How to Become Mentally Strong in The Face of Training Adversity

The bodybuilding training process is physically taxing,  requires the continuous production of energy via quality supplementation and nutrition, and is commonly thought to be a physical game where only the physically strongest need apply. Before, during and most certainly after our workouts we may feel energized, or depleted, depending on how physically well prepared we are. Our recovery capacities, food intake, and existing cardiovascular fitness levels and muscular strength all determine the quality of our gym sessions. However, it could also be argued that training is as much, if not more, of a mental game – our ability to mentally program ourselves for workout success is an integral part of the muscle building equation.

“Do, or do not, there is no try.”

andre training focus

Whenever we throw on our workout clothes and head for the gym we are faced with two choices: to do whatever is necessary to ensure we train to full capacity and to enjoy the progress that accompanies optimally intensive training. Or, we can wing it and hope for the best (not to be confused with instinctive training, which allows for workout modification in line with how we feel, but not at the expense of quality). In the latter scenario the mind is often at its weakest and will, when faced with the prospect of quitting, hold us back from giving our best.

We must, instead, cultivate a “do or die” mentality that does not accept excuses, nor allow pain to stifle all-out training intensity.

It has been said that to go beyond the pain barrier proves that one is willing to achieve their training goals. Anything less might simply be classed as a warm up. The great Muhammad Ali was once asked how many press-ups he could do, to which he responded that he does not begin counting until they start hurting. Arnold Schwarzenegger similarly said that to endure pain and forge ahead separates a champion from an also ran. All military training involves a great deal of physical discomfort, as does preparing for elite sporting competition. Indeed, pushing the body beyond its existing physical capacity is mandatory for continued adaptation and growth.

Plan and Execute

brandon mental focus

Before enlisting the following key methods to overcome physical pain (an promote long-term gains), one must have a definitive game-plan based on both short, and long term, goals. However, once our game plan has been formulated nothing (barring unforeseen circumstances) should derail us from executing it.

To apply the warrior mindset, and the tunnel vision needed to overcome all obstacles, we must first have a series of expectations to exceed.

For each workout we must know our capabilities and be prepared to extend them. Set a target number of reps and sets, but always look to increase the weight or rep count to promote the unique training stimulus needed to facilitate ongoing muscle micro trauma (damage) and supercompensation (growth).

By planning our workouts (short term goals) to build the physique we want (long term goals), avoid setting unnecessary limits by always aiming to do more – an extra rep may not be in the plan, but if it’s there, take it! This way we condition our mind to push our body harder for more. By strictly adhering to pre-planned objectives we come to believe that there are limits to what we can accomplish. Always be willing to attempt the impossible; to reach higher with each passing workout.

Be Prepared to Make Changes

Though a fixed game plan is important when maximizing and prioritizing the variables which comprise our training programs, it is similarly crucial to know when to modify our existing plan so as to overcome any unforeseen circumstances. For example, you had planned to train chest on Wednesday but strained a shoulder tendon in a sporting incident two days prior. Though you were scheduled to work chest, you may now need to either go lighter than planned or take a week to rest and heal this area. You may not be responding well to a certain movement; rather than continuing to utilize it, don’t be afraid to switch it for another more efficient exercise. The ability to adapt, overcome, and push forward, is an essential mindset to have when training for bodybuilding progress. Programs are not to be blindly followed, instead, they must be workable and open to continuous modification.

Cultivate Self Belief

mark-self-belief

Once our training goals are in place and we have committed ourselves to going beyond our existing physical capabilities, it is time to cultivate a level of self belief that does not accept failure as an option. Most people have determined what they are capable of doing before they have even attempted a task. For example, ask the average gym trainee to press a weight that is 25 percent heavier than they would normally lift for 12 reps and it is unlikely they will achieve 2-3. Tell this same trainee that you will assist them to lift all 12 reps, place your hands on the bar, and pretend to help and they will, under most circumstances, easily achieve all 12. The difference between the first and second scenarios is belief, or lack of. In the second instance, the trainee believed they were being helped and thus that they could achieve the lift.

They key to fostering self belief is to truly believe a task is possible before attempting it.

We form barriers in our mind before we physically fail – by eliminating these barriers we automatically become stronger.

