by Charles Staley T-Nation
Here's what you need to know...
• Experts talk about strength training theory, lifting technique, and periodization, but very few talk about the psychological skills needed for weight-lifting dominance.
• While your physicality can be likened to the size of your engine, your psychological aptitude is analogous to running on all cylinders. It determines how much horsepower you can get out of the body you've already built.
When I view the intellectual landscape around the subject of resistance training, it strikes me as significant that so little time is spent discussing the mental skills required for high-level lifting. There are a few possible explanations for the absence of this type of info:
1. We don't think such skills are important.
2. We think these skills are important, but not "teachable." In other words, either you have it or you don't.
3. We understand the importance of the mind's role in lifting success, but don't feel qualified or otherwise capable of teaching these skills to others.
I suspect that the final explanation holds the most truth. Somehow, we view the mind as the exclusive domain of trained professionals with lots of letters after their name, not the purview of meathead lifters like us.
Psychological skills deserve more attention. After all, once your physical skills are well-developed, strategic psychology may be the greatest weapon in your arsenal. While your physicality can be likened to the size of your engine, your psychological aptitude is analogous to running on all cylinders – it determines how much horsepower you can get out of the body you've already built.
So with all of that in mind, here are my top seven tips for "getting your head right" when you really need to uncork a big lift in the gym.
1. Want It More Than You Don't Want it
I've gotta be honest. Last Friday, when I walked up to a bar loaded to 495 pounds, there was a big part of me that really wanted nothing to do with it. After all, best case scenario, 495 was going to require an immense amount of concentrated effort. Worst case, I was fully aware that a quarter-ton of weight has the potential of doing significant harm to my body.
That's the way it always is, right? Whenever you're about to perform a difficult, potentially harmful physical task, it's a given that a big part of you will want nothing to do with it. The only real question is, is there another part of you that really does want a part of it? In other words, you've gotta find a way to make the part of you that does want it, bigger than the part of you that doesn't want it.
If that makes sense to you, the only remaining issue is to figure out how to do that. For me, it's a matter of reconnecting to my goals and imagining how great I'll feel once I've tackled the challenge. For you, it might be something else, but whatever it is, you've got to find it.
2. Be The Weakest Guy In The Room
Before I moved out to California to help Dr. Fred Hatfield with a new start-up he was working on, the biggest lift I'd ever seen anyone do was a 500-pound back squat.
About two weeks after I landed in Santa Barbara, I saw a guy bench 600 for a double. Granted, he was geared (you can interpret that in two possible ways and you'd probably be right on both counts), but nevertheless it completely recalibrated my personal definition of "strong." Before the end of that month all my lifts had gone up by about 15%, despite the stresses of moving across the country and taking on a new job.
The lesson I learned way back then is that you've gotta surround yourself with people who are better than you. When you do this, those better people have the effect of dragging you up toward their level. If you're the strongest guy in the room however, the opposite happens – you get dragged downward toward the weakest guy in your environment.
The gym is like a laboratory for life. In any type of endeavor, including professional and recreational pursuits, it's always best to be the weakest guy in the room.
3. Optimize Your Environment
The previous strategy is actually a single component of the larger one, but before I delve into this, it should be stated that great lifters have the ability to thrive in any environment – that's a very important point to embrace. But once that's understood, we've got to turn our sights to either finding or creating an optimal environment for maximum lifting performances.
Now an optimal environment can mean a lot of things: equipment, people, temperature, music, lighting, and a whole host of other intangible elements that can either enhance or detract from your lifting performance. Like most animals, however, once a lifter finds his niche – the place that meets his basic needs – he's likely to stay there unless a change in circumstances provokes a bit of wanderlust.
Guard against complacency! Keep an eye out for better gyms, better coaches, better equipment, and better lifting partners. Find a place where you can truly thrive and reach whatever potential you happen to have.
4. Focus On Your Effort, Not The Result
If you hold yourself accountable to achieving high goals, it's only natural to care deeply about the results of your efforts. I mean, that's so obvious, you're probably wondering why I'm even bringing it up. Well, here's why: Caring too much about the result of your effort can significantly impair the effort itself.
I liken this to the samurai's philosophy of releasing yourself from the fear of death. The utter disregard for one's mortality is the key – the only key – that unlocks maximal fighting potential: the fear of injury or death creates doubt and hesitation, because the consequences of doing the wrong thing are unbearable.
If I haven't swayed you over yet, consider this example: Your task is to walk for 50 feet on a 12-inch wide plank suspended a foot off the ground. Can you do it?
Okay, now let's perform exactly the same task, but with enhanced consequences: You'll be walking 50 feet on that same plank, but this time, it'll be suspended 50 feet over an alligator pond. Still feeling confident? Why not? It's the same task, right?
The key, then, is to release yourself from those consequences so that your actions are performed with full commitment, which leads me to something I'll often tell a client before he sets up for a difficult lift. I'll say, "Now, there are no surprises here. You already know what's going to happen; you'll either make it or miss it."
The effect of this Zen koan-like reminder is that it releases you from potential negative consequences, which in turn frees you up to focus on the quality and quantity of your effort.
After all, making a big lift isn't as dangerous as walking over those alligators. It's not like your life's at risk. You can always come back another day. And in fact, you will. So focus on what you're doing, because if you do it well, the outcome takes care of itself.
5. Compare Yourself To Others, Strategically
It's only natural to compare yourself to others. It's a great way of assessing your status among lifters, but such comparisons can also be a psychological trap. Personally, if I want to assuage my ego, I can take comfort that I'm stronger than 99.9 percent of my peers of the same age and body weight. But this type of a comparison doesn't fuel my motivation to work harder, so I use it only when I'm feeling particularly discouraged.
A more useful comparison is to look at how dismal my lifting prowess is compared to the greats of my chosen sport. There are guys who can pull my deadlift 1RM for 20 reps, and other guys who can clean and jerk my best squat for a set of 5. Those are the types of comparisons that jolt me out of complacency, which, most of the time, is exactly what I really need. So take care to make comparisons that inspire and provoke constructive action, and be sparing with those that promote complacency.
6. Escape "All or None" Thinking
There's an old saying that "perfect is the enemy of good" and it sure rings true for me when it comes to training. While all of us need structure in our training, we can't allow ourselves to be enslaved by that structure. We must recognize at the outset that driving down a straight road requires constant micro-correction from the steering wheel. The truth is, even the best lifters in the world are constantly experimenting and revamping their programs. It's simply the nature of the beast.
I'd argue that you need to lower your expectations. Don't even expect things to go right. Thinking this way, when your long-term training schedule develops a hiccup (and trust me, it will), you'll be able to regroup right then and there, and move forward.
7. Have The Best "Bad" Days Possible
When I was looking into the sport of golf a few years back, I found that it really had a lot of unlikely lessons for lifters. Perhaps the most impactful of those lessons is the idea that you're only as good as your worst shots. In other words, in golf, it doesn't really matter how great you may occasionally be. All that matters is how good you are in a day-in, day-out, reproducible way.
In the gym, all of us have an occasional great day. But how many of us make the best of our "bad" days? Most of us instinctively measure ourselves by our best days, but the greatest lifters are those who have the best "bad" days. No sleep? Stress at work? Elbow hurts? How adept are you in salvaging a bad situation?
Your Software Drives Your Hardware
I trust I've made a convincing case for the importance of well-developed psychological skills in the weight room. If you've got something to say about the subject, I'm all ears. Please hit me up in the comments section below!