In the Gym: Focus On What You Can Control

Posted on 26 Mar 2013 18:56

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By Eric Troy

We all know that in life there are some things that we can control and some things we cannot. Well, in strength training, or any kind of training, it is the same. Yet, this is a typical sort of message from a trainee:

"Eric, I had a bad day today. Nothing went as planned and I was supposed to hit 350 today but I couldn't get past 325. The air-conditioning in the gym was too low. The music sucked and distracted me. The trainers were annoying. Nobody was putting the weights away. Some guy was lifting next to me with this huge barbell but didn't even know how to lift. People were curling in the squat rack. It rained. It didn't rain. There were too many blue cars in the parking lot."

Are you noticing something, here? Are any of these things really in the trainee's control? Perhaps he could go to the management and get some of these problems solved. But were they directly controllable by the person while he was trying to lift? No. Notice that what is missing is ANY reference to any one thing that WAS in his control. Obviously, I exaggerated the message but this is typical. Focusing on things that you cannot directly control is a waste of energy and steals focus from the task at hand. Those things that you have direct control over at the time should have your primary attention.

Another comment is "I kept losing focus in between lifts." Sometimes maximal lifting sessions can stretch out for well over an hour. Maybe even two or three. YES, ignore the 45 minute crowd. They are out to lunch when it comes to maximum performance. However, it is a myth that you are supposed to achieve some kind of super-human hyper-focus during every moment of a long session! It's impossible and trying to do it won't result in more focus but will just drain you. Of course your mind will wander at times when you are not actively engaged in a lift.

Let it wander. Don't judge it and don't grab onto it. The key to focus is developing it as a skill that you can turn on and off. You never want to get completely distracted, say by a pretty girl or a phone call. But expect not to be able to achieve some constant state of concentration for long periods of time when you may just be resting. Trying to do so would exhaust you. If you do have a problem with becoming over-aroused, then try breathing exercises to turn the dial down. Then you can turn the dial back up to your appropriate level when it's time to lift. If you feel your level of arousal dropping off, then put yourself in game mode again by developing mental cues, such as images or simple trigger thoughts that help to psyche you up (but not too much).

Strength training is a very narrowly focused activity. That gives us an advantage over, say, a basketball player who must have a much broader area of focus. Use it. Don't turn the gym into a basketball court. Perhaps a better example is a goalkeeper in soccer. When the ball is coming to the corner of the net, the goalkeeper must focus ONLY on the flight path of the ball and tune out the other players that are moving around the field. After the play he must then re-focus to a broader area. Well, in strength training, the ball is always coming and the other "players" are always irrelevant. You have one object to deal with and that is the object you are lifting. Don't make it more complicated than it is. We are always required to zoom-in to the task and to block out any distractions.

You do this all the time at a busy restaurants. Even though there may be loud conversations and all sorts of other noise all around, you are able to tune all this information out without any thought, and focus on what your friend or family member is saying. Why is this so much harder to do when lifting? It may be because you are not task-oriented in the first place. Many will focus on not failing. Even worse, they will focus on a PR they hope to get next week! This is being outcome oriented. If you think about NOT failing, really, you are thinking about failing. Thoughts of failure are the antithesis of focus. Our mind runs from these thoughts. The result is a need to let your surroundings distract you, to escape from the negative thoughts. The mindset that you should cultivate is one of being focused only on the immediate task at hand. There is no failure, there is only the lift. This may sound like psychobabble and sure, when I say it, it is just psychobabble. That is why it is important to realize that everybody does not achieve this kind of mind-set in the same way. The Getting in the Zone Series, to which this post is related, is all about achieving focus and flow.


Can you tell how high this tightrope is?
The body cannot. Only your mind registers the height and
to your body there is no difference between two feet or
100 feet. Don't approach your lifts like you are on a tightrope!
image by Quinn Dombrowski via wikimedia

Some Rules of Concentration and Focus

  • Concentration doesn't just happen. You must prepare for it and put energy into it. You can't just show up and hope that you happen to be focused that day. It is a learned skill
  • You may be able to notice more than one thing at a time but you can ONLY focus on ONE THOUGHT at a time. Outside distractions and thinking about them preclude focus on the task. Thinking about the outcome, precludes focus on the task! Yet all these distractions compete and overload us.
  • When you are truly focused, meaning you are in a true state of flow, there is NO DIFFERENCE between what you are thinking about and what you are doing.

