If you were to ask anybody on the planet what percentage of a sport is physical and what percentage of it is mental, I guarantee you that literally no one will say “It’s 100% physical.” We all know that there is a mental aspect to performance especially in lifting. If your mind is not clear and focused then your performance under the weight will not be as good as it could be. Yet, how many of us actually practice the mental side of lifting? The point of this post is to get you thinking about thinking!
What to Visualize
This part may seem simple but it is more difficult than you may think. When picturing yourself lifting, you can't just think, “Oh I'm doing a bench press.” No. You have to add more to it. The more detail you can add to your mental picture the more effective it will be. I mean as much detail as possible. From the feel of the bar to the smell of the leather on the bench, you must visualize as much as you can. When you are visualizing yourself lifting, you are literally utilizing the same neural pathways as if you were actually doing it. If you do this with enough precision you may even notice you may twitch your muscles a little. For example, when I picture myself doing a heavy bench press I will involuntarily tighten up my lats and start closing my fists a little! So what you want to visualize is you executing the lift in as much detail and as much perfection as you possibly can. And I mean really putting in maximum effort doing this! Visualization is one of those things where you have to stress the little things because they matter. You will realize how difficult this is and so understand it takes practice.
When to Visualize
This section is fairly simple but worth mentioning. The whole point of visualization for lifting is to practice and prepare to lift. So you would want to do it before you lift, in between your lifting days, and during your lifting. If you are relatively new or out of practice doing this then you can do it whenever, but in a quiet place where you can relax and not be distracted. Understand, though, you could do it too much to the extent of burning out. If you are lifting frequently, and are constantly thinking about it, and visualizing it 24/7, then you risk approaching burnout. The brain needs rest just like your muscles - so give it a chance! Besides, when you practice visualization you want good high quality practice. Think quality over quantity!
Why to Visualize
This may go without saying but you have to picture yourself successfully completing the lift. Visualization can be more than a preparatory tool but a legitimate way to practice your lifting. So if you fail in lifting you will pollute the engram of that lift in your mind and your visualization of that lift will be of you failing instead of completing it. It would be like starting over in a sense that you would have to mentally re-learn the lift rather than building off of it. Like I mentioned in the beginning, no one will ever say that lifting is 100% physical and 0% mental. So, if there is a mental component to lifting as everyone agrees there is (and there actually is) then you should practice it as an integral part of your training. Also, the skill of visualization that you develop can overlap with other aspects of your life in many different ways.
It Takes Practice!
Obviously you have to practice lifting to help better visualize it but let's get a little more specific than the obvious. In order to get good at visualizing your lifts in extreme detail you cannot have too much clutter in your mind or if you do you have to at least know how to deal with it. This will sound like a cliche, but you have to clear your mind. The best way to practice this is to practice meditation.
One thing I have learned about meditation is to fully relax your body one body part at a time while deep breathing in a calm and controlled manner. I find it best to start with the head and work your way down. Or, you can start with your feet and work your way up. Whatever makes the most sense to you. Once you feel like your body is fully relaxed then you may just sit/lie and breathe and while you are doing this now you can start to “clear” your mind. You are not necessarily not thinking but rather you just let your mind travel wherever it wants to go. The trick here is to now let a thought enter the forefront of your mind, acknowledge and observe that thought, and let it fade or pass by.
Then either that same thought will return or a new thought will enter next and you simply follow the same steps which are to let it in, acknowledge/observe it, and finally let it fade/pass. You are repeating this process with every thought over and over again, all while remaining relaxed and breathing. Now this is much more difficult than it seems because some thoughts may trigger an emotional response and throw you out of whack so if that happens you then return to focusing on just the breathing and nothing else as best as you can. What I do is I just say to myself in my mind “in and out” in unison with my breathing until I'm ready to continue.
Now there is another component to this and that is focusing on one thing and that too requires practice. A simple drill that I picked up from someone smarter than me that I like to do is to grab a pen or a pencil and hold it firmly in my fist with the point situated upward. I then stare at the very tip of the pen/pencil and nothing else and repeat in my head “I’m not letting go of this pen/pencil” over and over and over and over again for approximately 5 minutes (you can set a timer). After 5 minutes of doing this for real you will probably have a little trouble letting go of that pen/pencil. Again, it is more difficult than it seems but that drill is good practice for focusing on one thing at a time and nothing else such as acknowledging/observing a single thought in your mind instead of a rush of a dozen or so.
All of this will help you become a better visualizer at lifting because you know how to focus on something in extremely focused detail. The only thing to understand is that this kind of stuff is a learned skill. Some people have dedicated their entire lives to become masters at this but I just wanted to introduce it to you and hope it will help you!
If you found this to be interesting and want to explore more non-physical aspects of training then sign up for Merritt Powerbuilding where we will not just train our bodies but our minds as well!
Keith Oelschlaeger, CSCS, MS is a personal trainer at Merritt Clubs Canton.