Strength & Mindfulness: The Mind-Body Connection

Some of my gear following a particular intense squat session. Lifting belt. Check. Knee sleeves. Check. Attitude. Check.

What do you think about when you lift?

That was it. A simple question from a friend curious to find out what I thought about when I trained. Spending 10-15 hours in the gym per week gives me a lot of time to think! At the end of the day training to meet specific goals can be a singular lonely path fraught with setbacks, wins, injuries, and all other forms of stresses and small victories. So I had to ask myself the same question.  What did I think about?!

Having started down this path almost 17 years ago at the University of Calgary’s gym to lose some weight the thought process has changed drastically. Newbie gym goer showing up with bad technique / form / understanding to seasoned newbie gym goer with better technique / form / understanding. It occurred to me that mindfulness has been such an important part of my life that my answer should have come quicker and so I answered with an automatic response. Technique, breath control, and a general sense of wanting to live to see the next set. I’m no where close to the top end of the powerlifting world however to a novice lifter I work within considerable weight ranges and without proper technique, breath control, and focus injuries can definitely result so that felt like a logical answer. The question however stirred in my mind and felt unanswered. I wanted to really focus on what I thought about while lifting, besides watching everyone else, and consider how the practice of mindfulness has slowly entered into my training without me even realizing it.

It also led me to start thinking about the impact that a mindfulness / meditation practice can have on fitness in general and in my case powerlifting. Now, before we head down this path, let me preface this by first saying:

1) I’m not a doctor, certified psychologist, therapist, etc., etc.,

2) this is simply my opinion, experiences as a seasoned lifter with almost 17 years on the platform and two of those years focused on the sport of powerlifting, and

3) I’m hoping to expand my own knowledge with this article and begin to really focus in on how mindfulness can increase performance in not only myself but perhaps athletes in general. If anything else it will allow you to ask the question whether meditation and mindfulness might be beneficial to your training program.

The growth in mindfulness over the past few years has been significant and with that growth comes an ever growing scrutiny for articles and books showing the benefits of applying mindfulness to various parts of your life.  Relationships, communication styles, the workplace, and even fitness have all garnered more focus given the perceived benefits of mindfulness. Just today in fact I came across two recent articles covering this exact topic. Good my job is done!  In fact there are a lot of really great articles out there covering the science behind mindfulness, the theories about stress and strength training, and even general articles about world record holding powerlifters who practice meditation (no, not me, yet! …)

One of the articles I came across via the Headspace blog was a post by Kristen Keim, Psy. D., a Sports Psychologist with an impressive list of associations including a Member of the US Olympic Committee Sport Psychology and Mental Training Registry. Dr. Keim’s post can be found here. She focuses on the benefits that specifically include reduced stress, improved sleep patterns leading to improved recovery times, enhanced endurance resulting from an increase in focus, and lastly an enhanced ability to be aware of one’s “blind spots” which to an athlete can be important if those blind spots are key weaknesses that need to be addressed. The post is a great summation of key issues that link mindfulness and athletics and is backed by recent studies that have been taken place specifically around the psychology of sports. Each point can be looked at separately with reference to strength training but I can also see in my own training how each of these things have been affected by my practice.

Stress

One of the studies Dr. Keim refers to comes from the Journal of Health Psychology recognizing the positive impact meditation can have on stress levels in general as well as the reduction of cortisol, considered the stress hormone, in the body. First and foremost to an athlete stress is going to be present whether you are competing at the Olympic stage or at the local stage in a small gym amongst friends and family (See previous posts about my looming competition in March). With that being said it has also been shown to have a direct impact on strength athletes as identified by Greg Nuckols over at StrengthTheory. If you aren’t familiar with StrengthTheory I encourage you to visit their site as it covers all aspects of lifting and training in some truly great, and well thought out articles.

Greg wrote an article specifically discussing the impacts that stress can have on a strength athlete and can be found here. He references a study done whereby 1,200 participants enrolled in college weight training classes were specifically tested for the impact on stress related to their performance and recovery over a period time. The study indicates that higher stress led to more fatigue (consistent with Dr. Keim’s point on less endurance), less energy and increased soreness.

Stress, being a critical facet of any athlete’s regular life and training life, clearly has an impact on performance as noted by Greg’s post and the study he references. It is also clear however that there are ways to help combat stress in one’s life as noted by Dr. Keim through a meditation practice. I’m not saying meditation is for everyone however there appears to be a clear link between lowering stress and increasing athletic performance and one tested method of reducing stress is a practice of mindfulness and meditation.