Some Tips for Lifting Focus

Since lifting requires a narrow focus, the strategies used to develop focus can be different from things like basketball, soccer, or football, where a broad focus is needed. As I said above, you can tune out everything but the barbell or lifting implement, whereas a soccer or football player needs to decide at any one time which elements, or cues, to focus on. Keep your thoughts simple and develop cue words to help you focus on the task and execute the lift to the best of your ability. Cue words not only help you focus, they also can help drown out negative thoughts concerning failure or injury. Imagery can help tremendously as well.

Even so, it can be hard not to get distracted. Someone drops a weight or another loud noise occurs during your big lift, for instance, and it is hard not to automatically attend to it. This is called the orienting response. This has a lot to do, however, with what you are used to. If your gym environment is always loud and a bit chaotic, you will, over time, get used to it and you will be able to automatically tune out loud distractions, as long as they are of the usual sort. In fact, after training in a place like this long enough, you might find a quiet environment makes it difficult for you to focus! Believe it or not, if you are a trainer who trains people in a quiet environment but will soon be going back to a commercial gym environment, you might want to provide distractions during lifts! It makes no sense to train someone in a quiet environment who will subsequently be doing most of his lifting in a loud one. Not all distractions in sport are bad, of course. Some of them are needed and help keep an athlete safe, etc. But in strength training and lifting in general, pretty much everything is noise. You may hear people shouting encouragement during a heavy lift at meets or in the gym, but a lifter in the midst cannot attend to and react to such encouragement. For distractions, it's very simple. You have to get used to them so that they become "normal" to you.

Once you've learned to tune out distractions, it is your own thoughts that are likely to be the problem. As mentioned above, concentration and focus are not something you need to maintain at all times during a lifting session. You need to learn how to turn it on when needed, otherwise you will mentally fatigue yourself and this mental fatigue WILL result in a corresponding drop in performance. The key to dealing with your thought is to keep them firmly rooted in the present moment.

When I say keep your mind in the present, trainees often get confused by just how exact I am being. Thinking about how nice it will be to get a big PR, is actually thinking about the future! Focusing on how the task will turn out is not focusing on the task. Certainly, if you are thinking about how it would suck to fail at the lift, this is even worse. Instead of all the various thoughts that are clattering about in your mind while approaching a lift, you might try forming a simple picture of yourself lifting the weight the way you want to lift it.

Another thing that steals focus from a lift is treating a new weight as if it is something completely different than anything you've ever done before complete with all the fear and anxiety that comes with this. I'll use an analogy. When tightrope walkers are learning the ropes, pun intended, they place the tightrope a few feet off the ground. Once they have mastered the walk at this low and safe height, they should be able to do the same walk on a higher rope. That is, there is no difference in the physical skill required, only the stakes are higher and the danger is much greater. When we lift a heavier weight, we often treat it as if it's our first time walking a high tightrope. It doesn't matter how physically prepared you are, if your mind is telling you that this is something you've never done before. This is when it is time to trust your training and hard work. Remember, only the weight is changed, everything else is the same! You've done this hundreds of times and there is no reason to pretend like you're balanced a hundred feet off the ground.

Ironically, these PR jitters can cause you to try to micro-manage your lift, tuning into every little thing you do and basically trying to control the lift too much. Just about everything you do should be automatic and the time for thinking is over once you begin a lift. One way to combat against this is to treat all lifts the same, using the same tools and focusing the same on the task. You see, if you learn to respect each lift as if it is as important as every other lift, after a while, you will not be thinking of your 500lbs deadlift being something completely different than your 450lbs deadlift. You can't wait to learn focus when you think it is really needed. Approach every lift the same, and you might be surprised when one day you get a big PR like it is routine, only to realize after you finish what you've just accomplished.

This page created 26 Mar 2013 18:56
Last updated 30 Jan 2017 06:00

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