If you have been training for awhile, chances are you constantly look for those tips, methods, and tricks to get more results for your efforts. Spending time and money on implementing the latest scientific methods, supplementation, nutrition, and recovery methods can yield results. However, there is often a relatively simple and effective way to improve your performance with next to no monetary costs and little effort.
Frequently, the missing link is what’s going on between the ears. Setting specific intentions to make big lifts or improve your skills, mental imagery, and identifying your optimal arousal for the task at hand, can dramatically improve performance in the gym or on the sporting field. 1, 2, 3
It should come as no surprise that going into a workout without a solid target or reason why you’re attempting to improve will produce lackluster results. 4 A little less obvious is focusing on your intent around lifting speed and how it relates to performance outcomes.
If you’re looking to improve overall strength, then getting the right intent for speed on the movement/muscle contraction will improve your strength ability. For example, when lowering the weight in a squat or during a bench press, try to do it in a controlled manner with the feeling of tension building up like a bow and arrow. Once you have hit the end range of the lift, then you want to release all that tension, all at once, and try to move your body as fast as you can back to the top of the lift. Remember, it’s the intention of lifting as fast as you can that is the goal because when you have a heavy weight on your back you won’t be moving quickly. It’s just the intention that will give you extra performance and the ability to lift more. On a side note, don’t overlook form for weight or speed. It’s a must to master technique before lifting with speed.
A recent study examined two groups performing a bench press. They wanted to know if giving an instruction to move faster during lifts to one group would produce more intent than a self-guided group with no instruction. 2 The group that had intention and instruction to lift the bar at a faster speed showed a significant improvement of 10% in total weight lifted compared with the self-regulated group which experienced much slower lifts. It was also shown that there was significantly more muscle activation in the working muscles when the intention of a faster lift was set. This could be linked not only to velocity, but also to a mind-muscle connection. 2, 5
It has been well known for some time in bodybuilding communities that there is a strong link between the mind and the muscle. Now, there is science to back it up. 5 This isn’t some mystic new age phenomenon—rather, having a clear intention around training and outcomes in your mind will serve you well in your training endeavors.
Intention Strategies for Increased Performance
Applying this concept is extremely simple, all you need to do is focus your attention into the working area. It’s much like a body scan in meditation. For example, in a bicep curl, place all your focus into the biceps and concentrate on the sensations of the exercise while trying to squeeze the muscle as hard as possible for each rep. You’ll be amazed what a difference being present makes as opposed to thinking about what you are going to have for dinner.
Focusing on your mental approach improves performance in strength and speed aspects and can also allow you to make substantial progress in more skill based sports and training. 6, 7 Using mental imagery or rehearsal is a great way to improve strength and can help with more complex tasks that require a high level of skill. Practicing your golf swing or snatch in your mind will increase your power output (distance hit or weight lifted) and can also improve your accuracy and precision. 8, 9
It might sound strange, but when you’re driving or walking to the gym, try to think over your program and each lift you will be doing. It’s a great way to arrive ready for action and it will ultimately improve your performance. Always consider what improvements you seek and why they are important to you.
The Role of Arousal
Factoring in arousal levels can also play a big part in results if an optimal range is set for an exercise or skill that is being performed. 10 If mental arousal levels are too low, then performance will also be less than optimal. An example of this is when you are too relaxed before an exercise or skill work. When arousal increases performance also increases. This continues up to a point then, if the person continues to be over-aroused, performance will drop. It must be noted that each individual has his or her very own specific optimal arousal level. This can be dependent on personality types and/or how complex the skill is. The more complex the task is, the less arousal will be required for accuracy.
Because arousal is highly individual, my advice is to start small with playing some of your favorite music before your next set to see if it makes a difference. Then, you can titrate the arousal up by jumping around and getting your training partner to yell words of encouragement. If you want to go all out, try smelling salts and give yourself a few slaps in the face. Please remember to quantify this by your lift performance. Did you lift more? Was there a benefit? If you are not assessing, then you’re guessing.
Make Intent Work for You
Don’t overlook your mental intention. This is one of the most controllable and influential factors that can increase your performance. Make sure you develop the right mindset for each exercise, establish a mental connection to your muscle groups, use mental rehearsal for complex skills or movements, and establish optimal arousal levels. Attack the mind and the body will follow.
1. Karl Halvor Teigen, ‘Yerkes-Dodson: A Law for All Seasons‘, Theory & Psychology 4, no. 4 (1994): 525-47.
2. J Padulo et al., ‘Effect of Different Pushing Speeds on Bench Press‘, International journal of sports medicine 33, no. 05 (2012): 376-80.
3. David G Behm and DIGBY G Sale, ‘Intended Rather Than Actual Movement Velocity Determines Velocity-Specific Training Response‘, Journal of Applied Physiology 74, no. 1 (1993): 359-68.
4. Edwin A Locke and Gary P Latham, ‘The Application of Goal Setting to Sports‘, Journal of sport psychology 7, no. 3 (1985): 205-22.
5. Joaquin Calatayud et al., ‘Importance of Mind-Muscle Connection During Progressive Resistance Training‘, European journal of applied physiology 116, no. 3 (2016): 527-33.
6. Robert Weinberg, ‘Does Imagery Work? Effects on Performance and Mental Skills‘, Journal of Imagery Research in Sport and Physical Activity 3, no. 1 (2008): 1-21.
7. Dave Smith et al., ‘It’s All in the Mind: Pettlep-Based Imagery and Sports Performance‘, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 19, no. 1 (2007): 80-92.
8. Vinoth K Ranganathan et al., ‘From Mental Power to Muscle Power—Gaining Strength by Using the Mind‘, Neuropsychologia 42, no. 7 (2004): 944-56.
9. Giuliano Fontani et al., ‘Effect of Mental Imagery on the Development of Skilled Motor Actions‘, Perceptual and motor skills 105, no. 3 (2007): 803-26.
10. Marvin Zuckerman, Sensation Seeking (Psychology Revivals): Beyond the Optimal Level of Arousal, (Psychology Press, 2014).