By Rob Clarke Driven Sports
Think back to your last workout. It may have been last night after work. It may have been this morning before work. Now think about a set you performed during that workout. What did you think about during that set?
On the surface this seems like a strange question to pose, but it has purpose. We are all fully aware that distractions can really ruin a set. If some asshat walks too close to the bar while you’re mid-lift, or cuts right in front of you when you’re using the mirror to check your form can really interrupt your flow. Or perhaps your training partner decides it’d be funny to crack a joke while you’re under the bar. Anything that breaks your concentration can become an issue because it diverts your focus.
The likelihood of any of you being able to think of anything in response to the question posed in the opening paragraph is slim. At best some of you may recall “just one more rep…” or something to that effect. Or maybe the rep target you had set out to achieve before the set began. Apart from that I am guessing that many of you are simply drawing a blank. It’s almost like time stood still for the duration of the set.
Your implicit guidance
In the past week I’ve used the phrase “implicit memory” twice. First in the article about chiropractic treatment, and more recently in the Determining frequency series. The latter instance is more appropriate as it briefly discusses the concept of a movement or memory becoming so ingrained that you can do it without consciously thinking about it. It becomes procedural. A perfect example is when you get into your car and pull away. How many of you actually think about putting your seatbelt on, turning the engine on and putting the car into drive? You probably don’t remember the last time you even thought about this procedure, but you may likely recall the times when something has broken your focus and you did something out of order which offset your entire routine. That’s when you have to consciously think “what the hell do I usually do?”
In the Determining frequency article implicit memory is discussed in relation to repetitions enhancing neural circuitry to become better at that particular movement. This is exactly what the top sports athletes have been doing for the majority of their lives – practicing day-in and day-out to master their skills. When it comes to performance time they aren’t think about doing it, they are just doing it instinctively. When Rodger Federer is returning a 129mph serve he isn’t focusing on his arm movement or wrist rotation. He isn’t focusing on the ideal return trajectory or how fast he needs to swing his arm. All of those things he already knows due to year after year of practice ingraining into his implicit memory. His knowledge of physics and the body language of his opponent as they serve informs Rodger quite accurately where the ball will end up and gives him a good idea of the pace the ball will be travelling at. All he focuses on is the yellow blur of a ball as it crosses the court and the positioning of his opponent so he knows where to return it to give him the best possible chance of winning the point.
This is his external focus
Focus on the bar, not on the body
It goes without saying that when you are learning a new movement you have to consciously focus on what you are doing. This is your internal focus. Once you have mastered the movement you can benefit by not thinking about it at all. At that point you actually gain a benefit by shifting your focus onto the outcome – the thing you want to achieve. This is your external focus, and within the gym it should be moving some heavy iron from the bottom of a rep to the top.
Time and time again studies have found the external focus superior. Fairly recently a study investigated internal vs. external attention-focusing in the bench press, smith bench press and squat. The researchers found that the participants that focused on the bar were able to crank out more reps than those focusing on their own body movement.
Other research has shown that an external focus allows you to generate more maximal force during an activity, as well as maintaining a higher force production during prolonged tasks.
You can train harder, for longer.
Less noise, more awareness
It is theorized that placing your attention on an external focus facilitates a refinement of the motor system, reducing any “noise” that may usually disturb the circuitry. In addition to the improvement in focus and delaying of fatigue, this has also been shown to improve accuracy, as demonstrated by research into basketball free-throws.
Aerobic performance can also benefit, allowing you to better manage your running economy. By focusing on the outcome you are better in tune with your teleoanticipation – your central autopilot. Some of you may recall this as a topic discussed in relation to music last year here on the Driven Blog. Any time you have an unknown time or distance to cover you will find it harder to perform to your best. This is illustrated perfectly in an older study from the University of Southampton in the UK. In it participants ran under three conditions.
The first condition was a straight twenty minute run. These were trained participants so no trouble there. The next condition was a ten minute run, however as it appeared that the researchers were about to switch off the treadmills at the ten minute mark they told the runners to do another ten minutes without stopping. The runners found the first minute of this additional ten minutes highly exerting. Much more so than the exact same time period during the previous twenty minute run. This is because they had set their autopilot to ten minutes and adjusted their running economy appropriate to that duration. By being forced to double the duration at the last moment it took the participants a little while to re-adjust their economy and reset their autopilot.
The third condition was an unknown time. They simply had to get on the treadmill and start running. It turned out to be only twenty minutes, but their performance here was poor. Much poorer than the twenty minute run they did in the first condition. As they had no gauge to set their autopilot to they had to take it easy just in case the race was forty minutes or possibly longer.
Knowing the gauge is imperative for the best performance.
In weight lifting we have a similar autopilot that we refine over years of training. It is the internal guidance system that lets us know, from experience, whether the next rep we perform will be all of our own effort or will require the assistance of a spotter. If you don’t have a spotter then you know exactly when you need to re-rack the weight to avoid being crushed under the bar. Of course we all need to make the mistake once to be able to learn from it. I can sense the majority of you reading this nodding in agreement. Once you make the mistake you never make it again.
But none of us wants to go into a set thinking about failure (meaning inability in this instance, not muscular failure). We want to mentally enter each set with the goal of progression and success. In order to do this we need the bench mark that we have to match and exceed. This means knowing what we achieved in the previous workout. What I am talking about is logging each and every workout. I’ve mentioned this on more than one occasion, but a training log is imperative. I even dedicated an entire article to it.
By gauging previous workouts consistently you put yourself in a better position to gauge your next workout. The result is an all-round better performance, just like was noted in the runners at the University of Southampton.
To summarize the main focus points of this article in other words, don’t think about what you are doing, think about what you are moving. And be sure to move it more times than you did in your previous workout.