It’s your mind that controls your body after all, and you have the driver’s seat. Here are six key areas where what goes on inside your brain can deliver steady and satisfying muscle gains.
You’ve heard the phrase “mind over matter” many times in reference to being able to control a physical condition such as pain or fatigue through the power of the mind. Perhaps the most extreme cases have involved feats of momentary strength that seem utterly impossible, such as 120-pound mothers lifting 2-ton cars off their trapped children. And indeed, human beings have been able to do some extraordinary things by harnessing willpower, emotion, discipline, focus or a shift in attitude toward a given situation or challenge. Few things are as challenging as attempting to transform a regular body into an exceptionally developed physique. Genetics obviously play a critical role, but even then, they will only take someone to a certain level and no more. I’ve known more than a few professional physique athletes who had astonishing genetic gifts, but they were either too lazy, stubborn, disorganized or just plain unintelligent to ever come close to their full physical potential. Even if you’re not one of those fortunate blessed few, you should know that your mind will determine how close you get to your own full physique potential. It’s your mind that controls your body after all, and you have the driver’s seat. Here are six key areas where what goes on inside your brain can deliver steady and satisfying muscle gains.
This one should have been obvious. Many times when trainees fail to see results from their workouts, they look for a new routine, a new exercise or technique, or even a new supplement to solve the issue. Often none of these are the root of the problem at all. They are ignorant of the fact that they are merely pushing and pulling weights from point A to point B, when they should be “training” the muscle, working it through a complete range of motion with special attention to feeling the target muscle contracting/flexing on the positive stroke of the rep and contracting on the negative. If you don’t consciously feel the muscle working during your sets, you’re not going to see the best results. Sometimes you can go years of working a certain area with little to show for it. This is most often seen in the back, which is by far the one area on physiques that is most often lacking, even more so than legs. On the surface, someone can appear to be working his back hard, doing all the right exercises and even handling decent weights. Yet their backs are sorely lacking in development, typically more so in thickness. Ask them if they feel their back working while they train it, and most will readily admit they don’t. Some people attain a high degree of mind-muscle connection rapidly, but most have to work long and hard for that attribute. It requires intense focus and concentration, and you may have to “start over” with much lighter weights to learn it but make no mistake – you need it to build the best physique you can. Mindlessly hoisting weights will give you some muscle mass, but only when you apply significant emphasis on the mind-muscle connection will you reach your potential and develop the best physique possible.
Numerous studies have proven that human beings perform better at a given task if they have rehearsed in their mind several times first. In a sense, you’ve already done it, and the actual act is merely a final run-through. Many champion bodybuilders I have spoken with over the years such as Dorian Yates talked about how they would visualize the entire workout the night before, making it as realistic as possible by including what they would see, hear and feel, down to how much weight they would use, how many reps they would get, and the pump and burn in the target muscle. All that was left was to come in the next day and execute that workout that had already happened in their mind. You would also want to do this prior to each set, as mental rehearsal has been shown to optimize arousal and improve concentration. If you witness a serious weight trainer who is obviously in good shape with his head bowed and eyes closed in deep meditation before a set, chances are he isn’t praying for a good set, he’s mentally rehearsing it in vivid detail. Once he opens his eyes, his head is in a state that’s fully prepared for peak performance.
Having Specific Goals and a Plan
People who are effective and productive in their lives don’t sit around wishing for things. They set specific goals as to what they want to accomplish, own or achieve, then construct solid, step-by-step plans to make it happen. How specific are your own physique goals, and do you develop plans to execute? You’ll never hit a target you can’t see simply by firing random shots in several directions. What is it you’re trying to do? Add more mass? Lose body fat? Get stronger? Win a contest someday? These are all vague goals because you haven’t set any parameters for them. That’s how most people in the gym are, and it’s one of the main reasons most of them will look exactly the same if you see them a month, a year, or five years from now. You must have a clear target in front of you to aim for, such as gaining 5 pounds of muscle mass, adding an inch to your arms, or increasing your bench press by 20 pounds.
Next you will also need to set a time limit. Otherwise there is zero sense of urgency and plenty of room for procrastination. Be realistic in how long it will take to reach your goal. For instance, nobody is gaining an inch on his arms in a week unless he’s shooting them up with oil, and nobody is adding 10 pounds of muscle in a couple of weeks aside from genetic freaks just starting out in the gym (10 pounds of fat is easy for almost anyone to gain in a couple of weeks if they eat a bunch of junk). Figure out what it is you want to do or have, how long it will take you, and exactly how you intend to make it happen – then just do it. Of course, you will want to be flexible and make adjustments along the way, such as adding calories if you aren’t gaining at a rate to hit your goal weight in time, or cutting carbohydrates and upping cardio if your fat isn’t being shed on schedule to be as lean as you planned to be on the deadline.
