Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

The Importance of Mindset

by Michael Jones | September 13, 2022

lifter at the bottom of a squat

“What happened on rep 5?” I ask my lifter, after yelling at him to reach back in the bottom of his last rep, then watching his technique fall apart. “I dunno. Just wanted to get it done with.”

This sort of thing happens all the time with lifters. Squats and the like are not seen as highly demanding of mental attention the way swinging a golf club is, or throwing a dart, or perhaps playing high stakes poker. So, lifters let their attention loosen as they would if they were hopping on a treadmill, and their technique loosens as well. This seems more likely to happen at the beginning of a lifter’s career, because everything is light. And moving light weight is easy.

However, this less obvious kind of form creep is far more insidious since it is a mental and a physical practice, albeit a bad practice. The habits we form during our training are important because the mental absence or “psych” we may have adopted before the set will have since dissipated during the set as it starts to feel heavy. As a result, we are not focused on the movement pattern we must command our body to do. Here is when what you have been practicing all along reveals itself. Do you just drop into the bottom of the squat loosey-goosey and let Jesus take the wheel? Or do you remind yourself of the job you command your skeleton to do?

Keeping technique together late into a set is one of the marks of a mature lifter. Because mental absence at the beginning of the set, when it is heavy, results in not having enough umph to finish. On the other hand, psych wears off and almost always degrades into either mental absence or panic. Fast. And if you have found a way to psych yourself into a limit set of 5 and are still riding that psych after rep 4, I would bet that you’re just trying to get the set over with rather than practicing the hallmark of quality lifting: being able to bear down and focus on perform a rep with proper technique.

No, at first this is not easy. But yes, without drowning out the truth of the matter – the impending act of moving the heavy bar – with loud music, bro-hype, and pump-up, you will have to do something like visualize the bar path, imagine where your hips and knees will go, and approach the bar more like a predator at work, and not like a pack of rabid, whooping teenagers. Because if it is heavy enough, it doesn’t matter what you’re listening to. What matters is that you approach the bar with a kind of measured ferocity in how you will control your skeleton and the way the bar moves, giving yourself jobs to do: chest down, hips back, midfoot – all the mechanical tasks that make the bar go back up.

This is a skill that we can and should hone to express some of the best qualities our genotype has to offer. Sure, some good music helps keep the tempo up, there is nothing wrong with that. Having your boys (or girls) with you, enduring similar training stimuli, is helpful for engendering a positive and aggressively focused mind. But too much of any of this is really just a distraction from completing the task at hand with skill and dexterity.

So the next time you have a heavy set of 5, turn the music down, skip the hype-up, and practice the mindset of lifting. Set your intentions beforehand to fuel the attention during the set. I’ll bet your set looks cleaner.

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