As you can imagine, dragging yourself into the gym five to six times a week on a mission to push yourself to new limits time and time again can be extremely challenging – physically, emotionally and mentally. You certainly learn a lot about yourself – what your strengths are, as well as what your weaknesses and fears are. And you learn how to come to terms with all these and somehow work with them and around them to progress towards your goals.
Any athlete or person who’s committed to working out for a purpose goes through this journey of inner discovery. And part of the process is getting to know how to best prepare yourself mentally every day and for each and every workout you face.
Having trained specifically for competition for almost two and a half years now, I’ve learned just how vitally important the mind is for not only keeping me on track to my goals but also for getting the best possible results from each workout. I can’t overstate what a huge effect it has.
For me, there are two sides to mental preparation for my training. One side keeps me going to the gym each and every day without fail, and the other keeps me putting 100% into every workout session I do, or more importantly, getting 100% out of every session.
Knowing how to keep myself committed to my training program has always been pretty straightforward to me – I dedicate time each and every day to thinking about my goals, visualizing where I want to be and what I want to achieve, and motivating myself every morning with videos and photos of my heroes and role models.
How to mentally prepare myself for my workouts and how to approach them mentally, on the other hand, has been more a process of trial and error, to learn what works best for me.
What I find personally very important is to try to remain emotionally detached from the workout I’m about to do or I’m in the process of doing. I try not to think or form an opinion about whether I like or dislike doing a particular exercise or working a particular body part. I don’t think about whether something is going to be hard or easy. I approach everything with a cold, mechanical mindset, like I just have a job to do and each job is the same as every other.
By playing the “favorites” game you put yourself at a disadvantage when you have to do the tougher exercises. You risk becoming unsure of yourself and being defeated by the exercise before you even start. It will actually feel harder to perform. You can’t allow it to get the better of you. There’s no room for doubts or feelings if your goal is to get the absolute best out of your workout. You have to be focused 100% on crushing whatever you’re working on.
In my case, I’m following a very specific program with my training so I bring a workout sheet into to gym with me each time that tells me exactly what I need to do – which body parts, which exercises, how many sets, how many reps, what weight, what intensity, and so on. I find this helps a lot because it means that I don’t need to think about anything in the gym, and I can just go through my list mechanically and focus on actually doing the job to the best of my ability. I don’t need to think about what to do next, how many sets I’ve done, what the time is, and other distracting issues. I can remain totally focused in the present each moment.
Being in the present is particularly important during an exercise. A number of studies have conclusively shown that your mind has a great influence on what your muscles actually experience during a workout. Evidence shows that you can actually mentally alter the amount of contribution different muscles make during an exercise, for example, even with no observable change in exercise form. This strongly supports the long-held belief by bodybuilders in the mind-muscle connection.
My mental focus during an exercise depends upon the objective of the exercise. Most of the exercises I do are aimed at muscle growth, or hypertrophy, so for those I use what’s referred to as an internal focus. This means focusing closely on the muscle group being trained (mind-muscle connection), so that it’s activated maximally and therefore does most of the work and gets most of the benefit.
Some examples of this are focusing on my lats during pull-ups or pull-downs, so that they do most of the work and my biceps contribute as little as possible; focusing on my upper and mid back during rows for the same reasons; and focusing on my quads or glutes during squats, depending on which I want to emphasize.
You’ll find that just using mental focus alone, you can reduce the weight required by many of your exercises, simply because you force the muscle group being trained to work so much harder. This may sometimes be a little difficult for your ego to come to terms with, but the results speak for themselves.
Sometimes exercises in my training program aim to build strength or power, and for these I use what’s called an external focus. This means focusing on the actual result of the movement, rather than the source.
So for example, if I’m doing power squats to build leg strength, I don’t focus on my legs or which muscles I’m using, but rather on the bar. I psych myself up to have an aggressive power mentality, and think about pushing the bar up as powerfully as I can, with every shred of my strength, at all costs (without sacrificing safe form, of course).
The internal focus and external focus have two different objectives, one is to maximize and focus the effort and the other is to maximize the result. And the difference that using these makes to the effectiveness of my workouts is enormous.
At the end of the day, however, we’re all human, not robots, so as much as we try to avoid it, we can still have occasional bad days where we feel tired, demotivated, or simply not at our best, and our mind can weaken.
Like many people, my least favorite type of exercise is cardio. And on those days when I’m not feeling mentally 100% but have a particularly grueling cardio session to do (these normally only come along during contest prep, thank goodness!), I make a point of doing my cardio workout first, followed by my weights session, rather than the other way around as I normally do.
By using this strategy when my mind isn’t at its best, I find that not having the thought of an impending tough cardio session hanging over my head allows me to focus better on my weights session. It’s mentally more uplifting knowing that once the tough workout is out of the way, the rest of the day will be easier by comparison.
It’s very easy, once you’ve been working out for a long time, so grow complacent and start simply “going through the motions” with your training. This is when your results really begin to suffer noticeably. That’s why it’s so important to always work hard on staying mentally engaged both with your fitness lifestyle as a whole and with each workout session.
Work on finding out how to best use your thinking to maximize the results of your training program as a whole and of your individual workouts. Get familiar with what works for you personally and make a habit of using your mind as much as you use your body during your training sessions.
It’s not about trying to make yourself perfect or a machine that can’t be stopped, that will never happen. It’s simply about understanding the great power of your mind and managing it cleverly to allow it to give you as much of an advantage in your training as possible.