Usually, when you're talking weight training, you're talking about the five acute training variables; exercise selection, order of exercise, load, volume, and rest. There are literally thousands of training articles out there, discussing the many thousands of possible combinations of these variables.
Well, that's great, but it's not the whole story. How can lifters, employing different training programs achieve similar results? Why do lifters, employing similar programs sometimes achieve radically different results? The answer is relatively simple; it's the mental factors associated with lifting.
Now, I want to stop right here to explain myself. I am NOT a big fan of sports psychology. I have sat through many a boring sports psych class, fighting off the urge to scream. I find it to be less of a science, and more of a type of voodoo. So, I'm going to save you that particular pain. I'm also not very big on personal affirmations, ala Stuart Smalley. Never the less, I do acknowledge the power of the mind, especially when it comes to lifting heavy shit.
Based on personal lifting experience and discussion with other lifters and scientists, I have put together a list of some of the key mental factors in strength training. This list includes points on everything from work ethic to the importance of teaching others. I think you will find this list rather random, but then again, I love all things random.
Point # 1 – Most people are stupid. Don't be one of them.
Some people get lost in thought because it's such unfamiliar territory. -G. Behn
First and foremost, we must face a problem that is rampant in all weight rooms. Well, it's rampant everywhere actually. Have you ever noticed that literally 90% of the people you talk to everyday are stupid? I mean borderline retarded. Even worse, have you ever known someone who was very smart, but they just couldn't think? Smart people are a dime a dozen. True thinkers are the ones who make an impact.
It would seem that these thinkers are born, not made. They must be a gift from God, put here to change this world for the good, right? I don't think that is so. I think that this quality arises from a passionate pursuit of knowledge. One where the learner does their best to find out the truth. Once the truth is found, it is repeatedly questioned to make sure it is the truth. If you are "slow," you can get the same work done as the next guy, maybe it just takes you longer. I have seen a lot of naturally blessed people who couldn't wipe their ass in the dark. Become a thinker!
So what does this have to do with training? Well, everything. If you are going to have any shot at reaching your absolute strength potential, you're going to have to become a thinker. Like I previously stated, I believe you accomplish this by pursuing knowledge feverishly. In this field, you're going to get that done one of two ways:
1. Study. Go out and find some trusted sources of information. That may be one of Christian Thibaudeau's articles, a Louie Simmons DVD, or maybe Supertraining by Mel Siff. Once you get them, don't just read or watch them a couple of times. Study them. Turn the information over in your head. Question it. Once you have squeezed every bit of meaningful info from them, move on to new material.
2. Travel. At some point you are going to have to get out there and seek the strong. The absolute best way to learn about true strength is to have your ass handed to you during a box squat workout by a guy who squats a hundred pounds more than you, while at the same time weighing one hundred pounds less than you. I found this out the hard way squatting with Chuck Vogelpohl during one of my first trips to Westside Barbell. I know it sounds expensive. But you know what, that's what credit cards are for.
Point # 2 – You have to work hard, really hard.
If there is one constant in this world, it's that hard work pays off. It really does. We all know that. The problem is we forget that fact, either by choice or through poor work habits. Some of us think we're working hard (a problem I often have), but we really aren't. Sometimes we have to step back and really evaluate the effort we are putting into training.
I never really took a look at my own training until I had a great dinner discussion about a year or so ago with one of the top sport scientists, if not the top sport scientist, in the world today. As I always tend to do around these great training minds, I was picking his brain.
Surprisingly, he didn't share much at all. I was feeling a bit disappointed in the conversation until toward the end of dinner, this man leaned toward me and asked, "Do you want to be really strong?" To which I replied, "yeah."
I mean, I don't carry around 350 pounds so I can buy those really cool shirts from the online big and tall shops. I want to be the strongest. He proceeded to just about look right through me, with a truly serious demeanor, and said, "Then you are going to have to work hard. I mean really hard!" I knew right then that I had been slacking in my training.
