Part 2, Ritual Reinforcement
In the grand scheme of fitness and adaptation, there may be such a thing as wasted reps. In terms of technical mastery, every rep counts. Each rep and set is a lesson in how to and how not to do something.
There is an adage “practice makes perfect.” This is a half truth. The full story is “perfect practice makes perfect.” You will get out what you put in. You don’t rise to the occasion; you default to your level of training.
In order to practice perfectly and reach new heights of skill and strength, you need to know what you are practicing and be fully engaged mentally as well as physically. Following, I will explain the importance of engaging in the ritual that accompanies visualization.
You never get to do this rep again. There are infinite tomorrows until you make a choice and then that means there is only one now that creates one yesterday. This is your only chance. How do you want this set to go down? Are you going to ‘get it over with’ or are you going to ‘crush this set?’ Will you worry about selling tickets to the gun show or will you face each rep with the focus of a third attempt?
There is a Japanese martial art known as Kyudo, ‘the way of the bow,’ or in the reductionist view of the west, simply archery. What you should strive to have in common with the Kyudoka or Japanese archer is the focus on the target. To the archer, the universe disappears around the bull’s eye. That bull’s eye becomes the only object in existence and the archer becomes one with it. Your rep must be that bull’s eye. I suppose Chevy Chase’s character from Caddyshack would say “Be the bar.”
How do you establish such an intense mindset that is virtually a trance state? You need a ritual. A ritual is a predetermined and choreographed set of thoughts and actions that have deep meaning to you. You probably already have a ritual for lifting. If you go silent, put on your headphones and put on your wraps. Then you have a ritual.
Why is a ritual important?
The ritual is symbolic. The actions you perform mean something to your subconscious mind. We have a part of our mind that influences our thoughts and performance but that we have limited conscious access to. One of the ways in which we can tap into the performance enhancement potential that our mind offers is to establish a ritual composed of things we only do in the gym before the lift. For example, wrapping, belting, and chalking. Wrapping your wrists, putting on your belt, and chalking your hands and back are powerful stimuli for two reasons—you only do them in the gym before a lift, and the feelings of wrapping, belting, and chalking are heavily associated with the experience of the lift.
The wraps, belt, and chalk are ‘anchors,’ things that bring you into a specific mental, emotional, and physical state when experienced. The mental association between your ‘gym anchors’ and anything other than lifting are nonexistent. These anchors likely remind you of nothing else…unless you do the dishes and mow the lawn wearing your gear (no judgment here). When you put the equipment on, you go into a specific state because the equipment is a serious reminder of what is to come.
Make your ritual more powerful
If you want to make your ritual work more to enhance your performance under the bar, here are some things you can do:
- Organize a simple ritual that you like
- Be aware of the timing
- Set up the environment to support your ritual
First, have a ritual and try to follow the order. For example, when it’s time for the next squat set, I walk away from any conversation or whatever it is I’m doing. I will pace and focus on breathing. Then I put my belt on, with the prong in the first hole. Then I wrap my wrists. Then I chalk my hands. Then I tighten the belt. Then I stand in front of the bar and visualize the set. Then I put my hands on the bar and focus my gaze on the bar while becoming more mentally focused. Then I get under the bar, get set, and walk it out slowly.
Physically setting up correctly under the bar is of paramount importance. Watch SSPT’s video about setting up and walking out a squat:
Matt Gary (2012 USAPL coach of the year) and Suzy Gary (USAPL Powerlifting Hall of Fame) both place tremendous importance on setting up perfectly and without rushing. Above all parts of the ritual, setting up and walking out are the most powerful parts. A tight set up and an easy stand up indicate that I’m about to do some good lifts. The walk out will push that into reality. Then I set my breath, and right before I squat, I remind myself that this is a single rep.
In between reps, I reload. I remind myself again that each rep is a single. Matt Gary, coach and co-owner of SSPT, gave me the idea to visualize loading a rifle, as each rep is a single shot. Now, at the top of each rep, I think of that, which has the added benefit of creating a short pause to reset for the next rep. I do every rep of every lift in a similar fashion. I have specific things I do in a specific order that all flow together and put me in a strong state of mind.
Second, be aware of the timing of your rests. If you need to keep on a schedule, pay attention to the clock or set an alarm. The last thing you want to do is rush through your ritual. The ritual needs your devotion and careful attention for it to work. Also, don’t take too long. Every ritual is powerful within certain parameters such as the time, location, and anchors. Think of this as ‘stimulus and response’ of your mind.
Third, set up your environment to support your ritual. Have your equipment easily accessible. Have the right music ready to go. I like to squat heavy right at the beginning of Iron Maiden’s ‘Alexander the Great,’ when the intro bursts into the galloping drums right before the singing starts (another ritual). Have the bar loaded, unless loading is a part of the rite. Know where the clock is. Stay hydrated. Have an obstacle-free walk to the rack. Stay away from the gym sewing bees and social clubs. Move equipment if you’re allowed and if you prefer a different configuration. You know your favorite parts of the gym and favorite equipment. In other words, physically set up your environment so that your ritual and lift can flow together.
The visualization part
The hidden theme is how to make the most out of visualization by putting your mind in a state where visualization will have more effect. The ritual is used to put you in a tuned-in mental state. That mental state is conducive to creative visualization and positive thinking. You may experiment where in the ritual you put the visualization. I tend to visualize my next lift during the rest before and also during the set up.
Chaos or calm?
Everyone reacts differently under the stress of resistance training. Some people can’t wait to get the lift while other people become anxious and experience negative feelings that can become overwhelming. What matters is what you do with the experience. Like making each rep count, your road to mastery is paved by how you integrate that emotional response into the experience. People who have a hard time processing, accepting, and resolving stress can become stuck in a negative mental state and experience trauma. You can overcome emotional and mental barriers by using rituals and visualization. Just like visualization though, you might have to experiment with your ritual to find out what works best for you.
Try to avoid becoming superstitious or adopting superstitious practices. The purpose of the ritual is to get you correct in the head before you perform a dangerous act that will also serve to increase your performance by giving you total control and responsibility. The one differentiating factor between strength sports and other sports is that gravity works the same way, every day, in every rep. In other sports, the other guy might have a better day or land a lucky shot on you. In lifting, the only variable is you.
Deck’s lucky shirt.
The locus of control is in you. There are no lucky wraps, lucky bars, lucky shirts, lucky squat racks, or lucky anything. While these items serve as anchors, mental reminders that put you into a productive mental state, they aren’t the sole determiners of your performance. What if you have to use the gym’s common use wraps, your favorite bar is in use, or your shirt is in the wash? Does a lack of lucky rabbits’ feet make you a weakling? No!
The locus of control is in you. You are strong because you train. Superstition removes your mental strength, which can limit your physical strength. Adopt ritual practices that enable you to reach your potential, not hold you to a limited amount of success and failure.
The roles of the central nervous system and neural activation in sport performance have been addressed at length. The practice of ritual and visualization is one more aspect of the nervous system that can’t be ignored. Apply these ideas to your training and put yourself in a high performance state. Your mind helps you gain power over matter so use the ritual to create stronger and clearer visualizations of your lifts and greater focus under stress.
“Relax your mind, tighten your body, breathe deep, focus to clarity, lift, and win.”