The Psychology of Big – Part 2

Freud Pumps Up

Last week Chris wrote about how the mind can control the body. This week, he'll provide some practical advice on how you can use that info to help you reach your physique goals.

Anabolic Thinking for Anabolic Gains

The examples in Part 1 perfectly illustrate the power of the mind. So here's the question: If mental energy can be that powerful, powerful enough to stop pain, cause the legs to go numb, and even make you thump over dead, then can we at least use it to help us put on some muscle and lose some fat? You bet we can. And the techniques to do it are surprisingly easy to use.

To tell you the truth, I don't really like all those books about visualization and positive self talk. They come off cheesy and hackneyed. Also, experts in the fields of sports psychology and "mental toughness training" are often oblivious to the needs of weight trainers. Still, there's something to be learned from them.

Let's take a look at a few of the most helpful mind games you can play, plus a few observations I've made about the mind-over-muscle phenomenon.

Imagine Hugeness

There was a study presented a year or two ago at the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting in San Diego. The gist of the study was this: people can strengthen their muscles or at least maintain muscle strength just by imagining they're exercising.

Study participants imagined training either their elbow flexors (biceps) or pinky-finger muscles for fifteen minutes a day, five days a week, for twelve weeks. At the end of the study, those who visualized training their biceps improved 13.4% and those that imagined doing an intense pinky workout improved strength by 35%. The findings suggest that just thinking about exercise can improve the brain's ability to signal muscle. (And no, I have no idea how they imagine training their pinkies!)

Now, don't give up your gym membership just yet. At most, this type of "training" may only help those with spinal cord injuries, the elderly, and those who've suffered a stroke. You aren't gonna get huge just by thinking about it. But what this does tell us is that you can't just go to the gym and go through the motions. You need to get your mind on what you're doing and off the perky tush of the babe at the front desk. If just thinking about strengthening the muscle leads to some results without any training, then surely concentrating while you actually train would be beneficial.

Let's extend this theory. If you're not satisfied with your progress, try a couple of months of unilateral training–train one limb at a time where appropriate. By focusing intensely on only one muscle group, the connection between the mind and the working muscle is that much stronger. You're, in effect, giving that one arm or one leg a double dose of mental energy.

Try one-legged leg presses, one-legged squats, and single arm curls, shrugs, and rows. If you want, use Arnold's technique: imagine the muscle getting bigger, really picture it in your head. Focus on the working muscle and fill it with mental fertilizer and "get big" thoughts. Yeah, it sounds a bit corny, but don't be embarrassed by what you're doing. No one can see what you're thinking and the technique doesn't cost you anything to use.

Top athletes will also visualize an entire game before it even occurs. Those who don't do it instinctively will often consult sports psychologists to learn how to do it. If it works for them, it can work for us. If you drive to the gym, you have time to visualize your workout. Just imagine yourself using good form and driving up big weights. Rehearse the lifts in your mind. By doing this, you'll perform better once you get on the bench and in the squat rack. Consistently better workouts lead to better gains.

I think it's also important to visualize yourself in the shape you want to be in. If you want to drop fat, picture yourself that way–your waist smaller, your abs more defined, your face leaner, the muscles in your arms easily seen. If you want to get bigger, do the same thing. See your shoulders wider. Imagine that large shirt being stretched by your chest and biceps. Picture your butt like two bowling balls under Saran Wrap... okay, maybe that's going a little too far, but you get the idea.

I believe consistently doing this will, in a sense, give your body permission to reach that level. Perhaps this mental process is another component of what's known as "muscle memory," where you rapidly rebuild muscle you've lost after a long layoff. Many experts claim you can build back ten pounds of lost muscle in half the time it took you to build it in the first place. Biological explanations abound, but what role does the mind play?

I think the mind does play an important role in muscle memory. After all, you don't really have to work hard visualizing how you'd look with ten pounds of extra muscle because you've already seen that. You know you've been in great shape before so there aren't any mental barriers in the way. You won't be telling yourself how hard the process is or how impossible it is for you to gain lean muscle, because you know for a fact you can do it.

