5 Ways to Train the Brain for Bigger Lifts In the Gym

Focus is really important in the gym — for obvious reasons. Whether you’re attempting to hit a new PR or just cranking out some pump-up sets, you’re more likely to get good results if you’re focused on the task at hand, performing your exercises deliberately and with maximal effort.

You’re also less likely to get injured. But getting focused and staying focused can be really challenging sometimes, especially if you’re tired, angry, or distracted by things outside of the gym. Below are five tips to help when you’re struggling to stay in the zone.

1. Warm-Up Your Focus

If you’re just starting your workout, and you’re having trouble getting in the zone, one of the best cures is an extended warm-up. Start off with a few minutes of cardiovascular activity to raise your core body temperature, and once you’ve broken a light sweat, start with an isolation or machine-based exercise that won’t fatigue you for the rest of your training.

Since these types of exercises are straightforward and don’t require a lot of coordination or timing, you can afford to put your attention on just one thing. Maybe it’s the burn, or maybe it’s the feeling of a dumbbell in your hand, or maybe it’s even your image in the mirror! Doesn’t matter: once you’ve “warmed-up your focus” in this way, it’ll be a little easier to stay focused when you’re performing more complicated movements.


Building Focus: Try this

If you’re dragging a bit on a heavy leg day, begin with five minutes on your choice of cardio machine. Go at an easy pace, but try to break a light sweat. Then grab a light resistance band, loop one end around your shoulders, and stand on the other end.

Crank out a set of 50 bodyweight squats, focusing on pressing your feet through the ground on each and every rep. Try to remember that feeling when you move on to your other quad exercises!

2. Have a Lifting Ritual

Rituals are short, easily repeated behaviors that you can perform before a lift and that are associated in your mind with high performance. For example, you might get a slap on the back from a training partner before a deadlift attempt; or maybe you clap your hands; or even say a prayer.

The nature of the ritual doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the ritual helps you to recall the feeling of a great lift: the adrenaline, the happiness, or whatever else “great lift” or big PR means to you. By returning to those feelings, you can help to recreate them whenever you need.

Exercise Ritual: Try this

The next time you’re going for a big PR, have a training partner “massage” your ears for a few seconds, and then give them a light smack. Surprisingly, this ritual can help you to calm down and focus!

3. Breathe Properly

The breath is a great indicator of how the body is feeling — and how it can perform. Think about it: if you’re hyperventilating, good chances are you’re either anxious or exhausted, but either way, you’ve gone too far. If you’re snoring, you’re probably asleep. You want to find a balance between the two, of course, and regulating your breath is one way to do that.


Breathing At the Gym: Try this

Sit down on a bench for a minute, and inhale for a full five seconds, while you focus on the feeling of your chest rising. Then exhale for five seconds, focusing on the chest falling. Repeat that five times, and then see if you aren’t suddenly feeling more focused and ready to go!

Author’s Note: This breathing exercise is a very simple method of reducing heart-rate variability, which can improve performance — and it’s obviously a great compliment to a meditation practice.

4. Listen to “Lifting” Music

You probably already do this, but if not, and you need to boost your focus a little bit, music is a great (and easy) way to do that. While there may be some extra benefits to listening to classical music, or even binaural beats (a form of sound therapy), you’re honestly just fine listening to whatever you want. At the very least, music you enjoy will help to improve your mood, which will almost certainly put you in the mindset to crush a heavy training session — so go ahead, crank up the Taylor Swift!


Music At the Gym: Try this

Got a favorite song you use for heavy sets? Try only listening to that song during your heavy sets — not for warmups or outside the gym. Then, on a day when you’re struggling to focus, you can use that song to bring you back in the zone!

5. Practice Visualization


Got your own way to stay focused in the gym? Share it in the comments below!

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.

Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page, photo taken by @kyle_wurzel.