Lifting Rituals – Are They Useful or Crazy?
By: Barbell Logic Team
For bench press, I roll the bar to the front of the j hooks and then roll it 2-3 more full rotations until it “feels right.”
For press, I walk up to the bar, take my grip, and then rock my body back and forth 7 times before getting under the bar and taking it out with authority.
I have to play the same song for all PR attempts.
I have to put my belt on first, then wrist wraps: right, then left…then chalk, then ammonia – if I’m using it – and always in that order.
Between heavy attempts, I have to sit on the edge of a bench or chair and rock back and forth. . .
I put a post lift check mark in my log after each set. Sometimes I just picture myself placing that check there after my set.
I have to have my feet equally far from the wall in front of me when setting up for a squat. It’s normally not an issue, but can be a setup challenge when I’m at or near max and my first placement needs adjustment!
[For deadlifts] I play the same song (God’s Gonna Cut You Down). As it plays, I tighten my belt and chalk up facing away from the bar. Turning to face the bar is like flipping a switch and going into autopilot. I take my grip the same way, left hand first, then right; stomp my feet into position; give the bar one hard jerk; set my back, breath, and go.
An outside observer might question your sanity watching you go through these setups; or they might wonder what inner battle must first be fought and won before you can simply pick up a bar or press it overhead. Rituals (the ones above taken from the Barbell Logic Online Coaching community) are a natural part of lifting and develop out of your successes. Put in enough reps and care about your training enough and you will eventually develop some of your own.
Rituals range from the highly practical—chalk, gear, and a step-by-step approach and good form—to the practically talismanic—it works because you believe it works. This isn’t just a part of lifting culture. If you have ever watched the All Blacks rugby team perform the Haka before a match, you’ve seen one of the coolest rituals in sports. But every venue from competitive athletics to performing artists is rife with rituals from a pre-show shepherd’s pie with an unbroken crust (Keith Richards) to daily consuming rituals “done by noon, drunk by three” was Hemingway’s.
Where do rituals come from? And are they useful or are they a crutch that you should learn to lift without? There is an important aspect to rituals that touch on a form of habit building. For lifting, the goal is to do everything necessary to lift with excellent form while simultaneously being able to put your full effort into the lift. Rituals help put the mechanics of the lift into a routine that doesn’t need to be broken down, examined and assembled piece-by-piece every time you lift. Rituals also help engage the mental state that allows you to commit to a hard task, ignoring the difficulty of the task, instead focusing on its successful completion.
Or in “Captain” Kirk Karowski’s words,
“If you can manage not to f**k up for twenty seconds, you’re going to make that lift.” (Watch the video below for one of the best presentations on the mental approach to lifting you will find on the internet).
Getting in the Groove
This bringing together of a bunch of individuals thoughts and actions into one repeatable process is known as the “groove theory” of habit building. When you are first learning to lift, you will exhibit certain “default” patterns to your movement. For example, many new lifters will attempt to squat with a too vertical back angle when they first learn the low-bar squat. The reason for this is that they tend to have a mental image of them squatting with a vertical torso. And, if you don’t have good feedback on your form, you will get away with a too vertical torso for a while. The bar will be light enough that it doesn’t change your center of mass, you remain balanced throughout the movement, and you are able to squat down and stand up with the bar just fine. However, as the bar gets heavier when its load is at or above your own bodyweight, it starts to represent a significant portion of your overall mass. Then, something interesting happens.
Usually, your depth will suffer. You will find that you can only go so far down before feeling off balance like your weight is shifting forward onto your toes. Or you will find this sticking point a few inches up from the bottom of the squat where your balance shifts from the front of your feet toward your heels before you can finish standing up with the bar. By the time this happens, you have ingrained a movement pattern into your squat that is going to affect your ability to continue making progress. The “default” pattern has become harmful.
To change bad habits, however, you must practice good habits, rather than focusing on what you do wrong. Perform a well-executed squat, with the confirmation that it was good. Then try to do that again. The groove theory of habit posits that the more times you perform the movement correctly through conscious effort the more likely you are to perform it correctly through unconscious effort. Or, more familiarly, “practice makes perfect.”
In the squat example, when you perform your first squats for a coach. He or she may focus first on teaching you to bend over when you squat more than you feel like you have to. This is the difference between completing the range of motion and learning the movement. They start you performing the correct movement so that when it gets heavy you have completed hundreds of reps learning to ingrain proper movement with each one.
As you get further into training, however, the weight only gets heavier and maintaining good form becomes a matter of default rather than conscious effort. If you have to think through every point of a successful limit-attempt squat, you are going to have a hard time simply completing the rep. This is where lifters tend to develop rituals.
Rituals encompass more than just form issues, however, they come from your recognition of success. You load the bar and start getting yourself ready; you might notice the song playing or you might do something different in how you approach the bar, or maybe someone says something that gets you into the right mental state. You lift, and it was easier than you expected. You felt stronger and the bar just flew up. Then, next time, you try to recreate that same set of circumstances. The same feeling and the same lift.
We talked before about focusing on form to overcome the fear of the barbell. Rituals are ways that lifters can focus on form. They come from mental preparation, practice, and habit. And tend to rise out of your successes rather than failures. And for the uninitiated, they can seem a little bit strange.
Because rituals tend to happen through personal experience. No one lifter’s practices are the same as another’s, not exactly. But there are some common themes, and, because most rituals come from what has worked for someone, it is worth taking a look at the most common types of pre-lift practices. You may identify with some of these; you may think people who talk to themselves are crazy.
Types of Rituals:
Visualizing a hard set or hard lift is like extra practice. You build the rote movements and feel of the successful lift through mental training. Tommy Suggs wrote about his mental approach to lifting in which he said:
For several weeks before a contest or heavy day I visualized each of my three attempts for each lift. In those days competition included three lifts. When I visualized the lifts I always saw myself lifting the weight loaded just as it would be in the competition. When I was on deck to be called next I would chalk my hands and look at the weight. I had seen the bar loaded just like this many times and I knew I could lift it now just as I had a thousand times before. (“Train the Mind for Increased Strength,” by Tommy Suggs).
This technique helps to set a “plan” for each hard set: How you will grip the bar, your setup, how you are going to breathe, every piece of the lift that needs to become automatic. Visualization can help.
Sound, touch, and even smell can help trigger some lifters into their default mechanics. Most common is the right song or a hard smack on the back. However, for others, ammonia smelling salts are an important part of their lifting rituals. The mind controls the body and these things tell your mind that it’s time to perform a specific task.
The problem with sensory triggers is that they require an external stimulus and can become a crutch. If you have to rely on something you cannot control then lifting in a different environment or a meet may kick you out of your headspace and affect your lifting.
Some lifters talk to themselves before lifting. This is similar to the sensory triggers but is less reliant on external stimulus. Think of method actors channeling the emotions needed to perform. Lifters channel the emotions to move heavy weights with 100% focus. This can be very useful for competitive lifts, but also very draining if you have to get into a specific mental state for everyday training. There is some value to reigning in your emotions during training and unleashing them during competition or a particularly big PR attempt.
What are your favorite lifting rituals? Do they make your friends and family question your sanity? Let us know!