mindset

What Makes or Breaks an Exercise Program

No one can argue that those who see the most results from training have one thing in common. Consistency.

Being consistent isn’t easy.  Life happens; you get busy, you get bored, you get tired, and you get hurt.

You take some time off, hit the refresh button, and, because your last training plan didn’t work out, it’s on to the next program.

Working as a personal trainer, I end up meeting a lot of people when they’re somewhere in the middle of the list above.

Whether you know it or not there are many variables in your exercise programs and your lifestyle that can either set you up for long-term success or quietly de-rail you. Identifying these variables early on will allow you to better examine a training program before you begin, and put you in a position to allow yourself to be consistent and see the results you want.

  • Gradual Increase in Volume

Gradually increasing the volume of your training program over the course of weeks and months sounds simple, but it’s often missed by many gym goers. Using the minimal effective dose will keep you healthy and allow you to progress a program all the way to your end goal. Many soft-tissue injuries are the result of a drastic increase in training volume.  Perhaps this is most obvious when you look at the number of Achilles, groin, and hamstring injuries that occur at the beginning of NFL camps, or injuries to those going from the couch to Crossfit.  A program that steadily increases work capacity and tissue resiliency over time will greatly reduce your risk of injuries due to fatigue and set your body up to be able to handle workouts of greater volume and intensity later on.

Look for whether or not your exercise program has a gradual increase in volume as you progress each week and month. If you’re new to the gym this may mean you start by performing only 12 total sets in week one and 20 total sets by week four. Powerlifting programs like 5/3/1 and The Juggernaut Method also do a good job of managing volume and intensity to help you build specific work capacity in the bench, squat, and deadlift. Group training should accommodate those of different fitness levels and allow some wiggle room for some to perform more work than others in any given class.

  • Movement Quality

Appropriate volume is only part of the equation for ensuring a fitness program is going to last. The quality of your movement is what dictates whether or not you develop great hamstrings and glutes or giant calves and back erectors. This is where hiring a coach can be of great value. An educated movement-centric coach will be able to identify if you can:

  • Centrate your joints and move in and out of all three planes of motion without compensation
  • Execute proper motor patterns while keeping your joints in advantageous positions
  • Find, feel, and use the correct muscles during exercises

Keeping your joints healthy and applying stress to the correct muscles will help to improve your durability by reducing your risk of overuse,“wear and tear” injuries, and burnout.  It can be hard to objectively measure how well you move. Finding a coach or physical therapist that can assess you and create a plan that teaches you to move better is always a smart place to begin a new training program.

Consider the below situation.

Dan Shoulder Flexion
Dan Shoulder Flexion

Poor active shoulder flexion. Anterior rib flare, forward head, tight lats. Landmine variations would be a smarter exercise instead of overhead pressing.

Mike Shoulder Flexion
Mike Shoulder Flexion

Full ROM during active shoulder flexion. Overhead pressing would be more warranted for this client.

  • Variability of Movements/Implements/Load/Tempo

Variability in a fitness program will keep you healthy and prevent workouts from getting stale and boring.

Learn how to move in all three planes and master fundamental movement patterns and the list of exercises you will be able to safely perform becomes bountiful. Throughout the course of a workout, or a week of training your program, should include some form of squatting and hinging, pushing and pulling, abdominal work, and loaded carries. Do things on two legs and one leg and with two arms and one arm.

When applying external loads to movements, use different implements and choose different ways to hold them.  This will allow you to alter the movement in a manner that will help you train the correct muscles in better positions.

For example, let’s use a squat.  You could load it with a barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, two dumbbells, two kettlebells, a sandbag, or a medicine ball.

You could do a front squat, a back squat, a goblet squat, a zercher squat, a potato sack squat, an offset kettlebell squat, or an offset sandbag squat; the list could go on and on. Knowing where you should start on the progression-regression list will help make the movement safer and more effective and varying the implements will challenge the movement in a slightly different manner and help prevent boredom in your exercise program.

Varying the external load in a training program is also key to getting stronger and staying healthy while doing so. This is why many sub-max training programs that accumulate volume are so successful. Decreasing volume and increasing intensity during the course of several weeks and months is much more suitable for long term strength gains than trying to push to a new 1RM each week in the gym.

Another variable that can be manipulated in an exercise program is the tempo at which the movement is performed. Being specific with the tempo of a lift is often neglected even though it has a huge influence on what adaptations are had from the exercise.

If you’ve been performing goblet squats for the past few months with a 2010 tempo, they’ve become boring and easy for you. Now take the same weight and change your tempo to 3030.  Add feeling grounded through both feet, pushing your heels through the floor, and focusing on keeping constant tension on your glutes, hamstrings, quads, and abs I can guarantee that your easy goblet squat has become much more challenging.

Varying the tempo of lifts could result in a squat hypertrophying your slow twitch fibers or cause you to increase your rate of force production. Both are important and both are needed. Choosing the right time to apply both and using both throughout the course of a training program can make performing the same old lifts much less monotonous.

  • Adaptability/Flexibility

Things come up in life.

You have to work late.

Your kids get sick.

Traffic is worse than usual.

And now you either can’t make it to they gym or have limited time. A great fitness program is structured, but also can be flexible. On these days it is helpful to have a few workouts that are lower intensity, take less time to complete, or can be done at home.

Cardiac output and bodyweight circuits are two awesome ways to still get workouts in even when life comes up.

  • Premium Placed On Recovery

You may be able to get away with it for a short period of time, but in the end if your recovery efforts don’t meet or exceed the efforts put forth in your training you’ll likely be battling with fatigue and injury.

A good training program emphasizes the other 23 hours of your day.  Knowing what you can do to help promote your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) and tissue recovery is invaluable.

Go through the checklist below and I’m sure you can do better in at least one and if not several of the categories.

