Nothing shrivels me into discomfort quite like scraping a popsicle stick on my teeth. For others, it’s rubbing two pieces of Styrofoam together. And for the boring ones, it’s fingers down a chalkboard.
Got the chills, don’t you?
Crazy how single thoughts cause physiological responses. So even if Olivia Newton-John is getting you physical, a lack of mental preparation will shortcut your gains.
Visualizations are like performance enhancing meditation sessions. Set aside ten minutes before every training session and start a ritual to mentally prepare yourself.
Take a seat, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing. Like, intense focus. Expand the stomach, not chest, with every inhale and exhale. Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth.
Start by recreating your training session. Construct a virtual replica of everything, even down to tightening up your Chucks. Where are you at? Sitting on your favorite bench? What music is playing? Metal? (It better be.) Is that hot chick on the stairmaster like she always is? Stay focused. How do your warm-up sets feel. Light? How does the knurl feel against your chalked hands? How loose are you? Make every repetition perfect. Where do your feet line up under the bar? How externally rotated are they? Where do you take your grip? Load the bar with your PR weight. What does the gym smell like? What’s the temperature? What clothes are you wearing? How do you feel approaching the bar? Are you confident? How is it going to feel rolling over your shoulder?
You get the idea.
THE USES OF VISUALIZATION
- To put yourself in a positive light
Slated to pull a PR? (It doesn’t matter if you’re a true competitor or just an average joe busting heads in a commercial gym.) Visualize your attempt, starting with pre-pull rituals. Detach from negative emotions. Squat, pull, or press with perfect form. Then do it again. And again. Mentally dominate it.
Get detailed. What muscles are firing and when? How strong are they contracting? How heavy does the bar feel at lockout? How good do you feel? How satisfied are you after the lift?
Your goal is to convince yourself that you’ve “been there, done that.”
- To learn something new
Do mobility issues have your squat suffering? Envision what a perfect squat would feel like. How would your hips move? What would the bottom feel like? When do the knees bend?
Sometimes a sucky squat comes down to coordination more so than mobility, so this is a double positive.
- To come back from an injury
Last January I broke my foot in five places tricking. Since then, I’ve had perpetual fear of getting back into the sport because I can’t help but think my foot will shatter unexpectedly. (Although I did conquer this fear.)
- Solidifying a mind muscle connection
There’s a reason “mind” is half of mind-muscle connection. Stepping under heavy shit, doing shit, and trying to feel shit in the process is a shitty way to go about developing it, too.
A good mind-muscle connection happens before you touch the bar by recreating exactly what the lift will feel like. What muscles are getting the most stimulation? What joints and limbs are moving where to achieve this? What muscle fibers are fatiguing first?
You can almost mentally engorge muscles with blood before the lift. So if you’re doing incline presses, and you want the upper chest to blow up, convince yourself they are swollen with fluid before you unrack the bar.
Seeing yourself from a third person perspective is a great teaching tool. Although this is more reserved for learning specific lifts, snapping a video of your heavier training sets can be of huge benefit.
“Nah bro, I swear my elbows don’t flare on the bench press.”
Let the video decide.
If you train solo, capture your top end sets of every lift. If you’re experienced, you won’t be revolutionized, but you will learn something.
If you’re a competitive lifter, record all of your competition attempts. Watch them over and over. See what went wrong and what went right. Compare yourself to other successful lifters at similar heights and weights. And, as a bonus, address any corrections or alterations with visualizations prior to your training.
COMING DOWN FROM EMOTIONAL HIGHS
In the gym, most guys are like eighteen year old dudes. They’re trying to close way too early. (Thanks to Gary Vaynerchuk for the analogy.) Save your energy and excitement for when it counts. Rocking out and getting mentally psyched during warm-ups is common, especially before a heavy lift. We crank up the headphones and before we know it we’re mentally jacked before being close to lifting anything heavy. This is what I call idling, and as mentioned in 12 Tips to Tune the Nervous System. Idling kills performance.
In The Strongest Shall Survive, Bill Starr outlines a rhythmic breathing protocol for these situations (it’s also great for the times you’re in a brain fog and can’t focus). It looks like this:
- Inhale through the nose as close to 100% as possible
- When you think you’re at 100%, take one last inhale (you’ll never be at 100%)
- Hold for 5-10 seconds
- Exhale 100% through pursed lips
- When you think you’re at 100%, take one last exhale
- Hold for 5-10 seconds
This clears your mind and settles your heart rate—an especially useful tactic during a competition if nerves creep in.
PENCIL IT IN
Convince yourself of possibility. And then don’t question it. If a fifty-three year old woman can lift a tractor trailer to save her son, the shit you’re about to do is well within the realm of possibility.
Frankly, I don’t care how heavy you think it feels. Consider the absolute potential of your muscles and realize them. If you keep a training log (hint: you should be), write your workout in a day in advanced. No one likes scratching out and erasing things. Write it confidently and tell yourself it’s etched there forever. There’s no going back.
If you’re not training mentally, you’re shortcutting your gains physically. So shoot some videos of yourself and then analyze them side by side against successful people that share similarities. Keep a log and write your workout down ahead of time to convince yourself of possibility. Use visualizations to prepare yourself before training. And try rhythmic breathing if you’re mind is slipping of a lift or training session. It all adds up. “The manner in which an athlete controls his mind,” Bill Starr once wrote, “determines, to a great extent, just how well he will perform on any given day.”
How do you use visualizations, if at all? I’d love to hear your comments below.