Research and Learning
This goes for life in general, not just training: the day you think you know it all is the day you never make any further improvements. You’ve heard the saying, “The more I know, the more I realize how much more there is to know.” There is so much out there to learn about training, nutrition and supplementation, thanks to this digital age we live in, it’s all there at your fingertips, a few swipes or mouse clicks away. If you spend even 15 minutes a day searching for new exercises, techniques, diets, etc., you’re bound to come across a few that catch your attention and warrant a try. You don’t know what you’re not doing that could make a real difference in your physique, or things you had no idea you shouldn’t be doing. The internet and social media provide access to so many advanced trainers, coaches and experts in the various fields associated with weight training and nutrition that you would be a fool not to take advantage of it. I am old enough to remember when you had to go to a library, investigate card catalogues, and then go hunting through dark and musty rows of books to glean just a little more information to apply toward my own bodybuilding goals. We all have it much easier now thanks to our desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones. Never stop being a student, and never stop learning. There is no doubt you will continue to find things that will help you on your journey.
Being in Tune With Your Body
Learning to “read” your body and the signals it is constantly sending you goes a very long way toward both making consistent gains and avoiding injuries that can set you back months or in worst-case scenario, take you out of training forever. First up, you already know how critical recovery is in the equation of making muscle gains. It doesn’t matter how hard you train or how well you eat if you aren’t getting enough sleep and not taking adequate time off from the weights to allow for full recovery. The late Mike Mentzer equated recovery to sun exposure. If you go out in the sun for a certain amount of time every few days, you will end up with a deep bronze tan. If you stay out in the sun too long, your skin burns. Your muscles and CNS also need time to recover between workouts. How much time varies among individuals. That’s why you need to pay heed to the common signs of overtraining: fatigue, loss of enthusiasm to train, increased resting heart rate, insomnia, and the dreaded loss of size, strength, or both. If you’re vigilant, you will cut overtraining off at the pass and immediately take a few full rest days, then look at reducing your overall training volume, use of intensity techniques, and possibly incorporating more rest days weekly. In our zeal, especially when we’re younger, we tend to want to train for hours every day. Very few people can tolerate that unrelenting workload for long before something gives. Just remember, you can’t keep your gas pedal to the floor all the time – you need to take your foot off the gas at times or else you will blow your engine.
This leads directly into the subject of injuries. If you’ve never had a serious injury, ask anyone who has, and they will confess that there were warning signs they ignored. Something didn’t feel right. There was a weird pain or pressure when they did a certain exercise. Dexter Jackson competed in 20 Mr. Olympia contests over a 21-year pro career and retired at the astounding age of 51 having never suffered a training injury. His “secret” was that whenever he had one of those odd pains as if he was about to get hurt, he stopped the workout right then and there. Better, he wouldn’t resume training that body part again until any and all pain was gone. Most of us do the opposite. We attempt to train through or around pains and even injuries, which doesn’t end well most of the time. We’re all in a rush to make progress, but never forget that injuries will not only put gains to a grinding halt, but you will probably also lose some size and strength while it heals. Listen to your body because it’s always trying to tell you something important. If it tells you all is fine and dandy, proceed to forge straight ahead with all guns blazing. If it tells you to back off, back off! Finally, listening to your body also means doing the exercises that are best suited to you instead of blindly mimicking what the rest of the bodybuilding world does or says to do. Let’s say you’re 6-foot-4 with a 44-inch inseam, and squats are incredibly awkward. All you get from them are a sore lower back and ankles. Yet the leg press is perfect. You can load it up, get great pumps, and your legs are sore for days. Stop doing squats and work your ass off on the leg press! This goes for exercises, diets, you name it. Pay attention to what works well for you and what doesn’t. Train and eat the way that works best for you, and don’t beat your head against a brick wall wasting time on workouts and diets that don’t deliver for you.
Being Mentally Tough
I saved the best for last, because your thoughts and attitude determine the course of all your habits, behaviors and actions. You need to be motivated to achieve your goals, and that comes from inside you. Others can inspire you, but without a strong inner drive that springs from having clear goals, believing you can achieve them, and then following through with actions that work toward them, nothing happens. Don’t look to others to believe in you or motivate you to train hard and eat right every day. You will find that there are many individuals who are miserable with their own choices in life, who never had the guts to go after their own dreams and goals, who will seek to discourage and disparage you at every turn. This is and always has been human nature. People will mock your goals and do their best to tell you they are impossible to reach. They will often seem sympathetic, as if they are only trying to help you avoid eventual disappointment. The worst pain in life doesn’t stem from trying and failing, it’s regret for never having the courage to try in the first place and settling for a life of bland mediocrity. Don’t fall into their trap. Yes, genetics are real and not everyone can look like the men and women featured on fitnessrxformen.com. But everyone can make vast improvements from their starting point, and the one certainty is that you will never know how good you could have been until you apply your best effort over time. The mind controls not only the body but also your entire life. Your attitudes and beliefs influence every decision you make, every day. Foster positivity and believe in yourself even if no one else does – especially if no one else does!