This article was originally published on www.jcdfitness.com on June 11, 2013.
Last week, I sent an impromptu email to the JCD Fitness subscribers with the subject line: One weird trick to improve your exercise intensity today (some of you may have gotten ‘How to use visualization for a better workout?’).
I wrote the email because I didn’t want to write a full article on it, but after all the replies encouraging me to, I decided I’d write a little longer version of the email, and add some more ideas I’ve been pondering/trying out since sending it out.
I do this on occasion. I’ll simply send out a short, informational email, as opposed to updating the blog, so if you want in on that, subscribe to the newsletter using the form on the right.
I Caught Myself Slipping
As many of you know, I got into mindfulness meditation about a year ago. To say that’s been anything less than amazing would be fictitious.
Most recently, I’ve been practicing various method of mindfulness and visualization during my training to see if it will allow me to make a better mind-muscle connection, and to enjoy my training more than usual.
As of late, I’ve been doing a bodybuilding split created by a fellow trainer friend of mine, so needless to say it’s imperative that I focus 100% on the feel as opposed to psyching myself up for heavy loads and one-rep maxes.
Before I began the program I caught myself slacking, though. I found myself just going through the motions without paying much attention to what was going on within my body, and how I was moving.
So instead of letting this pass, I jotted down a note in my phone to make some changes during the next session.
This is what I wrote down:
“Spend 5 minutes before my session in a small meditation, controlling my breathing, and visualizing myself squatting. As I progress through my squat workout, drop my training load to 70% of what I’m scheduled to do. Only focus on contraction quality, form, and getting as many reps as possible.”
Mind Tricks and Meditations
So for this next session, I got seated in the corner and began my normal meditation practice. I set the timer on my iPhone for 5 minutes, closed my eyes and began regulating my breathing. After about 30 seconds of preparing my mind, I began to look inwardly and began visualizing myself squatting.
Now I’ve performed a squat thousands of times in my life, but had never truly thought much about how it felt on a deep level.
In my mind, I paid attention to all the feelings we experience during a squat – you know, the heavy bar on your traps, and the bracing of your core.
I focused on how my glutes and hamstrings felt on the decent. I imagined how my heels connected with the floor as they pushed my body back to the starting position.
Over the next few minutes, I continued to repeat each rep like this over and over until I could ‘feel’ this in my muscles. The trick was that I wasn’t squatting at all – it was all in my mind. My brain was recreating this movement and the feelings for me.
And then the timer went off…
It was time to warm up and get started with my training session.
On this particular day, I was schedule to work up to 345 pounds for 5 reps. However, instead of hitting that top set once I was ready for it, I dropped the load down to 240 pounds (about 70% of 345).
This did 2 things to me initially.
- It crushed my ego
- And it threw me off of my ‘scheduled’ training for the day
Some might call this ‘controlled chaos.’
As you probably know, 70% of your work set feels pretty light, especially if you’re expecting to lift fairly heavy loads (5 reps or less).
I got under the bar, and rekindled my visualization just a few minutes ago.
As I began to squat, I zeroed in on my glutes, and quads. I paid attention to every rep. I noticed how my heels felt as I pushed myself back to the starting position.
I also made a point to descend slower than normal (about a 3-count), and to explode quickly on my way back up.
I focused on how hard my glutes were contracting, and forced the squeezing of my quads at the top.
With each rep, the sensations gained intensity, and I could feel the fatigue setting in much quicker than I expected. As I neared the 8th rep, I was huffing and puffing, and powered through to hit 13 total reps.
At this point, I was wiped out and had to take a 3-4 minute break before doing a few more sets.
Truthfully, I can’t remember the last time I’d felt my muscles ‘working’ this much. Call it ‘awareness’ or the ‘mind-muscle connection’ or whatever, but it was amazing.
Since I initially sent out this email, I got a lot of feedback from readers. Here are a few responses below…
I hurt my lower back a while ago and haven’t done squatting in about a month.
So today dammit, I was going to try LOL. I don’t know much about the visualizing thing but I did a tiny bit in my tiny brain LOL. Then I dropped my squat weight to about 50%, and did three sets of eight very carefully and much more slowly than normal.
It felt good and I feel good! So I might have gotten over that hurdle. Thanks, your email was timely…
This has been an evolution for me. I started really focusing on my work when I started to move into heavy weight (for me) with my deadlift.
Now, I don’t listen to music, I do not watch TV. I focus on my form, my breathing, the whole thing. Visualizing the rep during rest period, etc.
I try to push out all the distractions in the gym while I’m working.
It makes a huge difference and I feel much more present during my training.
Another reader had responded and mentioned that a lot of this seemed similar to certain yoga practices that encourage you to focus on your breath, and the movement – taking it super slow, and appreciating the feelings you experience (whether they be intense, good, bad, or whatever).
He also mentioned that one of his yoga teachers said to try practicing movement with their eyes closed.
So… a few days ago, this is what I did.
During my current training, I’m doing a TON of high-rep work with short rest periods. I can’t help but be present in my training and notice the usual lactic acid build up, and consequential pump I get.
So during my most recent squatting session, I closed my eyes during my last set of 10. If you try this, I encourage you to be in a rack, with the safety pins high, just in case you lose your balance.
Please note, I am not suggesting you try this first squats due to the amount of balance required, but I did it because I wanted to see what it felt like. I recommend trying it on a movement such as a machine press, or dumbbell row.
The feeling was intense. With my eyes closed, it was similar to my meditations – I could zone in on how my muscles burned with every rep with even more focus and clarity.
Another movement I tried this on was during the rest-paused sets of incline dumbbell presses.
In LGN365, I make good use of rest-pause sets because of their efficiency in workload for the time invested, as well as helping you establish that mind-muscle connection due to the rep range it has you start in (10-12) and the fatigue it builds over time.
For the first time ever during my dumbbell presses, I closed my eyes. Right now I’m focusing on my upper chest as it’s lagging behind other body parts, so I paid close attention to the squeezing at the top of the movement, and noticed how quickly the fatigue set in.
This was one of the most intense sets I’ve experienced in a long time. The cool thing is that it doesn’t require me to use a heavy barbell (which is problematic for my shoulders) and I’m getting a much more intense workout with lighter loads.
I then followed this movement up with a low to high cable fly which finished me off for a great chest pump. I also did these with my eye closed, and the experience was amazing.
Are You Up For The Challenge?
This is what I want for your next training session.
Pick just one movement you normally do, but make certain to do the following:
I prefer the movemnent to be a safer one for starters. So think of machine presses, cable rows, or lat pulldowns. As you get more experienced, you can try other movements such as squats, lunges, etc.
Oh yeah… curls and tricep extensions are amazing when you close your eyes and focus on the feeling.
Reduce the load by 20-30%.
Spend time visualizing yourself doing the movement for 5 minutes before your training.
Pay as much attention possible to the muscles being worked during the exercise – much more than you normally do. Focus on the how the muscles feel as they contract, and how quickly the fatigue sets in.
Stop about one rep short of failure – so yes, this means you’ll not be aiming for any predetermined number of reps.
Pump out as many as you can in a slow, mindful manner.
Pay attention to the ‘pump’ you get.
Pay attention to the lactic acid build up and how it burns.
Pay attention to the muscles you’re trying to engage.
Embrace the intensity as it heightens and you become more aware of your movement.
This will be a struggle for some of you, but it can forever change the way you train, and will definitely impact your ability to gain muscle, strength and control over how you use your body.
Embrace the struggle, get in the zone and become a better, stronger version of yourself.
Image credit: D Sharon Pruitt