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Opinion

5 Things Mentally Strong Lifters Avoid

Avoid these pitfalls to keep your emotional state on par with your training.

Mental strength can be recognized in a lot of different ways. Sometimes, mental strength is grinding through that final rep, refusing to give up halfway. Other times, it is knowing when not to push yourself or letting your spotter take care of you. That may not look like the stereotypical image of a mentally tough lifter that will work out through two hurricanes and a compound fracture, but it’s true nonetheless.

Mentally strong lifters have habits that don’t necessarily include lifting heavy every day. In fact, a good indicator of mental strength in lifting is knowing when to back off.

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.

Mentally strong
Image via Shutterstock/antoniodiaz

[Related: BarBend Podcast: Mental strength with Liz Adams]

What Mentally Strong Lifters Avoid

Mental strength looks different for everybody on different days. One day, it might take all my mental strength to say, “Okay, I’m extra depressed today, but I know I will feel better if I force myself to get a quick run in.” Other days, it might take all my mental strength to say, “You know what? I planned to deadlift heavy today and was really looking forward to it, but my lower back feels out of whack. I’m going to do some active recovery yoga instead.”

Mental fitness is all about tuning into your emotional well-being, not just how much you can lift, according to Dr. Vaneeta Sandhu, PsyD, Head of Emotional Fitness at Coa, the national emotional fitness studio. She says that figuring out what your mind and emotions need is just as important as programming your next macrocycle — and a great sign of mental strength in lifters is knowing when to prioritize your emotional fitness.

Don’t Neglect Your Emotional Fitness

If you hear a phrase like “emotional fitness” and immediately dismiss it as wishy-washy, think about the last time you stepped up to the platform to pull your biggest deadlift yet. You can nail your physical setup and all your training up until that moment…but if your head isn’t in the lift, you’re just not gonna make it. Those few seconds before a heavy pull are all about your headspace — so really, you’re already invested in your emotions as a huge part of your lifting.

“If you’re heavy ‘dudebro’ lifting, you are someone committed to building your emotional fitness,” Dr. Sandhu says.

“Any professional athlete will tell you that it’s impossible to separate the mental game from the physical game.”

But if you neglect the emotional part —  by saying that meditation isn’t a necessary part of your training, or by insisting that you never, ever need to talk about your feelings — it’s like you’re neglecting an entire training split. Barring a highly-specific post-injury rehab lifting plan, you would never straight up neglect working out your back for weeks on end — why would you do the same with your emotions?

Making sure you’re taking time to yourself, interacting each day with people you love, writing in your journal, meditating daily, taking a long walk in the actual outdoors, making sure to laugh every day (like, really laugh, not just an absent chuckle as you’re scrolling Instagram)… all those things are essential parts of your emotional fitness. Find what works for you and cultivate it every day. Your lifting will thank you if you take them as seriously as you take leg day.

Don’t Skip Therapy

You wouldn’t (or really shouldn’t) skip your warm-up every day. Even if you’ve got no current injuries to worry about, warming up properly is all about preparing your body to move in an efficient and safe way. After your warm-up, you’re able to focus solely on the weight on the barbell, not on that weird tweak in your shoulder that keeps acting up because you’re not focusing enough on mobility.

Therapy is similar. Maybe you’re one of those lucky humans who doesn’t struggle with clinical depression or anxiety, and even if you do, maybe things feel pretty darn good in life right now. But just because your training has been going well lately doesn’t mean you should start skipping your warm-ups and cool-downs. In other words, just because you’re feeling decent about life doesn’t mean it wouldn’t help to make sure you’re checking in with your therapist at least twice a month. Dr. Sandhu says:

“Emotional fitness is really about being proactive about our mental health — less like going to the doctor and more like going to the gym.”

All your physical training is akin to scaffolding — it helps build you up and prepare your body for your next competition or your next personal lifting milestone. Therapy can function the same way, preparing you for the next wave of emotional and mental challenges that are sure to pop up sooner or later. 

“Emotional fitness strategies are not a replacement for quality clinical care, so we always suggest that folks connect with a licensed therapist if they’re struggling and need more support,” Dr. Sandhu says. As tuned into your mental and physical training as you may be, outside help is always a good thing, just like working with a qualified trainer or nutrition coach.

