By: Barbell Logic Team

The act creates a threshold to the training space. On one side of the threshold is the rest of the world, work, family, life, good things and bad things, the world outside of the mat represents your divided attention. On the other side of the threshold, however, is a singularity of purpose: it’s time to train, to learn, or to fight. Your clothes are different, your attitude is different, and your intent is focused. That effect becomes more potent as you put in years of training and thousands of these mental shifts into training mode.

Creating Intentional Spaces

Bravery in lifting is perhaps more about the practice of responding to the barbell in a consistent manner of action over inertia, requiring you to quiet the doubtful voices in your head, to limit distractions, and to trust your coach and your own experience. In other words, bravery is learned and depends upon your approach to lifting, including lifting rituals, different ways to manage anxiety or fear that you have of the barbell, and other practices you develop through the rote and consistency of “simple, hard, effective” training. Whatever your habits, they are learned behaviors—physical and emotional responses to stimulae that you can observe, explain, or direct. Your training behavior is an essential piece of your physical education, and how you respond under the barbell is likely how you will respond to other aspects of similar physical hardship.

Maybe this has happened to you: It’s time to train, but you aren’t feeling much like training today. You’re tired, you didn’t eat well, and work or school has been kicking your butt lately. But, because you are motivated (or disciplined), or because you have to report to your coach later, you still get your workout clothes on, grab your shoes and belt, and head to the gym. As you travel to the gym, you start to snap out of your anti-training funk. When you walk into the gym, the familiar sights, sounds, and smells cause you to forget about not training and start thinking about what you have to do today. By the time you put on your shoes, the reasons for not training have faded, and within two warmup sets you are in “training mode,” not only forgetting about the  reasons you had for almost missing training but not even thinking about them as you go through the regimen that leads up to your work sets for the day.

Actions and Responses

Actions and stimulae trigger responses, and those responses often determine how successful your training session is going to be. Going to the gym and preparing to lift is like the martial artist who bows to the mat before entering to train or fight. Primarily as a show of respect to the dojo and instructor, bowing can take on greater significance to the long-time martial artist. 

The act creates a threshold to the training space. On one side of the threshold is the rest of the world, work, family, life, good things and bad things, the world outside of the mat represents your divided attention. On the other side of the threshold, however, is a singularity of purpose: it’s time to train, to learn, or to fight. Your clothes are different, your attitude is different, and your intent is focused. That effect becomes more potent as you put in years of training and thousands of these mental shifts into training mode.

You might also condition yourself to productive training with an external focus—your music, the wall decore, or starting a workout timer—setting the boundaries of your attention for the next hour or so of training time. An intentional external environment in which you act according to a consistent pattern forms a learned connection and response. In this case, the connection is the mental and physical preparation for your training session. A lot of the Barbell Logic staff use an external focus—a timer—to create an intentional workspace. Matt Reynold’s (Barbell Logic CEO) has turned us on to a productivity technique known as The Pomodoro Technique. 

“The Pomodoro Technique is simple: Work for 25 undistracted minutes on ONE THING, and then take a 5 min break. Rinse. Repeat as necessary.

That’s it.

Yes, it works beautifully.

Note: The reason it’s called “The Pomodoro Technique” is because it was invented in the late 1980s by an Italian author using a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato (“Pomodoro” is the Italian word for tomato).

How To “Pomodoro”

  1. Prepare for your Pomodoro by turning off all notifications on your phone (set your phone to “do not disturb mode”), turning off all notifications on your computer, going to the restroom if needed, getting a drink if needed, and gathering any supplies needed to perform the ONE task at hand. I always try to be in a completely quiet room with no other people, no TV, no music, etc. However, while traveling I’ll often find myself needing to perform a Pomodoro Technique in a coffee house or the like, and for these times I always use my noise-canceling headphones to block out the outside world.
  2. Mise en place: A technique developed by chefs in France where they gather all ingredients, cooking utensils, plates, and anything else they’d need to make a meal before they start the actual cooking process. Just like a chef, gather all supplies needed to complete the task. If you’ll need tools, books, paper, writing utensils, or a computer make sure you have everything gathered ahead of time.
  3. Always have a single piece of blank paper and pen to jot down any distractions that occur in your mind while trying to complete the task. Remember you need to call your mom and wish her a happy birthday later today? Note it on the paper quickly and get back to work. Want to order a pizza for lunch? Jot it down. Back to work.
  4. Then give 100% of your effort to working on the ONE TASK to complete it.”

