The Two Minds of a Barbell Athlete

How do you keep your brain out of the way of your lifts?

There’s plenty of good advice on Breaking Muscle about the athlete’s mindset. I’m not discounting any of it, but the emphasis tends to be toward improving motivation, discipline, attention to detail, and attitude. These are all important to a lifter, but in the seconds when you’re executing the lift, how do you stay in the moment and apply the lessons you’ve learned? If you find you’re consistently frustrated with yourself and unable to get out of your own way during your lifts, this article is for you.

Is this a place of quiet focus for you, or mental chaos? [Photo courtesy Cara Kobernik]

The Inner Game and the Barbell

Timothy Gallwey’s 1974 book, The Inner Game of Tennis goes into detail about the principles that allow you to utilize your innate learning ability to maximize the skill practice in every rep. These principles are arguably even more important to iron athletes than tennis players or golfers. A golfer has the opportunity to practice hundreds or even thousands of strokes at game intensity in a single session, but a strongman can only knock out a few sets of log cleans and press at 80% of their one-rep max before fatigue kicks in.

It’s not good enough to just do ‘practice reps’ at light weights, either. A heavy barbell back squat isn’t a harder air squat. The mechanical differences are great enough that it counts as an entirely different lift. Cindy rounds and AMRAP front squats with 135lb won’t prepare a powerlifter for the requirements of a true one-rep max back squat.

So how do you maximize your training and get your mind dialed in at the moment of the lift? Here are some of the principles I’ve found to work in my own training and coaching.

The Executive and the Engineer

Think of yourself as a split athlete with two halves: “Self 1” is conscious, verbal, analytical, and slow. “Self 2” is subconscious, sensory, reactive, and fast. Like a manager and a crew, things go best when each player fulfills their role. Self 1’s job is to collect the best information, provide the vision, monitor progress, and provide feedback for next time after the job is done. Self 2’s job is to execute.

Self 1 wants to be fully in charge, but it’s absolutely terrible at lifting. You’ve experienced Self 1 trying to micromanage the lift if you’ve ever caught yourself thinking: “Stay off the toes… stay off the… darn it, stupid, you came forward again!” If you’re actively and verbally thinking through a cue while you lift or cursing yourself for failure, that’s your Self 1 getting in the way.

Self 2 is infinitely more capable of responding to what’s happening in real time and producing the desired outcome, but it’s not wise to go full Skywalker and “trust your feelings” with a heavy weight on your back. So how do we balance these two opposing demands?

Play Your Part Well

First, keep Self 1 productively busy. Like a meddling boss, if you don’t provide it a task, it’ll find something to do. Identify what ‘right’ means for the movement you’re doing. For instance, in the deadlift, I want a starting position that allows me to lift the most weight by keeping the bar over the middle of the foot, shoulder blades over the bar, and the bar in contact with my legs.

Then identify the issue that habitually causes the most problems: “After the first rep of a set, I tend to set the bar too far forward and don’t reset correctly.” Triage is important. You might have three or four problems, but Self 2 is only going to be able to handle one at a time.

Finally, translate that information into an image or a feeling. Self 2 doesn’t operate in words, but in sensory inputs. When your coach tells you to “feel the steel” or “pull it back,” in your head, feel the barbell against your shin or feel the tension in your lats that will pull the bar into position. If you can’t convert a verbal instruction into an image or a feeling, you can’t apply that instruction during the lift.

Once the lift starts, keep Self 1 occupied by giving it a monitoring task. Pay close attention to your sensory cue and provide feedback to Self 2, trusting that it will do its best to fix the problem. Ask yourself at the end of the set: “Did the bar stay in contact with my legs?” You should know, because you’ve been paying close attention to it. This way, you stay mentally engaged about a cue that produces results and you’re now set up to improve the next set.

Remember the Long Game

The most Zen concept in The Inner Game is the one with the greatest potential impact on your life and training. It is also the hardest: accept where you are while still striving for a goal. Our natural tendency is to think that we are failures for not already being where we want to be. This applies to every fitness aim: weight loss, adding pounds to your total, or mastering a muscle up.

You see it when a lifter throws a fit on the platform, or when a chronic dieter proudly announces on Facebook that “diets just don’t work.” These are responses to self-judgment. “I failed” becomes “I’m a failure,” and we either identify with it, which invites sadness and anxiety, pretend the event didn’t happen, or place the blame on something else to escape the feeling.

If you feel like banging your head into the barbell or smashing your scale with a hammer, stop for a moment. Is the toddler a failure for stumbling when he tries to walk? Of course not. In this moment, you are what you are. Have faith that you will learn and grow as you’ve learned and grown in a thousand ways before. Be proud of every small, measurable step you make in the right direction.

Then bring yourself back to the moment. What real, tangible thing can you do right now towards reaching your goal? It might mean taking a few pounds off the bar, reviewing your programming, or taking a nap. Whatever it is, decide and then execute. Commit and trust the process, tweak as necessary, and you will eventually make your goal, whether it happens in the next set or five years from now.

Get your head out of the way of your training:

Is Perfectionism Holding Your Training Back?

Coaches: Are you helping your clients manage their mindset?

Weightlifters: Park Those Preconceptions at the Door

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