Mind over muscle: Putting your head into your workout

Cathleen Kronemer, NSCA-CPT, is a Certified Health Coach and a longtime fitness instructor at the Jewish Community Center. 

By Cathleen Kronemer, NSCA-CPT, Certified Health Coach

When we think about all the factors that contribute to preparing for a great workout, many things come to mind:

• Did I take in enough protein / carbs in my pre-workout meal?

• Did I get in all of my supplements this morning?

• What body part am I training today?

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• Am I well hydrated?

While all of these factors are indeed vital to one’s performance in the gym, a key element to successful training is often overlooked, and that is the power of the mind.  As strong as one’s body may be, the mind is by far the most powerful tool we have at our disposal when it comes to strength training and bodybuilding.

How many times have we tried to motivate our training buddy with encouraging phrases like “Come on, just 3 more reps…that’s it, push, now 2 more….one more….great job!” ??? To be honest, we have all witnessed this and no doubt have either been on the receiving end or done it ourselves.  Simply put, the majority of individuals seem to base their performance on our verbal cues, rather than allowing intuitive senses to dictate their true muscular abilities.  The truth of the matter is that the mind quits long before the body needs to give up.  While there is somewhat of an advantage to verbal cueing, we may actually be creating a barrier to our own progression. 

True motivation comes from within, for that is where energy is stored. It is essential to train not only one’s body but the mind as well. This holds true for professional athletes as well as any gym goer who is trying to make progress.  If, for example, you or your training partner are attempting a particularly difficult lift, one for which 3-4 repetitions would be a long shot, focus on achieving 5 reps. Having that number in mind, and deciding on it in advance of the lift, sets the stage for success, regardless of the outcome.  Certainly the body will want to give up on the 3rd or 4th rep; but having declared that you are going to perform 5 reps, and not merely try for 5 reps, will create a dynamic force which has originated in the cerebral portion of the body as opposed to the muscular part.  This simple act of declaration, the notion that the mind will not allow the body to give up, allows one to harness an entirely new level of power.

I have found this method to be particularly effective in my own training, especially if I have “practiced” it in advance of the workout.  Often, on the night before a challenging lift, I will visualize myself performing the exercise.  I rehearse it in my head over and over until I can actually see myself lifting the weight effortlessly.  The following morning, when the time comes to execute the move, it is as though I have already achieved the success.  I am able to replay the “motivational video” I created in my mind from the previous night, harness its energy, and more easily lift the weight.  It is my mind that has created the power as much as the muscles involved in the actual exercise.

Another way we can help put our heads into the game is to adopt a positive-affirmation mantra.  By taking a moment immediately before lifting to breathe deeply, several times, one can clear the mind of anything that may be distracting.  Then, remind yourself of 3 things:

• “I have trained hard for this.”

• “I am strong enough to succeed at this.”

• “Failure is not an option.”

By this point, the mind-body connection has been established, and the muscle is primed for action.  There is a much greater chance of success once the power of the brain has been activated and included in the process.

Many years ago I established a rule in my Group Exercise classes: We never say, “I can’t”; instead, we say,“ I haven’t mastered it yet!”  This simple phrase leaves room for growth.  The body may be saying “No way!” right now, but the brain is taking over and making the declaration that the skill can and will be developed and perfected over time.  Such empowering statements demonstrate how harnessing the cerebral component of training can remove limitations previously thought impossible to overcome.