There will always be a certain amount of stress associated with performance whether it be self-generated, friends, family members, coaches, and even the competition. In my case the thought of competing is stressful and for the longest time prevented me from even signing up. Getting up, for the first time, in front of a crowd of random people that includes veteran lifters, judges, friends, family, the list goes on, and performing will be intense. It’s been a couple of decades since my last formal competition (electronic organ circa early 90’s). With that being said meditation has had a profound impact on my outlook and even my general response to stress.

First, reduced stress and improved self-confidence over time has paved the way for me to simply sign up. That is a big step and even now I feel less stressed about the idea of competing then I would have in the past. Being aware of my progress, my training program, and myself on a deeper level allows me to just accept whatever happens at that point in time. If my training is consistent and at a maximum effort then there isn’t a reason to stress about these things. When those feelings stir I can simply sit with the breath and recognize those thoughts and feelings for what they are. Just levels of energy passing through and eventually they slide away. In the past these thoughts would have caught and bubbled under the surface to dwell on for days maybe weeks.

Sleep

Dr. Keim’s second point on the positive impacts of meditation talk to sleep and come directly from studies done by The Journal of Sleep (I never knew that was an actual journal). This study showed that athletes who didn’t get enough sleep had several negative implications including weight gain, mood disorders, and a lack of focus to name a few. This result isn’t surprising and is consistent with two separate eye-opening articles on the impact that sleep has on strength training done again, by Greg over at StrengthTheory.

Part 1 can be found here and a more in-depth Part 2 can be found here.  Greg references a study done in 2011 assessing the impact of sleep on specific markers related to strength training including testosterone levels, both IGF-1 and growth hormone levels, and finally cortisol levels (our stress hormone from above). In all cases a lack of sleep led to decreases in both testosterone and IGF-1/growth hormones while increasing cortisol in the body. Greg, importantly points out, that cortisol during any type of training will typically spike as a result of the stresses placed on the body but notes that a lack of sleep can lead to chronically high levels. This is exactly the recipe needed for stalled strength gains and potentially muscle catabolism.

Much smarter people have discussed the impact of cortisol on the body so I will leave it to them. Layne Norton has argued that the significance of cortisol is overblown as seen here but I’ll leave it for you to dive into this one and pick which corner you’re in. The reduction of testosterone, IGF-1, and growth hormone should be a concern enough.

The key takeaways indicate that a lack of sleep can have detrimental effects on strength training and the ability to build and maintain muscle. Meditation is shown to have a positive impact on one’s ability to get more sleep and thereby it seems reasonable to deduce that meditation can have a positive impact on your training programs through the potential benefits you get from increases in sleep.

This is a tough one for me to nail down on a personal level because when I’m sleeping it’s hard to study the quality. I do use an app called Sleep Cycle every night that tracks several different metrics however it’s hard to draw any conclusions. My sleep quality chart has gone through some major ups and downs primarily related to all of the personal issues I went through over the past two years. I will say when I look at the graph around the time I started meditating it overall looks to be much higher. In fact 2015 as a whole was higher than 2014 on average and 2016 continues to build on that trend.  Is there cause and affect here, no. It’s just me looking at graphs giving it the thumbs test.  So in this case we will have to rely on the studies done above and take my personal experience as an aside.

Endurance / Focus

Dr. Keim separates these two points out into their own category showing that meditation helps with endurance levels overall and also improves the ability to identify blind spots in an athletes training. For purposes of this post I’ve included them together in one space. They stem from the same basic elements of meditation/mindfulness and that’s the general improvement of awareness that occurs over the life of a practice. With respect to endurance I’ve seen some of the improvements in this area myself. Powerlifting program requires you to work through increasingly difficult weight / rep ranges and considerably more volume than I’ve ever done in the past. Volume being defined as working sets and total weight lifted. Awareness has shown to be a factor through many workouts as I’ve become more present with my fatigue levels and also the point during a workout and even set when I can keep going and when I’m done. This tipping point is important to find because it represents the fine line between growth and potentially injury. Having more awareness about my own endurance levels has given me a lot of positive results through my lifting and consistent growth over the last two years.

Focus and the ability to identify blind spots could be looked at as another definition for awareness. I like to think of this as the ability to be open about our own weaknesses and become more aware of them as we progress.  Squat depth and bench sticking points are two of mine and this increased awareness has allowed me to step back and focus my workouts on addressing these two weakness. The ability to step outside of or thoughts and watch them go by is a skill that can then be applied to focusing on the lift and technique as we prepare for whatever sport we are engaged in.  The gym can also easily become an unintended contest between egos that some people are simply not aware of. This blind spot awareness helps to avoid these mistakes and bring the focus back to daily / weekly / monthly progress and the competition with ourselves.

