the psychology of strength training: going autopilot
Harnessing the Power of the Mind to Destroy Physical Barriers
by Alec Enkiri | 8/4/19
Mental Strength is the Secret Weapon
Everybody wants to know the secret training program that’s going to take them to the next level. They want you to tell them what exercises to do, what order to do them in, how often to do them, and the special number of sets and reps that will propel their 300 pound squat up to 500 pounds in 12 short weeks. I’m here to tell you that this program doesn’t exist, and ultimately, whatever program you’re running right now is irrelevant to your long term success.
To be sure, a well designed training program is an indispensable part of reaching your maximum potential, but no training program, no matter how perfectly designed it may be, is going to be capable of driving progress forever. Training programs come and go. There is one constant, however, that is always there, either nudging you forwards or holding you back, every single time you step under the bar: the mind. The thing no one ever mentions when it comes to strength acquisition is mental strength. Mental strength is the precursor to massive physical strength. Without cultivating the former, the mind simply cannot fathom or tolerate the brutally intense work the body requires to obtain the latter. A weak-minded person will not appreciate the fact that every single training session is a battle, each one part of a greater war. Some battles are won and some battles are lost, but, regardless of the outcomes, they must all be hard fought. When the low hanging fruit has all been plucked, the weak-minded lifter will cease to become stronger.
The good news is, like the muscles of the body, the mind can be trained and it too can become stronger. One such way of doing so is by tapping into a state I call "autopilot." This is your ace card. To be used only on the top set of the day, the most important set of the day, when the heaviest weight needs to be moved with the greatest precision and when the mind is most likely to stifle high level performance. The basic premise of autopilot is that you're blacking out. You're turning off your brain, shutting out your thoughts, and almost achieving a state of active meditation. The idea itself borrows from the psychological concept of “flow,” and it shares many of its key elements. But whereas “flow” generally refers to a relatively prolonged state, autopilot is more of a brief but highly intense flash. Your intensity becomes hyper-focused on the task at hand, your adrenaline skyrockets, and the conscious brain simply turns off. Suddenly, any fear vanishes and the body goes through the motions on its own. Strength is enhanced and technique is dialed in. No cueing, no thinking, no hesitation. And just as fleeting as the moment, you don’t realize you’ve achieved it until it’s already gone. If you can learn how to achieve this state then you can train unhampered by the mind and begin to explore your true physical limits.
Please note, this is an advanced technique to be used only by experienced athletes who wish to achieve strength levels far and beyond what would be considered "above average" or "good." An inexperienced trainee simply does not have the ingrained motor skill to harness this technique properly. They need to be fully mentally present anytime they lift a weight so that they can focus on the external cues necessary to properly ingrain said motor patterns in the safest and most efficient manner possible. An experienced athlete, on the other hand, has already gone through this process. Their nervous system has already ingrained these motor patterns to a sufficient degree that conscious thought is no longer a prerequisite attribute in order to bring them to the surface and execute them correctly. On the contrary in fact, at a certain point, when plate after plate has been stacked onto the bar, conscious thought can actually become a hindrance to proper execution for the experienced athlete. It can cause overthinking, which leads to hesitation, which leads to doubt, which leads to a lack of confidence, which leads to missed or poorly executed lifts.
No, when the money is on the line and all the chips are already on the table the advanced athlete is much better off letting their conscious mind step to the side and letting the body do what it already knows how to do all on its own without the added weight of your own self-doubt. There are two main components to achieving this state and learning how to tap into at will when it is needed most: imagery and adrenaline.
The first step to achieving autopilot starts long before you ever set foot in the gym. Any elite athlete will tell you that they practice "mental reps" constantly. They think about what they want to achieve and how they want to achieve it and they visualize themselves succeeding in this endeavor over, and over, and over again, and research has shown that this is not without good cause. It's been demonstrated that the combination of practice and imagery (physical reps AND mental reps) leads to far greater performance improvements over time than simply practice alone. Elite athletes do this intuitively. It simply a part of their make-up. They see and feel what they want to accomplish long before the day to do it actually arrives. By the time you step foot under the bar to lift the weight you've never physically lifted before, you should have already lifted this weight in your mind so many times that the event itself is merely a formality.