After reading Part I of this article, do you now agree that your body will often do what you tell it to do? Then why not tell it to grow?

Internal Dialog

Internal dialog just means talking to yourself. We all do it and it's quite normal as long as you're not telling yourself you're Napoleon. Internal self talk can be your best friend or your worst enemy. I believe it can either accelerate or eliminate your gains. Let's look at both sides.

Negative internal dialog usually comes in the form of negative thoughts about your genetics. Yes, genetics play a role in bodybuilding success, but the last thing you want to do is program your body for failure by using genetics as an excuse. Thoughts of "I'm a hardgainer" and "I have a slow metabolism" can really throw a monkey wrench into your progress. Saying these things aloud is even worse and has an even more profound negative effect. Also, stop saying things like "I hate leg day!" In fact, don't even think it.

I've been guilty of this myself. For years I complained about poor genetics. Then, after making significant gains and actually meeting a few people with truly piss poor genetics (picture actor DJ Qualls from the movie Road Trip), I realized this wasn't true. No, I'm not gifted like Arnold, but I'm certainly not cursed either. After this realization I vowed to stop making negative comments, to myself or out loud, about genetics.

Positive internal dialog, on the other hand, can help you break through any perceived plateaus. Tell yourself you love leg day, even if you don't (an old trick of Arnold's). Say it out loud. Also tell yourself that you have great genetics. Say aloud to your training partner or anyone who'll listen that there isn't really such a thing as a genetic ceiling. Tell yourself you have another 30 pounds of muscle in you just waiting to pop out. Tell yourself this even if you've been training for 20 years.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking this is silly because there really is such a thing as a genetic cap and that gains really do slow down after years of training. My answer is yes, you're right, but who cares? This isn't about scientific fact; this is about tapping the powers of your mind to make better progress. It doesn't matter what's true and what's not. Is it really God taking the pain away from a cancer patient who prays? Or is it the power of the patient's mind? Who cares as long the suffering is relieved!

So are you lying to yourself? Yeah, a little. But if you know you're lying then it can't really work, can it? Yes, it can! Loehr and Mclaughhlin, the sports psychologists behind Mental Toughness Training, have proven this over and over again with top athletes and some of the best tennis players in the world. Say it and display it, they write.

If they're working with a tennis pro who's having trouble in a certain area of his game, they'll tell the athlete to love whatever it is he's having trouble with. For example, if the athlete chokes under pressure or "tanks," they'll tell the athlete to repeat to himself, "I love tiebreakers." The tennis player always resists and tells them how stupid he feels saying this... until he starts winning the tiebreakers, that is. And it happens every time.

So if motivation is a problem for you, say "I can't wait to get to the gym! And it's leg day too! I love the challenge of leg day!" Soon, you'll display what you're saying and finally start putting some rubber on those tires.

If a new personal record in a lift has been dodging you for months, examine your internal dialog. Don't say, "I'll never bench 300!" If you do, then you won't. Simple as that. Tell yourself the weight feels light. Follow the lead of Bill Kazmaier and think of your arms as hydraulic benching machines. Convince yourself that no weight has been added to the bar.

What you're essentially doing is faking it. The best lifters in the world have a remarkable ability to fake themselves out in this manner. It's a skill that can be developed by the rest of us as well. I don't really like the term "faking it," though. Instead I like to use the literary and theatrical term, willing suspension of disbelief. That means you know what you're reading or watching up on the movie screen isn't real, but you willingly suspend that disbelief and go along with it to heighten the sense of entertainment.

Need a real world example? A few weeks ago my training partner and I were benching heavy. Just for the shock effect, we decided to start at ten reps and keep adding weight until we slowly reached a heavy single rep. We didn't pay attention to the actual weight, we just kept slapping on dimes, nickels and 2 1/2's. After several sets, my partner informed me that I'd done a triple with my previous max two sets ago.

