Mental Muscle

The Psychology of Body Transformation and Peak Performance

Discipline. Motivation. Willpower. Drive. Without these qualities, the best laid diet plans and toughest workouts don't mean a damn thing. In this new T-Nation column, Chris Shugart, former psychology teacher and lifetime iron addict, tackles any and all issues dealing with the mental side of getting fit and performing at your best.

Getting Psyched-Up

Q: Got any tips to help me get psyched-up before my next big deadlift attempt?

A: Hundreds! But here's one I really like: the Terrible Towel Trick. Get a small, preferably dark colored towel. As you're getting ready to lift, keep the towel over your head. This blocks out much of your surroundings, allowing you to get into your zone, dig deep and focus.

Now, you must tell yourself that when the towel comes off, you'll be transformed into a deadlifting animal, a beast that does nothing but rip heavy shit off the floor. Elite athletes can convince themselves of things like this instantly; it's part of their gift I believe.

The towel-on-the-head time is your time to start letting the energy and anger (if that's a tool you use to set PR's) build up. When the towel comes off, you're focused and amped. You could stare through a steal vault and your concentration has been focused like a laser. Keep your head under the towel for 30 to 60 seconds (you can leave a peek hole but try to block out most of your environment.) When it's time to lift, rip the towel off, throw it down, and pull that iron off the floor like you're trying to throw it to the ceiling!

Keep in mind that what you're looking for here is the optimum level of arousal. Too much arousal is just as bad as not enough, as many ephedrine-junky athletes can attest. Ian King has pointed out that high arousal levels are fine for simple movements, but not so great for technical movements like most Olympic lifts. Experiment and try to find your optimal level. The goal is to be psyched-up and focused, but not psyched out! With powerlifting movements (bench, squat and deadlift) you can usually get pretty fired up without being too fired up.

Not only is the Terrible Towel a good mental trick, it also has some physiological effects. It helps maintain the increased temperature derived from your warm-up. When you take it off, many trainers and strength coaches believe this temperature change triggers a "fight or flight" response that could lead to greater strength and performance.

Finally, if you're going to be using these mind tricks in the gym, be sure to keep the mind "fed" so it can perform at a high level. Take a dose of Power Drive 30-45 minutes before your workout or competition. Many professional athletes swear by it and refer to it as their "secret weapon." Good stuff and totally legal!

The "All or Nothing" Diet Personality

Q: I have a problem when dieting. I do fine for a while, then when I try to have a single cheat meal like many T-Nation articles talk about, I go nuts and can't stop eating junk food! The whole diet goes down the tubes! Any advice?

A: This is pretty common. I call it the "all or nothing" diet personality. Using the textbook definition, personality is made up of your unique behavioral traits. Your true personality is stable and consistent over a wide variety of situations.

Now, if you possess an "all or nothing" or "AON" personality when it comes to nutrition, you're the type of person who's either on a strict diet or you're off completely and eating garbage all day long. There's no in-between for you.

In many ways, the AON dieter can be likened to an alcoholic. There's no happy medium for full-blown alcoholics. They don't drink unless they plan on getting completely inebriated, and they could never simply have a drink or two with dinner like a normal person. It's either get totally shit-faced or don't drink at all. Most recovering alcoholics have to make the decision never to drink again. They are "all or nothing" drinkers.

The "all or nothing" dieter is the same in many ways. Here's a real world example. Recently on the T-Nation Forum, a person was asking what to do about chocolate cravings. Many people responded by saying not to worry about it, advising the person to just eat a little dark chocolate which wouldn't do too much damage if the rest of the diet was in order. Not a bad suggestion, but that just won't work with an AON dieter. If he had one Hershey's Kiss, he'd have a bag of Hershey's Kisses! He or she is either on a diet or way the hell off a diet. There's zero moderation.

Now, is the AON dieter left with the same decision an alcoholic has to make – abstinence or excess? I don't think so. You can reprogram this yo-yo behavior, but first, let's make sure we're talking psychology and not physiology.

There's a difference between resisting bad foods and starving yourself. If you're eating under 1000 calories a day, then those feelings you have aren't "wicked" cravings experienced because you're weak minded; it's hunger and it's natural. The body will rebel sooner or later and you'll binge. This "all or nothing" behavior isn't rooted in the mind, it's rooted in the belly! It's caused by poorly designed, starvation diets.

(A Slim Fast type of diet can cause this behavior for sure. I don't know anyone who can drink only 24 ounces of poor quality protein all day and then have a "sensible" dinner. I'd eat through the refrigerator door on a "diet" like that!)

Okay, if your diet is truly sensible and you're not starving yourself, how do you go about reprogramming your AON tendencies? The answer is gradually. Your ultimate goal here is to learn to live in a world of moderation. You can't spend the rest of your life either on a severely restricted diet or on an all-you-can-gobble binge. Neither is healthy. You want to be somewhere in the middle most of the time, making steady, retainable progress regardless of your goals.