  • - Sleep Quality & Quantity- Do you have a good sleeping environment? Are you getting enough hours of sleep?
  • - Nutrition- Quality & Quantity- Are you eating quality foods that promote low levels of inflammation? Are you eating enough calories to support your training?
  • - Respiration- Are you hyper-inflated? Can you fully exhale your air to help shift yourself to a more parasympathetic state?
  • - Tissue Quality- Do you get regular massages, acupuncture, or perform regular self-myofascial release?
  • - Active Recovery Sessions- Do you use active recovery sessions when you’re feeling tired or sore?
  • Mindset and Environment

You’re now making progress.

You’re moving well and gradually increasing how much you’re doing each workout.  

Your sleep is awesome, your nutrition is locked in, and you’re finally taking care of your body by prioritizing recovery.

Even with all of these important physical factors in check it can still be difficult to stick with an exercise program. If this is the case you need to reflect on your mindset and training environment.

Create short and long-term goals. Write them down somewhere next to why you’re training for these goals. A strong WHY, concrete GOALS, and internal MOTIVATION are powerful for sticking with exercise.

Your training environment also needs to be supportive of everything above. Behind the good music, sweat, and banging of weights needs to be a community of like-minded people who can push and motivate you as you work towards your goals.

Wrapping It Up

I know a lot of people who have reached their goals with different training programs. There are a lot of great programs out there that work, but not everything works forever.

I promise that if you use this article as guide you’ll become an informed and confident consumer. You’ll be able to sift through a lot of BS that is currently in the fitness industry and find a program that will set you up for consistency and success.

About the Author

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Mike Sirani is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and Licensed Massage Therapist.  He earned a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Applied Exercise Science, with a concentration in Sports Performance, from Springfield College, and a license in massage therapy from Cortiva Institute in Watertown, MA.  During his time at Springfield, Mike was a member of the baseball team, and completed a highly sought after six-month internship at Cressey Performance in Hudson, MA.

Mike’s multi-disciplinary background and strong evidence-based decision-making form the basis of his training programs.  Through a laid-back, yet no-nonsense approach, his workouts are designed to improve individual’s fundamental movement patterns through a blend of soft-tissue modalities and concentrated strength training.

He has worked with a wide variety of performance clients ranging from middle school to professional athletes, as well as fitness clients, looking to get back into shape.  Mike specializes in helping clients and athletes learn to train around injury and transition from post-rehab to performance.  If you're interested in training with Mike, he can be found at Pure Performance Training in Needham, Massachusetts.

Be A Goal Digger: The Complete Guide to Goal Setting

I am geographically limited. I use my IPhone GPS everywhere I go, even when I may know where I am going. Part of it is because I have a terrible attention span; the other part is I lack the self-confidence in reaching my destination without getting lost. Since I am constantly on the road and I don’t particularly like traffic I like to listen to my radio as loud as can be, rock out and enjoy myself. I plug my phone into the Aux cord so I can hear the directions when I forget to look. Occasionally, I miss the exit. By occasionally I mean almost every time. Fortunately, I attempt to give myself extra time when arriving somewhere for that reason. I remember one specific time I was driving to NY from MA and I got so wrapped up in my thoughts I drove an entire 45 minutes past my exit almost into NJ. I was paying attention to the road, just not the specifics. My driving antics remind me of goal setting. Sometimes, we have no idea where we are headed. Other times, we have our ideas perfectly mapped out for us. Either way, you are going to get lost somehow. I am aware of this reoccurring situation, which is why I give myself some leeway and plan ahead for the obstacles I may face.  I constantly look at the map every few minutes to see where I am in relation to my destination. The main point is that I know how to get back on track regardless of the obstacles I may face, and I am willing to switch routes if need be.

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  • - Goal setting is one of the most popular and effective performance-enhancement techniques. However, the technique behind the application is far more complicated than it appears.
  • - Using it wisely may be fostered into a positive performance-enhancing tool or conversely may lead to ambiguity and fear of failure.
  • - Motivation is the area coaches want to know the most about and is one of the top studied theories in sport psychology.
  • - Both concepts relate to one another on various levels but more importantly share a drawback: success is often seen as an end product. 
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We live in a world where we are distracted by shiny images of perfection. We see pictures of Michael Jordan slam dunking, and showing off rings but don’t see the hours he spent away from family and friends on the court by himself. We don’t see a highlight of misses, just the ones he makes.

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  • - When we focus on numbers or one particular event we seem to lose sight of the work it will take us to get there and become frustrated when we do not see accomplishments immediately.
  • - Becoming too caught up in the daydream of the outcome and far less concerned with our development as an athlete removes us from the path.
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  • -Training is often boring and repetitive requiring a huge responsibility as well as self-control.
  • -Many of us like the idea of goal-setting on paper, but not so much the actions which must take place in order to achieve so-called goals.

The Hardest Mental Toughness Technique

The reason goal setting is such a hard technique to master is because It’s a highly flexible skill, meaning it has many paths to a good result.

  • - Nothing is set in stone, what may work for one person may hinder another. There is no exact template to follow.
  • - The reason goal setting becomes so individualized is due to the process we go through, which gives the goal meaning.
  • - Each of us will vary how we formulate ideas and cope with obstacles along the path to our destination.
  • - We learn to recognize patterns and spot hidden opportunity, limitations, as well as learning how to problem solve.

We have both rational and emotional sides to our personality, which may clash with one another. Our rational side has the ability to analyze and deliberate for the long term, while our emotional side evaluates situations in terms of pain and pleasure. As a realistic being, we understand our ambitions can be challenging to put into play, and our hunger for instant gratification provides for much more immediate incentive and feedback.

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  • - The idiosyncratic relationship between our passion and effort derive from how our emotions evoke particular feelings, which lead to our actions.
  • -Emotions are spontaneous biological process, which are not in our full control.
  • - Our decision process is then based on feelings or how we consciously interpret our emotions.
  • - We have control over our feelings- or how we react to a situation (emotions).
  • - Allowing our emotions to control our goals is often a recipe for disaster.
  • - When we allow negative situations to effect us in terms of re-evaluating our goals or aim low, we are not fully committed to the work that  is required to become a great athlete true to our potential.
  • - We often remain in a past state of sentiment towards our goals and guide our next move based on a false evaluation of the situation.

