The Mind Behind the Muscle
I’m not sure what the meditative term is for it but these days I’m sort lingering over, examining, and re-learning the details of strength training that I thought I learned a long time ago. Picking up heavy objects in a lot of ways is very simple stuff. But similar to sitting quietly and focusing on the breath, lifting those heavy objects can provide an opportunity for deep thought and detailed examination of many things.
From a neurological perspective, lifting weights is no different from dancing, painting, learning to juggle or singing. We think then we act on our environment and we create something. Initially we may struggle with the basics of these activities. We must think hard in order to perform the task at hand. We are learning a brand new skill–just like learning to walk or ride a bike. With repetition the neuronal connections between the brain and our limbs strengthen and we can perform our task with relative ease. If we choose, we can perform our task in a sort of autopilot mode: not thinking too deeply; mostly going through the motions.
We have another option. We can dig deeper into our task and explore it. If we continue to concentrate deeply we can develop an amazing connection to what we’re doing and have a rich, vibrant, and meaningful experience in the process. This is where I am in my weightlifting.
Our connection to the strength process can and should occur even when we’re not touching a barbell. I’m talking about visualization, and it’s a technique where we create a vivid mental image of our performing a task. Interestingly, our brain doesn’t know the difference between imagining the task and actually doing the task. Our nervous system lights up as if we’re doing said task and if done correctly, the result may be a new personal record. An athlete–an Olympic weightlifter for example–using this technique will sit quietly and imagine himself effortlessly lifting a tremendous weight. Every detail is imagined: the fit of the clothing, the feel of the floor under his feet, the lights, the grip of the bar, everything. Eastern European athletes have used this technique for decades to great success.
Perfect Execution of the Perfect Set
Now, going into the lift, we should be focused on the task like an animal on the hunt. Now’s not the time to be thinking about groceries, our job, Christmas shopping, or the guy next to you admiring his biceps while he does silly little machine half-curls. The proper mindset has us in a hyper-alert state with an electric-type charge running to every cell in the body. This is a rapturous, invincible feeling. And it is a blissful state of mind. The set has been rehearsed during visualization and there’s no doubt about moving the poundage. The only thing left is to do it.
Re-Examining the Basics
I learned how to squat, bench press, deadlift, press overhead, row dumbbells, etc. a long time ago. I thought I knew everything about these traditional lifts. Over recent months I’ve returned to these lifts with much greater concentration. Part of this comes from my experience with Z-Health where we emphasize the learning of the very basic joint-by-joint foundational movements that make up our larger movements such as running, pulling, pushing, etc. Plus I’ve been reading work from some strength training greats: Pavel Tsatsouline, Marty Gallagher, and most recently, Mark Rippetoe. These men have decades of strength coaching experience under their belts. Their books, Power to the People, Purposeful Primitive, and Starting Strength have provided me with details and insights I could have never imagined on my own. So I’m returning to these basic exercises with very new eyes and a fascination I’ve never felt before.