The key to successful imagery lies in what you feel while during the process. You shouldn't simply see yourself performing the activity, but you should also feel what you will feel while you're performing it. You should feel the way the weight will try to push you out of position. You should feel the way your weak points will want to give way under the stress. And you should feel yourself resisting and overcoming these urges, ultimately leading to success. Think about the cues that help you the most here and try to execute them as effectively as possible. Think about how you'll breath before, during, and after the execution of the lift. Think about perfect technique. Think about every last detail you can come up with and practice this over and over and over until you can execute it in your mind without a hitch. Every. Single. Time.
If you can get to the point where you can really feel during your imagery then you will not only be breeding high levels of confidence, but you will also be reinforcing those motor pathways in your nervous system so that you no longer have to think in order to be able to perform. Instead, your body will simply react on its own. Your body can only withstand so many physical repetitions before it needs time to recover, but you can augment and enhance those physical repetitions with countless mental repetitions. If you do enough mental reps when there is no pressure of failure, then by the time the big moment comes around you will no longer need to be consciously thinking about what needs to be done in order to be successful, you will simply be able to turn off your brain and execute. That's where adrenaline comes into the picture.
When the time finally comes to execute and the door is right in front of you, adrenaline will be the key to opening it. At this point in your training cycle the weights you are lifting should already be heavy enough to make you nervous and excited all on their own (otherwise there's no reason to be attempting this technique anyway). Thus, the key should already be in the door. All you have to do is turn it and walk through. This is the time to amp yourself up. Allow yourself to go a little crazy. Force it if you have to. Scream a little bit. Just do what you have to do to get the blood flowing and get the adrenaline pumping through your veins. At some point you'll be seeing red and you won't really be mentally processing much anymore. This is what you want. This is how you check out and put the conscious mind to the side for just a minute. You don't need your cues anymore. Those are for the light weights and mental reps. Now is the time to simply let yourself get fired up and let your thoughts go.
Let it go
A "normal" lifter will do this and fail catastrophically. Anyone can go crazy, but the key with autopilot is control. Control is what you've been practicing all this time. These guys will get so fired up that they'll forget everything they know, their lifting technique will go out the window, and they'll put in the ugliest attempt you've ever seen. They would be better off staying mentally present. But you're not a normal lifter anymore. You've been training yourself for this moment every single day in your mind for as long as you can remember. Building a reserve and honing your technique through countless controlled repetitions. The conscious mind is simply an anchor at this point. So now is the time to get fired up and let it go. Turn off the brain and remove any doubt that it was harboring. Your body already knows what to do. You've trained it as such. So shift it to autopilot and go smash some PR's.
If this all sounds just a little bit crazy, or perhaps even reckless, that's because it probably is. Nobody ever built massive, elite level strength without having at least a little bit of crazy in them. The process is simply too long and arduous and the stresses, both physical and mental, can become immense. I would even argue that the mental strain that this process takes over time is ultimately the biggest limiting factor of all. Sometimes you simply dread it, no matter who you are. But this little trick gives you a way to bypass that dread when the do or die moment rolls around and you decide that "do" is the only option you want to consider.
405lbs Zombie Front Squat PR @ 160lbs (2.5x BW)
Sport Imagery: Athletes' Most Powerful Mental Tool, Jim Taylor Ph.D. (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-power-prime/201211/sport-imagery-athletes-most-powerful-mental-tool)
Living in Flow: What is it and How to Enter the Flow State?, Ilona Boniwell (http://positivepsychology.org.uk/living-in-flow)
“In the Zone”: Enjoyment, Creativity, and the Nine Elements of “Flow,” Dr. Steve Wright (http://www.meaningandhappiness.com/zone-enjoyment-creativity-elements-flow/26/)