People spend tons of time and money on supplements, workout programs, and so-called fitness gurus, but most miss out on huge opportunities for natural performance increases that already exist in their minds. Not in some woo-woo, abstract sense, but in a way that can improve your workouts in a tangible way, right now, today.
This is especially important in today’s ultra-fast-paced world, where countless distractions lie in wait to hijack your focus and attention. You absolutely must claim your mental territory as your own. If you don’t, you can easily end up just going through the motions in the gym, day after day, stalling out your forward progress or worse, stopping it altogether.
In that spirit, here is a quick, simple, but powerful pre-workout mental protocol in three steps to leverage the power of your mind to supercharge your daily performance.
You can do it on your way to the gym, in the locker room while you change, or even in between exercises.
Your 3-Step Action Plan
Bodybuilding routines and powerlifting programs alike have one thing in common — they’re planned out. Structure and sequence are what guide any sound approach to developing a quality. This holds true for your mentality just as much as your one-rep-maxes.
These are the three major keys to getting in the right headspace for training.
Step 1 — Motivate Yourself With Your Mission
Invoke your broader mission and purpose in life as a powerful source of motivation. Apply that inspirational feeling and energy to your specific goals for the workout at hand.
Step 2 — Visualize Victory
See yourself vividly as already having crushed your workout. Use victorious memories from the past to infuse your vision with a feeling of inevitability. You can picture yourself successfully completing a set before you ever begin it to establish some early momentum.
Step 3 — Empty Your Mind
Put your attention on your breath, and allow it to deepen as you focus all your mental energy on the moment at hand. Do this until you’ve gotten out of your head, and into a more “flowing” state. When it comes time to train, your mind should only be on the exercises at hand.
What Does It Mean to Motivate Yourself?
It’s hard to get excited and inspired by something as specific and unspectacular as yet another leg day, particularly if it’s the same workout you’ve run through dozens of times before. If you’re working out at all, it’s likely for a broader reason. And that broader “mission and purpose,” whatever it is for you, is going to have a lot of juice you can tap into as a bottomless reservoir of motivation.
You can tap into that inner power source with a focused form of self-inquiry:
“Why am I working out today? Because I want to be healthy. Why do I want to be healthy?” And so on.
Keep going until you hit on something really juicy, something that lights you up. It doesn’t have to be noble or serious, it just has to be authentic. If you’re working out so you have a beach-worthy physique, that’s a valid source of motivation as anything, as long as it lights you up and gets you moving.
Why am I working out today?
Once you’ve hit an internal source of authentic motivation — and you may have several — it can be a kind of touchpoint for you. The more you invoke it, the more your mind will automatically draw from it, especially when the going gets tough, or you’re tempted to break your discipline.
Having this inner power source can be the difference between pushing through the last rep of a hard set and quitting too soon. It can be the difference between sticking to your diet when your will is tested and sneaking a drive-thru meal on the way home. All of your training is made up of countless critical little moments like that, and staying in touch with your authentic source of motivation will give you the boost necessary to put you on the right path every time.
What Does It Mean to Visualize Victory?
Most people know that visualization can be a powerful aid to performance, but few do it consistently. When you visualize something, you’re giving your unconscious mind a target, and it’ll do whatever it takes to get you to that target.
If you see and feel yourself having just crushed the bench press personal record you’re about to attempt, you’ll be more likely to actually hit it than if you spent that same time doubting yourself. If you doubt yourself and see yourself failing, even if you’re not totally aware of it, then your unconscious mind may oblige you by sabotaging your lift.
When you visualize something, you’re giving yourself a target.
You can help evoke a state of “inevitable victory” by vividly recalling past memories of what it felt like to win: times you finished particularly significant workouts, maybe personal bests, where you didn’t just go through the motions, but achieved a real breakthrough.
Once you capture that feeling, pour it into your vision of your next goal. You’ll forge a powerful and positive self-image that your brain and body will accommodate.
If visualization doesn’t come naturally, don’t worry. Like with anything, some people have more natural talent than others, but it’s something you can develop. So don’t get caught up in trying to make it perfect, just tap into what feelings and images are available to you, and the ability will develop over time.
What Does It Mean to Empty Your Mind?
Once you’ve tapped into your unique source of motivation and set your intent through visualization, it’s time to get out of your head and into your body. Paradoxically, even the most physically active people can sometimes get deeply out of touch with their bodies, even performing intense workouts while spinning out in distracted, worry-tinged thoughts.
