help the Upholder Tendency

Given the fact that upholders are pretty great at staying accountable, you might be wondering if upholders even need coaches.

As an upholder with several coaches and mentors, I am a big believer in coaching. Here’s why:

  • A good coach will help you to set reasonable goals and maintain life balance as you work toward those goals.
  • Coaches can help you cut through the diet and exercise BS on the internet and create a program that’s customized to your goals, experience level, and schedule.
  • Even though you are better than most at meeting inner expectations, you might still enjoy the encouragement and support that comes with coaching. I’m an upholder-obliger dietitian-trainer who’s very qualified to write my own programming and meal plans…and I still hire coaches. I do much better when I have someone else checking up on me.

In other words, coaching is a great investment for upholders.

Hopefully, you’ve picked up a few strategies in this post to help you achieve those health and fitness goals in 2021!

But if you’d like to know more, I’ll be talking more about how to harness your unique powers to achieve your goals in my FREE virtual Resolution Remix Lunch and Learn on December 29th at noon. Click here to reserve your spot!

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