Take squatting for example.  Suddenly the machine like technique setup becomes more polished because I take the time to think about the steps involved. The routine I’ve developed is now something I focus on for each set carefully.  All carefully leading to getting the bar up, through the squat, and racked safely.  Hands on the bar, foot placement, chest to the bar, lean back, under the bar, bar into the back placement, elbows back, tightness, feet closer together, un-rack. Step, step, look up and focus. Check tightness, check hips, feel how the feet feel. Engage deep breath, engage the hips, and squat.  Suddenly that initial question about what I think about is becoming more clear!

Eric Maroscher, owner of the Monster Garage Gym and EliteFTS contributor, recently put together an article discussing this very effect of being in the moment and how meditation, for Crystal Tate (198-pound record holder in both the squat and deadlift), has built her training program around this practice.  The article can be found here. There is no number to back up Crystal’s claim. We can’t simply say meditation and your squat will go up 50 pounds; it’s much more complicated than that. She does however have a keen sense of how her training unfolds and her awareness to each set and rep similar to my own experience. Eric’s article focuses on how a meditation practice and improvement in practice does help to drive one’s focus to new levels so that distractions in our training can be pushed aside and recognized as simply distractions and not the energy we want to putting out.

Conclusion

At this point I haven’t found any articles out there that directly link a mindfulness / meditation practice to benefits on the platform or in any sport. The evidence out there at suggests that there are benefits to minimizing stress, maximizing sleep and improving focus all which can be linked to meditation. So indirectly is the best we can do at this point.  From a personal perspective I can say that each area above has been directly affected by starting meditation and sticking with it over time. My stress levels have definitely improved and really it stems from allowing these stressors and energy to come and go as they will. My sleep has improved although it’s hard to specifically point to any data and based on my current training methods, workouts and results my focus has also improved.

Another benefit of putting this all together for me is that I’ve now put myself in a position to compete and took the first step by signing up to the United Barbell Open in March. Officially a registered member of the Canadian Powerlifting Union and therefore a powerlifter! Having more focus and minimizing stress in my life has allowed me the time to focus on those fears and insecurities that have held me back in the past including the idea of competing.

Organizations such as Mind and Sport and Mindful Athletics are two companies that I found that have programs designed specifically to address the mental side of sports and athletics crediting improved performance in their athletes. The fact they focus on mindfulness and meditation is, as we have seen, not just a token occurrence. George Mumford, who has been a mindfulness coach to such athletes as Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, coach Phil Jackson and the greatest NBA player of all time Michael Jordan, has a book out called The Mindful Athlete covering this very topic and his experience with these top athletes. I’m hoping to have a copy in the near future to review and interested to read his story on the impacts of mindfulness specifically on these elite level athletes.

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think, we become.” – Buddha

The Question

What do you think about? The original question posed to me. Distilled down to it’s simplest form you can see that there are a lot of pieces that have led to a focused and more refined mental process. The simple answer of technique isn’t incorrect but it goes much deeper than that. It’s the fact that in the lift there is no one else but me there. The stresses are pushed aside, technique is in focus, breath control, awareness to how the body feels at any given moment, and ignoring the distractions. Being on rep 3 of 5 at the bottom of a squat having a conversation with myself to just stand up and knowing how my body feels in that moment. Reminding myself that you just lifted this amount of weight and you aren’t going to fail on this one. The focus to be able to have these types of thoughts while I’m lifting has come along way from my early days. Poor technique, ego-driven competitiveness, and endlessly distracted were ways I’d describe my workouts in the past. Today, a combination of training with these specific techniques but also having a clearer ability to sift through thoughts, distractions, and emotions as I’m training has been behind my growth on the platform and off.  So at the end of the day I think about lifting the weight. As clearly, and aware, as possible.

Take Away

If your interest is piqued I encourage you to look into starting a simple meditation practice and see if you notice any benefits in your performance. Whether it’s strength improvements or general increases in focus I’m interesting in hearing about your new practice and what, if any, improvements you have seen.  A couple of good apps out there right now are Calm and Headspace.  I’ve used Headspace now for over a year and they offer 10 free audio directed meditation sessions to listen too.  Beyond these two apps there are several great resources online to help start a meditation practice. YouTube & Google searches reveal a wide range of free resources to help so I encourage you to give it a shot, at least for 10 days, and see if you notice anything.  I’d love to hear of your progress and whether you did or didn’t see any benefit.

App Resources:

Headspace App

Calm App

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s