Power of the Mind

by Robert Maxwell

Vasily Alekseyev was the first man in recorded history to lift 500 pounds overhead.
Vasily Alekseyev was the first man in recorded history to lift 500 pounds overhead.

If you've trained for long, you probably understand from the title what this post is about. If so, I hope you find the reminder helpful. This post is more for those who don't yet realize what a powerful muscle the mind can be. What do I mean? The difference made by belief. Belief that you can lift the heavy barbell sitting in front of you, silently challenging your masculinity. This seems simple, but those of us who've lifted for many years understand the struggle. If you've built yourself up to a 300 pound squat, there's no physical reason why, with proper rest and nutrition, you shouldn't soon squat 305. Yet I've seen guys struggle with a 5 pound increase for months. Their bodies are ready, but they lack belief, so they fail. Don't believe me? History is full of examples of this principle.



For most of the 20th century, lifting 500 pounds overhead was considered impossible. The world's strongest weightlifters routinely came close, but no could break the 500 pound barrier. Then in the 1970's a Russian weightlifter named Vasily Alekseyev was tricked into lifting 500 pounds, believing it was slightly less. The mental barrier was broken, and within months he increased his record to over 560 pounds. Other lifters soon shattered the 500 pound mark, too. Physically, these men had been capable of lifting 500 the entire time. But until they believed it was possible, it couldn't be done. There are other examples. Until 1954, no one had run a mile in under 4 minutes. Experts said anyone who did would likely die. It was considered impossible. Then Roger Bannister proved them wrong, running a mile in 3:59:4. He didn't die. After that, runners everywhere trained with new belief – the 4 minute mile was achievable. Others soon broke the barrier. The current record is held by Moroccan runner Hicham El Guerrouj with 3:43.13. Once again, the power of belief was the limiting factor. Once the feat was believed possible, it became so. 



If you can't harness the power of belief in your training, you'll be severely limited. When you're standing in front of a heavy barbell, preparing to outmuscle earth's gravitational pull, mental state is key. But sometimes believing in yourself can be tough. Especially if you're attempting to lift a weight you've never lifted before. Here are my 5 favourite strategies for harnessing the power of the mind in my own training and beyond.


Prepare your mind ahead of time

There are many reason it's helpful to see a challenge coming. One is it allows you time to prepare your mind. This is especially true of lifting heavy barbells. No one should walk into a gym and train willy-nilly. All trainees need a fixed plan that includes all the important lifts, and allows for gradual increases in weight as strength is gained. Trainees should keep a written record of every workout where each rep, set and exercise is accounted for and can be reviewed in 6 months or a year. There are many reasons for this, but one is that a rigid workout routine is predictable, allowing full knowledge of future training sessions. Nothing is unexpected. It's a huge advantage to know that on Monday you will be squatting 225 pounds for 4 sets of 8 repetitions. You won't be trying to squat 225 pounds. You will squat 225. On my workout days, I think about the challenge to come almost constantly starting from the moment I wake. I sometimes say the exercises out loud, including the weights and reps I know I will be doing. This might seem like obsession, but it's a vital technique when you reach a certain strength level, and gains come much less easily. If your body is ready but your mind is not, you most likely won't lift the weight. So strengthen your mind as the workout approaches. Prepare your thoughts for success, and it will be yours.


Remind yourself of past accomplishments

Your past achievements can give a powerful boost to your present belief. This is true in all of life, including training. If you've never lifted weights, you'll probably have difficulty believing you can bench press 400 pounds. This is for good reason, since as an untrained human you would certainly be crushed by that 400 pound barbell. Conversely, if you're a serious lifter who has routinely benched 395, you will find belief in your ability to put up 400 much easier. Focussing on your proven ability to lift over 98% of the 400 pounds will give you mental strength, which feeds into your physical strength. Remind yourself as often as you can of your achievements, and how they've brought you to this point. You've accomplished so much to get where are, that failure is impossible. This is how you must think. If you've lifted 395, you're body is most likely ready to lift 400. The deciding factor on whether you do or not is your mind.


Picture yourself succeeding

Strange as it seems, imagining yourself achieving your goals goes a long way towards achieving them for real. In the sports world, this is called "visualization", and it's practiced by many elite athletes who understand the mind's power. When you imagine yourself stepping up to a 400 pound barbell, grabbing hold of it, and smoothly pulling it to waist height in a perfect deadlift, you are preparing your mind to do it in real life. If you're inexperienced in the gym, this may seem fantastical, but it's not. Until you've experienced it, the power of the mind in performing hard physical tasks is difficult to fathom. To the experienced lifter, visualization is a familiar tool, as vital to their lifting career as their arms, back and legs. If you don't see yourself lifting the weight in your mind before even gripping the barbell, really lifting it will be tougher. Imagine the pain, the struggle of a particularly heavy lift, or workout. Visualize your muscles burning, and the strong pull of gravity against the barbell, trying to make you fail. Then picture your triumph, as the bar clears the dreaded "stick zone" halfway through the rep, and you complete the lift. With that image in your mind, grab the barbell and make it happen. You'll be surprised how much it helps.


Get Angry

I'm not in favour of steroid induced explosions of temper. I'm not in favour of steroids, period. But harnessing some healthy anger in the gym can be productive when attempting a challenging movement. Talk to the bar. Tell it you know it's going to try crushing you down, but you don't care. You're going to win. You're going to explode that bar up, and it will have no chance. You don't care how heavy it is. If you think it'll help, give a primal yell. This approach might seem over-the-top, but when preparing to lift a heavy barbell it's important to give yourself every possible advantage. Properly focussed anger (at the barbell, not people) can be a big one.


Reject Thoughts of Failure

In the same way that positive visualization helps you succeed, negative visualization makes failure more likely. Controlling such thoughts is hard, especially if you genuinely aren't sure how the lift or workout will go. Do yourself a favour and learn to nip thoughts of failure in the bud, before they bloom into a lack of faith, then weakness. Whether you believe you can or cannot lift the heavy barbell before you, you're most likely right. Your mind will sway the outcome. Learn to derail mental images of yourself not quite completing the lift, and replace them with thoughts of success and belief. Belief in your strength, and belief that 30 seconds from now, the lift will be completed and you'll be 5 pounds stronger than you were. This is easier said than done. The mind can be incredibly sneaky, and sometimes thoughts of failure sneak in before you realize you're having them. Then the damage is done. Controlling one's mind has been compared to wrestling a team of wild horses – a real struggle. If you struggle particularly in this area, try meditation. Learn to exert complete control over which thoughts you dwell on and which your reject. Gaining dominance over your mind might be the biggest favour you ever do yourself, both in the gym and beyond.