(excerpt from Getting S*** Done: The Pomodoro Technique, By Matt Reynolds)

“Doing pomodoros” is idiomatic for focused, productive work among the Barbell Logic staff. 

Each connection that shifts our mind and attention to a focused task is the product of creating intentional spaces. Intentional spaces represent the state of mind you want to be in during your work or training time. This kind of learning we might most simply understand as the connection between stimuli and responses. Or cats and puzzle boxes.

Cats in Boxes

American psychologist Edward Thorndike liked to put cats (and other animals) in boxes. The boxes contained a button or lever that would cause the box to open when pressed. Thorndike observed that, at first, the cats would wander around until they pressed the button and opened the box. He would repeat the experiment, tracking the length of time it took a cat to open the box during each successive trial. Thorndike was one of the first psychologists to experiment on animals, and as he plotted the opening times of his cats, he discovered a learning curve. The cats would open the box more and more quickly each trial. He eventually took his experiments to humans and pioneered “Connectionism” as a type of pan-learning framework, applying to animals and humans alike. 

Thorndike’s learning has three main laws: Effect, exercise, and readiness. In essence, these laws rely on the back-and-forth interaction that people have with their environment. The law of effect says that pleasing responses to a particular action will make a repeat of that action more likely in the same or a similar environment. 

Connectionism might apply to how you interpret and execute a particular cue: You might discover, during a particularly hard set, that thinking WEIGHT BACK and KNEES OUT while you squat made the squat feel better or easier. You are interpreting the feeling of correct movement as a satisfying outcome to the cue. The effect? You are more likely to repeat that cue-movement in the future to the benefit of your squat form. When you start to use this internal cue and make adjustments as soon as you feel the weight of the bar on your back, responding to the discomfort of the bar by retreating to good squat form, then you have formed a useful connection using the law of effect. 

When you do this over and over again, you reinforce that stimulus-response cycle. This repeating loop is the law of exercise. As you repeat a stimulus-response pattern, the range of your responses narrows, becoming less varied and more focused, until you form a reliable pattern or habitual response. The “readiness” of your response will affect how quickly your actions create a predictable association. Squatting, benching, pressing, and deadlifting have a low readiness factor and require more practice to form a consistent connection.

Mental Spaces

Creating an intentional space for your training broadens this concept to your focus and your environment. And, of course, your intentional space may exist entirely in your mind. Intentional mental spaces are a hallmark of high-performing people. For example, Kirk Karwoski, one of the greatest squatters of all time, talks about his response to putting a heavy weight on his back:

“When I’m coming in underneath a thousand pounds,” Karwoski said “I don’t want that to feel light. I’m coming in. I’m taking control, and everything that happens in here is in my head and under my power.” He continues with some of the most useful insights into a stimulus-response mental state for lifting:

“I actually like the weight to be heavy because I’m usually pretty jazzed up when I’m underneath the barbell. But, when you stand up, and you’re getting ready to execute this thing. It’s like getting hit first in a fight. You aren’t hitting me again! And there’s another little gear you can catch and step it up another notch. 

I actually had times earlier on before I really worked on this discipline where I’d take a light weight, ‘oh this feels great. I’m going to kill this today’ I didn’t give it any response and missed it.

You have to keep things the same every time.”

(Kirk Karwoski, “From Cadet to Captain.” Full lecture available here https://youtu.be/WsRzCV5IWfM). Response, action, and consistency build your mental space and prepare you for the most challenging times in your training.

So, the next time you don’t feel like training, you don’t have to think about your entire training session for that day, how hard it will be, or your anxiety. All you have to do is focus on getting into your intentional space—whether that means crossing a physical threshold; putting on your shoes and turning on your music; or like Captain Kirk, cultivating the right headspace with respect to the intensity of the workout itself. Wherever your intentional space exists—whether in your gym or between your ears—protect it by leaving the outside world outside for a little while and focusing on you. 

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