Having complete confidence in our ability to surpass our personal best each time we enter the gym maximizes our workout efficiency. By eliminating uncertainty and conflicting thoughts of failure, we establish focus and gain control over the task at hand. People with outrageous goals should never be criticized; these people become what they envisaged with their willingness to constantly aim higher. Indeed, most people have conditioned their minds to accept mediocrity as their benchmark for excellence. For them, training is a perpetual process of maintenance. They are usually overtaken by people who dream big and who believe that their thoughts will become reality.

Become a Gym Terminator

brandon-focus-through-the-pain

While the big screen terminator was relentless in its drive to destroy its human target, gym terminators do not stop until they have done whatever is needed to complete their training mission. Though human, they are seemingly robotic in their approach to accomplishing their workout objectives, letting nothing block their path to reaching their full bodybuilding potential. Training hard, for many aspiring bodybuilders, is often done at half throttle, as if holding back – a misguided form of self-preservation to ensure training energy is evenly dispersed throughout the session.

True hardcore lifters realize that they do not necessarily need to enjoy what they are doing – just that they must do it to get the results they want.

The training process may not be desirable but all that counts is that it is necessary, and must be completed. No excuses.

To be focused and persistent in the face of adversity is the hallmark of a true champion. To become more focused and persistent we must train our minds to block all extraneous stimuli while concentrating our efforts only on what is relevant to accomplishing our task. The best way to do this is to enter the pain zone, and stay there. On squats, for example, do seven sets of 25 reps rather than the usual four sets of 8-12. After each set of 25, add 3-4 more rest/pause reps – if this can’t be accomplished at first, make it your mission to do so. Then look for newer ways (through the articles featured on this site) to further elevate your training intensity. Take each set to the point of muscular failure: then go beyond. Though this approach may not be advised for all sessions, do it often enough to encourage the “do or die” mindset discussed earlier.

Focus Through the Pain

By forcing ourselves to confront conditions of extreme pain we are better able to channel our focus, which has a natural positive flow-on effect to all that we do. As the 20th rep of our 25 rep squat set approaches, we must avoid all stray thoughts lest any of these sidetrack us from our mission. To experience pleasure, not pain, is what our body naturally prefers and it is our mind’s duty to ensure such a state. By blocking all thoughts other than those needed to endure, we train our minds to focus completely (swimming in freezing cold water in the middle of winter can produce a similar effect and is something I regularly do). Masochistic and crazy through it may appear, by subjecting ourselves to extreme discomfort we become stronger mentally and our focus and determination are unlikely to waver in times of great difficulty.

Envisioning Greatness

To program our minds for optimal performance in the gym it is important to visualize the greatness that is inherent within us. Mentally rehearse each training session and vividly picture yourself completing all workout objectives (be sure to savor the anticipation of your upcoming session and envision what it will feel like to achieve your training targets).

By establishing a clear mental picture of what you expect to achieve, you will have set in motion the subconscious programming needed to prime the conscious mind for success.

Aside from visualizing our training outcomes we must also train our minds to expect results. Uncertainty and hesitancy will only serve to undermine progress. As such, speak as if your goals have already been achieved; instead of saying “I hope to become 10lbs heavier” say “I am 10lbs heavier” – the subconscious will accept this statement as fact and create the conditions necessary to bring about the change. Opportunities for growth will become more apparent and you will find it easier to do whatever is necessary to achieve your goals when you picture yourself as having achieved the success you want. Further, rather than saying “I would like to achieve…” or “I will try to…” say: “I will achieve…” and “I will do…”. Always affirm your desire to improve and remove words such as “try”, “hope” and “might” in relation to your goals.

High Ideals Require Lofty Thinking

Our words, actions and thoughts are extremely powerful and must be carefully chosen if we are to achieve our fitness goals. Through channeling our focus, broadening our expectations, and cultivating a sense of self belief that does not accept compromises or excuses, we become agents of positive change. Training, if done properly, is hard. To get the most from your workouts your mind must be equally as hard. Toughen your resolve and terminate any doubt as you prepare for your next workout, only then will the gains surely come.

David Robson

A respected health and fitness writer, David has been published in industry publications such as Status Fitness Magazine, Muscle & Fitness and Bodybuilding.com. With 20 years in the personal training trenches, the insights he has gained through practical experience, alongside degrees in psychology and sports science, have enabled him to go beyond the surface to provide educational articles that have informed thousands of health and fitness devotees the world over. Contact David at: davidrobson19@hotmail.co.nz and at davidrobsonelite.com

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