Let's borrow a few ideas from the behavioral treatment called systematic desensitization and gradually work into a sane approach to eating.

Step #1: Write It Down

If you're not doing so already, start keeping a food log.

Step #2: The Tasty, But Healthy Meal

Most AON dieters lose it at restaurants or social occasions involving food. They go nuts and never get back on their healthy eating plans. You want to be able to eat at a restaurant, go on dates, attend business lunches, go to Super Bowl parties etc. without it being the end of your diet.

Think baby steps. Your first goal is to be able to get rid of the food log for one day, eat at a good restaurant and not go bonkers. You do this by ordering something good but healthy and resisting the fried appetizers, desserts, and "bad" entrees. If you can do this, you've proven you can be in control. Example: Go to The Olive Garden, resist the free bread sticks, order the salmon with extra veggies and skip the cheesecake.

A second step here would be to eat a healthy meal but add a dessert. If that decadent dessert doesn't wreck your diet and you're able to get right back on the wagon after the restaurant meal, you'll be on your way to achieving healthy nutritional behavior. A single dessert once per week should not be a "deal breaker" that throws you into a sugar-sucking feeding frenzy. If it does, then you're definitely an AON eater and need to work on altering your behavior!

Step #3: The Weekly Cheat Meal

As TC and I wrote in the popular T-Dawg 2.0 Diet, there's nothing wrong with an occasional cheat meal. In fact, I think the key to long term healthy eating is having designated and controlled times where you indulge a little, heck, even a lot! After all, allowing yourself a cheat meal once per week is better than the typical North American diet of three cheat meals per day plus cheat snacks!

The psychological advantage of a cheat meal is obvious too. I remember reading in one diet book (I think it was one of the older versions of the Atkins Diet) where the author said you could have one small piece of your birthday cake once per year, but he strongly advised against it. Gimmie a break! When faced with such extreme demands, the AON dieter (and just about any normal human) wouldn't even try the diet rather than give up every food they love forever. And social situations? Forget 'em! You can't have a life; you're on a diet! It's just unrealistic – and for an AON dieter it's destined to fail.

A planned cheat meal, which is only one meal out of 35 per week if you eat five healthy meals a day, isn't going to do much harm and it'll keep you on target the rest of the week. The AON dieter just has to learn to stop at that one meal. One key to doing that is to make the cheat meal a planned, scheduled event.

Here's the way I do it. My cheat meal is on Saturday and usually involves pizza buffets or Chinese food. I wake up and have a protein shake made with Low-Carb Grow. In the afternoon, I have my cheat meal. I don't hold back either. I frighten children and little ol' ladies. NFL lineman tell me I'm "da man." Any craving I've had during the week gets satisfied. After this orgy of calories, I usually don't want to eat much the rest of the day, but before bed I have another low carb protein shake.

But that's it. For the rest of the week, I eat small, healthy meals, usually six or seven per day. If I'm in a fat loss phase, I can still drop an easy two pounds of fat per week eating in this manner. The trick it to plan the cheat meal and don't stray from that plan.

Step #4: The 99% Healthy Diet

Once you get to this step, you should be able to eat normally, which in this case means not riding a wildly swinging pendulum between starving and bingeing. You'll be able to slowly bulk up when you want to (gaining mostly muscle instead of fat for once!), control bodyfat in a sane and healthy manner, and lose fat painlessly when you want to.

You may not even need the cheat meal anymore because you've learned how to make subtle but successful changes in your diet to get to where you want to be. And if you decide to add a scoop of ice cream to your lunch once per week, you'll be able to do it without it becoming the monkey wrench that derails your entire diet.

Take it slow, be smart about it, and ditch the all-or-nothing dietary habits!

Addicted to Steroids?

Q: I'm always hearing about steroids being "psychologically addictive." Is that real or just more media hype?

A: Steroids and other physique or performance enhancing drugs can become psychologically addictive, though they don't lead to "physical" dependence, at least in a textbook sense.

Here's the deal. Physical dependence on a drug is all about avoiding withdrawal illness. A heroin addict gets hooked because he's avoiding the physical pain of coming off the drug. The drug becomes his "medicine." He takes it or he experiences very real physical pain. That's classic physical dependence and addiction.

Psychological dependence, on the other hand, isn't about avoiding physical withdrawal symptoms, but experiencing the perceived positive benefits. This is based on mental and/or emotionally cravings for the drug. It may "hurt" emotionally to go off the drug, but there's no real physical pain or withdrawal.

How do you know if you're psychologically addicted to steroids or any drug? Here are some extreme signs and examples of psychological addiction:

1) The drug has caused you to lose jobs, not get promotions, halt your education, or has in any way negatively affected your career or financial status. Example: All you think about is steroids and gettin' hyoooge, so much so that you haven't gotten a real job, a real career, or a real education. You're 28 years old and still live with your parents. You can't keep a job and have started dealing 'roids yourself mainly to support your own usage.

