gillian ward

Managing the Mental Game

By: Joey Gaona, BLOC Intern

The Novice Linear Progression teaches us a lot about ourselves. The human body has an impressive ability to adapt to things required of it, including lifting heavy barbells against gravity. Less obvious are the mental gains that occur during training. As Dr. Puder discussed in Issue #003 and in a recent episode of his Psychiatry & Psychotherapy Podcast, he believes that the brain also undergoes a Stress – Recovery – Adaptation cycle during heavy barbell training, and consequently grows more resilient to future emotional stresses. This adaptation does not come so easily, however, and we have to make a concerted effort to cultivate our mental game during training.

The personal interaction at Barbell Logic Online Coaching enables the client and coach to work closely on the physical and mental aspects of barbell training. BLOC intern Joseph Gaona shared a recent interaction with one of his clients which demonstrates excellent coaching in action. A trainee we’ll call Bob struggled to squat 3×5 @ 235 lbs for work sets. In the past, he had completed triples at this weight but not “fahves.” Solid technique and consistent workouts filled his workout log, but he was giving up on reps mid-set. Bob said, “With squats I can already feel how they will be when I unrack the bar. Sometimes the bar feels heavier, sometimes lighter. Today it felt heavier.” From Joey’s standpoint, Bob’s body was capable, but something else prevented completion. Enter the mental game.


The psychological side of barbell training reaches well beyond the current set. It is the preparation and intentionality one brings to strength training. For Bob, giving up on reps was the result of other mental game aspects needing attention. For instance, he often lifted in the morning and skips breakfast. There are some very odd and crazy people who wake up energized and raring to go (<cough> Matt Reynolds <cough>), but even so, depriving the body of the glycogen stores necessary for heavy training by not eating something before lifting indicates a crack in the mental game.


What can you expect as an BLOC client in this situation? Some tough love. Never berating or demeaning but maybe annoyingly accurate and truthful. As coaches we always want to get you to take the next step toward your goals, though we cannot do it for you. It’s your job to do the work to refine. And tough love is just what Joey delivered:

[Bob], squat technique wasn’t bad. There were some issues that we’ve fixed before but that’s not the detractor today. We’ve talked about lifting in the morning, especially if it’s on an empty stomach. You won’t have as much gusto if your body doesn’t have the fuel it needs after 6-10 hours of fasting (not sure how much you sleep). Much of lifting at this point, where you’re making small jumps, is mental and physical preparation mixed with determination in the moment. All three videos had smooth and mostly fast reps, I expected you to keep going.


We know there could be other stressors detracting from the lifts. We want to bring you lasting strength over a lifetime, that’s our timeframe. If there’s other things taxing you, tell us and we can adjust…but know at the same time, if there’s nothing else going on in your life, we will challenge you to not give up and to push through those mental barriers with physical manifestation (e.g. “It feels heavy”).


Life stress examples: remodeling a home, they’re behind and you might be homeless for a few weeks; major projects/travel at work; relational stress; physical job, it’s 100+ degrees F outside and you’re beat at the end of a day; etc.


I’ve had the, “it feels heavy/doubt I’ll get this” moments. Sometimes I re-rack it before doing any squats, walk away for a minute or two, mentally throw that attempt in the garbage, start repeating “FIVE, Five squats, I will finish five” and if I have to, I’ll visualize all five perfect squats and when I’ve put doubt in the corner, I approach the bar and take command of it. It works more often than not. Also, the bar doesn’t feel heavy in the same negative way.


A lot of this talk is around the squat because I think this is what you need right now. Your technique is safe, I need your head game to match what your body can already do; I can see it in the bar speed and bar path control. Get up for 106 kg, because it’s not going away! 🙂

This is not an uncommon experience; rather, it’s something that all lifters have grappled with at one point or another in their training career. So what lessons can we learn from the struggle?

  1. A great coach will push you but will also pick up when things are off. However, mind-reading is not part of any coaching certification so open communication is key to maintaining lifelong gains.
  2. The mental game is real and real tough sometimes. A helpful framework of the mental game is the first three of the habits in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:
    • Be proactive
    • Begin with the end in mind
    • Put first things first. Signing up with an in-person coach or online with BLOC and showing up are proactive and prioritizing strength training. That’s great, keep going! Before leaving home (or heading to the garage), commit to the workout. Walk into the gym, see yourself completing all the lifts. Before approaching the bar, see that set done perfectly. It might not be easy but it will happen.
  3. See the successful lifts, but if they don’t happen, work backwards. Did you visualize the technique, the meal before the workout, the equipment prep the night prior, the sanitized sleep to rest up for it? No? Keep working at it and the lifts will happen because you did what was needed to prepare for it — mentally and physically.
  4. Do the preparation required to meet your strength training goals if they are a high priority for you. Make the meals, wake up early enough to eat a little something before the session, go to bed to allow your body to repair, etc. If life happens and strength training loses to more important things (family, finances, work, vacation, etc.) that is not a failure, that is a temporary shift of priorities until you move training back into focus. If you’re not a professional athlete and your life does not revolve around the lifting platform, it is normal to occasionally prioritize something above lifting, but only occasionally.


Most trainees begin strength training with physical goals in mind. Over time, many of them find their training refines them mentally and spiritually as well. That’s what makes training different from walking a treadmill and reading Muscle & Fitness. Part of the attraction to this challenge is that it is more than muscles, it is mind-body-spirit / willpower strength training. We are excited to be part of your journey of refinement and strength, now, DO YOUR FAHVES!!!



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