Don’t Quit When It Gets Tough

“Don’t quit when it gets tough” does not mean “push through every single obstacle all the time because not even breaking your ankle should stop your training, ever.” Instead, “don’t quit when it gets tough” requires a little more nuance and thought. You should let the bar drop and go home for the day when you tear your bicep on the deadlift platform. That’s not quitting, that’s taking care of yourself. You should let your body and mind rest if that’s what your mental health requires that day.

If you show up intending to squat 85% of your max, and you can barely ramp up to 75% because you got crappy sleep or you’re extra stressed or you have your period and squatting sucks when you’re bleeding…you don’t have to beat yourself up. You don’t have to throw in your sweat-stained towel and say, “Well I suck, so I’ll just quit this program or stop this training, because I’m terrible and I’ll never get any better.”

Instead, you can reassess and say, “Okay, 85% might not be in the cards today, but let’s lift as much as we can with clean reps, record what happened, and come back to it fresh when we can.” That’s not quitting — that’s carrying on and continuing to pursue your goals, even if in a modified way. Dr. Sandhu continues:

“Building your resilience practice will allow you to bounce back from failures more quickly not only in the gym, but in life. There are lifters who, after one failed goal, end up scrapping the entire workout, or lose their discipline, because they’re so emotionally scrambled.”

Getting emotionally scrambled makes sense — we’ve all been there. It can be demoralizing as all get out to feel super good going into a lift and then just fail. But if you actively work on your mental and emotional fitness, it’ll be easier to summon your emotional skills and your spotter to keep chasing your goal.

Don’t Live and Train Like a Lone Wolf

If you don’t feel like you’re benching enough weight to ask for a spot, so you’re embarrassed… being a mentally tough lifter is about asking for a spot anyway. If you’re working on your emotional fitness every day with activities like journaling, laughing, taking time to yourself and hanging out with your friends, it’ll be easier (still not easy, but easier) to ask for help when you need it.

It’ll be easier to step outside of your ego and say, “Hey, I need a hand.” Mentally strong lifters get stronger physically because when you’ve got spotters (both on the bench and in life), you can lift a heck of a lot more weight.

Don’t go at this alone,” Dr. Sandhu says. “Whether it’s connecting with another lifter from the gym, sharing your wins with a loved one, or getting into therapy, find ways to create a community for yourself.”

Don’t Avoid Setting Goals

You’ve got to set goals if you’re interested in being a well-rounded, mentally strong lifter. But that doesn’t mean your lifting has to become all about delay of gratification. You can make mini goals along the way. It’ll help keep you motivated to train — and proud of yourself for each new accomplishment as it comes up.

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Adversity causes some to break, and others to break records…

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You’ve got to set goals if you’re interested in being a well-rounded, mentally strong lifter. But that doesn’t mean your lifting has to become all about delay of gratification. You can make mini goals along the way. It’ll help keep you motivated to train — and proud of yourself for each new accomplishment as it comes up.

Goals give us progress, which then gives us a dopamine hit,” Dr. Sandhu says. As lifters who want to hit a particular number at their next meet, goals are kind of our bread and butter. “It’s important to note that there is no such thing as too small of a goal when it comes to emotional fitness.” Dr. Sandhu isn’t just talking about setting goals in the gym, though. You’ve also got to set goals that will help get your mental state in the right place, too.

“One goal I encourage folks to start with is the amount of time you will dedicate this week to your emotional fitness,” she says. “Think about it in terms of making a commitment to practice, like you do at the gym. Set aside 10 minutes this week to do one thing [like meditation or asking for help] and another 10 minutes next week. As it becomes easier, increase days and frequency” — just like you would on the lifting platform.

Find Your Own Mental Strength

Beating myself up is my brain’s favorite past time — so I know that cultivating mental strength is not easy. But if you take your training off the platform and into every facet of your life, concentrating on your emotional well-being as well as your overhead press, you’ll be much better equipped to hit your next PR.

Feature image via The Grind’s Instagram page: @picturethegrind

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