2) The drug has negatively affected your relationships. Example: You've lost girlfriends, friends, and your relationship with your family has suffered because of your steroid use.

3) Thoughts of your life and where it's headed makes you immediately want to do another cycle. Example: You begin to think about #1 and #2 above and have the desire to hit the juice again. This is a form of psychological avoidance: hiding from life's problems by focusing on only one narrow aspect of your life, in this case, looking big in the gym. Not healthy. Seeing the negative effects of your actions and not changing is a sign of psychological addiction.

Now, whether or not a person becomes psychologically addicted to steroids (or any non-physically addictive drug) depends on the individual and the state of his mental health, life situation and emotional maturity. Check out these two examples.

Example #1: Tom is a married college graduate with two kids who works for a major software company. He's been weight training for fifteen years naturally and is pretty satisfied with his physique. Still, he's pushing 40 and would like to get an edge in the gym. He doesn't want to be a pro-bodybuilder, he just wants to make the most of his time in the gym and go a little beyond his genetic limitations. Tom is generally a happy, confident guy. He's got a good-looking wife he loves and his kids are the most important thing in the world to him.

Example #2: Bart is 19 years old and works as a stock boy at Wal-Mart. His future plans go about as far as buying a really bangin' system for his car and, well, that's about as far into the future as he's looked. Bart lives with his parents and goes to the gym sporadically. He wants to get bigger so other guys will stop picking on him and give him the respect he thinks he deserves. He thinks getting "all diesel" might help him get laid as well. Right now he's not having much luck, which has caused him to both lust for girls and feel anger towards them for rejecting him. Bart is really short and he thinks this could be part of why he's not respected much by his peers. His self-esteem is in the basement, but he tries to make up for it by trolling bodybuilding forums and acting like a prick.

Now, which guy is more likely to get psychologically addicted to steroids? Pretty easy choice, huh? Not only will Bart be likely to get hooked, he's also a walking stereotype of the type of guy who'll use the drugs stupidly and get himself into trouble.

This isn't just a matter of maturity, it's a matter of identity. In the examples above, Tom has an identity; Bart really doesn't. If Bart gets on the juice and gets big and strong, his identity may easily become that of the "big guy" in the gym. He could get wrapped up in it and his entire self-esteem could begin to revolve around this new identity. Maybe his peers would start to treat him differently and he'd get the attention of girls. That doesn't sound bad at all, but what happens when it's time to cycle off? Could he do it? Would he (as many young, uneducated users do) decide to stay "on" for long periods of time?

And what happens if the money runs out or he's forced to get off because of health or legal reasons? Can his psyche handle losing this new identity? What will his behavior be like as he starts to lose his steroid-gotten gains? Would he even continue to train? (Most in his situation with similar backgrounds don't.)

If he continues to train and use steroids, and he revolves his whole life around being the Big Guy, where does that leave him when he ages? Will he one day find himself 50 years old with no real career, no real friends, and no strong relationships? Will being the "used-to-be-big guy" satisfy him as he watches all the young bucks take on his former role in the gym?

It's no wonder so many aging bodybuilders turn to escapist drugs. And it's no surprise that the suicide rate among steroid-using bodybuilders is pretty high compared to the rest of the population (according to one report in the Journal of Forensic Science at least.)

But what about Tom? Why is he less likely to get psychologically hooked? For one thing, his identity – who he essentially is – is already established. He has a good job. He has a family. He's happy and he has responsibilities. He has a lot to lose, so he's going to be careful and think things through. In other words, his whole sense of self-worth isn't dependent on how he looks or how much he bench presses. He has plenty of other things going for him, unlike Bart.

So, all those pro-bodybuilders and steroid using baseball players must be addicted, huh? Maybe, maybe not. Professional bodybuilders and athletes at least make a living from their steroid use. Guys like Bart are just the opposite: steroid use could keep them from making a living if they spend all their spare cash on 'roids instead of investments or education. Their goals in the gym may overtake their career goals or they could get into legal or health difficulties that affect their jobs. In other words, the steroid use doesn't accentuate the rest of their lives, it devalues it and affects it negatively. That isn't the path to health and happiness, as Oprah-ish as that sounds.

Guys like Bart use the size and strength to compensate for shortcomings, like having no social skills, not liking themselves very much or feeling like they have no control of their future. In short, the Barts of the world have major issues and using steroids to "fix" these issues is like using gasoline to "fix" a kitchen fire.

So, in summary, yes, steroids can very easily lead to a psychological dependence. Whether or not they do, and to what level this addiction reaches, depends largely on the emotional maturity, intelligence and overall mental health of the user.

Chris Shugart is T Nation's Chief Content Officer and the creator of the Velocity Diet. As part of his investigative journalism for T Nation, Chris was featured on HBO’s "Real Sports with Bryant Gumble." Follow on Instagram