When properly performed, high intensity training is as much a mental activity as a physical one. It challenges your ability to focus your attention as much as your ability to contract your muscles. It challenges your will as much as your strength. It requires a total effort of both mind and body.
A few years ago I wrote an article about meditation and high intensity training. Since then I have been consistently practicing and refining my “pre-workout ritual”, and wanted to comment on it here briefly because I have found it to be of tremendous value. It has noticeably improved my concentration during workouts and my ability to push myself further than I did previously. While these things will benefit everyone they should be especially helpful to those who work out in typical, high-distraction environments and/or without a training partner to help motivate them.
When mentally preparing for my workouts I have a few goals; to improve my focus, reinforce proper form and to establish the proper mindset for training as hard as possible. The process I use is divided into three phases; quieting my mind, visualization, and entering the “high intensity” mindset. Depending on various factors the whole process might take anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes.
Quieting The Mind
The goal of the first part is to silence distracting thoughts or temporarily clear them from my mind to improve my focus during the workout. I find a comfortable place to sit, then sitting up tall with my head high, back straight, and hands resting in my lap, I close my eyes and mouth, relax, and focus on my breath. I do not deliberately slow my breathing, I simply focus my attention on it, and the movement of the diaphragm and abdomen. If a thought of something other than my breath enters my mind I don’t dwell on it, I just return my focus to the breathing. When I feel my mind is “quiet” enough, usually after a few minutes I move on to the next phase.
The goal of visualization is to reinforce proper form and improve performance. Eyes still closed, sitting up straight but relaxed, I shift my focus from my breathing to mentally rehearsing the workout. I visualize performing each exercise in perfect form, imagining myself moving against the resistance under perfect control. After visualizing each exercise, I move on to the final phase.
The “High Intensity” Mindset
The “high intensity” mindset is what I call a manner of thinking that facilitates an all out effort during exercise. Before starting, I think the following:
“Pain is your cue to work harder.”
“Find every fiber.”
“Leave no doubt.”
After this, I set up and begin. I will occasionally think through these again at the start of an exercise.
“Pain is your cue to work harder.”
Many people terminate a set short of an all-out effort due to physical discomfort, usually muscular burning but also as a result of elevated heart rate, labored breathing and other sensations associated with high intensity work. These sensations often begin long before a person is anywhere near their true physical limits. Rather than associating increasing discomfort with fatigue and ending the exercise it should be associated with the beginning of the most productive part of the exercise and a cue to work harder.
On exercises like squats and deadlifts with high metabolic demand and on exercises like leg extensions and calf raises where the burn tends to be more severe I found this helps considerably.
It is important to note, I distinguish the pain of muscular burning and other uncomfortable sensations which is non-threatening from pain or sensations which may indicate an injury, which is threatening. Non-threatening pain is the cue to work harder, threatening pain is a cue to stop.
When working with clients or other subjects some might prefer to use the word “discomfort” rather than “pain” explaining that while the sensations associated with high intensity work might be uncomfortable, unlike true, threatening pain they are not an indication of injury. If any threatening pain is felt an exercise should be stopped immediately.
“Find every fiber.” and ” Leave no doubt.”
These are reminders not to end any exercise with any doubt as to whether another repetition could have been performed, or whether there might be even a single fiber or motor unit in the target muscles left unworked. Don’t stop until absolutely certain it is physically impossible to continue in good form.
The first phase takes time to learn to do properly. I have practiced meditation on a semi-regular basis for a few years now, and it has taken a while to get to the point where I can just sit down, close my eyes and “quiet” my mind in a few minutes. It may take a while at first, but with practice your mind will wander less and your focus will improve. This is especially important if you train in a typical gym full of distractions like loud music, banging weights and screaming and other attention-getting histrionics.
During the second, visualization phase, try to imagine every aspect of the exercise, the feel of the bar or machine, the contraction in the target muscles, the position and movement of the body, and perfect execution of every rep. Imagine the weight you are using is immense, but you handle it with perfect control.
The third phase is, brief, only taking a few seconds. The specific phrases aren’t as important as long as they are motivating to you or help you maintain a high level of effort. These just happen to work well for me.
Although much of this runs contrary to the “psyching up” some people believe is necessary to train with a high level of intensity in my experience it facilitates even harder training because rather than a general state of increased arousal it creates a state of intense focus – like a precise, high-powered laser rather than an imprecise and undirected explosion.