Humans are capable of great feats of strength when in danger. Whether myth or truth, everyone has heard the stories where mothers lift cars or perform other miracles that save children from harm. Most athletic trainers will agree that the human mind plays an integral role in increasing strength and building muscle. In fact, studies even indicate you can gain strength by mental training.
Achieving the mental state to lift heavier weights for longer may be a lot simpler than you think. Pre-workout supplements and your favorite music are nice, but being “pumped up” may not be as helpful as being equanimous.
Amplifying Pain with the Mind
Lifting weights or performing any type of high intensity exercise is going to result in pain and soreness no matter what you do. Often the physical pain is amplified by the mind. Your physical capabilities are finite, but thought processes will diminish your abilities. Try to keep your mind in the present rather than the past or the future.
Equanimity is a state of mental balance that comes from an understanding of impermanence. While under physical strain you may feel pain, but it is not permanent. The pain will end. So do not judge the pain as either a good or bad thing. Many people feel the pain and have aversion to it (i.e. pain is a bad thing) or craving (i.e. crave an end to the pain or exercise). Both of these feelings are judgments the mind creates that amplify the physical pain.
Shakespeare once wrote, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Learn to let go of the thoughts that are often associated with pain and you can enhance your physical capabilities. Equanimity does not increase strength – it only allows you to remove mental barriers in the way. If you continue to resist the pain, it will persist and compound. Stop resisting.
How to Stop the Resistance
There are many methods of stopping resistance in the gym, but these are a few that have helped me. Consider starting with these and testing them until your mind stops interfering with your physical capabilities. It is a lifelong process, but the more you can stop thinking in the gym, the better.
1. Focus on Breathing
Before you start an exercise, spend a minute or so focused only on your breathing. Try your best to remove thinking about the exercise, other people in the gym, your previous training, or getting a new personal record. Your focus should be on the simple “in” and “out” of your breath. To provide oxygen for the upcoming exercise, you can even take deeper breaths if needed. Sometimes this also helps to maintain your focus.
2. Feel Your Sensations
While you are exercising, there are plenty of sensations that you can focus on. Your heart rate will accelerate, your abdomen will contract, and obviously the targeted muscles will be strained. Through it all, just focus your attention on these sensations and avoid judging them. In other words, turn off your thinking brain and feel all the different sensations along your body.
3. Close Your Eyes
Traditional meditation is done in with eyes closed in a dark environment to prevent any kind of visual stimulation and distraction. Before and during your exercise, it is a good idea to close your eyes so that you can prevent yourself from being distracted.
4. Sense the Tips of Fingers and Toes
Before a particularly rigorous exercise, you can feel sensations in your fingertips and toes. Because these regions have so many nerve endings compared to other areas of the body, it is a great place to focus your mind. It will allow you to better feel the subtle sensations throughout your body while you are under strain.
5. Turn Off the Music
Although listening to music can often improve your state of mind, it is a distraction from your senses and feelings. The first attempts to lift weights without music may be difficult, but it takes time to reach a clearer mental state without it. Over time, you will find that doing exercise without the distraction of music will help you far more.
6. Meditate Outside of the Gym
When focused on breath and sensations, you are essentially meditating. By meditating out of the gym, you will increase your ability to focus in the gym. As you get more experienced outside of the gym, you will become better inside the gym. If you cannot sit in a fixed position, just take a walk and focus on your inhaling and exhaling.
Using Zen techniques and philosophy in the gym is one of the best changes I have ever made to improve results. Removing self-made barriers is not easy, but with practice it can be an effective way of accelerating your strength and muscle gains.
1. Ranganathan VK, Siemionow V, Liu JZ, Sahgal V, Yue GH., “From mental power to muscle power-gaining strength by using the mind.” Neuropsychologia. 2004;42(7):944-56.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.