3 Steps To Rebuild Your Barbell Confidence

As gyms reopen, it is important to mentally prepare for a lack of confidence around a barbell.

If you miss lifting and have a hole in your heart shaped like a 45-pound plate, it’s totally understandable. But daydreaming about squats in an actual rack doesn’t mean you’ll feel ready to do so once you’re back in the gym. You may have finally received that kettlebell you ordered many moons ago, and even though you thought it might feel too light when initially ordered, perhaps it feels a little heavier than you think it should now.

If your lifting and barbell confidence is shaken because of how long it’s been since you’ve been in the gym, figuring out how to set yourself up for an easy transition back can help.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Lifting Confidence
Image via Shutterstock/tsyhun

Where Did My Lifting Confidence Go?

There comes a certain point in your body’s journey where lifting is almost entirely mental training. Sometimes, that point is the first time you step under a barbell in a squat rack. So many of my clients have eyed it with trepidation even when they knew we were not going to approach it any time soon in our program together. When it was their turn to meet the big guy, it was always more mental than physical.

By the time you get under (or over, as with a deadlift) a barbell for a compound lift, your body should be completely ready for it. Sure, there are certain mechanics that only working with a barbell can give you — but that’s not about preparedness, that’s about training specificity. In general, when you approach the bar for a lift, you should be relatively physically ready for it. The rest is both very, very real, and also entirely in your head. 

If you don’t think you’re going to be able to squat your rep — whether it’s with a stripped bar or a loaded 400 pounds — then you probably really won’t. Practice develops good form and also something just as important: barbell confidence. It’s knowing that you can (once you’re properly warmed up, of course) definitely lift that bar. It’s what lets you eventually slip under a 45-pound bar to warm up without a second thought, even when your first squat with a bar wobbled all over the place. Barbell confidence develops quickly for many (hopefully it remains confidence and doesn’t morph into ego lifting), and is a slower build for others.

Confidence under a heavy barbell can be all but wiped out pretty quickly. Not having control over your ability to safely use a barbell, whether from an injury or a pandemic, will likely shake your confidence before it actually impacts your muscles. Beating ourselves up is something many strength athletes do too well, and a forced training gap like this can make it feel impossible to climb back to where you’d built up before. 

It’s more than understandable if you freak out when an old warm-up weight feels heavy to you. But there are ways to prepare for that moment, and use it to grow as an athlete and a human.

[Related: BarBend Podcast: Meg Squats — Getting a barbell into every woman’s hands]

3 Steps To Rebuild Your Barbell Confidence

Feeling strong under a barbell again might take some time, but know that you’re not the only person afraid of this when eventually getting back to the gym. (That guy who’s pretending not to feel it definitely is.) Prepping yourself, both physically and mentally, is something you can do right now.

Make A Program

We’ll start off in territory that lifters are generally comfortable with — the land of programs. There are set variables we can manipulate and spruce up each new cycle to learn more about our body and our gains each time.

  • What can you program for yourself with the equipment and spaces you have access to right now and for at least the coming months?
  • What are your goals when you do get back to the gym?

You can definitely fantasize about future programs that include barbells and sleds and all the things you can’t fit in your studio. As long as you’re also focused on the now, there’s usually nothing wrong with a little fantasy.

[Related: 5 steps to effective remote individual program design]

Accept Your Current Training

You can’t write an effective program for at-home training without a strong set of goals. You knew what you wanted to be able to squat by the end of 2020, right? What’s your lower body strength goal now? How do you want to measure it? When you set out to write a program for the current moment, start with a goal assessment

Think about the goals you had when gyms were accessible. Mourn them if you need to — lifting is often very intimately tied with our mental health, and that outlet can be jarring to lose. When you’re able, translate those goals into ones you can get through now. Maybe you can’t have a goal of squatting three plates right now (because you don’t have plates), but you can aim to improve your Bulgarian split squat performance so much you can finally get into a pistol squat. You can’t bench press right now, but you low-key always wanted to do a one-arm push-up. There’s a lot of training for that — just not the kind you’re used to. Try to embrace the current program you can make yourself. New goals can be fun, and the different stimulus will be good for your overall athleticism.


[Related: How to avoid the false visualization trap in strength sports]

Prepare yourself to be humbled when you get back to the gym. You might be stronger than you were before quarantine in many ways — your mobility, balance, endurance, speed, coordination, and who knew you could do that many jump squats? Don’t forget, however, that your body will still have to readjust to the specificity of the barbell. You’ll bounce back quickly, but your weights will dip for a little while. Your body will be fine from it, taking to the re-adaptation to barbells like a fish to water. All your mind is likely going to register is that everything is ruined and you lost so much time and strength and you’ll never get it back.

This is why working to maintain your barbell confidence now is so important. You know you’ll have to scale the weights and ramp up physically, but you’ll also have to do so mentally. It’ll take a lot of self-control to not ego lift your way to the ER. You can help build that self-control now by practicing visualization on the regular.

It’s not going to be enough to bodyweight squat your way through home workouts. If you don’t actively practice bracing your core and breathing in the same pattern needed when squatting (or benching, or deadlifting, etc.), the relative lack of air will definitely feel panicky when you get back under a barbell. It’s easy to forget how uncomfortable bracing can be. Powerful, yes, but bracing your way through a big lift is not the most natural rhythm to breathe in. 

Throughout your home workout program, you have to train your mind with your breath. Visualize big lifts, including how heavy the barbell will feel, and how you’ll have to breathe when using it. Breathe in the pattern you’ll use when you’re back at the gym, and integrate this kind of bodyweight visualization-movement into your program as often as possible. Controlling your breath can help you control panic — and being in control of that panic can make you a lot more confident when you get to the gym again. 

Confident lifter
Image via Shutterstock/Gorodenkoff

Lifting Confidence

It might seem oxymoronic, but the more gentle you are with yourself, the easier it will be to rebuild your barbell confidence. It’s a pandemic — it’s more than okay if your 1RM dips temporarily. It’s more than okay to not be able to work out at all right now. Wherever you are, make sure you’re building yourself up, not tearing yourself down, in preparation for coming face-to-face with your lifting demons.

Feature image via Shutterstock/tsyhun.