Very cool, but what would've happened if he'd leaned over the bar and said to me, "Now, Chris, this is more weight than you've ever benched before. This will be a new PR if you get it." Well, I may not have gotten it! He faked me out in a way many champion powerlifters do to themselves. They willingly turn off reality and convince themselves the weight isn't heavy or that they've lifted that load before.

I also think round numbers can often impede strength gains. Remember those stories of how a four-minute mile and a 500-pound clean and jerk were thought to be impossible? The same thing can happen to you on a smaller scale. How often have you made consistent gains in strength, only to hit a wall when confronted with a fat number like a 300-pound bench press or a 500-pound deadlift?

Is it that 300 pounds is that much different than 295, or is that intimidating 300 number staring you in the face? Mentally, it may be better to set your goal at 303 or 305 and avoid that 300-pound barrier. I call this big number phobia and like all phobias it stems from irrational and often illogical fears.

Again, positive internal dialog can make a difference. "300 is no heavier than 295. Heck, my shoes weigh five lousy pounds. That's nothing! Forget 300, I'm going for at least 305."

One key to making internal dialog work for you is to leave out all negative words. Think of them as a virus that can worm into your computer and cause trouble without you knowing it. For example, don't say, "I won't forget to keep my elbows under the bar when I bench." "Won't forget" is the virus. Those words are too negative. Instead say, "I will remember." The body will listen.

Physiology: Walk This Way

In case you can't tell, I spent a few years as a psychology/sociology teacher. One of the hurdles you have to jump to become a teacher is to go through a period of student teaching. The lady I taught under to get my psychology certification was one of those Dale Carnegie readin', smiley-face shirt wearin', overly positive people. She liked telling her class that if you fake a smile when you feel down, you'll actually start to feel better. Your mood can change based on your physiology.

The smiling lesson was really cheeseball, but because of a complex series of chemical and electrical reactions within the body and brain, it really does work to an extent. You can apply this to bodybuilding as well.

According to Edward O'Keefe, a mental toughness consultant to many top athletes, physiology is the fastest way to manage your emotional state. Do you walk into the gym or onto the field like a loser with your shoulders slumped and your head down? Do you look at a heavily loaded bar and shake your head as if to say, "No way am I gonna lift that."

Just like internal dialog, body posture and breathing can affect performance. Even "faking" confidence in the gym can produce better results, much like telling yourself you love leg day when you really don't. This doesn't mean you should strut your 150-pound body through the gym spreading your nonexistent lats and making "war faces" while lifting, just like your favorite fake-sweat-spritzed bodybuilder in Flex.

Instead, walk with confidence–shoulders back, head up. Approach the bar like you own it, not like it's going to bite you. Even if you have to "suspend your disbelief," the feeling will become a reality with practice. (By the way, the same technique works with women too, but that's a whole 'nother article.)

Shrink Stress, Grow Huge

There's abundant evidence from the fields of medicine and psychology that psychological stress can lead to disease and death. But it can also lead to really scary stuff like poor muscle gains and the inability to lose fat! Seriously, we know the role stress plays in heart disease and other illnesses; that's nothing new. But stress can seriously impair your gains in the gym, and yes, it could even make fat loss more difficult.

If we really break it down to its simplest form, stress comes from how we perceive life events. And how we think about certain happenings in our lives is entirely up to us. Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius summed it up well. He wrote: "If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgement of them. And it's in your power to wipe out that judgement now."

Compare these two real world examples: A few weeks ago someone I know got his car dinged in a parking lot. Although you could hardly see the damage, the guy flipped out. He ranted and raved and vowed to track down whomever had done this to his car. He was quite literally frothing. The anger went from the ding to the state of the human race in general and by the time he was finished with his little catabolic tantrum he was shaking like a leaf and couldn't even eat the rest of the day. He didn't control his stress; stress controlled him.

