By: Barbell Logic Team

Training is hard. The point isn’t to find your limits. The point isn’t to exceed your limits. The point is to go through the refining fire of voluntary hardship. When you are in the middle of it, the heat is unbearable, but when you remove the doubts and fears, things that are like impurities afflicting your iron will, then you discover something about yourself.

Dealing with Fear in Training

fear during strength training

Photo: Nick Delgadillo

Strength training is hard. The call to embrace the grind, to suffer, sweat, grunt, and struggle is good advice. But what do you do when the barbell makes you afraid, when the main voice in your head is yelling doubts, or the barbell makes you freeze like a deer in headlights? There are different ways to overcome fear and regain your focus in training. For some, putting on blinders and approaching each session with single-minded determination helps. For others, they focus on the bigger picture, letting their reasons for training carry them through the rough patches. Or they might rely on other powerful emotions, like anger, or use an almost meditative routine to help focus their minds. Each of these approaches works for different people and for different reasons. Below, we’ll discuss some of the sources of fear that might affect your training and possible strategies to overcome, regain your focus, and continue getting stronger.

Where Does Fear Come From?

All organisms must detect and respond to significant stimuli in order to survive. Our bodies come with certain ingrained responses to things like hunger, extreme cold, pain, and various stimuli that cause fear. These responses cause physical and behavioral changes. For example, hunger produces hormonal changes that motivate you to eat. Prolonged or continuous hunger can also change your metabolic processes and your response to food and food cues. Something so tied to survival produces unavoidable physiological and psychological reactions.

In your everyday life, you encounter stimuli that will cause in you certain reactions. If you are hungry, you are motivated to eat. If you almost get into a car accident on the way to work, you will experience an elevated heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and possibly shaking and anger. You may assign a subjective feeling to these responses: fear, sadness, joy, etc. But, at the basic level, automatic physiological and psychological responses are things we do to deal with challenges and opportunities in our environment. They are things that allow us to survive and thrive.

Of these responses, the fear and defense systems have been studied more than any other emotional state. Darwin believed that fear responses (and other emotions) are hereditary, being something that allowed organisms to survive. Others have postulated that fear is one of the few innate emotions to humans, something we are born with, not something we learn. Indeed, several studies have shown that certain stimuli or situations will cause a fear response in children too young to have developed a learned response to the stimulus. Some studies have focused on creating a fear response to new stimuli. Called Pavlovian Fear Conditioning, researchers will combine a conditioned stimulus, like a tone, with an unconditioned stimulus, usually a shock. After only a few noise-shock combinations, the lab rat will activate its physiological survival mechanisms in response to the conditioned stimulus. The tone causes the fear response.

Survival mechanisms are innate, but the things that initiate the mechanisms can be learned. Humans are certainly predisposed to a fear response when faced with certain stimuli: Loud noises, falling or the sudden loss of support, strange objects and people, and pain will each cause fear in children too young to have associated those things with danger. This suggests that there is a hereditary, innate, or sensory understanding of these things as dangerous or that the learned trigger for fear is extremely sensitive.

Why do some people experience fear from barbell training? What forms does fear take? And, what can you do about fear to regain control over your training?

Fear in Training

When we train, we are using our survival mechanisms to make ourselves better. The training process requires that we afflict our bodies with a stressor that forces recovery. The stressors are the exercises, loads, sets, and reps that make up a training session or training cycle. In the classic theory of the General Adaptation Syndrome, the stress stage is the alarm or shock stage. And the responses your body undergoes during a heavy set are very similar to fear responses.

This makes sense. What we call the “fight or flight” response is an automatic response that allows us to skip over psychological and physical preparation to survive a sudden threat. Prey animals show this very well. When a zebra sees a lion in the grass, survival suddenly depends on the full contribution of the zebra’s systems, right now. Similarly, under the bar, once you’ve started the rep, the movement only takes a few seconds. Your body must respond in order to survive. Your heart rate and blood pressure increase to support increased energy demands and the strong muscular contractions taking place, and your mind can go into tunnel vision, where every other stimulus in the room is suddenly gone from your awareness. These are all natural responses to the stress of training.

But, this also means that the act of heavy lifting can bring out strong emotions in the lifter. The fear response arises from the perception of danger and leads to a confrontation with or escape from the threat (also known as the fight-or-flight response), which in extreme cases of fear (horror and terror), might cause you to freeze. You are engaging a fear-like response, and like the rats learning to equate sound with shocks, you may start to learn to fear the barbell.