Commandments of Goal Setting

1. OBSTACLES ARE GOING TO HAPPEN, SO MAKE THE BEST OF IT.

We can map out a detailed list of steps, but learning how to be flexible and drop our egos is going to be the most eye opening realization of the entire method.

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When you hit an obstacle, you tend to switch focus and harp on your long-term goal imagining how long it’s going to take to get there. This usually results in cutting corners and moving around from interest to interest in order to redeem some form of instant gratification. It is natural because we want to be happy. However, you have to keep pushing the boulder up the hill.

2.  FOCUS ON WHAT YOU CAN CONTROL

What we will always have control over is our perception and attitude. You have to maintain control and structure in order to keep your logic and emotions happy.

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Winning is not a good goal to have. You cannot control who wins and who loses.

  • - Often we seem to talk to ourselves in a negative connotation. The way you word something is extremely important and has an impact on how we react to the situation. Set positive goals by focusing on behaviors that should be present rather than those that should be absent. This can help athletes focus on success rather than failure.

3.  AIM FOR THE MIDDLE

Aim for the middle of the spectrum. Be realistic, but don’t be easy on yourself or sell yourself short. Using moderately difficult goals will still push you to work hard, but in a more realistic sense. They are also more satisfying when attained.

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  • - Ego oriented athletes also have a tendency to set unrealistically high or low goals so they can have an excuse if their goals are not attained. Task oriented athletes, on the other hand, set goals about doing their best and making incremental improvement.  These athletes experience success more frequently, persist at tasks longer and are more confident.

4.  Use Short Range Goals

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Small goals along the way yield major results

  • - We need to develop goals that create a higher standard for being satisfied with our performance in correct form and technique vs. a poorly executed personal record lift.
  • - In order to put up the big numbers on the platform, we need to focus on developing small accomplishments and being satisfied without receiving instant gratification.

We can become easily derailed by minor setbacks, so reassurance is key when it comes to staying the course. This is the main idea behind short-term goals

  • - We need to make an effort in reminding ourselves what’s already been conquered. When we receive no immediate pay off, it can become frustrating.
  • - Set practice as well as competition goals – Practice goals should match competition performance goals as often as possible. Goals related to work ethic and attitude during practice are essential.

5.  Keep Your Big Goals a Secret

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You can announce progress, but your “dream goal” should be personal. It’s easy and natural to want to share everything, especially now since everything can be shared with the clock of a button. However, I say keep your big goals away from those you are close to as well. Often people may discourage you, some directly and some indirectly. Seeking support is natural but finding an environment that actually facilitates your goals is incredibly difficult, so be weary of where and with whom you are sharing your ideas and time with.

5.  Write Them Down, Post Them Up

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Regularly monitor progress, goals are ineffective if forgotten.   Write them in your training logs (DO YOU HAVE A TRAINING LOG? how else will you measure your progress). Put a note in your weightlifting shoe for the next day with something to focus on for that session. Face it every day, read it and ask yourself what you are going to do to attain

  1. 6.  FIND A COACH WHO KNOWS WHATS BEST FOR YOU

It is important as a coach to make sure goals are internalized and the athlete to feel in control of their goals. Whether or not a player is ego oriented (compares their performance to that of others) or task oriented (compares her performance to herself) could determine the extent to which they will be able to internalize goals.

We have difficulty looking at ourselves from an outside-unbiased perspective. The best lifters have coaches because they cannot see their mistakes themselves even if they video a set. The same goes for goal setting. Find a coach who believes in your capability and then some.

Closing Thoughts

Spending your time in the weight room without setting goals is like shooting at a target without aiming. You are probably enjoying yourself here and there while perceiving small strides, but there’s going to come a point where blasting that gun and wasting ammo gets expensive and aggravating and you eventually wind up injured, bored, or quitting. Without goalswe would remain forever stationary, incapable of moving forward.

Evaluate your current plan, Ask yourself:

What have you done to get better today? Seriously think of every single move you made in the last 24 hours. Was everything geared towards your goal? Do you even know what your goal really is? We need an honest evaluation of where we are right now. Then we can focus on shaping the path.

Assessing your goals will take time, so sit down and pay attention on these next few questions:

  • - Am I focusing on myself, or comparing my goals to others success?
  • - Is my goal measurable? And repeatable?
  • - Am I tracking my progress?
  • - Am I being realistic and fair to myself?

about the author

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Dani Tocci is an eccentric individual whose primary goal is to cultivate a positive growth mindset with everyone she works with on both a sport consulting level and with training. Having a not so typical background with degrees in art and philosophy gives her an edge on her thought process. Dani is a competitive olympic weightlifter and has had the pleasure of working with national level athletes.  Follow her on Instagram (@d_tocc) for all the happenings.

To Think or Not To Think: The Power of Mental Rehearsal

Bases loaded, I click my shoes twice to get the extra dirt off my cleats. I take three practice swings outside of the batters box with two bats, going through my walk up routine perfectly, without even thinking. As I approach the plate my coach says, “Don’t think and just rip it." Pitch one, strike. I didn’t like it, too far outside. Pitch two, swing and a miss; I wasn’t even sure what happened. What gives? I wasn’t over thinking, my swing was PERFECT, coach said so himself. Count is 0-2 and my hands are so clammy I can barely hold onto the bat. I start to go over my last swing in my head, but then the ball comes right at me. Pitch three, perfect pitch, right down the line.

I struck out, and it was the first of many times at bat where I would approach the plate with uncertainty. Dragging my head down in shame back to the dugout, my coach pats me on the back. “You were thinking too much again.”  This isn’t a flash back from an intense collegiate game, it was fourth grade little league and it marked the beginning of me critically thinking about “thinking.”