As I write this, I'm aware of how often I need to remind myself of what he told me. This statement came from a man who has personally studied the training of the strongest men who currently walk the earth. One of these true strongmen is possibly the greatest weightlifter of all time, Naim Suleymanoglu, otherwise known as Pocket Hercules.
This is a man who, at a bodyweight of about 135 pounds, has clean and jerked over 400 pounds! It is well known that Naim's training was so demanding, that often he had to be carried to his bed after a day of training, only to awaken and train again. He got his world records by working incredibly hard.
That's real training advice, folks. The one little piece of wisdom this scientist has taken from all those men; the common thread that binds them all. They put in their work. Do you?
Point # 3 – Change your perspective.
I recently had the pleasure of sitting in on a lecture by one of the world's leading developmental endocrinologists. I like sitting in on different sorts of talks. It is just a great chance to learn something completely new. Anyway, this guy was discussing the negative impact that insecticide metabolites have on ecosystems. Specifically, these metabolites can function as estrogens, causing all sorts of developmental pathologies in animal populations, including humans.
To make a long story short, he mentioned the key to addressing such problems was to change perspective and approach the problem from a new angle. It wouldn't be enough to think just as an endocrinologist, but also as a physiologist, or possibly as a neurologist. New perspectives shed light on the less than obvious.
Training is the same. Often, you get so wrapped up in your little routine that you fail to learn anything new. You become sort of closed minded, ignoring the lifting world around you. What's the solution? It's the same as for the endocrinologist. You need to think like others. If you're a bodybuilder, spend some time training with powerlifters. Learn why it is they train like they do. If you are a strongman competitor, pay a visit to a group of highly qualified weightlifters. All of these groups are specialized, yet they have similar goals of improving performance. Get out of your comfort zone! You'll be surprised at what you learn.
Point # 4 – Do what you hate to do.
Some guys really love leg pressing. I mean they can't get enough of it. They pile on the plates until they can't fit any more on. What do they do then? Why, they employ the classic, "Let your buddy jump up on the top there" trick. Once they get through pounding out a set of 10, they stand in front of the mirror to take in the glory of their rippling quadriceps. Ask these guys to join you for squats and what do you hear? "Oh, I have bad knees." Or maybe, "Well, my back is tweaked." You get where I'm going here, right?
Are they doing themselves any good with this? No. They hate to squat, so they don't do it. They have the glute and hamstring strength of a 10-year-old girl, and well, they seem to be cool with that. If true strength is the goal, a different strategy is needed. In my experience, consistently doing what you hate to do is key.
I have to once again fall back on a personal example to fully illustrate my point. If I were to name one exercise that I absolutely hate with all my soul, it would be the safety bar box squat.
Maybe it's that distinct feeling you get of almost blowing your ass out when you fire off the box that makes you feel this way. It may be the crippling pain you feel as the bar causes your back to bend into an "n" after each rep. Well, maybe it's a little of both.
Anyway, I hate that exercise. But you know what, no other exercise makes my back as strong as the safety squat. So what if I'm left crawling out of the gym after that workout. If it puts 10 pounds on my deadlift by the end of the training cycle, it's well worth it. Of course, to stick with such a plan takes discipline. If you weren't somehow born with it, then jack, you have to learn it the hard way.
Point # 5 – Intrinsic motivation be damned!
Remember when I said I hated sport psychology earlier. Well, maybe I don't "hate" it. Rather, I would say I do not want the tenets of this field polluting my thoughts. Does that sound better?
My main problem with sports psychology is the almost creepy fixation on promoting intrinsic motivation. Playing sports? You should only do so if it fosters a good feeling inside. Your motivation to play shouldn't come from outside influences. Forget the fact that if you are the star jock at your school your chances of getting laid will increase 10 fold. That's not what matters.
What these people do not get is that winning is the only thing that really matters in this life. Wins and P.R.'s count, every other goal is gay.
When you first start lifting, you love it. You live for the pump, or whatever. This is your past time – your great passion. Guess what? This past time turns into a sick addiction after about 8 or 10 years. What you used to love, you now loathe. You would rather not destroy your body with heavy weights, but you must. At the end of a training session, you crawl out of the weight room. Then what do you do? You go home and lay around in pain, waiting for sleep to provide a much needed escape. Your family and friends ask why you do it to yourself. Your answer, "Duh, P.R.'s."
The sports psychology guy always fails to consider one crucial fact; elite performance isn't about health or happiness. That shit comes when you retire. Being elite is about sacrifice. In order to keep working hard towards that goal, employ any strategy you think will work. I've made a short list of my favorites.
1. Death Metal. If you wouldn't want your preacher or mother hearing it, it's just right for training. Turn it up very loud during all heavy sets.
2. Drag those repressed childhood memories to the surface. After all, the best way to earn daddy's love is to nail that 450 bench!
3. Schedule your heavy lifting sessions so they correspond with the nightly women's step class at the old gym. Hey, the louder you scream during your good mornings, the bigger they'll think your wang is! It's a win/win deal. Well, maybe not. But stick with having hot chicks watch you lift.
This list is a little odd and unrealistic, but it illustrates my point. Lifting is hard. Do anything you need to do to lift huge. That's it.
Point # 6 – Raise your expectations.
Nobody succeeds beyond his or her wildest expectations unless he or she begins with some wild expectations. – Ralph Charell
This may be the simplest strategy towards getting stronger. Think back to when you just started lifting. What really impressed you in the gym? Was it the first time you saw someone leg press 1,000 pounds? Was it the first 400-pound bench press you witnessed? Maybe you were lucky enough to actually see someone back squat some decent weight.
Today, go into any commercial gym, or just about any strength and conditioning facility for that matter, and you'll see a bunch of guys who think the above mentioned lifts are good. Maybe they are to some extent. But, they're nothing compared to the lifts put up by competitive weightlifters and powerlifters. Why is that? The answer is it's not all about the training program.
I'm not making fun of the weak here. In fact, I think that a 400-pound bench press done by anyone is rather good. My point is that one must set their standards much higher. If you think a 500-pound bench is unattainable, then you're never going to press that kind of weight.
More over, if you are happy with your 500-pound bench, I can guarantee you that you will never put up 600, or even 550 pounds. You should always have your eyes on higher and higher goals. Tackle a PR, and then never try it again. Push your limits!
I can remember preparing for my first powerlifting meet back in 2000. For that meet, I set a goal of an 1800-pound total. After all, this would be a really good total for a beginner. I soon became very anxious to ascend to the top of my class. Suddenly, anything under a 2400-pound total seemed poor to me.
To this day, although I still have a long way to go, I'm pushing to reach and go beyond that total. Do you know what happens when you have this mindset? One day you wake up, and you're stronger than you ever thought you could be.
Point # 7 – Share what you've learned.
So, maybe you have been at this lifting thing for a while now. You have a reputation for being an animal in your gym. Work ethic, training knowledge, perspective; you have it all. What now? To be honest with you, you still have much work to do. There are still PR's to get. It's time for you to teach others what you have learned from years under the bar.
The obvious service you are doing is giving back to those who could really use your hard earned knowledge. But I understand that some of you may be selfish bastards, so I'll cut to the chase here. I believe one of the best ways to learn is to teach. When you share with others you can't help but think about and evaluate what you are saying. You field questions from others; maybe you have the answer, maybe you find a few things you don't know. In any case, you'll learn something new about training.
Take a look at any hardcore gym or training hall and you'll see this point for yourself. After just about every training session, there are lifters gathered together talking about training. They discuss what was good and bad about the training session. They discuss ideas for their next circa-maximal squat phase; they may just talk shit about each other. In any case, they talk. Give it a try.
So, if you take a group of lifters all prescribing to these points, what do you get? In my opinion, you have atmosphere. Everybody has heard of it, few get what it is. It's the sum of these mental variables; everything about training which is intangible.
If you have good atmosphere, you have a place like Westside Barbell. A place where average will not do. A place where lifters form a true team, complete with teaching, learning, aggression, and good old-fashioned hard work. If you want to acquire true strength, you need to consider these points.