The New Mindfulness

Several years ago, a friend shared with me an article, written by a yoga practitioner, that argued that yoga and weightlifting are polar opposites. It then went on to explain why: because yoga is a mindful practice, while lifting weights, by its very nature, is an activity in which it is impossible to be mindful. I immediately took issue with it, although at the time I couldn't exactly explain why exactly it was that it irritated me so. But at the very heart of the issue was my insistent belief that it simply wasn't true.

    More recently, I read a great article (unfortunately, can’t find it anymore) in which the author argued that there are two major types of people who go into the gym: you've got the aggressive, roaring, testosterone-packed meat heads that smash rep after rep until they’re ready to fall over, and then you've got the cool, collected accountants who track every rep and weight, carefully pushing themselves just to the edge. On one hand you've got chaos, brutality. On the other: order, precision.

    The end takeaway of that article didn't try to lay down judgment on these character types. After all, everyone is usually to some extent a mixture of the two, and it’s more of a continuum than an exact type. Both sides have their merits, and both will see progress with their goals. The meat heads develop an intuitive instinct and eventually seem to know exactly how much to push things in order to get results, while the accountants will always force themselves to do more volume if they know that they haven’t hit their goals for the day. But that article meant a lot to me. It suddenly clicked. I then realized why that yoga article had annoyed me so much: because I've been using mindfulness in my lifting for years.

    By nature, I’m a bit quieter and more reserved than most people (unless you get too much wine into me, at which point it’s probably best for everyone involved if no one ever hangs out with me). When I go into the gym, I don’t go in to get pumped up or psyched out. I’m always pretty calm and quiet when I lift. In between heavy sets, I’ll zone out and meditate for a minute or two while paying attention to my breathing, waiting for it to calm down. There’s a balance there: the intense action of a 3 rep max followed by the calm rest of a couple minutes of meditation.

    In terms of music, I listen to stuff that would get me laughed out of the gym. In fact, one time in college (our gym had a stereo where you could plug in your own music), it did. While I listen to whatever my mood calls for, and that can include high-energy heavy metal and stuff like that, most often what my mood calls for is quieter, more atmospheric music. I’m not averse to listening to audio books while I’m lifting either - I find that I can actually concentrate on them very easily, and it helps break up the monotony of the lifting without being too high-energy.

    At its core, mindfulness can simply mean listening to your body and focusing on your breathing. When you look at it like this, you realize that we can be mindful even in the most active of situations. High level athletes have understood the importance of breath work for quite some time. In his Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, Arnold Schwarzenegger devotes a chapter to the importance of breathing. Rest is just as important as sets and reps in many cases, and recovery doesn't need to be purely physical in nature: why not focus on the psychological aspects of lifting as well?

    Lifting for strength as I do puts a lot of stress on the body. Exercise scientists are well aware of the psychological, as well as physiological, stress that a heavy lift demands. This is one of the major reasons that activity is typically tapered leading up to a competition: because the athlete needs time off in order to be in top psychological shape to grind out a maximum effort lift. Disturbance in any psychological factor can lead to poor performance, whether in training or competition.

    The psychology of lifting is something often overlooked in today’s landscape of sets, reps, and exercises. Particularly when it comes to people training for weight loss, unorthodox meditative techniques can be extremely useful in helping the lifter accomplish his or her goals. In between heavy sets, controlling breathing and performing a meditative visualization of the upcoming lift can help steady the nerves and reduce stress and anxiety. If a lift fails, ask yourself why. Analyze your weak points and use internal cueing to try to overcome them on a renewed attempt. Both internal and external cues have been shown to improve performance, and further, internal cues can even change muscle activation, i.e. making a bench press more tricep-focused than pectoral-focused. Guided meditation sessions are particularly useful in revealing and managing problem behaviors that lead weight loss exercisers to overeat or otherwise slip in chasing their fitness goals. When performing density training or whenever time becomes a constraint, breathing in between sets becomes crucial: the more you can control your breathing during your set rest time, the stronger you’ll be when you have to start lifting again.

    Above all, lifting weights is not a mindless activity. Being mindful while lifting your weights is how you manage the stress of the activity and ready yourself to do more. There is here a yin and a yang of sorts, and achieving a balance between the two is crucial if you don’t intend to burn out after a month or two of heavy lifting. To be good at anything, you have to be in it for the long haul, and that means that you absolutely cannot perform your workouts mindlessly. If you aren't paying attention, you aren't going to improve. Your lifting will stall because you aren't pushing yourself, and you’ll lose interest.

    Good lifters are always identifying their problems and working to fix them. If you aren't listening to your body, that isn't going to happen. Further, mindfulness can be considered part of a wider range of training techniques referred to as biofeedback: using feedback from your body to dictate your training. David Dellanave is the king of biofeedback, and his techniques have helped revolutionize my training. Using his methods, one tests to determine which exercises your body is best capable of performing in a given day, and then lifts until physical or mental factors tell him/her to back off.

Developing the instinct to know when to stop lifting is crucial. Pain or discomfort can sometimes be ignored when performing isolation exercises at submaximal weights, but when performing a major lift they’re usually a sign that you should stop right away. If you don’t check in on your body between sets, injury can happen very quickly. I remember a time when (much younger than I am now) I ignored a nagging soreness in my mid-back while doing some push presses and ended up messing up the joint so badly that I almost dropped the bar on my head mid-lift. If I had just listened to my body back then, I would have saved myself months of avoiding overhead work while recovering. Certainly, not every injury can be predicted or avoided, but many can, and smart lifters will be develop a strong enough connection with their body to know when to stop.

Whether you’re an accountant or a meat head, both practice mindfulness to get better, whether they know it or not. For the accountant, mindfulness involves carefully recording sets and reps as a means of knowing one’s limits and reducing the emotional complexity of the lift. The meat head, on the other hand, learns to listen to the body so as to intuitively know when to push and when not to.

Are yoga and lifting polar opposites? Absolutely not. They have a lot more in common than fitness extremists want to admit.