Focus on Execution: A Mental Approach to Lifting

When you step on the platform, your only job is to execute the movement to the best of your ability—focusing on the particular cue that you are currently working on. You shouldn’t be making any decisions while lifting, only following a predetermined plan, with the goal of consistent reps.

Focus on Execution: A Mental Approach to Lifting

Barbell training—no matter how new you are or how experienced—demands more attention and energy than most people think. Showing up to train is just the first part of progress. You have to show up consistently (i.e., not missing sessions), which is probably the most important factor for long-term progress. But you also have to approach your programming intelligently to avoid wasting time. You need a system to refine or maintain your form to avoid setbacks or injuries. And, of course, you need to stay on top of your nutrition to fuel workouts and help meet your health and body goals. Each of these things take time and, notably, mental space—which can be distracting while lifting and frustrating if your workouts are also requiring extra energy from you to work on form or face down challenging loads.

For these many aspects of barbell training, context is key. It’s important to recognize that there is an appropriate time for each of these tasks, and by recognizing their context, you can handle each one without detracting from other aspects of training.

Programming and nutrition are great examples of planning tasks—things that are decided on days in advance of lifting sessions. When form errors are being stubborn or reps are in danger of being missed, it’s easy for the mind to skip past the work in front of you and go straight to wondering if you need to eat more or less or whether right now is the perfect time to change-up your programming. Right when the most concentration is needed, these non-urgent tasks pry our focus away from the struggle in front of us—which can be the very thing that causes us to fail a rep!

Likewise, when a form error is particularly stubborn, we tend to overanalyze the most—which can be precisely the thing that distracts us from making substantial refinements. It may seem counter-intuitive, but analyzing form errors while lifting is a divergent task that detracts from modifying the execution of a movement. What are the chances a rep will be excellent if you are preoccupied with thinking about how terrible the last rep was?

Execution

So, as you approach the bar, if you aren’t thinking about programming or analyzing your form, what should you focus on? Execution. When you step on the platform, your only job is to execute the movement to the best of your ability—focusing on the particular cue that you are currently working on. You shouldn’t be making any decisions while lifting, only following a predetermined plan, with the goal of consistent reps. Note that we didn’t say perfect reps. Perfection in lifting is a moving target, since every increase in weight brings new challenges to your form. Only when a movement is repeatable can it be modified and improved. Consistent, repeatable technique requires a standardized procedure of steps that you go through in exactly the same way, every time. This set of steps might change slightly as you refine different aspects of a lift, but either way, these steps become part of a ritual that, when performed with exacting detail, leads almost unavoidably to the most consistent outcome you can currently achieve.

As you gain experience, your ritual of steps will probably become a bit more elaborate. If you’ve ever seen a strong veteran lifter, this will make sense: they have probably developed a little quirk in how they approach the bar—and they do it every time. They know exactly what comes next at all times. There is no uncertainty. They may have a form error or miss a rep, but they’ll quickly know where the mistake was because they’re dialed into a groove they know leads to success. They’re acutely aware of this groove, and they focus on not deviating from it.

As you develop a winning set of steps for yourself, you can find comfort in them. As weights get heavier and more challenging, trust in your steps and lean on them. Trust that if you just stick to them and forget about everything else, you’ll have the best chance of completing the set. Find confidence in your procedure, and focus on consistent adherence to it.

Remember that repeatability is more important than perfection. If all your reps are nearly the same but accompanied by a consistent flaw, you simply change the procedure slightly to address that flaw. Excellent technique is the result of a process. It does not come either from luck or by critiquing yourself for every bad rep you perform. This builds on previous sessions and acknowledges (and embraces) the fact that training is a journey and not a destination of perfection.

Successfully Missing Reps

It’s okay to miss a rep!

There is a difference between failing a rep and missing a rep. Missing a rep means you did your best in the moment, and your muscles simply didn’t have enough physical strength to complete the rep at the loaded weight. This is a successful miss, because you executed everything correctly! A failed rep is one that was not executed according to the plan, because the effort (or something else) distracted your execution. Notice here that a completed rep (i.e., your muscles were strong enough to complete the movement) could still be a failure, if you failed to focus on the current form error you were supposed to be working on.

There is great value in successfully missing a rep. How else will you get better at grinding through difficult reps unless you practice this skill? It teaches you how to stick to the plan, even when a lift becomes impossibly difficult and when the outcome is uncertain. The ability to sustain a difficult effort—without reflecting on the outcome of that effort in the moment—is not something that comes naturally to most people. But beyond this, there is something freeing in having that experience: knowing that your sense of accomplishment can have nothing to do with results, only the quality of the effort that went into a task. This is especially freeing for perfectionists, who can start to focus on perfect efforts, not perfect results. There is a life lesson here.

Compartmentalize Tasks

This is also a great reason to have a (great) coach. If you’re paying an expert to handle programming, nutrition, and form correction (the technical details), it frees you to focus on only the quality of your input and habits. No one can lift the weights for you, but coaches can take the guesswork out of the many decisions that accompany training. If a successfully missed rep is due to the need for a programming change, it’s not your problem! That’s your coach’s job, so let them worry about it.

If you coach yourself, then you must manage all of these tasks on your own. This is still perfectly doable, but you must identify when it is the appropriate time for each task and not let them bleed into others. The platform is still a space reserved for execution. Rest periods are the time to review video, decide on what form errors need attention, and how you’ll cue it. On the platform, revert back to the foot soldier that is simply following orders; no more analyzing should take place. No one is a coach on the platform! During the next rest period, review the video again and see how you performed. Consider how these results inform your long-term planning and goals when you are reflecting on programming and diet outside of a lifting session. Compartmentalizing tasks like this can be a successful way of simplifying the process of handling multiple roles.

When you step onto a platform, all that is important is sticking to your ritual—simply performing the current step as consistently as you possibly can—and letting go of your infatuation with the results of that effort. When you can finally do this, there’s no longer the burden of outcome as a metric of success, which is not in your control. You have no control (in the moment) over how much glycogen and ATP reserve is in your muscle fibers or how much force those muscles can produce at a particular time. All you have control over is how consistently you command them to do their best. Just remember that the outcome is not the success; consistent execution is your real aim, and that is always in your control.

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