Little attention has been paid to the mental aspects of exercise. This, despite the fact that as far back as the ancient Greeks, the mind / body connection has been a given. By far the best results from any exercise that we do will be achieved when we are able to concentrate on the task at hand. The verb concentrate traces its origins to the Latin roots “CON”, meaning “with” and “CENTRUM”, meaning “center”. So by concentrating we mean centering our full attention on the present moment.
In the contemporary fitness setting we’re apt to see people talking, watching the television screen, or reading the newspaper as they plod through their exercises with all the enthusiasm of men on their way to the gallows. It’s little wonder that self actualization and visible improvement are so rarely observed.
Many will contest this, trying to explain that the gym is a social setting and that we should be able to multi-task. But while multi-tasking may be feasible in a variety of less demanding chores such as doing the laundry, fixing dinner, feeding the family pet, or mailing a letter, resistance exercise in particular should never be multi-tasked. The results of so doing could be catastrophic. Picture, if you will, a neurosurgeon in the midst of a delicate brain operation. It’s unlikely that he would be talking to his stock broker about investment strategies or arguing on the cell phone with his wife. Hypothetically speaking, if we have 100 units of concentration available to us and we split those 100 units among four tasks, then all we will have available will be 25 units for each project. For most of us this would be unacceptable, and a much less than a favorable outcome would be the result.
Health By The Sea
San Diego, CA
Everything hurts. My legs are burning and twitching like a pair of over stretched rubber bands. My lower back is like a guitar string ready to snap. The back of my throat is parched from the forcefully expired air. My chest aches deeply from the heavy breathing, and my upper back and arms are cramping and on the verge of going into spasm. On the gym wall above eye level is a collage of athletic achievement, photos of a batter hitting a grand slam home run, a wide receiver snaring a touch down pass, and a sprinter breaking the tape in the 100 meter event. And in the midst of this, Funk # 49 by The James Gang is crackling over the gym’s aging radio speakers. Positive input to be sure, but my distractions take me away from the purpose of my being here. I slowly descend into a low, crouched position with a loaded barbell across my shoulders and immediately drive myself back up to full attention, exhaling forcefully and spattering the mirror with droplets of spittle, only to go down once more and come up again in similar fashion, yet feeling myself fading rapidly. Why am I here? Squats, it dawns on me finally. I hear voices, my gym buddies urging me on to the highest levels of athletic achievement. Athletic support in its purest sense, for which I’m grateful.
“NINE!” Chuck, the gym manager, spotting for me shouts out. “Better get at least 3 more reps, Jim.....OR ELSE!”
“Or else what?” I think. Threats, intimidation, and admonitions; whatever it takes to get my adrenalin flowing. “FOUR MORE!” I gasp defiantly between deep breaths at the top of that ninth rep. I’m viewing this set as a long corridor with a light at the end. Each repetition I see as a door through which I must pass to reach my final destination, the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m hoping the light is not a train, and give each and every rep my all, wobbling like a sapling in a stiff breeze, but still refusing to give up and able to make the next rep without falling into the mirror......or into the path of that oncoming freight train.
As my strength continues to dissipate, I’m having more and more difficulty recovering from the low position, but strive to get just one more rep. Twelve below parallel reps completed safely. Chuck is uncharacteristically silent, but my internal dialogue kicks in. “You can get one more...maybe.” I take three very deep breaths and begin my descent once more, saying a prayer as I do so. “Please, God! All I ask is to let me get this one!” And I do, barely.....nearly falling forward, but Chuck is alert and assists me in racking the bar, as I fall to the floor in a state of utter exhaustion.
After the smoke had cleared and the dust settled. Chuck and the other guys give me high fives as I give my take on what had just happened.
“Y’gotta think about it,” I explained. “Think about the exercise.”
