powerlifting

Arousal Theory and Strength Sports: How to Harness Nuclear Energy

At the elite level, a large difference in performance between the three medalists on the podium is not typical. We see this across various individual strength sports such as weightlifting, sprinting, and gymnastics. One percent could be the difference between missing and breaking a world record. In weightlifting, both lifts are very explosive with neither one taking more than a few seconds to complete, and optimum power output must be produced. There is often only 2.5 kg separating the lifters in the top 5 spots, meaning the smallest variation in performance can be the difference between securing a medal and failing to place. Sports, which have very little variability between the top athletes who place, express a need for training modalities that can push performance just by a slight increase.

Overworking vs. Underworking

Because numbers can easily measure weight training progress, athletes have a tendency to pursue testing methods often. The aggressive consciousness, which weightlifters seem to possess, is a rivalry against oneself, and often leads to overtraining. Athletes typically have a competitive personality, which makes them assume overworking is better than underworking.

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The theoretical goal is to design a training program that will provide stress, but not continue to the point of distress. Little room for error can be left when peaking and every competitive advantage should be used for a successful performance. These factors can be measured and maintained by monitoring mood and excessive arousal while helping avoid the negative effects of over-reaching, which can lead to over-training.

A stressor is anything that may knock the body out of balance (a.k.a. homeostasis).

*for more on homeostasis and stress read here.

The stress response is what your body does to re-establish the balance. Your body’s physiological response mechanisms are beautifully adapted for overcoming short-term physical traumas. When we turn on the same physiological responses that are provoked chronically with heightened arousal, it then becomes disastrous. Fitness and fatigue cannot exist independently and often the demands of competitive athletes do not match according to the current level of not only physiological functioning, but psychological. Almost all athletes are overworked in some capacity, and although we all want to embrace ‘the grind’, constant excitement will cripple our success for long-term athletic development.

When to Turn It On

Many of us fail to differentiate between activating a stress-response out of necessity and for the sake of it. We become accustomed to turning our anticipatory defenses into an uproar of unnecessary activation. If you constantly mobilize energy at the cost of energy storage, you will never create a reserve for when it counts the most (aka competition). Excessive arousal may seem necessary, but more often than not is hindering performance as opposed to aiding in a successful attempt.

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Arousal and Threat

Arousal is a combination of physiological and psychological activity theorized to fall along a continuum from a completely relaxed state to intense state of excitement (Moran, 2004). Arousal is suppressed and activated by the parasympathetic and sympathetic branches of the Autonomic Nervous System. The sympathetic nervous system prepares our body for when energy expenditure is needed. During arousal our body needs to pay attention to the task at hand, so it neglects other systems such as immune and digestion that are deemed lower priority at that moment. For example, let’s say you’re roaming the Serengeti and a lion pops up ready to eat you. In that exact moment, what is most important to your body:

  1. - Digesting the food you just ate
  2. - Defending against a disease that may harm you tomorrow
  3. - Getting an erection
  4. - Running away to ensure survival

While 1-3 are indeed important, they do nothing to help you run away from the lion and must be “ignored” for the time being.

Yerkes & Dodsen (1908) developed the inverted-U theory in an attempt to explain the affiliation between arousal and performance. The relationship is curvilinear, specifically stating performance is lowest when arousal is very high or very low, and optimal at a moderate level (Singer et al., 2001). In Weightlifting, an athlete must presumably lift the most weight possible during an optimum level of arousal, however, either hyperarousal or diminished arousal may lessen performance (Jensen, 2009).

Although heightened arousal can impair the performance of some motor tasks, the relation between a stressor and the change in arousal varies markedly across individuals. It is also important to note that there are always exceptions to the case, but the vast majority of people happen to perform better with moderate levels of arousal. What is considered a eu-stress for one individual may in fact be a dis-stress for another.

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Generally speaking, certain sports require distinctive arousal levels

Fine motor control requires less arousal while motor tasks, which require strength or ballistic movements, require higher levels of arousal (Noteboom, Barnholt & Enoka, (2001). Ultimately, many variables play a role in creating a successful athlete, and to appropriately accommodate those variables an individualized program must be administered. For example, not everyone will respond to a certain stimulus of physical training the same way, just like how everyone will respond to stress management in slightly different ways

New athletes often make an assumption that psyching up or creating a high level of arousal is imperative to optimally complete a heavy lift. While higher arousal helps strength, compromised coordination and technique may occur, especially if technique is still being learned. The common mistake a lifter will face is overdoing it or using techniques at the wrong moments in training. A beginner is less groomed and so the motions of their sport are not as habitual in those who have ample amounts of experience. Typically a beginner will do better with low levels of arousal because performance is based on utilization of relevant cues and narrowing of attention as arousal increases. Too many cues, or an excess of arousal, can cause the lifter to heighten his or her state of sensory sensitivity to a state of hyper vigilance. When we approach a lift with excessive arousal we can trigger inappropriate responses such as excessive physical strain associated with somatic anxiety.

Once a lifter becomes accustomed to the motor patterns of their sport, then they will be able to determine their optimal zone of functioning within the arousal continuum.

New athletes get a pass because they don’t know any better. For those of you who are familiar with training and are constantly in the weight room screaming about your next lift to come, you are wasting your time and giving us all headaches. You’ve also caused a substantial amount damage, which now must be dealt with somehow.  You simply can’t train like this as often as you’d like. Threat Matrix Theory (Visser & Davies, 2010) explains how any number of multiple outputs may form from a stress response. We do not only encounter a single variable altered during this process. Determining which part of the fatigue was caused by the training itself, and what was caused by the emotional stress of an elevated arousal state is the hard part.