Compare that to what happened to me a few months ago. I took my SUV in to get it detailed. Apparently one of the people working there didn't have his coffee that morning because when he backed my truck out of the garage he forgot to shut one of the back doors. Ke-rash! Three thousand dollars' worth of damage in about two seconds. I had a couple of choices. I could rant and rave and let stress get the best of me, or I could choose to blow it off.

I blew it off. Hey, insurance will cover it and I'll get a sporty little loaner to dash around in while the truck is being fixed. See, no catabolic hormone release, no digestion problems, no sleep troubles, and no messing with my concentration levels during workouts. I simply chose not to stress out and my body listened. To enhance the stress-free effect, I laughed. It wasn't exactly funny, but verbalizing (or laughing) accentuates the mood I'm shooting for. It's the old "say it and display it" thing again.

So the message here is that stress is entirely under your control. As T-man types, I think most of the stress we feel is self-imposed. We have such a powerful desire to separate ourselves from the sheep, we often don't find the time to relax and recharge. Just as with training, continued forward progress in life needs to be periodized. Don't feel guilty for relaxing (as most Type A personalities do); instead understand that a little "off" time will make your "on" time that much more efficient. Take time to sharpen the saw. Almost as a side effect, you'll have an easier time building muscle and losing fat.

Consciously controlling stress will also keep you well and help you avoid or at least lessen the effects of illness. Did you know you probably have the cold virus sitting right there in front of you? Yep, it's probably camped there on your shift key waiting for the right time to pounce. When's the right time? The moment your immune system and recovery mechanisms are weakened by stress.

This is what's known as the biopsychosocial model of illness. Basically, illness is caused not only by biological factors, but psychological and sociocultural factors as well. In other words, you have some choice in whether you get sick or not. And I don't have to tell you how damaging illness can be to your physique goals. Using our internal dialog model, say to yourself and to others, "I don't get sick."

So choose not to stress out and choose not to get sick and you'll also be choosing to get big and lean.

Force the Change

Think about this for a minute. What happens when a self-diagnosed "hardgainer" suddenly packs on ten pounds of real muscle in two weeks? Can he honestly still bitch about his genetics? Can he really call himself a hardgainer? No, not really. In fact, that mental barrier he's helped to build will begin to erode and fall away. He won't have to work to convince himself that muscle and strength gains are possible; that's become obvious.

Steroids obviously work in this capacity, but in the long run I believe steroids can have more of a negative psychological effect than a positive one. Of course, much depends on the psychological maturity of the user. (And let's not forget the legal issues.) All that said, I do think that drugs or equipotent supplements can aide in breaking down these mental boundaries. This isn't the placebo effect, although a person may indeed train harder or pay more attention to his diet while "on."

As the saying goes, knowledge isn't power, applied knowledge is power. I'm confident the unselfconscious application of the ideas presented in this article can lead to staggering changes in your physique over time. But if you need a kickstart to get your thinking on target, then consider a few cycles of something like the new encapsulated MAG-10. Trust me, you'll forget you ever heard the term "hardgainer" and future progress will be that much easier once this mental wall has been knocked down.

Think Like Arnold, Look Like Arnold?

As the Oak himself said, "...unless you understand the power of the mind in developing your muscles, you will not succeed. The secret is to make your mind work for you–not against you."

Great athletes tend to do all of these things instinctively. Hey, Arnold never needed to read a book on goal setting. He never had to work to pump up his confidence level and he never doubted his ultimate success. Like the Hindu fakirs who can raise and lower their body temperatures through meditation, Arnold was able to use his mind to get what he wanted out of his body. I'm not saying Arnold's size came solely from his mental processes, but that ability and his unwavering confidence certainly helped.

And you don't have to look to athletes and successful bodybuilders to see the reality of mind power. Throughout history this has been a common observation among the great thinkers. As Buddha put it, "We are what we think."

So think big.

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