By Karin Krisher
Exercise is usually considered a physical activity; in fact, the two terms are used interchangeably across the fitness community. But the truth is, physical activity is largely a mental game.
That means the mental health benefits are often just as noticeable and important as the physical. The benefits I’ve seen from lifting weights extend to my reflexes, general timing, learning curve, coordination and quickness, sense of humor – you name it.
To get these benefits, it helps to exercise your brain while you exercise your body.
I’m not talking about busting out old Jeopardy! episodes during your cardio sesh.
I’m talking about how—and what—you should really be thinking while you are in the heat of the workout moment.
This is the way to ensure you’re playing with the best hand.
This is your brain on exercise.
1. This muscle is doing all the work.
“This muscle” can be replaced with whatever muscle you are trying to work. If you are doing a full body workout with compound movements and not isolated movements, obviously, this thought isn’t applicable.
But for a lifter like myself (and I highly encourage all women to try a routine focused on free weights and isolating movements) the “this muscle” mentality beats all.
When I am doing an incline press, it keeps me focused to repeat “chest is doing all the work."
It brings me back to reality if I am lifting hard and distracted by the weight.
If my lower back or arms are working too hard, hearing my in-my-head voice saying “Chest, Karin, chest!” is all it takes to refocus and use the appropriate muscle accordingly, giving me a better workout.
Important note: Think this thought during all phases of the motion.
2. I am the only person here.
Don’t be mean to your fellow gym-goers. And don’t sit on a machine with your legs crossed whistling just because “you’re the only person there.”
When I have this thought, it motivates me to reach my max potential by allowing me to work my hardest at all times regardless of anything else going on in the gym. It also reminds me, during each exercise where I feel like I’m at my end, why I am doing this.
At the end of the day, I am the person who lives in this body. I am the only person here.
It’s instinctual, of course, but when your eyes are on your motion, all the force you can muster is focused on the exercise and you’re convinced the quietly thudding pop-techno beats overhead are moving much more slowly than your heart, breathing can be an afterthought.
But it never should be.
I’ve had to continually remind myself to focus on my breathe during every workout - or I totally forget. Think of doing a set of five sit-ups. Before you know it, you’re holding your breath. So talk yourself through it, every motion, every time.
Here’s the line of thought, at its simplest: XX. Exhale on exertion. Easy enough to remember, right?
When you are pushing up from a squat or lifting the weight toward your arm on a bicep curl, you are exerting force. This is usually referred to as a positive motion. Exhale when you are (seemingly) doing the most work. Inhale when, for example, you’re lowering the weight during a curl, or letting the weight back up to the top of the machine slowly after a lat pull down.
Exertion = Exhalation. Breathe.
4. Align. Realign.
I have often struggled with my alignment during my routines, as well as during daily life.
In high school, my best friend always imitated my walk, with her right foot sticking out like it was in first position and her left foot pointing perfectly straight.
If I am hitting a leg curl, my knees drift slightly to the right. If I am at the bottom of my squat, I settle in just the tiniest bit, beginning the upward movement with emphasis on my right leg. My left tricep is much weaker than my right for this same reason.
My alignment is off. I know it and I focus on it constantly during exercise to ensure proper form. If you don’t have proper form, don’t do the exercise. Seriously.
You are not benefiting in the way that you should be, and working without results can only cause frustration.
Try each new exercise with a very low weight that you know you could handle for several reps, as it will take energy to nail down the form. Keep using that weight until you feel confident in the exercise—and I mean ultra-confident.
Like I said, there is no point to doing an exercise with bad form, and alignment is everything. It took me one-and-a-half years to graduate from five lbs. to eight on lateral raises.
Every painstaking set was an exercise in patience and a lesson in perseverance. I finally feel ultra-confident in my lateral motion, but I still do every lift with the thought in mind: Align, and realign.
5. Hurts So Good.
John Cougar Mellencamp knew what he was talking about. Sure, the man might have been referring to love, but I think his words capture a feeling that we can all apply to the gym.
I don’t want you to get hurt, and I don’t think it’s good. I don’t want anyone to get injured, ever, or even feel twinges of pain. But the phrase no pain no gain exists for a really good reason. When can you really tell when you’re working hard?
When you feel the burn.
Feeling the burn means exactly what it sounds like, and you’ll know when it happens. Just as a test for yourself, work through the moment that you think you know it’s happening. Then you’ll really know. If you can stand it, work through that moment, too.
Teach yourself about the burn, and coach yourself through.
You shouldn’t injure yourself by working too hard-- but you should always work as hard as you can.
Come on baby, make it hurt so good.
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