Fear in Barbell Training (and How to Overcome it)

by Steve Ross, SSC | September 13, 2023

steve ross coaching a lifter at the bottom of a squat

The benefits of barbell training are numerous and well-documented. From improvements in lean muscle mass, bone density, connective tissue integrity, and the neuromuscular system as a whole, everything about our bodies adapts and improves as we get stronger. We train for strength because the return on investment is so much higher than with any other physical adaptation; doing anything else, at least at first, is typically an inefficient use of one’s time. Strength is the most important physical adaptation for us to pursue, period.

It's easy to focus on the external physical and physiological benefits of training because that’s what we see and feel after getting under the bar. For those who train, their rapid progress is apparent to everyone around them. Increases in size and strength can be so dramatic that onlookers can't believe this comes from training 3 times a week, using 4 or 5 exercises and adding a little more weight each time. The process is simple, hard and effective, and it works for everyone whenever it’s applied correctly. In this context, the stress/recovery/adaptation cycle is very straightforward.

Those of us who have spent years doing this have come to appreciate another equally valuable adaptation that occurs when you show up, train, and don't miss your workouts: you learn to do hard things and, more importantly, you get better at doing them all the time. Your mind sharpens, your resolve hardens, and you become accustomed to doing the difficult physical tasks that most people won’t do. There is immense value in this.  

Barbell training is perhaps one of the only activities that is accessible to virtually everyone; it’s inexpensive, and it presents an opportunity to confront hard, scary things on a weekly basis. Best of all, it’s inherently safe, provided you’ve taken the time to seek out proper instruction. There’s no need to spend a bunch of money to find thrill-seeking activities when the fourth and fifth rep of a limit set of 5 will scare the shit of you just fine. If you don't know what I'm talking about, then you haven't actually trained. Rip has always said that we are narrow-casting when talking about Starting Strength, and for those who actually hear it and begin to train, an even further narrowing will occur for those who continue to push when things inevitably get hard.

With Growth Comes Fear

Sooner or later, a time will come when the weight on your back becomes terrifying – and the fear of failure or even injury can be paralyzing. I've seen lifters literally freeze on the platform, re-rack a heavy bar, and not attempt a rep they aren't sure they can complete. A few in my gym have even gone as far as to stop their workouts on the spot, take their things and walk out the door. Aside from the feelings of regret that come from not even trying, if they do this, they are missing out on quite possibly the most valuable lesson they will ever learn in the gym: that limits are self-imposed, and very rarely where people think they are.

Facing fear and voluntarily attempting to meet it head-on becomes for the mind like calluses for the hands; it gets tougher and more resilient with every rep. It also teaches people something about themselves that they didn’t know before and that will carry over to every other part of their lives. It’s an invaluable opportunity for personal growth and provides the individual with a glimpse of a mental fortitude they didn't know they had. When that day comes and when fear enters the mind of a lifter, how does it manifest itself and what can we do to combat it? Based on my experience, fear on the platform presents itself primarily in three ways: fear of injury, fear of failure, and fear of pushing through discomfort.

Fear of Injury

This is probably the most common challenge that coaches face when working with their athletes. Regardless of age or ability, everyone who trains will experience a weight that for the first time in their training makes them afraid. They’ll have finally come to a crossroads in their progress and will have a choice to make: either stop the set and give up, or try to complete the last rep.

Up until this moment, they most likely have never intentionally pushed themselves beyond what is comfortable and have no idea what that feels like. They’ve been riding the consistent progress of their LP and it’s been smooth sailing since the outset. Every set has felt within their ability to complete, and the thought of something going wrong hasn't even entered their mind. All of this changes the first time they unrack the bar and it feels as if they are being crushed under the weight. They tell themselves that there is no way they can take this down and stand back up without some joint or muscle giving way, leading to injury.

This new sensation is foreign, shockingly abrupt, and extremely powerful. Even with an experienced coach in their ear – who is communicating with them and has been watching how well the previous weights moved – self-preservation often takes over, and the lifter panics as they hurry to unload themselves of the burden of the weight. It’s at this point, unfortunately, that some people stop trying to get stronger and either move on to something else or decide that the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. The things they move on to, not surprisingly, are always less-demanding activities. They'll do some bootcamps, “train” at home or “take a break” for a while. In other words: it's gotten hard, they're no longer interested, and they look for something easier to do.

It's important to remember that injuries in barbell training are extremely rare, making strength training among the safest activities to engage in. Doubt enters the mind of every single lifter who has ever tried to get stronger, and going through these situations is just part of this process. It's important to know that this never goes away – fear and uncertainty is always present, no matter how long you've been training.

Fear of Failure

Life is full of ups and downs, and nobody likes to fail or feel like a failure. Between our professions, our relationships, and our life choices, there are a lot of mistakes to make along the way. For some, going to the gym is supposed to be a “safe” place where they can get stronger, be free of judgement, and do something positive for themselves. When they start training, every day is a good day because PRs are commonplace, the weights aren't particularly heavy, and everything is rosy. We want to bottle up that progress and keep it that way forever, but unfortunately that’s not reality. You will fail in here. Everybody does, and it's just a part of the journey.

