Weight training has always been so much more to me than meets the eye. Although it has helped shape my body and instill a high level of discipline, the mental game that it has nurtured in me is what truly adds value to my life. To this day, weight training continues to be my best investment and a teacher of great depths.
In my opinion, all exercises provide a positive psychological effect through their teachings. Interestingly, there is a lack of research that would support this theory. Studies have determined that aerobic exercises (cardio) can stimulate the growth of the brain’s hippocampus, the area involved in verbal memory and learning.
Hardly any studies have been done on the effects of weight-training on the brain. What are y’all waiting for?! The main study – https://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/RTandMentalHealth.htm – suggests that weight training can have a positive effect on depression, anxiety, cognitive health, self-esteem, energy, and sleep. If you workout, you can likely attest to all of them.
Side note: If done properly, weight-training is actually an awesome and effective cardiovascular workout – check this out: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2626093.
But what more can an exercise offer than a movement of the body, a beating of the heart, a secretion of the sweat glands, a stimulation of your hormones?
Well, aside from all these immediate benefits, I find that exercises can help not only to strengthen the actions of the body, but also the intent behind them and have a functional transference to your life. The following are some staple exercises in my programs. I will explain how they positively affect my mental process, and can only hope that you may also think deeper than just a mind to muscle connection with every rep.
Life itself is a series of tests of endurance. How you fair at these tests help define your lifetime. The clock only stops when you do. At times, life can throw lemons at you, making it extremely uncomfortable to bear. What running teaches me, is that no matter how many times my brain tells me I want to stop, the action of putting one foot forward and repeating on the other side will move me forward. Basic biomechanics. So, no matter how hard the circumstance, I know that putting a single step forward is still going to move me in the right direction.
2. Max Deadlifts
There’s a massive psychological shift when you near your maximum effort in a deadlift. Anxiety, fear, and sometimes self-doubt can take over your body and thus it is imperative that you acknowledge these emotions but not let them overwhelm you. The moment you succumb to them, the less energy you have to put toward a successful lift. Much like life, these deadlift situations can sometimes seem insurmountable. We get riddled with fear and heart-thumping anxiety and often want to do anything but face the challenge. But even if you’re not successful in standing up with that max load, at least you tried! You didn’t run and hide. On the other hand, it is one of the most rewarding feelings in training to stand up with the bar, knowing you pulled through to what you had hoped would be your maximum capability.
3. Clean and Press
This two-part movement mimics many life endeavors. Not everything is completed in one single shot, no matter much effort you give to it. Often times, there has to be another big push (plus maybe even several more) to achieve your desired results. Part one of this epic movement is very tactile with the weight of the bar (loaded or not) landing on your upper chest and shoulders, as you quickly receive it to cushion the catch. The second part is the aggressive push of the bar to overhead, as if to lift the weight of the world off your shoulders! The end position of this movement is what is often now referred to as a version of the ‘Power Pose’, which can stimulate the release of hormones such as testosterone and cortisol. Going into this lift, you must be aware that extra commitment will be needed to complete it. This speaks volumes to the character building benefits it offers.
Similar to the Deadlift, the Squat offers a sense of triumph in standing up against resistance. The squat can be loaded in several ways such as from the back (high and low), the front, overhead and from below, but the desired gaol is still the same, and that is to stand up.
Unlike the Deadlift, the squat’s initial movement is the eccentric phase, where you must lower the weight before you can stand up with it. This conditioning of eccentric strength trains your mind to control, fight and endure through resistance before switching gears to an explosive all out effort in standing up with it. Whether you’re working on slow or over-speed eccentrics, the contrast from down to up is arguably the most challenging transition of all exercises, depending on the load, as it involves multi-joint movements and thus more neurological demand.
“It’s not whether you get knocked down, but whether you get back up” –Vince Lombardi.
I believe this quote suits the squat’s psychological training accurately as I train my will to get up performing them.
5. Bench Press
Although push-ups can also strengthen the body’s ability to push, it does not offer the mental challenge of the possibility of being pinned under the bar. Sounds scary, right? Well, the reality is that many things we do in life involves taking risks. Sometimes, we feel like giving-up and want to stop pushing, but in the case of the bench press, if you do so, you get pinned.
Now obviously, safety in any of the exercises are of utmost importance, and using safety pins or a competent spotter will save you from actually being stuck under a bar. Mentally, I focus on forgetting about the safety pins I have set up, and commit to each press as if it was do or die. This significantly raises the stakes of the exercise and adds that much more intent to your push, and ultimately, your commitment to fighting for yourself.
6. Turkish Get Up
Offering a similar effect to the bench press but with much more complexity, the Turkish Get Up involves standing up and lowering yourself, all while stabilizing a load in your extended arm. This movement is a complex and technical lift, involving several precise placements of the body and an extreme amount of patience, focus, and strategy, all of which are conditioned through this exercise.
Much like life, the movement of the weight in this exercise is linear. The movement of your body through the completion of the exercise, however, is adaptive to accommodate its demands. We all know that life doesn’t always go are way, so being receptive and flexible with change is a must.
7. Endurance Plank
To strengthen your core, a 10-20 second plank with as much intra-muscular tension as possible will do the trick. However, for those more advanced, a plank for time is one way you can train mental will power.
My body does well with short bouts of intensive exercise, so weight training agrees with me. Anything that requires endurance challenges me on another level, which is why I don’t neglect it 😉 Being only a few inches off the floor, the mind can be very loud in telling you to just stop and drop. Hell, a relaxing lying down position is inches away!
What counts here though is finding peace within the chaos. Finding a focus point and not allowing the discomfort to distract you will help sharpen your concentration and can also be quite meditative. When you’re so present in the act of focus, time no longer rules you; an important lesson to be learnt.
I remember how debilitating some episodes of my own depression have been. I can’t count the number of times I wanted to do nothing but stay in bed for the day as not to face the world. When I think back, I now can recognize how pull-ups became functional for me, as a means to literally pull my ass out of bed and go on with the day. The act of pulling up your body weight not only trains your confidence in survival and protecting you from harm, but also encourages the psychological benefit of lending yourself your own hand to help you up when it’s needed.
After nearly 2 decades of lifting, I have been able to discover adaptations and mental mastery to build strength throughout my training. The benefits of exercise are much deeper than the surface. Add mental motivations to your workout to maximize results.
PLEASE, A NOTE OF CAUTION: This article is based on my personal experience, and as noted, has not been formally researched. Do NOT attempt any of these exercises if you have not been coached on proper form or if you lack the prerequisites to perform them.