Do I ‘Think’ Too Much?

I never knew what to focus on when at bat or, as my coach would say, what not to think of, and it followed me through my entire career as an athlete. Lets jump forward 15 years to me now competing as a weightlifter. If you are involved with strength sports you may agree with me when I say it is one of the most fatiguing athletic ventures. But you're probably thinking in terms of how hard your program is physically and how you have DOMS from those back squats you did the other day.

Tommy Kono, a well known weightlifter and coach, as well as an inductee of the International Weightlifting Hall of Fame, broke down the main aspects of weightlifting success into a pie chart, which looks like this:

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50% is from the mind   30% technique   20% power development

He stated most lifters and coaches seem intent on spending no time on the first item and every little second of all their efforts on the last, until exhaustion. It's not the amount of physical strain placed on our bodies which may make us a successful competitor in the long run; instead, it's the combination of cultivating the correct mind-set so when we approach our times of physical strain we are prepared.

I can guarantee every single person reading this has been advised at one time or another that the reason they missed a lift, or didn't make the big play, was because they were over thinking, spending too much time analyzing, or rather, not relying on their “muscle memory" and instincts.

Research on memory and its various systems is vital to understanding information processing and motor performance. Muscle memory has been used to describe the observation that various muscle-related tasks (such as swinging a bat or performing a snatch) seem to be easier to perform after previous cyclic practice. It is as if the muscles “remember.” Information is perceived by the CNS and prepped for a meaningful motor response, when at some point information selected must be retained or stored for a future use.

Within a few weeks of starting a resistance training program strength increases despite little to no increase in hypertrophy. These initial increases in strength are due to neural adaptations. When we learn to snatch we are not just taxing our muscles in a physical manner. The retention and subsequent retrieval of information can be either beneficial or detrimental. For example, if you spend a year squatting improperly it will become frustrating to reteach proper mechanics because your body has adapted in more ways than one to the stimulus.

Similarly, the same concept adheres to our decision making process:  if we are groomed to think a certain way for a long period of time it will take longer to restore because the brain reverts back to its automatic decision making processes when we are faced with reoccurring situations.

By creating habits, we forge new pathways in our brain and it can be exhausting.

Lighter weight reps and sets are relatively monotonous, and we rarely think about the lift, it’s almost automatic. Often we are told we cannot think about what we want to do when attempting an action and it will occur naturally, but when we hear this, we miss the big picture. One must be present on all accounts, mentally and physically. What you should be doing when approaching a lift is actually the opposite of being on autopilot and just going through the movements. Practice builds confidence, but to reach higher levels of lifting one must become an intelligent athlete aware of the situation and in complete control of their thoughts.

How to Snatch
How to Snatch

The top 5 weightlifters will almost always be more reliable than the other competitors, suggesting consistency leading up to performance is a major factor.   The higher placed athletes in each weight class were more consistent in their performance between competitions when compared with athletes who placed in the bottom half (McHuigan & Kane, 2004). Why may this be?

The secret of weightlifting is mastering the content between your ears. I will never down play hard work, the incredible amounts of dedication and the years of training athletes put in because all of those play a role in what makes a great athlete. But to be mentally present through every step of your performance determines the outcome, and I’m not just talking about competition day.

It’s also much easier to avoid the hard work that comes with mental training. In fact, for every hour I spend in the gym, I try to put in at least half that time with mental-skills work.

For the purpose of this article, I'm going to specifically speak in terms of daily training circumstances and hold off on a competitive situation or the day of a meet for now. Incorporating new techniques during a pressure situation will likely not be beneficial. Utilizing a mental rehearsal program will take time to develop and is not a one night stand.

At the higher level of the sport spectrum (where you find your national and international athletes), there isn't much difference in strength and/or power between competitors, so what it ultimately comes down to is what’s going on in their brain.

As stated in my last article, we are not born with this state of mind...it takes grooming. I attempted to end off explaining that mental skills are qualities that develop over time, just as your muscles do. So lets start with our first step into mental training and dissect one of the most reoccurring problems I see.

Often when attempting a heavy weight one may change how they approach the situation compared to when lifting lighter repetitions. Granted, hitting a new PR can be scary. Sometimes we get stuck thinking about the number rather than what we know we are supposed to be doing. Especially if this number has been haunting us for a while. The situation I repeatedly encounter when working with athletes is their inability to see the difference between how they approach their lift, not on a technical level, but a mental one. Typically, the athlete will try to critique their form immediately:  “I pulled too early, I was slow, I’m just too weak.”

My first question is what were you thinking when you approached the bar and placed your hands on it? My next is, what were you thinking when you were warming up with a weight you can do but isn’t so easy to handle? Lastly, what about your warm up sets? Typically three different answers are given. This is the main problem, there is no consistency.

Plato Quote
Plato Quote

Conducting a Mental Rehearsal

Many of us seem to think our mental approach only needs to be turned on when we attempt heavy lifts in the snatch, and clean and jerk. But it starts with the warm-up attempts. Mental rehearsal is not day dreaming, but rather a drill of precision. The technique is not concerned with positive statements or self-confidence boosting, which is a separate entity.

As you approach a mental rehearsal, you visualize yourself performing the lift and doing exactly what you want.  This, in turn, creates neural patterns in your brain just as if you had physical performed the action (Porter, 1990).

The pattern relates to practicing, which is an extension of physical training. Each time you utilize this technique you reinforce your memory, so when a pressure situation arrives you're well prepared and confident of accomplishing the task at hand.

Before you approach the bar you must visualize the lift being done in your head. The method of which you choose to do so will vary with each of us.