Experiences such as the preceding began to convince me that great workouts begin in the mind. Ask any successful athlete how he or she prepares for an event, and nine out of then will say, “I think about it.” Some will even use a form of self hypnosis and visualization to pull off that grand stand play. They think about it. Then they do it. Sports psychologists refer to this mind / body connection as being in the “alpha state”, a rare condition where everything flows smoothly to a successful completion..In many ways it’s almost as though such champions view their success as a done deal and merely follow a preprogrammed ritual to completion. Case in point was Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Many feel that this is when Arnold was in the best shape of his life, training as he was for the Mr. Olympia Contest to be held in a few weeks at the Felt Forum in NYC. This would prove to have been his fifth consecutive win and he was indisputably the best bodybuilder in the world. Well known as a very likable joker, it’s less well known that Arnold was able to concentrate on his exercises with laser-like focus. It appeared that he could turn it on or off at will. One minute he would be involved in a light hearted conversation with Franco Columbu or one of the other gym members, but as soon as he picked up that first weight, it was as though he would go into a trance, totally oblivious to anything else going on around him. He was quoted as saying that when training the biceps, for example, he would visualize them as highly peaked mountains. It’s also been noted that Arnold could train with a major conflagration going on all around him while being aware of nothing but the muscle group he was training. He always held a picture in his mind of how he would like to look, and pursued his training toward that end, working with mechanical precision, like a well oiled machine. Training his shoulders looked like this. Barbell press behind the neck supersetted with pulley side lateral raises for 5 sets of 10 to 12 reps, then moving on to the rest of his shoulder program. And you can be sure that his full attention was totally absorbed in building his shoulders, not what he was going to have for dinner or the food supplement advertisement he was supposed to do for Joe Weider.
He thought about the exercise. Then he did it while continuing to think about it.
Stranger still, mounted there on the wall at Gold’s Gym were two life sized posters of Sergio Oliva and Frank Zane. I wondered why Zane’s and Oliva’s photos were there, and not Arnold’s, he having been the world champion and all. As it turned out, those posters had been mounted there by Arnold himself, photos of two individuals who had bested him in contests. This was done to help generate the intensity he needed in order to never be beaten again. Mind games? Perhaps, but for Arnold it worked.
Some time later at the Manchester, NH YMCA, my friends and I, employing a similar strategy, had mounted magazine photos above the mirror of Arnold, Steve Reeves, Frank Zane, and Dave Draper for the purpose of visualizing our own physiques taking on the shape of world champions. But the Y staff always tore down those photos and tossed them into the trash.....even the ones taken of us with two time Mr. Olympia Franco Columbu! They obviously didn’t understand the power of visualization, much less the mental aspects of training. Nor do most.
Gym Ganley Athletic Shapes
I’m growing frustrated with one of my female client’s lack of progress. She had been seeing me for the preceding three years but had little to show for her time under my tutelage. While not obese, she sported an unfit, saggy body and would wonder why she had made at best marginal progress. Not coincidentally, she apparently lacked the ability to concentrate, nearly always distracted by a variety of unrelated issues. For example, berating her boss as a “male chauvinist” for his failure to promote her. Sounding off about her inability to progress professionally because of her gender, or going on and on about what an idiot her husband was. This really put me in an awkward position because her husband was also a client of mine.
“Think about the exercise,” I would tell her, but with no effect whatsoever. Not only will going into the gym unfocused yield inferior results, it may also be hazardous to one’s health. From an early time I had been told that the weight room is not a play room for dumbbells. Rather, it is a place for intensely focused effort.
One day she was in the middle of a circuit program where no rest was to be taken between the gauntlet of exercises. She was doing leg extensions on my Cybex machine, stopped after only five reps to tell me something or other about her sexist boss.
“DON’T STOP!” I chided her. She finished the set and moved on to squats with the Leg Blaster, but stopped before she started, complaining about what a lousy looking body her husband had.
“NO BREAK!” I continued, “This is supposed to be a circuit! Think about the exercise!”
So she reluctantly plodded through the remainder of the program. While doing dumbbell curls on the incline bench, she would whack the side of the bench with the dumbbells on each and every rep, gouging the upholstery. I attempted to explain that this exercise would be better if she didn’t hit the bench with the weights. She took offense at this.
“Will you STOP telling me not to hit the bench with the dumbbells?”
I told her I would stop telling her when she stopped hitting the bench. With that, she went out the door in a huff and hasn’t been back since. With exercise, as well as with many other activities, a little concentration will go a long way. Put simply, we need to think about the exercise.