I was reading an article by Charles Staley about the psychology of lifting weights and it got me thinking about my own training and the research I’d done on the topic. Like Charles, I too often wonder why the arguably most important aspect of physical performance is just brushed off as an after thought. The brain is your most powerful weapon when it comes to displaying the abilities you’ve trained your muscles to do.
I’ve talked previously in the “how mirrors make you weaker and ruin your fitness” articles how your brain actually lifts the weight; your muscles simply do what they’re told to do. If you get a large impulse of electrical activity from the brain and spinal cord, you get a massive contraction of the muscular tissue, although it’s slightly more complex than that, barring any underlying disease, it’s not that much more complicated. Pavel Tsatsouline has a great quote “your muscles already have the strength to lift a car, they just don’t know it yet”
We’ve all heard the stories about the untrained woman who lifted a car off her child after a car accident, or the 100lb woman who while under the influence of suspect substances managed to snap her leather restraints and throw an entire hospital bed at the hospital staff – so what explains these feats? Whether through the extreme stress of a life or death situation or the altered chemical state, the brain was able to bypass all its preset limitations and apply a true maximum effort. If a 100lb untrained woman can do these things, just imagine what you could do. Now I’m in no way recommending that you put a gun to your head or munch on some bath salt preworkout powder before your next squat session, but it gives you some insight into just how powerful your mind is
“Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right” – Henry Ford
I have 110lb women that are significantly stronger than many 250+lb men, even some of those who are actively training, do you dare try and explain this difference quoting “genetics” as the reason? Of course the 250lb man has every physical advantage here, the real difference is the way the two groups approach the task. One group approaches the task with focus, they expect to get stronger each week, expect to see results, and have faith in themselves and the process, the other group doubts themselves, doesn’t believe they have the power to change, makes excuses, and fears the task, or mild discomfort. Group 1 will outperform group 2 every time, regardless of the genetic potential, especially if given enough time. I used to believe you were either group 1 or group 2 and nothing could change that, however, I no longer believe this to be true, but it will take a focused effort inside and outside of the gym/sport to commit to this new style of thinking.
“I think therefore I am” – René Descartes
If you’re looking to take advantage of the mind’s incredible power, Josh Bryant, my friend and coach has a great article here http://www.joshstrength.com/uploads/PLUSA_Article_Sep2009.pdf about the power of visualization and belief systems, he sent me this article before testing my 1 rep maxes in one of the first training blocks I did with him and it really didn’t have impact it should have at the time.
Back then I was invincible (or so I thought), nothing scared me, not 600lbs on a deadlift or squat bar, not insane training volumes that would leave me in hilarious predicaments when I had to somehow make it down to the toilet the next day, not my separated sternum or torn rotator cuffs, that nagging pain in my right knee, none of it mattered, every bar I walked up to I expected to lift it – I could recover from ANYTHING! Until one time I couldn’t…
The Power of Fear
Most of you who read my writings know that I had a head and spine injury that sidelined me for 3 years and kept me from training up until late march of this year. I’m now for the first time attempting to peak and seeing where my strength lies in comparison to my pre-injury numbers, and in the last week before deloading I missed my squat weights not once but twice. I’m dealing with medial and lateral elbow tendonitis and a minor migration of the radius across the elbow joint that is especially painful when I squat, to the point where my spotter had to take the plates off the squat bar after I missed the lift and I could barely untie my shoes until the elbow moves back into place. For the first time in my life I’m afraid of pain, and afraid to get under the squat bar.
The squat is especially terrifying right now, because it puts pressure directly on the previously injured area of my spine and I can feel the pressure there more than anywhere else, coupled with the pain response from the elbow, I get an overwhelming rush of negative images and my mind wants to give up, as a result while doubling 510lbs last week, I missed 515 completely the first time, and singled it and got pinned on the second rep the second day I tried it. All I can think about is getting crushed and spending another 3 years trying to walk down the street without getting dizzy, all those experiences are sitting there in the back of my subconscious waiting for me to let them in, and this time I did.
Just like you can use your mind as a weapon, you can let it work against you, this to me is where the character development in training lies. If you ever hear people who have achieved great things through weight training talk about how training has made them a better person, a better business owner, communicator, helped them conquer their fears/phobias etc. this is how it happens. On Saturday I’m going to get another chance to hit 515 for 2, and all the same thoughts will be there, the same fear, that same pressure (I’m fine, I’m medically cleared to train max intensity), and the same elbow pain (ok maybe not so medically cleared here), and I’m going to have to make the decision to get under that bar, put it out of mind and get after the squat.
I may fail again on Saturday, and I may fail again the week after deloading when I test my maxes, I may fail next training block and the one after, but none of it matters. I only lose when I stop trying to conquer my fear, stop trying to fix my elbow and the shoulder causing it, stop trying to dial my training program, stop communicating with my coach, and give up.
If your training program doesn’t scare you a little, it’s probably not making you the best person or athlete you can be, it’s not giving you the opportunity to develop the skills to deal with fear or failure or to appreciate success when you achieve it. Conquer in training, and dominate in competition. In the words of Dave Tate, “prepare, perform, prevail”
Now get after it!