Here is an example of how I mentally prepare for a snatch

1.  Look straight ahead and drive up with your chest

2.  Slow and controlled form the start, push the ground away from you with your heels.

3.  Push into the hand on your back (a cue my coach gives me)

4.  Barbell to belly button & turn over fast, sit hard.

5.  Press into the bar with your lower traps.

6.  Remain in the bottom position until you are settled, don’t "rush out”

You need to have a mental game plan. When you are lifting, this entire script is not going through your head. It’s more like the dress rehearsal before the actual movement occurs. Before I approach the bar I typically have my back to it with my eyes closed. When you block out vision, you isolate the inner physical sensations around you. I prefer to mouth/ speak what I’m thinking out loud. I think of the lift in two phases, the pull and the catch, this personally helps me break down the complexity.

We all have different weakness and strengths; this isn’t a cookie cutter outline for everyone. Take time to develop your mental skills and figure out what you must focus on. Actually sit down and write it out, then simplify it just like I did above.

Understanding how the motion of the lift feels as well as looks is important. An automatic reaction should be a desired one which is done through practice. You have to ask yourself:  are you just going through the motions to get the lift done or are you training with purpose? This is most important when we do our accessory work and our lighter lifts. Often these attempts are rushed and spent less time on (mentally) compared to the main lifts. I know this was true for myself, originally they were less fun and not as rewarding or exciting. The moment I began to understand how important it was to take every single detail of my training into account was the moment I actually progressed.

When you approach the bar as it becomes heavier with each rep, it is not often that we are so physically tired as to why we can’t lift the weight, but mentally drained. If we are not prepared for our lift, or we have scattered thoughts, it may be detrimental to our physical capability. The possibility of using self-talk strategies too often, commonly termed ‘analysis to paralysis’ or ‘over thinking’ may often result in negative performance. Having a habitual approach to the bar will off set this manifestation of over thinking. Attempting to think about 100 new corrections before you snatch a heavy weight isn’t the time or place. And if it gets to that point it’s time to strip the bar and move on.

Dani Snatch
Dani Snatch

Some key concepts to be aware of when you approach your training session:

1.  Visualize the completion of the lift before you attempt to do so.

2.  Be consistent. Pick a strategy and stick with it. Follow through.

-If you’re focusing on sitting hard during the lift that day, don’t overthink your pull.

3.  Stop thinking about the previous lift & focus on the task at hand.

-It’s over, move on. If you keep thinking about it, it’s likely it will keep happening.

4.  Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.

-Instead of finding the flaw in every lift, focus on what you did correctly and re-structure your words for the next attempt.

-Avoid mentioning the technical mistake and instead replace it with a corrective measure in order to maintain focused on the task at hand.

-Do not harp on what you did wrong, focus on the cue which will guide the movement.

5.  Always approach the bar with conviction.

-All of your hard work deserves fierce confidence in your capabilities. After all, what have you been training for?

6.  Just because it’s an accessory exercise doesn’t mean it’s less important.

-The same rules apply; they wouldn’t be in your program if they didn’t matter.

7.  Over analyzing should not take place outside of the gym.

-Stop worrying about WHY you missed your lift. Instead be constructive and write down what you’re going to do to change it.

-Your mental rehearsal may change from training season to season as you acquire new skills or weaknesses. This is not necessarily a bad thing; we would never want to be stagnant. There is always something we can work on to better ourselves.

about the author

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Dani Tocci is an eccentric individual whose primary goal is to cultivate a positive growth mindset with everyone she works with on both a sport consulting level and with training. Having a not so typical background with degrees in art and philosophy gives her an edge on her thought process. Dani is a competitive olympic weightlifter and has had the pleasure of working with national level athletes.  Follow her on Instagram (@d_tocc) for all the happenings.

6 Lessons Learned in My Journey to Become a Professional

There I was, the final event of the World Championships:  power stairs. I knew all I had to do was beat the Polish competitor to the top of the stairs and I would be crowned the World Champion and Lightweight Pro Strongman. All of my training came down to this event. Everything I had put into it was on the line, and if I made one mistake it would have slipped away from me like that.

I had never done this event in my entire life, but I have never been so comfortable and confident going into an event. If you watch Marius Pudzianowski compete on the powerstairs, it is the definition of determination. “YOU think you can beat ME to the top of those stairs?!? Hahaha yeah right (I have the utmost respect for all of the competitors and they deserve it just as bad as I did, but it was my turn.)

Zach Champ
Zach Champ

Positivity

I said it before going “pro” and I will stand by my statement, POSITIVITY is the number one key to success. I put “pro” in quotations because if I had taken one wrong step on the power stairs, there's a chance I wouldn’t have the title of “pro.”

The thing is though...I was professional long before this competition. You don’t just become a pro all of a sudden. Everyone starts as an amateur, and that same amateur makes positive decisions which lead to professional status.

Having the title professional means nothing to me because I already hold myself to those expectations with or without the title. For example, my girlfriend, Alisha Ciolek, also became a World Champion that day, but girls cant go “pro.” Does that mean she isn't "professional" at what she does?  Absolutely not!  You'd be out of your mind to not consider that girl a professional at what she does.

When it comes to our success, being and staying positive is the key. Without positivity there is no way this would have been possible. In order to save money so we could compete in the competition, we went the winter without heat. That was one of many sacrifices that we made. Before day two of the competition, Alisha and I agreed that whatever happens,happens. We gave it our all and if we come up short there is zero shame.

As soon as a negative thought creeps into your head, and you start asking what if? Or maybe I should have done this... your mind will create negative illusions.

A confident mind is a clear mind, and a clear mind is a strong mind.

We knew what we had to do that day:  just play like we practice. And our positive subconscious took care of the rest.

Prioritize

Don’t let your hobby consume you, but don’t give up on your passion.

There is no money in strongman, and that’s why it's a hobby. If you are getting paid millions to play a sport, that’s a different story. Finding a balance is crucial. Use your hobby as an escape from school/work.

When you can do that, your hobby will become that much more enjoyable, it becomes a privilege. You will appreciate it more, and get more out of it.

Don’t ever let your hobby become a chore. As soon as it's not fun anymore, and you aren’t getting paid, something has to change. Whether its your program, your diet, your training environment, or training partners, switch something up!

