By PJ Nestler
If you regularly read fitness magazines or blogs, you’ll likely come across a story with a clickbait headline like “5 Moves to Get a Six Pack” or “3 Ways to Get Bigger Biceps” pretty regularly. The trouble with these articles – other than them sucking you in with a catchy title only to leave you with fluffy content – is that they’re all about the physical. Different exercises, new workouts, the latest fads. While the body-focused element of fitness is obviously important, it’s not the only thing. If you want to get to a certain level of performance, you’ve got to get your mind right first.
It’s a recent phenomenon to try and separate the body and brain into distinct siloes. Ancient philosophers understood that they were indivisible and that while the body is what you use to move through and interact with your environment, it’s the central processing unit in your head that directs your path and attitude. As Plato said, “Reality is created by the mind, we can change our reality by changing our mind.” So while you could balance on a Bosu ball with your left leg while pressing a dumbbell overhead with your right hand – or whatever ridiculous new exercise that magazine story is urging you to do – you’d be better off trying to nail more fundamental exercises with complete and utter focus.
Consider two different scenarios. In one, a girl comes into the gym, concentrates on every word her coach says, and tries to be as aware of how her body is moving as possible as she performs each exercise. She’s in and out in 30 minutes and that time has been well spent on improving the skills of squatting and pull-ups. In the second scene, the same girl arrives with her head down messing with her phone. Her coach tries to talk to her and provide feedback, but she’s only half listening because she’s paying more attention to the TV above his head. Every few minutes she takes a selfie in the mirror and posts it to Instagram with the obligatory hashtags. She can’t figure out why she still isn’t able to do a full pull-up.
Creating Conditions for Focus
Which version of this girl do you think has had a better quality experience? Which is more likely to make progress and achieve her goals? Obviously the first one. The second scenario might be a caricature of an example, but having coached hundreds of people, I can tell you with confidence that sadly it’s not that far from the truth. All too many people treat their physical practice with the same scattered, tech-distracted attitude that they show in the rest of their life. As a result, they’re rarely fully present and find it hard to benefit from coaching. The coach-athlete relationship cannot be simply one way. You could go out and find the best instructor on the planet who’s willing to teach you everything they know, but if you show up and treat every session as a mere box check that simply provides pics for your social media feeds, you’re going to leave a lot on the table.
Part of the transition to being present is on the coach. If you train people, you could institute a “no phones” policy, remove TVs, and eliminate any other things that your clients might find distracting. You can also let them know what you expect in terms of active listening and focus. But then it’s going to be the responsibility of each athlete to not only show up and do the work, but also engage with you for the duration of each session. You might also do well to reduce the total number of exercises. Instead of trying to cram in 10 different ones, reducing the number to two or three per session could improve the quality and also your clients’ attention, as they’ll no longer be rushing to switch stations every couple of minutes and can take their time to get things right.
Get More From Every Workout
Imagine how much better you’d feel and your results would be if you gave your all every single time you trained. At XPT, one of the ways we achieve this is by surrounding ourselves with like-minded people who like to push each other. So if you’ve been flying solo or usually work out with someone who tends to mess around, perhaps it’s time to seek out a new crew that will help you cultivate a different mindset.
It can also be helpful to stop just looking at the numbers. This could be the sets and reps on a given day, your heart rate, or some other stat on your fitness tracker. While there is something to be said for paying attention to such metrics to some degree so there are objective parameters, when you become beholden to them you can miss out on the kind of rich learning experience (and if you’re part of a group, the community aspect) that’s available if you stop fixating on figures. A different way to look at things is to have a set goal for each session. This could be as simple as feeling better when you finish a workout than when you start it. Or it could be more concrete, such as aiming for maximum velocity on each rep and stopping the set when your speed starts to noticeably decline. At XPT, we’re also big on movement quality, so maybe you zero in on getting your mechanics down one day, before upping the intensity in the following session.
Avoiding Going Through the Motions
Another pitfall when it comes to mindset is merely going through the motions. Our brain is always trying to preserve our energy reserves by creating predictable patterns and going on auto-pilot when possible. That’s what happens when you drive home from work or pick up your kids from school without recalling anything about the journey. While it can be positive for certain things to become second nature and happen quasi-autonomously, we can also make a trap of routine to the point that ensnares us.
This is the case when you come in and do three sets of 10 crunches, curls, and lunges every time you hit the weight room, or always run a 5K at exactly the same pace. On a certain level, it’s positive that you’re moving, and even more so if you’re doing it consistently – say three or four times a week. But stick with one routine long enough and you’re likely to plateau and stagnate. This is true in a couple of different ways. First, if your body keeps receiving the same old stimulus time and time again, it will not be challenged to respond to the stressor with growth and so will stop shifting your baseline in a positive direction. Your outputs will also remain stuck, whether that’s your work capacity, the amount of speed, strength, or power you can generate, or your endurance. Beyond this, you’re likely to get bored and start mentally tuning out.
This is one of the reasons that variety is a big part of what we do at XPT. The Move pillar of our philosophy involves pool training, gym sessions, training on natural surfaces like sand and grass, paddling in the ocean, and much more. This isn’t the kind of gimmickry we talked about earlier, but rather a recognition that movement should be playful and that we should constantly be embracing new challenges in order to grow mentally, physically, and spiritually. So try a new sport, try a different class, or join in a game of pickup soccer at your local recreation center. Simply by changing your outlook, attitude, and how you gauge progress, you can radically alter your mental approach. And in doing so, improve how you feel and perform, too.