Believing that you are capable of something is proven to be just as important as the physicality of actually trying to do it. Your mind is so powerful that thinking about exercising a particular muscle whilst you are performing an exercise is believed to help produce better results. Arnold Schwarzenegger famously used the mind-to-muscle link, concentrating on, and visualising the muscles he was working, in each exercise, feeling every fibre as it worked. The mind is a vital source of energy and can be utilised to your physical benefit.
The placebo effect of mind over matter has been shown in an interesting study that was carried out by Harvard in which hotel workers were separated into two groups. The first group was told that their job was good exercise and satisfied the guidelines for an active lifestyle, with examples of how their job provided this. The second group were not given this information. Although the physical behaviour within each group did not change, the “informed” group that now perceived themselves as doing proper “exercise” within their jobs actually showed a decrease in their weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist to hip ratio and BMI. Whether this group started to unconsciously work harder is unknown, but certainly the power of the psychological control we have over health is strong.
In an interesting move, doctors in Scotland are now beginning to prescribe exercise instead of pills, in an effort to reduce prescriptions and get patients involved in changing their lifestyles in order to improve their health. It is starting to be recognised that health can be measured not just in blood results, but in the amount of muscle mass you have. Muscle tissue is highly metabolic and the more you have the better health is likely. Adipose (fat) tissue on the other hand, although it is active tissue, is far less healthful and the more you have the more likely you are to experience poorer health.
How does mind-set affect us physically?
We have all heard of stories of incredible feats of strength when under specific conditions, for example a mother who lifted a car off her child. We are capable of so much more than we think and yet we seem to be happy to accept less. Viewing your physical body as a work of wonder, that you want to preserve and build to be its ultimate best (a bit like owning a supercar and not allowing it to rust or sit and rot in the garden), requires a mind-set that is focused on being the absolute best that you can be. This means fuelling yourself with the right nutrition (why would you put diesel in a petrol car?!), moving regularly, lifting heavy things and encouraging your body to become stronger, fitter and healthier. Understanding that this is possible at ANY age is crucial.
Believing you are too old to start resistance training is a self-limiting belief that will stop you before you even start. For example, if you believe that you are “old” at 40 and unable to participate in any exercise training, then this will become a self-fulfilling prophesy – the less you do, the harder it becomes to do it and the less you do. You get the picture. Adopting a ‘can-do’ attitude is vital for ensuring continuing good physical health and moving well into your old age. You are never too old to learn how to lift weights and studies have shown that elderly people who started resistance training in their 80’s gained muscle mass and increased their bone density. This is incredibly important – for both men and women to prevent conditions such as sarcopenia and osteoporosis.
Sarcopenia (muscle degradation) is extremely common, and occurs as we age, along with osteopenia (degradation and weakening of bone), which can lead to osteoporosis (crumbling of bone). Resistance training is ESSENTIAL to help prevent both of these. You cannot build or even successfully maintain, muscle and bone tissue through cardio exercise. Strength training is a crucial element to help increase them and prevent the diseases associated with ageing. Eating enough protein is also essential.
Mind-set for strength means recognising both your strengths and your weaknesses. This is important if you want to develop a more rounded persona. If you always focus on what you are good at, then yes you will get better at those things, but you will fall continually short on the things that you find hard. We tend to avoid doing the things that are hard, simply because they are hard, but the only way to improve is to recognise these and work perhaps even more on those things. If you are good at squats, but find push-ups really difficult, guess what will get better if you only focus on what you can do? A bit of good old fashioned grit and determination (mind-set) will get you through a few sets of push ups in your workouts and before you know it they are “suddenly” not so difficult any more.
Channelling a certain amount of aggression in order to lift something heavy is useful as a source of fuel, releasing adrenaline and enabling more power and strength than you thought possible. Determination to push out that last rep with all the power you have left in your body, even though you didn’t think you would manage to do it is a great feeling. Getting in the right mind-set for strength training is important if you want to be successful at it. Feeling frightened of the weight, or anxious because it is something new, will limit your ability. Taking control, feeling in charge and really focusing on the task at hand will produce better results than you can imagine.
- Start with the basics
- Learn proper form
- Quality over quantity
- Be patient
- Remember – everyone was once a beginner
Clearing your mind of other distractions is an important part of mind-set for strength. Wandering around aimlessly, chatting to others in the gym, pootling about on your phone will hinder any progress you want to make. Being clear about what you are there to do that day, having a plan and following through with focus will produce great results. Concentrate on your performance, technique and the muscles you are using – and the changes you are making to your body. Many of my clients who participate in my kettlebell classes feel that the exercise is extremely mindful. They have to concentrate on the movement and technique, making sure to perform it correctly, and the rhythmic motion of the kettlebell swing can also contribute to a feeling of mindfulness.
And of course it is not just the physical body that benefits from strength training, but the brain. Exercise has been demonstrated to improve brain function, with benefits including learning and memory, protection from neurodegeneration, alleviation of anxiety and depression, increasing the plasticity of the synapses and the underlying system that support this such as neurogenesis, metabolism and vascular function.
Recently an elderly client of mine, who admits to “hating exercise but I do it because I know it’s good for me”, began to appreciate the real value in strength training, not only in her developing strength, which she is already seeing, but because the hour she is working with me removes her from her everyday thoughts and worries as she focuses on getting the movement correct, and being able to lift the weight. It is an hour of mindful exercise, providing both physical and mental health benefits for her.
Of course, there will always be days that are better than others. Some days everything just feels heavy and difficult whilst other days you are on top form, this is normal. If you let yourself get side-tracked with negative thoughts every time you experience a harder workout then you are likely to talk yourself out of training altogether. You won’t push out a PR every time. This is ok. You are there, doing your best, and moving a little forward with your training each time. Enjoy the process. Enjoy the actual movements. Enjoy getting stronger and fitter.
The mind-set for strength is one of wanting more – you have to want more to be able to achieve more. If you are always happy to just accept mediocre then that is all you will end up with. The body is a fascinating organism and it doesn’t really want to have to change, thank you very much, it would rather stay in its present state. That’s why you need to push harder. There’s the saying that the magic only happened out of your comfort zone, and this is true. The body only adapts when it has to. Pushing harder, lifting heavier and doing more means that your body has to adapt to the new challenges that you are placing on it. When you just do the same old thing week in week out, without any progression or extra demands, then there is nothing to challenge your body. Aim higher and push harder. Tell your body that you want more from it, struggle for those extra 2 reps, try and do more. Every single time.
Staying in your comfort zone may indeed be comfortable, but don’t expect to see any results any time soon. Believe in yourself – adjust your mindset – and become your very own superhero!