A stressor may be as simple as anticipation before a competitive situation, which at first may appear as psychological, but as it manifests becomes physiological as well (Jensen, 2009). Such a response can lead to a failed lift or technical failure resulting in injury, or improper recovery causing you to peak or fatigue earlier than you should be when competition time comes (Lee, 1990). Competitive weightlifters understand competitions provide incentive for hard training. A successful meet involves more than being stronger compared to competitors of the same weight class. In addition to physical training, psychological aspects such as mood and vigor will play an important role in an athlete’s performance as well.

Don’t train harder, train smarter.

Profile of Mood States Questionnaire (POMS) is a standard validated psychological test formulated by McNair et al. (1971) which requires you to indicate for each word or statement how you have been feeling in the past week.

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Athletes scoring below norms on scales of tension, depression, confusion, anger, and fatigue, and above norms on vigor, are said to possess a ‘positive profile’ that graphically depicts an iceberg. Monitoring of mood states may offer potential methods of mitigating loads, whether that be psychological or physical.

Serious athletes will push their bodies hard enough, often riding that fine line between wellness and illness. Simply tracking how you feel related to qualitative variables, which mirror excess stress, can be of use to athletes and coaches. You can do this by writing it in your training log (if you don’t have one yet, what are you waiting for?). Remember, stress comes in all shapes and sizes and we deal with it enough, so why add more to training than necessary?

Optimizing performance is contingent upon proper stress regulation and will differ between training and competition environment. Coaches are often attempting to increase the likelihood of success within an athlete’s performance and will make most of the decisions for an athlete, but for those who do not have this advantage should educate themselves. In accordance with proper programming, mental skills training to control or alter arousal levels may be of interest. Beginning to use skills during practice will have a carry-over effect in competition, and is valuable in both situations. Utilizing such skills will not likely benefit the day of competition if not practiced.

Learn how to create a balance with combinations of relaxation and intensity. These are two things that don’t seem to go together when you first think about it. Managing arousal levels is key in not only competitive situations, but during training as well. If you experience every lift in a working set during training as a max effort lift you will pay the price. Being able to harness nuclear energy is the name of the game. Conserve it for a time when it is most necessary. To understand the stress response, fundamental knowledge not only of physiology but of psychology as well, must be possessed.

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.

Minus the Fanfare: Blend Methodologies for Well Rounded Performance

You want to be strong, but you're not into the whole knee wrap, smelling salts, arched back powerlifting thing. You want to be big, but you're not into the whole protein powder, hulking out, fake tan bodybuilding thing. You want to be fit, but you're not into the whole kipping, Reebok Nano, 150 wall balls for time CrossFit thing. You want a little bit of everything – minus the fanfare. And you can have it. Simply by adopting the best aspects of each of the aforementioned methodologies (and ditching the superfluous shenanigans), you can create a custom training plan for increased strength, size, and stamina all your own. Here's how:

For strength, look to powerlifting. Make the basic barbell lifts (or variations thereof) the foundation of your training program. After a thorough dynamic warm-up, begin each workout with some type of squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, pull-up, or row.

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Over the course of the training week, perform each of these major lifts at least once. Go heavy (4-6 reps), focusing on lifting the weight as explosively as possible while maintaining perfect form, and take plenty of rest between sets. Utilize progressive overload by adding weight, reps, or sets each and every week.

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After you've done your strength work, shift your attention to muscle building. For this, borrow from bodybuilding. Incorporate both multi- and single-joint movements, sticking to the 8-12 rep range (though higher rep sets can certainly be employed, as well). Count "one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand" during the lowering, or eccentric, phase of every rep. Rest incompletely between sets.

For extra time under tension, work similar movements back-to-back with the following templates:

  • Compound set: multi-joint to multi-joint or single-joint to single-joint (ex: push-ups to dips)
  • Pre-exhaust set: single-joint to multi-joint (ex: bicep curls to lat pull-downs)
  • Post-exhaust set: multi-joint to single-joint (ex: walking lunges to physioball leg curls)

Once you've gotten a solid pump, conclude each workout with some high-intensity circuit training. Race the clock and attempt to beat your own previous best performance, but never substitute speed for movement quality.

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Here are a few of my favorite bodyweight circuits:

For time: 25 reps each of inverted rows, push-ups, bodyweight squats, and straight leg sit-ups (all 25 reps, broken up as needed, must be completed before transitioning to the next exercise)

For 10 minutes: As many rounds as possible of 10 inverted rows, 10 push-ups, and 10 bodyweight squats

21-15-9: burpees and inverted rows (21 burpees, 21 inverted rows, 15 burpees, etc.)

There you have it. No need to get caught up in the frivolity of any one style of training in particular when you can have the best of all of them at once. With an intelligent fusion of powerlifting, bodybuilding, and circuit training, incredible gains in strength, size, and stamina are all yours for the taking.

And if, for whatever reason, your gains or enthusiasm ever begin to wane, there are always elements of gymnastics, Olympic lifting, and strongman to add to the mix. But those are topics for another day.

about the author

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Travis Pollen is an NPTI certified personal trainer and American record-holding Paralympic swimmer. He is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in Biomechanics and Movement Science at the University of Delaware. He maintains a fitness blog and posts videos of his “feats of strength” on his website, www.fitnesspollenator.com. Be sure to like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/fitnesspollenator.