Last summer I trained way too often, and way too hard. I did not dose my training efficiently with my work hours. Four to five times a week I woke up at 4:00 am to work out for 3 hours and then work a 12 hour day.

Im not complaining, these were all my choices. I could have backed down and said:  "No, that’s too much work.  Maybe I shouldn’t lift as much."

But the National Champion in me said no way, keep going. I burned the candle at both ends and it caught up to me. My training sessions became a force and I even went into some training session angry and pissed off. Lifting angry is the WORST idea because the weights will always win. Positive energy!!!

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Patience

Less is more.

Im not saying don’t work your ass off, but don’t over do it. Know your limits and don’t push through pain (hopefully you know the difference between suck and pain).

I trained my favorite event, deadlift, very often that summer. I could do it pain free and lift tons of weight. Although that was really fun, it wasn’t exactly optimal. I still trained all the other events, but being spent from the deadlifts limited my efforts.

Leading up to the World Championship I deadlifted maybe once a week. I strayed away from other lifts because I could not train them often without pain. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough work so I filled that with more deadlifts. I was impatient to get better. I wanted to be the strongest every single day, when in reality I only had to be the strongest for two days.

For Worlds, I stayed healthy and put more effort into all the other events. I knew I had to get better at the events that weren’t my favorite/best, with yoke being the main culprit. I knew that if I could do just pretty well on the yoke, I would win the show.

I was very confident on the other events, but yoke was sketchy for me.

Shin splits were a common outcome of yoke, but I always trained through the pain. The pain was tolerable, but it wasn’t going away or getting better. I gave myself a break and trained the yoke very light and not very often. Staying pain free was my biggest concern during preparation for World’s.

This doesn’t mean I wasn’t dead ass tired and didn’t want to lift sometimes. Alisha and I pushed through some grueling workouts, and she was cutting weight on top of it all! (cutting weight is not in my agenda any time soon).

So don’t think you always have to be dying! If you aren’t trying to peak for a competition or a game, train for longevity and consistency. Set a goal, make a plan, and make it happen. Trust the process and be patient.

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Parasympathetic

Know how to relax!

Being able to truly relax and have down time is just as important as being able to turn it on.

Leading up to the Strongman World Championships in 2014, when I competed in the 185 lb. and under weight class, I was not capable of relaxation. I was stuck in sympathetic overdrive, and constantly in “flight or fight” mode.

I was starving myself to make weight and I was trying to get stronger on top of it. As lean and as strong as I was, it didn’t matter. My mind was not right. I was getting into fights with family and friends, and my quality of life suffered because of it. I was always anxious and on edge. Even when I tried to relax and chill out for a little I was always thinking about the competition, or thinking when I could eat next.

I even had to take a couple weeks off of work because I was too tired to stand through the day.

I was constantly uncomfortable. I knew it was because I was starving, but I couldn’t turn back. I was on the verge of being the strongest man in the world at 185lbs, how could I stop now. I made weight at 183 lbs. and everything was looking good.

I ate tons of food hoping to bounce back in time for the show in 24 hours, but it back fired. I ate too much and didn’t hydrate enough, so when it came time to compete I felt like absolute dog shit. All that hard work, wasted.. or was it?

Persistency

The trickiest, but one of the most important:  staying consistent.

That day I should have been the World Champion. I knew there was no one in this world that could be stronger than me at 185 lb. But I fell on my ass and fought through the competition in extreme discomfort and disbelief and ended up placing in the middle of the pack.

I could have easily, and almost did, call it quits there. Everyone around me told me to give up strongman, and to focus on work since college was over. But Strongman gives me a feeling that nothing can replace.

It’s the ultimate feeling when you know you have a chance at being the best at something. The possibility alone is an adrenaline rush and a reason to work hard every single day. It was easy for me to stay consistent, I was having a blast! Its all a mindset. Start every journey with a positive and open mind. You are blessed enough to even be able to play a sport, so take full advantage of it and appreciate it.

Always be ready for failure, but pray and plan for success. If you really want it, consistency shouldn’t be a problem. Otherwise you don’t really want it.

Zach and Alisha
Zach and Alisha

Performance

I have never been able to balance all of these qualities so efficiently in my entire life. By staying positive, knowing my priorities, knowing my limits/ having patience, having fun, and staying consistent, my performance was at an all time high.

Every brick I laid was perfect. I had a brilliant coach, Andrew Triana, and I trusted the process 100%. Alisha Ciolek, my girlfriend, was a major factor to my success as well. We trained together, ate together, and lived together. She was there to push me when I was tired, and take care of me when I was down.

It was all just a big dream, and now we are both World Champions.

Surround yourself with great people, and great things will happen.

Do you want to be the best at a few things, or kind of good at everything? Find your balance.

The End

Once you have reached your final destination, whether it’s competing in lifting, a season of football, graduating college, or whatever it may be, just remember that the whole process starts back over. You will become a beginner again. The small fish in a bigger lake. But you aren't completely a beginner, take from the ups and downs of your previous journey. Don't be afraid to make mistakes, but don't make the same mistake twice. Good luck and be great.

about the author

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Zach Hadge is a World Champion strongman, Super Mario Bro extraordinaire, and overall monster in both training and life. He’s here to show you the doors, to tell you when its time to grease the hinges, pick the lock, find a new door, or just bust the door down completely. The only other thing he asks for in return is effort.  Follow Zach on Instagram (@hadge_brothers) for all the latest happenings.

The Athletic Mindset: Comparison In Relation To Self-improvement and The Real Reason As To Why You're Not Reaching Your True Potential

Comparison can be a tragic thought process. We currently live in a world of social media where images and videos are pouring out of every crevice at a rapid pace. When we start to get into the habit of comparing ourselves to someone else, the result can be a false evaluation of our success. Many people have an idol of some sort growing up; perhaps this idol is the reason you participate in your sport today. A common mistake we make as beginners is relating our success in sport to what an elite athlete can do. We soon realize this is an inappropriate evaluation process.

