The Power of Intention

If you see your set before it happens, there is no question of your success.

How many of you are the best lifter you can be? How many of you take a level of concentration into your training that is unshakable? How many of you walk onto the training floor with such laser-like focus that you are completely tuned into every aspect of your movement? We all would love to say that was us. But in reality, all of us could step our game up.

How many of you are the best lifter you can be? How many of you take a level of concentration into your training that is unshakable? How many of you walk onto the training floor with such laser-like focus that you are completely tuned into every aspect of your movement? We all would love to say that was us. But in reality, all of us could step our game up.

It all starts with intention.

What happens in your mind before you touch the bar determines what happens once you do. [Photo credit: Juanka Salgado | CC BY 2.0]

What Are You Thinking?

Distraction is a much bigger player during our workouts than most of us would like to admit. Loud music, smart phones, the guy screaming on the bench over there; all are conspiring to steal your attention from your training. It’s quite profound when you sit down and take inventory of it. In our pursuit of both physical and spiritual advancement, finding “quiet” is one of the toughest things to achieve.

I ask my athletes all the time, “What are you thinking about when you are pulling that bar, squatting that weight, or pressing that bell?” Almost 100% of the time they can’t give me an answer. More disheartening is when I ask them what they are thinking about before they begin a set. Most of the time I get a blank look that tells me they aren’t consciously engaged in their set. For some lifters a zombie-like state might serve them; no emotional attachment to the lift might allow them to rip away. But for most of us, if you don’t have a plan on every rep, you plan to fail.

Intention vs. Attention

Technique is king in every lift. As a coach, I am aware of the muscles involved in every movement; which ones are the drivers, which ones are the primary stabilizers and which ones are more or less along for the ride. I attempt to impart that level of understanding to my athletes because I want them to know exactly what they are doing, how to do it, and more importantly, why they are doing it. That knowledge is meant to help them develop intention.

Much of what I am getting into might sound more like attention versus intention. There is a distinct difference. Attention places the lifter in a position of the viewer. It gives them a front row seat to what is happening in real time with little impact on what will be taking place. Something happens, you take note of it and you move on. Intention puts the lifter in the seat of the architect. Intention gives the lifter choice, and allows them to plan ahead (even if it’s less than a second before moving). Planning is what attention fails to do. This is where having no plan becomes planning to fail.

During maximal attempts and super heavy sets, most of us walk onto the platform with a degree of planning. But this is a product of fear. That weight is so damn heavy that the survival instinct kicks in. This primal need to survive makes us think about our breath before taking it or perhaps our back position before the big pull.

The best lifters have that mindset before every single lift. They are able to articulate in cohesive detail how they address the bar or the bell. They can almost tell a story about how they enter the rep. They can tell you exactly where their big toe is, how much pressure they are applying and with what degree their center of mass is over that toe. The detail is quite impressive. Their level of intention allows them to go into the rep in a very specific way—so specific that they can speak to things like the big toe example. They go into each set, heavy or light, with a plan.

The Cosmos and the Barbell

Many of us like to carry emotion into a set. We get fired up and hoot and holler, crank the aggressive music, and then thrash away. But in many instances, this style of recklessness can lead to a lack of concentration. That can result in a breakdown in technique resulting in a missed lift or worse, a lapse that leads to an injury. Emotion and rage can only carry you so far, but intention and focus will complete the entire job. This is what separates the greats from everyone else.

Practitioners of spirituality and psychology both agree that your consciousness and intention create the world you live in. Many of them will tell you that we are all linked; not only to one another, but to every living thing in the world. Our thoughts impact everything from ourselves to physical matter that is around us.

In my Qigong practice, intention is what moves the energy. Energetically speaking, your consciousness is the web that moves, directs, and contains the energy. The web concept is an elegant system with remarkable accuracy. If you aren’t going into your training sessions, specific sets, or even individual reps with a high level of intention, you are losing your control over what is happening. The web that contains the energy for the success of that set has no direction, no structure.

Intention in lifting is deeply rooted in planning. It’s the idea that before I go and grab that barbell, I’ve already seen success because I’ve created an approach that nearly guarantees it. I’ve scripted this set in my head beforehand and I simply carry out the plan. That is intention. Your brain thrives on this. It can become obedient to it. Intention is the grand instruction and then technique, experience, and focus will accomplish the task.

The Wake Theory of Intention

Think of the wake a boat makes as it travels through the water. The energy produced off of the back of the boat creates that symmetrical set of waves that move away from each other until the energy the boat produced runs out. Now, take that same boat and move the wake in front of the boat, as if it has already passed through that space. That energy that the boat “is going to create” is already working and creating the wake before the boat gets there. The boat, then, quietly travels through a pre-established path through the water. This is intention.

In significant lifting attempts, or even the most casual warm up attempts, your plan, your intention, creates the script for that set. Know and plan where your head is going to be in your set up, have a full understanding and commit to the effort the set is going to require, and dial up the appropriate intensity before you take your breath. This establishes the wake in front of your boat. If you see the set before it happens, if you set all of the variables at the appropriate amplitude and can clearly see the technique you will use, you push that energy in front of you. And then, the wake moving in front of the boat, that intention carries the attempt. It sounds magical because it is. And it works.

Help from Dr. Phil

I’ll give you an example from my weight room at Cal Poly. Because my athletes are football, baseball, volleyball players, and the like, they are not weightlifters, first and foremost. They lift weights to enhance what they do on the field. So compared to high-level Olympic lifters, they are novices. In many situations, the fear that they have about the exercise in general bleeds into their technique. When a clean gets heavy, for instance, that fear slows their elbows down, which puts them in a forward position in the catch, because the elbows haven’t made the full trip around. Nine times out of ten, they will dump the bar and miss the lift, adding to their fear.

My approach then changes from Coach Holder to Dr. Phil. “I know you are scared,” I’ll tell them. “The weight is heavy. And that is fine. But you have to make a decision, before you even bend down to approach the bar, that you are committing 100% to shooting your elbows through, as fast as you can. Make the decision before the rep is attempted that, hell or high water, the elbows will rip through to the finish as fast as possible.” And the next attempt, more often than not, is a successful one. Brought to you by intention.

Develop Intention to Perfect Your Practice

Focus on what you are doing. Know all the variables involved in each of your sets. Plan on your success from lift to lift. Intention is something that requires a degree of refinement, so don’t assume it comes naturally for everyone. Like any skill, it requires practice and fine-tuning. But, I promise you, if you spend a little time on developing your intention, your training will be taken to levels you have only dreamed of.

Controlling your mind means controlling your fears:

Get Back on the Horse

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