Some people might fear injury. But others fear failure. Some will become anxious about the training slog they know is coming. Others will experience a sudden spike in fear when the fourth rep of a heavy set of five feels “harder than it should have.” Fear in training is normal, but it distracts from focused training and can affect your motivation to continue training even when you are making progress.

How Fear Affects Your Training

While the fear response is innate, how we deal with that response—how we feel—is much more under our control. In sports, the feeling of fear is very often directed at some future outcome. It anticipates pain, injury, or failure and affects performance.

This is often evident in people who have dealt with back injuries or back pain when they start to lift barbells. One of the biggest impediments to squatting correctly in the low-bar position is the need to bend over enough to keep the barbell over your base of support. As forward-facing, forward-focused beings, we tend to picture ourselves squatting in a more upright posture, thinking about all the stuff we can see in the mirror and ignoring our big posterior muscles. Those who have suffered back injuries or experienced chronic back pain often have a second layer of resistance to this position, associating bending over with back pain, a response that can become Pavlovian in nature. This occurs despite the lifter’s desire to make his back stronger and the knowledge that smart loading and good form will prevent injuries. This often becomes an internal struggle for the lifter who may not realize that his unconscious pain avoidance is affecting his form. It takes time and hard work to overcome the conditioned response to his back pain in order to focus and lift correctly.

Training Your Mental Focus

Every time you approach a difficult set or a difficult training session with anxiety, the end result— finishing the rep or finishing the workout—tends to overshadow the process that will get you there. In “The Inner Game of Tennis,” a masterpiece of sports psychology, W. Timothy Gallwey writes,

Anxiety is fear about what may happen in the future, and it occurs only when the mind is imagining what the future may bring. But when your attention is on the here and now, the actions which need to be done in the present have their best chance of being successfully accomplished, and as a result, the future will become the best possible present.

If you look at a bar loaded with 315 pounds and you know that the set of 5 is going to be difficult, maybe even impossible, then you have already taken your mind away from what you are doing—from the present—and put it on some future outcome that is not yet the reality. When you approach the bar with a yet-to-be-answered question, it distracts you from the declarative intent of the action.

Quiet your mind by thinking about HOW you are going to lift the weight. Not the outcome. Presumably, you have some technical aspect of the lift that you should keep in mind. Methodically approaching the bar, using the same steps and setup each time, like a physical mantra, will help you put the cues or movements that you need to focus on at the front of your mind. The weight on the bar is a distraction, and as the weight goes up, ignoring this distraction and cultivating your focus becomes more and more important.

Now, narrowing your focus or quieting your mind does not mean reducing the intensity of your effort or the energy you are going to put into it. Rather, it is meant to focus your intensity. Think about the fight or flight responses to fear. The goal is to focus the entirety of your systems into one task—surviving the next few seconds. The better you can narrow your focus on the “how,” the more intensely you can pursue one single goal—moving the weight.

Find What focuses You

Different people find their focus in different places. Though something might cause you fear or anxiety, you can train yourself to respond in a different way. Some people play the exact same song every time they deadlift. This becomes like a focusing meditation, the same way someone might draw their attention to their breathing when trying to quiet their mind. Other people use strong emotions, like anger, to focus. This is effective but can be exhausting. Still others focus on the bigger picture, thinking about why they are doing this hard thing. Whether for health or fitness, for your family, or some personal glory, something has put you into this place of choosing to do a hard thing. That reason can help pull your mind away from fear and anxiety and focus on your lift.

The value of (overcoming) fear

Training can be scary. If you are doing it right, you will at some point face finishing the fourth rep of a heavy set of five, thinking you cannot get number five, but you will have to try. Because you don’t know if you don’t try. The point isn’t to find your limits. The point isn’t to exceed your limits. The point is to go through the refining fire of voluntary hardship. When you are in the middle of it, the heat is unbearable, but when you remove the doubts and fears, things that are like impurities afflicting your iron will, then you discover something about yourself. Mostly, you find out that you are capable of doing something even when you don’t want to or don’t think you can. It’s not the success or failure of the rep that matters, it’s the effort. The choice. Because here’s the thing: You stepped up to the bar, you put it on your back, and you got started. You’ve put yourself at an impasse, you’ve forced the choice. We know that if you give up, it will become easier to give up in the future. We know that moving forward never really gets easier, but if you’ve done it once, you’ve removed the excuse to not do it again. It has made you more capable to choose the hard thing. Training isn’t just for physical adaptation. It is the stress of choice in a microcosm that can carry over to every other area of your life. Choose hardship. Do whatever you need to do to build your focus. The fear will always be there, but you will be better for mastering it.

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