It is not always apparent that we cannot start as a novice and expect to be a professional. Instead we decide to pick on somebody our own size and choose a more “suitable” option; perhaps a teammate or opponent whose been training for about the same amount of time and has similar numbers in terms of strength.

Perfect right? No, wrong again! 
This is also inaccurate! It's actually worse than comparing ourselves to someone we clearly know is on a different level all together. Here is why...
We fail to realize using such a tactic as means of motivation is the worst way to achieve a goal.

Instead you wind up stripping yourself of the opportunity to feel good about yourself. It is not because an extrinsic means of motivation is ‘bad’ [Although, research has identified athletes who exemplify intrinsic motivation may be the greater determinant of achieving success in sports when compared to those who are extrinsically motivated, statistically speaking, especially at the elite level (Hardy, Jones & Gould 1996 & 2003; Mahoney et al., 1987) We will dive more into that topic at another time] rather, it is due to the fact that we create a ceiling for our potential.
 Let me explain...

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By stating phrases such as "I can't imagine being like that” when comparing ones self to another, you might as well just take a seat and save yourself the time and heartache of what is to come.

We all have self-limiting feelings, which determine how far we will go. It is basically our self-image driven thoughts, in which we limit our expectations. Nothing more and nothing less. No one can truly steer your thought pattern when saying, “that’s impossible." It is you who allows him or her to do so.

You have the power to determine how far you will go, and I get it... that is an incredibly scary concept! No one wants that kind of commitment; everyone wants to point a finger or two or blame the situation on genetics or some other excuse. Take pride in all my actions? Admit I am responsible for my own actions? No thanks, I’ll pass.

This becomes a vicious circle of incomplete development as a human and puts a false sense of pride in satisfaction of mediocre achievement. Most of us do not achieve a fraction of our potential.

Few athletes view themselves without reference to the value attributed to them by society. Feldenkrais (1972) proposed societies recognition and approval gives a sense of organic contentment. He states our individual aspirations and desires will arouse anxiety and remorse, in turn the individual seeks to suppress the urge to realize them. This is due to the internal criticism he or she will have placed on them by the doubters and idealists. Because let’s face it, the road to success is far from ideal.

Photo Credit:  Nike
Photo Credit: Nike

When we compare, we fail to reach our inconceivable notions of greatness. We limit ourselves based on another person’s ability to do so.

Reaching is not enough. Those who exceed their potential must reach further. Stopping after greatness is perceived can be just as limiting as never getting there at all. We are not pre-destined for this greatness. Everyone should strive for higher standards. The difference is they create the concept in their mind, a simple commitment to a decision, and as time goes on habits are built, goals are set, and setbacks are inevitable.

This concept cannot be created unless it is first a repeated mental imagery of our own capability and none other than our own. This is the difference between doing the effecting outcome and being mediocre at best. It is a simple decision, a simple misconception, and we are all making it so complicated.

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Comparison can be a tricky thing to beat because beautiful ideas have stemmed from another mind other than our own. This is one perspective on how society has formed - a cultivation of ideas, which built on top of one another. However, being able to differentiate comparison and inspiration are vital for success in our performance.

Coaching

Let us switch gears and focus on a coach’s role. Achieving your potential as a coach is just as important, if not more so than as an athlete. Once you decide to be a coach you decide to use your acquired knowledge to influence another being, which you would like to see be successful.

Coaches must assess the abilities of their athletes and then decide to push further. This is not done by magic periodization schemes and squat cycles. Having good knowledge of technique and programming is just the start of coaching. Understanding how to speak to athletes and know what motivates them is the hard part. An athlete who does not respond to a coach will never achieve their full potential.

A coach sets the pace and creates the right environment for an athlete to excel. A coach who instills a base of confidence in the athlete will then see a spiral of positive effects to come, including higher lifts in both training and competition. If the athlete being coached is having a problem with constant comparison or negative self talk, consider using some mental skills training techniques to eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive. By creating an atmosphere, in which the athlete is eager to perform daily mundane habits, a recipe for success is then made.

Competition

Weightlifting competitions are learning experiences, at which you can reflect on your training and assess whether you trained correctly to peak or not. They are not to be used as a comparison tool. The beauty of our sport, as can be applied to any, is the process and not the destination. Olympic weightlifting is about self -improvement. The basic misconception is that it is about competing against other lifters, when really it is about challenging yourself.

Your opponent is nothing more than a stationary barbell. The lifter who succeeds is the one who can stretch his or her imagination and believes in achieving what is pictured in their mind as possible. This may not be enough to win the class, but perhaps new personal records or overall performance, and that is the goal.

After reading this you may be confused on how to begin to incorporate this mindset into your training. Not many of us welcome change with open arms, because we are creatures of habit. Being creatures of habit can be beneficial once we learn to train our brains accordingly.  A crucial role for the basal ganglia is in habit learning as well as a host of other related functions such as motor control and emotional functions (Seger & Spiering, 2011).

What many of us don’t realize is our brain does not distinguish good and bad habits, but we can take control of them. During “habit mode,” our brain activity shifts from the higher-thinking cerebral cortex to our more primitive-thinking basal ganglia. Neuroscientists have discovered our habits never really disappear after being encoded. When too many choices suddenly proliferate in our mind, we go with our habitual tendencies to solving a problem.

The learning process consists of a progression of simple steps leading to more complicated ones, just as if a beginner were to learn a snatch. Mental skills are qualities, which develop over time, just as our muscles do. We need to make simple changes, which become fixed habits, which then become encoded in our brain as a natural routine. We must transform our thought process on assessing our value as an athlete. This is the first of many steps and will spiral into the beginning of a successful athletic mind-set.

about the author

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Dani Tocci is an eccentric individual whose primary goal is to cultivate a positive growth mindset with everyone she works with on both a sport consulting level and with training. Having a not so typical background with degrees in art and philosophy gives her an edge on her thought process. Dani is a competitive olympic weightlifter and has had the pleasure of working with national level athletes.  Follow her on Instagram (@d_tocc) for all the happenings.

REFERENCES

Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York, NY: Random House Publishing.

Feldenkrias, M. (1972). Awareness Through Movement: Easy  -to-Do Health Exercises to Improve Your Posture,     Vision, Imagination, and Personal Awareness. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Hardy, L., Jones, G., & Gould, D. (1996). Understanding    Psychological Preparation for Sport: Theory and Practice of Elite Performers. Wiley, Chichester.

Mahoney, M.; Gabriel, T.; Perkins, S. (1987) Psychological     skills and exceptional athletic performance. The Sport Psychologist. 1:181-199.

Seger, C. A., & Spiering, B. J. (2011). A Critical Review of Habit Learning and the Basal Ganglia.

Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience

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What It Takes To Be A Monster: Lessons In Training and Life

Note from James:  I was pumped when Zach agreed to put this piece together.  He truly embodies the notion of being a monster in training (see 705lbs deadlift below) and life, and I think the information he provides below is a game changer.  Enjoy!

Have you ever tried the last level of Super Mario Bros?

You know...the one where you're attempting to get to Bowser's lair.

It's hard as shit right?  And incredibly frustrating.

All you want more than anything in the world is to complete the level, but the game does everything in its power to prevent you from doing so by placing obstacle after obstacle in your way.

One minute you're cruising along, and then all of sudden you get swallowed up by some lava, harassed by a koopa paratroopa, hit by one of those annoying cheep cheep's, or wrecked by a firebar.

Cue throwing of controller.

What if you had a cheat code though?  One that turned Mario into a monster fully capable of handling each and every obstacle he would encounter on his journey.

Wouldn't that have helped?

Well that's what I'm hear to talk about today.

But instead of talking about Mario, I'm really talking about you and you're training because the stories are one in the same.

Regardless of where you are in training and/or life, you have a goal, and the path to achieving that goal is filled with obstacles like lava, firbars and koopa paratroopas.

In order to get past the many obstacles in your way, you need a few things.

For starters, you need programming and nutrition specific to you because you have to know what you are doing in the gym and in the kitchen for everything to come together.

But those two things are only part of the equation.

To really be a monster you need the following:

Positive Mind

Positive mind is first on the list because I believe this is the most crucial piece. When all else fails, this is the go to because this journey is all a mindset.

Before embarking on a mission, you must really let it sink in.

Ask yourself, how bad do you want it, and if the answer is "I want it," then scratch the idea all together because you don't want it bad enough.

You must sweat, twitch, itch, cry, perk up, and think deeply. Your eyes should be popping out of your head. It should not be a want anymore, it becomes a need. It becomes your lifestyle.

Don't put energy into something you "kinda" want.

Usually something drastic has to happen to get to this point--a real eye opener.

Maybe it's losing/winning a competition or game, failing/acing a test, or losing/getting a job.  Either way, you must remember the feeling of that moment and don't let it go.

Once you are at this point, then you can proceed to start the mission.

I believe that the battle is won and lost at this point. How bad do you want it?

Consistency

Once the positive mindset is in place, consistency will almost fall into place on its own.

There will be days where you don't want to make or prepare food. There will be days you don't want to go to sleep/wakeup early. There will be days where weight feels extra heavy. There will be days where weight feels extra light.

Respect all of these feelings.

Don't look into it too much.

Revert back to that positive mindset. Remember what you set out for to begin with.

This is all part of the journey. Don't question what happens. It happens for a reason. It could always be worse.

You are going to eat shit no matter how strong you are. It is all a matter of enjoying eating shit. Become comfortable with being uncomfortable. It will never get easier, and it should not be crippling bad.

Find that fine balance of “perfectly way too much,” and know the difference between uncomfortable and pain.

Training

Stay within yourself.

It sounds so simple, but the weight will win 10 times out of 10.

There is always a weight out there that will absolutely bury you, which will lead to injury or horrific form. If you get injured then you just accomplished the exact opposite of our goal, and if you have ugly form then there will be a ceiling on how strong you can get and it will probably lead to injury anyways.

Numbers are numbers, but you can’t measure effort. I can deadlift 500 pounds without any effort; this is actually where I start on deads. But I treat that 500lbs like it is my max. I go in with the same mentality, and respect the weight.

Weight is all relative, so 500lbs to me might be 400lbs to you, but never overlook that 400lbs.

Apply more effort to everything you do, squeeze harder, no need to worry about numbers just yet.

And this isn’t just for deadlift, it applies to everything.

You have to be calm and cool during training. What do you have to be afraid of? You are a human...the baddest fucking species on this planet.

However,there is something out there that can stop you:  YOURSELF.

Mental/Physical Progression

Just sit back and take a deep breathe. I’m serious, do this now.

Take a big breath in; fill up your stomach and upper back with air. Now breathe out ALL of your air. When you think there is no more air, push out that last little bit. Now pause for 2 seconds, you must earn your next breath. And repeat.

That was just the most basic of corrective exercises, and if done properly you should feel different right now. Mental and physical change just happened.

If that was too much and you got confused, we need to take a step back because that is the most simple of tasks. We breathe more than we do anything, so why not perfect something so simple.

My goal is to get you to master the little things, and I promise the big things will fall into place. I don’t want you to come into this program anxious. This is a tedious process, and you will have to do things that feel uncomfortable.

I would rather you feel uncomfortable and annoyed over getting injured.

Have a goal in mind, and do not lose sight of that goal, so when it gets uncomfortable or tedious you will continue to push through.

about the author

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Zach Hadge is a World Champion strongman, Super Mario Bro extraordinaire, and overall monster in both training and life. He’s here to show you the doors, to tell you when its time to grease the hinges, pick the lock, find a new door, or just bust the door down completely. The only other thing he asks for in return is effort.  Follow Zach on Instagram (@hadge_brothers) for all the latest happenings.