I know a technique that takes just ten minutes per day, builds you more strength and size, releases stress, improves sleep quality, and probably makes you more productive and happier in general. Seems too good to be true, right?
Recently, I deadlifted a personal best of 550lbs while benching a personal best of 330lbs. Unfortunately, lingering leg issues from an old injury made me decide not to attempt for a personal best squat, but it was still on track for a personal best.
Tried this last week and failed. This week - rested up and crushed it. When you're peaking for a true 1RM attempt, a taper week can easily put 10-20lbs on your max. It's simple. To taper, keep intensity high but reduce volume to a minimum. In my case, I did limited range of motion lifts with about 90% of this, 3 sets of just 1rep. Feels easy leaving effort in the tank, but helps your body rest up to max so you can crush a heavier weight. This is 250kg/551lbs today.
Over the past few years, my training quality has been up and down. I’ve struggled to set consistent personal records for a lot of reasons including 4 major moves, lots of lifestyle changes, and a leg injury suffered on a labor intensive job. During that time, I looked for ways to improve my training quality, resulting in the first seriously effective training cycle in almost two years.
I could not have performed as well as I did without the help of meditation, which was a key component in my training for this cycle.
I’ve written a lot about the intersection of mindfulness and heavy lifting in the past. Since then, I’ve been lucky to see a lot of my ideas validated by sport science.
For example, mental toughness questionnaires can predict the performance of high level kickboxers, and further, mental toughness is a trainable quality. Mental training can produce short term gains in strength, and further, imagery training which is more specific to the kind of exercise at hand has a greater effect than non-specific imagery training. Visualization during exercise has been shown to alter or increase muscle activation to preferentially target desired muscles. Strength programs which included both mental imagery and self motivation training are more effective. We also know that high degrees of stress can inhibit the effectiveness of training programs, and the ability of meditation to decrease stress is well known. These studies are by no means comprehensive, but should give a good idea of which direction the evidence points.
Aside from this, many high-level athletes and performers swear by the use of meditation or other mindfulness practices. This isn’t always a rigorous standard for best practices (an example of the appeal to authority fallacy), but it can provide another piece of evidence in the context of the scientific data we already have.
This means that if you’re not using some kind of mindfulness training, you’re holding yourself back. Here’s a list of the techniques I’ve honed to use in my own training. Feel free to implement other meditative processes in your own training, or make variations as needed. This should be a good idea of where to start.
Meditation. I tend to use either guided meditation or emptiness meditation. Guided meditation involves the use of a guide who gives you instructions. This tends to be easiest for beginners, and you can easily find plenty of guided material on the Headspace app, which I highly recommend. In contrast, emptiness meditation involves trying to clear the mind of all thought for an extended period. This takes more practice to get right. Neither is better or worse, but give you different options, and you may find you prefer one or the other. I tend to do 10-20 minutes per day of meditation, usually before going to sleep. This helps manage stress and maximize sleep quality so that I can recover effectively from even the hardest workouts.
Visualization. This refers to the practice of visualizing an activity in your mind. As seen from the study above, visualization works best when it can be done as similarly to the lift as possible. This means that some light amount of movement (lifting with an empty barbell, for example) with a high focus on mental visualization of the movement and matching the normal speed of the movement is more helpful than just visualizing bench pressing at home in your bed. This can be done during warmup or back off sets for best effect.
Visualization, part 2. Another use of visualization is to mentally cue yourself to focus on lagging or weak muscle groups. By focusing on the triceps during the bench press when you know that your triceps are the weak point, for example, you can increase tricep activation and growth. This is useful during lighter assistance and isolation work.
Breathwork. Oxygen is inhaled through the lungs and then circulated to produce energy in the cells. During exercise, breathing is regulated by the demands of the exercise at hand, so it can be hard to gain voluntary mental control over it. However, breathwork at rest is a component of many meditation/mindfulness traditions. Personally, I like to use it while resting between heavy sets. Breath control can help you take deeper breaths than you normally would, leading to faster and more complete recovery between sets. Particularly with highly challenging deadlift sets, which can take a long time to recover from, this is a lifesaver.
As a strength program progresses, volume (quantity of training) steadily decreases and intensity (how heavy that training is) increases. This means you’re doing less work, but it’s getting heavier and heavier. These techniques were absolutely critical to my success in my training cycle, particularly for managing recovery during the later, more intense phases.
Heavy deadlifts are absolutely intimidating. It’s a massive amount of weight, and it’s the most metabolically draining of the powerlifts. This means that when stepping up to the bar, it’s easy to get lost in your head, set up poorly, and waste effort trying to recover from an inefficient start. If your recovery between sets isn’t complete and your mindset isn’t locked in, your training quality will be poor and you won’t make the best gains. Thanks to these mindfulness techniques, I was able to keep my heavy deadlifts during the peaking cycle much crisper and cleaner and with better form than usual, while feeling much less drained after heavy sets.
I feel that in the past, there’s been way too much demonization of mindfulness training when it comes to strength training. Yoga practitioners would probably claim that we cannot lift weights mindfully. Most powerlifters and bodybuilders would probably laugh at the idea of meditating more.
The reality is, it’s a perfect fit. The evidence exists that we’ve been mistaken. Instead, by learning to integrate mindfulness techniques and strength training, we can unlock even greater strength and muscular potential within ourselves. The best part is, the benefits of mindfulness training aren’t limited to athletic performance, and can help us in all other areas of our lives as well.
Take just ten minutes per day to meditate and you’ll see these benefits firsthand.
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