When this happens, you end up with predictably mediocre results, or, worse, you may not even realize you’ve been distracted worrying about your boss until you tweak your back with a bad squat. This distracted worry can be seen on a physical level in how most people breathe — in a disastrously tense and shallow way that locks their brains and bodies in a perpetual background state of fight-or-flight anxiety.
Empty your mind and coordinate your movement with your breath.
So bring your attention to your breath and simply notice how you’re breathing. Notice the specific muscles you’re using to breathe, and as you do, gently try to expand your belly and ribcage on the inhale, while keeping your neck, throat, and shoulders relaxed. Feel the flow of contraction-expansion, and keep your attention anchored on the movement of the breath as fully as you can.
Do this for a few minutes while warming up, to a point where you actually feel a “gear change” in your mental state, putting you more deeply in a state of relaxed and alert flow.
When you’re in the moment, you notice things you wouldn’t otherwise: epiphanies about your technique, sensitivity to the power of coordinating movement with breath, and critical form adjustments that can save you from an accident. Your overall performance can’t help but increase.
Benefits of Mental Preparation
It’s a cliché to say that performance is 90% mental, but like most truisms, it is based in reality. In fact, mentally preparing yourself for your workout comes with more than a few very tangible benefits.
Motivation is the fire that fuels your workout. With it, you can sail through your toughest training sessions with joy and excitement. You don’t just do it, you want to be doing it. Without it, you may wither at the first real obstacle, or struggle to even get started.
You can bypass the mental wall that’s preventing you from changing programs or beginning a new workout routine if you’re motivated enough.
Mental preparation allows you to come from a place of confidence, rather than building strength as a way to try to gain confidence. Your self-image and self-esteem are already solid, which puts power into your performance, and makes you mentally and emotionally invincible to setbacks, off-days, and succumbing to comparison to others.
When you’re focused and fully in the moment, everything flows like magic. When you’re out of the moment and anxiously distracted, everything can just feel off during your workout, and nothing seems to work right. You might feel awkward squatting a weight that is usually comfortable, or fail to gain a good mind-muscle connection on your biceps curls.
Mental preparation allows you to relax not just your mind, but your nervous system too, giving you a sense of dominant presence and flow that should affect your physical actions in the gym in a big way.
When you put all these benefits together, you get one mega-benefit that’s more than the sum of its parts: intensity. That means you’re not just going through the motions or holding ground, but constantly improving, pushing your limits to the height of your potential, always with forward movement and intent.
Who Should Try Mental Preparation?
Your mind plays a huge role in your performance, whether you realize it or not. All too often, it can be an obstacle to your progress. So whether you’re a seasoned competitor or someone who just Googled how to do a pull-up for the first time, you will have to grapple with the mental dimension of your current goals.
As your aspirations rise, so do the pressures, especially in competition. Incorporating mental preparation can give a huge boost to performance at your next powerlifting meet or weightlifting competition.
It also helps get you over the hump of performance anxiety and stage fright, and all the surprising mental and emotional demands that competition has in store.
Most people probably fall into this category. Unless you’re a career strength athlete, your training isn’t the main focus of your life, but you’re dedicated to it regardless.
In this case, mental preparation can not only boost your performance and keep you consistent in the gym, but also build a bridge to the other parts of your life, integrating the benefits of your physical training into all other areas. Training any part of you becomes training all of you.
The hardest thing about exercise (and habit-building) is getting started. Frankly, most of the barriers beginners face are mental. By incorporating mental prep from day one, you’ll be able to keep yourself consistent through the turbulence involved in creating new habits, making space in your life for your new goals, and getting into a sustainable rhythm with them.
Putting It All Together
Mental preparation is simple enough on paper but, like with any aspect of your workout, the key is actual adherence. The whole sequence can work like a sample of the mental dimension of your training. These steps take just a few minutes, and you can do them anywhere.
And while these exercises are certainly powerful, they’re just a glimpse of what’s possible when you start seriously training your mindset and mental toughness. If you’re consistent with them, you’ll not only regularly increase your performance, you’ll also be training your mental and emotional muscles in a way that will benefit you in every area of your life.
Good performance and healthy habits start in the mind, are refined in the weight room, and bleed outward well beyond the doors of your gym. Make your physical training a mental pursuit and reap the rewards.
Featured Image: Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock