At T Nation, we all come from a variety of backgrounds, both personally and athletically. Each coach believes in different training methodologies, nutrition approaches, and lifestyle philosophies. But there's one thing we can all agree upon – we all love to train. We are distinct from the average population. Something separates us from the weekend warriors. We live to hit the gym and find out what our body, mind, and spirit are capable of. It is part of who we are as people. It's a way of life.
Reaching elite levels of strength or getting into peak physical condition is extremely difficult. Life is hectic, distractions and temptations are everywhere, and it seems as if an entire army stands against us in the pursuit of our goals. In today's world of access and abundance, laziness and entitlement, it truly does take a warrior's mentality to push through barriers and succeed with our strength and physique goals.
I've studied the principles of ancient samurai warriors through books such as Samurai Strategies, Hagakure, and Bushido. I've also studied the works of great individual warriors, martial artists, and philosophers such as Miyamoto Musashi and Bruce Lee.
Sprinkled into those sources are principles from the Trojans, the Spartans, and other warrior cultures. Cumulatively, I guess you could say this is my chosen spiritual path, whatever that really means.
Now before you get the wrong idea, I'm not trying to be your preacher. I won't be knocking at your door in an attempt to "save" you, and I'm certainly not asking you to come ponder the meaning of life with me in a temple in the mountains.
However, in terms of bodybuilding, my philosophical studies have simply provided me with powerful behavioral and sport's psychology tools that have helped my clients and I succeed with our strength, physique enhancement, or sport performance goals. I am interested in sharing those principles with you only insofar as they help you attain your specific goals. Nothing more.
The value of sports psychology is recognized in the more traditional athletic realms. The 4th quarter, the 9th inning, the last round, the last shot, the final 100 meters; it is heart, determination, drive, will power, and mental strength that separates the champions from the rest of the pack.
At the top levels of any sport, all of the athletes have elite physical skills. It is those who master the mental side of the game that consistently triumph over the competition. And besides, a strong will can conquer superior skills any day – it happens all of the time.
Sports psychology is an established scientific field that deals with the mental aspects of athletic competition. Professionals utilize various tools and principles to make sure athletes are mentally prepared for competition. They use techniques such as goal setting, mental visualization, and motivational strategies to ensure athletes perform up to their peak potential. Even the ol' coach's halftime pep talk or ass chewing would fall under this category.
Remember, a skillful athlete is dangerous. A motivated athlete is deadly.
This psychology component, a component that can help us lift more than we ever thought possible, achieve levels of physique development greater than we could ever dream, has been missing in the strength and physique world. That is until now.
The collaborative efforts of my wife and writing partner on this project – who holds a master's degree in psychology from NYU and a background in performance athletics – and my comparatively dumb ass (but with a background in both performance and physique sports and over ten years' experience in learning real world psychology in my private training business), have compiled various warrior principles that can be practically applied in the real world to achieve outstanding results in your particular sport. We've seen it happen firsthand.
And if you think sports psychology is for little sissy girls that play with Hello Kittie dolls, then you also must think guys like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Frank Zane, Georges St. Pierre, Kobe Bryant, Jerry Rice, or any power lifter or strongman who has ever "psyched up" for a lift are pussies, too. Their efforts to incorporate psychology training tools into their game are well documented.
The Way of the Iron Warrior is our code. It provides us with the mental, philosophical, and spiritual tools we can use to excel. If you want to be average, just focus on the pure physical side of your sport. But if you want to be exceptional or elite, and maximize your true potential, you must pay attention to all aspects of your game, most importantly the mental side.
I've always looked at bodybuilders and strength athletes as modern day warriors. Each training session is a battle with the enemy – the cold, unforgiving, unyielding iron. You must test your skills and prove the superiority of your will each time you step onto that lifting platform, squat rack, or gym floor. Strategically applying samurai principles such as dedication, discipline, and determination could prove to be a deadly weapon in your war with the weights.
And if you are looking for something more, maybe you indeed are seeking some kind of spiritual path, I believe it can be found in the Way. Personally, The Way of the Iron Warrior has provided me with a solid foundation in this chaos called life, and my journey in particular, which, of course, has been full of ups and downs, successes and failures, achievements and disappointments.
I have always been able to find comfort, peace, escape, value, and a sense of purpose in the gym (and in the bodybuilding lifestyle as a whole), even when I was in my darkest stages, and hopelessly lost in the real world.
That may sound cheesy, and potentially pathetic to a normal person, but that's cool with me. I'm not afraid, or will never be ashamed to admit the true nature of who I am as a person. Neither should you. Some of us can better find our value, direction, identity, and true character straining under a bar rather than meditating in a field, lying on a yoga mat, or kneeling in a pew.
- Throughout your life advance daily, becoming more skillful than yesterday, more skillful than today. This is never-ending. – Hagakure.
- There is a tendency in other cultures for most people to stop training, to stop trying to improve, after they reach a certain level of skill – and this is one of the reasons why the Japanese have had an advantage in virtually everything they do. They have been culturally conditioned to never stop training. – Samurai Strategies
- Make at least one definitive move daily toward your goal. Aim at perfection in everything, though in most things it is unattainable; however, they who aim at it, and persevere, will come much nearer to it than those whose laziness and despondency make them give it up as unattainable. – Bruce Lee
Kaizen is a Japanese word that literally translates to "improvement" or "change for the better." But Kaizen is more than just a word. It is a lifestyle philosophy incorporating a focused effort to strive for constant and continual improvement in all areas of life. In modern Japanese culture, it is most often applied in the business setting – the never-ending pursuit of improving the productivity and efficiency of your business.
It could be said that the principle of Kaizen was at the very core of samurai philosophy. Warriors aimed at perfection in all areas of combat – from the appearance of their armor and how they carried themselves, to the mental preparation, physical preparation, strategy, defensive tactics, striking skill, and killing efficiency used in battle. Warriors trained day-in and day-out to attain perfection in their technique and mastery of their skills.
Movements can take a single day to learn, but a lifetime to truly master. With this in mind, samurai warriors would often practice just a single sword strike thousands of times a day. This approach to training made for superior skills, and a formidable opponent on the battlefield.
Testosterone readers have been introduced to the Kaizen Principle before in the writings of Charles Poliquin. He frequently talks about this concept in its relation to progressive overload. He discusses how the idea of constant and continual improvement can effectively be applied to protocols designed specifically for increasing strength.
The application is simple. With each successive training session, the lifter should attempt to add one more rep to the set or a little more weight to the bar. This ensures constant improvement.
Charles specifically talks about adding the smallest plates in the gym (2.5lbs) to the bar each time you train. This sounds like nothing, but small increases made consistently over time add up to big improvements. In a twelve week training cycle, a weekly increase of 5lbs total on the bar nets a 60lbs increase in your lifting total. Not bad, especially for an advanced lifter.
This mentality should not stop with just progressive overload. I believe the Kaizen principle can extend out to all aspects of the Iron Game, and can bring you closer to your true potential as an athlete. Here are some practical examples:
- Lifting Technique: For power lifters, better technique can improve leverage factors and mechanical advantage, especially for your specific body type: limb length, muscle insertion points, etc. This can lead to huge increases in lifting totals. Better technique can also leave you less susceptible to traumatic injury, reduced wear and tear on the joints, and chronic pain. Can you look for ways to perfect your technique?
- Lifting Technique II: For bodybuilders, better technique can reduce rebound, momentum, cheating, or using other, unintended muscle groups to complete a lift. This maximizes tension on the target muscle, which of course leads to optimal overload and development. Can you slightly improve your exercise form in some way?
- Nutrition: If you eat 5 meals a day, that totals 35 meals in a week. How many of those meals are bringing you closer to your strength and/or physique goals? How many of those meals are taking you further away from your goals? Can you improve on that ratio? If you are eating good 85% of the time, focus on increasing that to 90%.
- Alignment/Muscle Balance: Are tight muscles inhibiting your range of motion or causing chronic pain? Are lengthened, weakened muscles making your posture or performance suffer? Can you look for ways to improve muscle imbalances or lifting discrepancies?
- Recovery: Are you living more like an athlete or more like a rock star? If you are going out partying every night, drinking, doing recreational drugs, etc., you are not providing the best environment for your body to develop or get stronger. Can you find ways to reduce the "sexy time" and focus more on your athletic goals?
- Sleep: This is one of the most overlooked components of development. Proper sleep can help reduce cortisol levels, increase growth hormone levels, recharge the nervous system, increase cellular repair, etc., all leading to better development and strength. Can you skip watching American Idol to get an extra hour of sleep?
- Hydration: Virtually every cellular process in our body requires water. Can you improve your hydration levels? Can you make your piss look more like water or lemonade than iced tea?
- Coaching Skills: Many of us are coaches and/or writers. You may have the greatest knowledge base in the world, but are you effective at teaching it to other people? Can you find more effective ways of motivating people and getting your messages across?
I think you can see that the list could go on and on forever. There are always ways in which we can improve – as athletes, as coaches, and as people.
The summary of the Kaizen Principle, then, is to never be satisfied with your current level of skill or development. Always try to improve, in every aspect of your life. There is always someone out there who is bigger, stronger, or more skilled than you are. And even if you happen to be at the top of the mountain now, kings fall, and heroes rise to take their place.