the psychology of strength training part ii
going to war
by Alec Enkiri | 9/27/19
In part 1 of this series I discussed an idea that I call "autopilot." In a nutshell, using practiced imagery and tactical, deliberate adrenaline rushes to "black out" your mind and allow your body to perform at an optimal level when you need it to the most without the mind interfering with performance. Autopilot is for big lifts and big sets; to be used sparingly and strategically. In part 2 today I want to discuss a more overarching approach and that is the overall mindset that you take regarding your training and how you mentally prepare for and view each individual training session.
Before I jump too far into it I just want to preface this whole thing by saying that there is a time and a place for easy, boring, relatively low effort work in the gym. Rank beginner lifters, for example, shouldn't really practice the ideas I'm going to espouse in this article because they don't have enough skill at the actual act of lifting weights to safely execute them and push themselves above and beyond to such a degree. The risks outweigh the rewards in this case; you have to learn to crawl before you can perform an all out sprint, but that should be obvious. In that same sort of vein, with more experienced lifters there is a difference between "giving it everything you've got" and simply being reckless. This article will dive into ways of cultivating the former. The latter, again obviously, being something that you should avoid. Further, none of the ideas I'm going to discuss here negate the need for following an intelligently designed, proper training program. They are simply meant to enhance the rate at which progress occurs on such a program. These things should all be obvious. However, sometimes it's the things that are the most obvious that need to be stated the most. Now, without further ado...
First Rule of the Weight Room: Always Blame Your Genetics
Everybody wants to blame their genetics.
"I can't get as big or as strong as that guy because my 'genetics' won't allow for it. I'm just not built to be able to achieve those things."
Well, guess what, if that's how you really feel then that's what's going to come to pass. Inevitably. I believe that's called a self-fulfilling prophecy. Never mind all that though, of course genetics play a role in all of this. They play a role in everything that anyone ever sets out to do, but that concept in and of itself should never be allowed to become crutch or a deterrent that prevents you from giving it everything you've got - not if you possess any modicum of passion or drive whatsoever. And it certainly shouldn't cause you to strive for only mere mediocrity. Be realistic, sure, and don't be too disappointed when you miss, but damn, shoot for the fucking moon anyway. What have you got to lose by aiming high? All that happens is you don't get quite as high you dreamed, but ultimately, you end up way higher than you would have if all you ever did was aim low.
This article isn't really intended to be about goal setting though. That's another topic for another day. But I brought up genetics because I think that card is mightily overplayed. Now, part of the reason for many people not achieving anything noteworthy is certainly, as I just alluded to, due to lackluster goal setting: mediocre goals yield mediocre results kind of thing. But I think a bigger part still isn't necessarily where people are hoping to venture to with their training, but rather instead how they go about doing it. That is to say, most people seem to bring less energy into the weight room than they do into their Netflix binge sessions, and THAT is a motherfucking problem if you truly hope to achieve anything worthwhile with all that time you're spending in the gym. The biggest catalyst for change in the body starts in the mind, and most people's minds are not really prepared.
Look, getting strong and jacked is simple. However, don't mistake "simple" for "easy." Homeostasis is in place and it's highly resistant to change. You have to give your body a reason to need to disrupt it. This goes against human nature. The work that must be performed to incite this level of progress is highly strenuous, and you must be able to convince yourself to perform this highly strenuous work on a consistent basis. Thus, there is a requisite level of mental intensity that's required to be brought with you, day in and day out, in order to consistently bring yourself up to this level and demonstrate to your body that you really fucking want it.
2.5" Deficit Deadlift 510lbs @ 155 (3.30x BW)
Now, if you don't care to see how far you can truly go, that's perfectly fine too! There is absolutely no rule that says that by going to the gym you have to want to become jacked out of your skull and strong as an ox. You can just want to become fit and healthy and a little bit stronger, and that's great. I truly wish you the best in that endeavor. Anyone can get that done even with less than a wholehearted effort so it shouldn't be too much of a problem for most people. If this is your goal this article is not for you.