I repeat: failure is part of this process. Just like adding weight to the bar, choosing the correct jumps, and recovery are all parts of getting stronger, so is failing. I want to preface this by clarifying that we don't want to fail unnecessarily by making foolish decisions in the gym. Skipping meals, getting four hours of sleep, or drinking excessively the night before a heavy session are all great ways to fail reps. They’re also completely avoidable.

However, even if we follow all the right steps leading up to a training session, sometimes it's just not there, and you will miss reps. There’s no shame in this. We're not robots, and occasionally we fail when we are expecting to succeed. We must accept that this will happen, but it shouldn't provide an excuse not to try in anticipation of a perceived outcome. When you fail, make sure it's not because of a lack of effort but because it just wasn't there on that particular day. When in doubt, trust your training and programming up until that point. Take a deep breath, brace hard and take the fifth rep down to the bottom and see what happens. If it doesn't go, it doesn't go, and now you know where the line is. Take comfort in the fact that everyone goes through this. Very likely, the next workout will be better, and things will continue moving forward. Failure provides us with valuable data, forces us to look at what we're doing and allows us the chance to make changes if necessary.

Fear of Pushing Through Discomfort

Most people who go to the gym do so in a way that’s comfortable and easy. They use machines that make the work easier, they isolate body parts for a pump, and never train hard enough to actually make real progress. The one-arm cable rows and lat pulldowns for sets of 15 are comfortable and easy and aren't doing anything for them (though the Instagram videos they post sure look great!). The squat racks are empty, the machines are full, and everyone in there looks the same as they did six months ago – from the guys taking selfies in tank tops to the women doing lunges in odd butt-lifting leggings. They want to exercise, take vanity photos and pretend that they're doing something productive, when in reality they’re just wasting valuable time.

They aren’t interested in doing hard things because that requires actual effort, and later on it requires them to do things that are uncomfortable. Getting under a heavy bar and squatting a PR set of 5 is hard, and all you need is a pair of sweatpants, a t-shirt, and your belt and squat shoes. But glute-focused RDLs with a dumbbell in tight pants and a tank top in just the right light makes for a much better post on social media. If this is the background of a lifter who is training for strength for the first time, they’ll be in for a surprise when the first few weeks of linear progress is in the rear-view mirror. They will learn that training is hard – it’s supposed to be that way, and it's radically different than what they've been doing up until now.

Going to the gym will start to mean so much more than playing dress-up and taking pictures. Every workout is tough, there’s an accumulation of fatigue, and you’ll have to force yourself to put the bar on your back for the third time the same week. The warm-up sets will start to feel heavy, but you’ll continue because you're committed to the decision you made to get stronger. This stuff is supposed to be hard because easy doesn't work. If we want to reap the benefits of getting stronger, the training is going to be difficult, uncomfortable, and even confrontational. There's a reason why most people won't do it – most people aren't interested in doing the hard physical tasks that will actually have a direct impact on their health and quality of life. Nothing worth having in life comes easily, and strength training is no exception.

How to Face the Fear

Everyone who trains for strength has faced fear in their workouts, and some do it on a regular basis. The important thing to understand is that it’s a natural response to a perceived threat. What lifters feel under the bar is rarely an accurate assessment of how things are actually going in the gym. This is the major problem with RPE training for the vast majority of lifters, but that is a different article.

When fear starts to creep in, try to quiet your thoughts as much as possible and focus on one thing that you're trying to do. Getting stronger is a very logical process and we go by the data of our training logs, not how we feel on a particular day. Trust your numbers, the fact that your training has been well thought out, and expect that some days will feel a lot worse than they should. If we only trained when we felt like it, most of us would never step foot in the gym.

Giving yourself one task to focus on can help you to manage the rep and the situation you’re in. In the squat, for example, there are many cues you can use to remind yourself to execute the movement pattern as perfectly as you can. However, with 500lbs on your back, you often can't process much more than the crushing feeling of the weight on your back. Thinking about one thing, hip drive out of the bottom in this case, gives us one job that will have a positive effect on the entire rep, and give us the best chance at succeeding. Take a deep breath, focus on the task at hand and only the task at hand, brace hard, ride the bar down to the bottom, and then shove your ass up. Think about this one thing.

Regardless of how you feel and how the weight feels, have the guts to try it anyway. Make or miss, I promise that in the long run, you'll be glad you did and proud of yourself for making the effort. This alone, separates you from 95% of people who go to the gym

Facing fear leads to change and helps to build character in a way that is totally unique. Don't shy away from the weight when it gets heavy, or when doubt enters your mind. Remember that it's supposed to be this way – it’s what you signed up for, and ultimately will make you harder to kill.

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