However, on the flip side, if you do claim that your goal is to become He-Man and yet you're trudging around the gym like a zombie, neglecting the barbell or putting in weak ass reps with candy ass weights for months at a time; scared to add weight to the bar or grunt and scream and bleed a little bit; if you're constantly scared of getting hurt and are overly obsessed with maintaining "perfect" technique; if you insist on only using "scientifically validated" training protocols but are afraid of just rolling up your sleeves, getting your hands a little bit dirty, and putting in brutally hard work, then you don't get to bitch about your genetics. You don't get to play that cop out. And make no mistake, that's precisely what it is: a cop out. Yes, there are trade-offs here, but if you can't accept the fact that you might get hurt, then you don't want it. If you aren't willing to scratch and claw and scream and fight, then you don't want it. If you can't muster up the surge of energy required to briefly go into battle every day, then you don't want it.
Going To War
Because that's what this is. We're going to go war with the weights and every training session is the next battle. It's you against the barbell and the gym is the Colosseum. You're fighting for your life, and the kicker is you won't win every battle! That's simply not feasible. However, your effort, your energy, your intensity dictates the ultimate outcome. You can lose the battle and walk out of the arena bloodied and bruised and beaten, but still living and ready to fight another day and win the war, having just been served another vital lesson by your enemy. But if your showing is lackluster, if you can't bring the intensity and make the battle hard fought - make it a real show - then the barbell will put you out of your misery. It will declare right then and there that you have no domain over it. You're its bitch and because of that you will never achieve any noteworthy levels of muscular size or strength.
Is it a little harsh? Is it cliche? Is it corny and hokey? Yes, it's all of those things. But that doesn't matter because it all takes place in your head. It's a mindset, man. And if it works who really fucking cares anyway? The term "psychosomatic" refers to the idea that we can root an idea so strongly into our minds that it will manifest itself physically. Generally this refers to things with negative connotations attached to them like illness or pain. For example, an individual believes so strongly that they were exposed to a virus and are going to get sick that they actually end up getting sick, regardless of whether or not they were actually exposed to anything detrimental. Tell someone who doesn't have back pain that they have a herniated disc in their spine and suddenly their back starts to hurt. The mind is the ultimate governor of the body. Here again, similar to the idea of "psychosomatic illness," we are conditioning the mind but this time to achieve something positive instead. Treat these training sessions like they actually matter. Treat them like there actually is something important at stake and lie to yourself until you truly believe it. Convince yourself that you are going into battle and the barbell is your enemy.
It's easier said than done and it certainly takes great concerted effort to achieve this state and truly make yourself believe that such a trivial hobby requires the same sort of focused dedication, skill, and overall mental intensity as something as dangerous and high stakes as gladiatorial combat. But if you can put yourself into this frame of mind even just a little bit, if you can convince yourself that your showing here today has real meaning that will ripple far beyond the mere hour or two that you spent in the gym I think you'll find that suddenly it isn't so difficult to conjure up the intensity and energy that's needed to really push yourself closer to your limits. Then suddenly, performance starts to improve. Just a little bit at first, but as one high level performance stacks on top of another high level performance it begins to snowball. Improved performance begets further improved performance, which begets greater strength gains, which begets greater muscle gains.
And it all starts with a simple change in mindset. How you view the world around you is one of the most fundamental aspects of your entire life, and you can choose to change those views if they don't currently suit you or your needs or your goals. If getting ultra jacked and strong happens to be an important goal of yours then amending how you view your training to truly reflect that goal, i.e. as an event where failure and lack of effort have actual repercussions, is probably prudent. And if something as simple as tricking yourself into believing a little white lie can help propel you past the accomplishments of the masses and achieve goals for yourself that you never thought were possible then, in my humble opinion, you'd be damned silly NOT to take advantage of this phenomenon. Now do this successfully for 5-10 years and suddenly your "genetics" won't look so bad after all. I guarantee it.