The first gym I trained at looked like a set from a 80’s action movie. From the outside, it looked like an old stone mill. Every member was given a key to get in and train whatever time of day or night you wanted. At the entrance, there was a table with a boombox, CD cases, and a clipboard to sign in with the date and time.
The gym barely had light, and the floor looked like an old, dirty garage. The dumbbell rack was a mix of old cement dumbells, some of them broken or rusted, going up to almost two hundred pounds. There were machines for bodybuilding untouched since those action movies were released. Toward the back, on the ground floor, there was a metal spiral staircase that brought you upstairs to the boxing area. It was a full floor with every type of punching bag, pads and gloves, and a full-sized ring with bloodstains on the canvas.
That gym was where I got heavy into weights. My father had introduced me to light lifting in our basement as a young kid, but it wasn’t until I started boxing at that gym that I started trying to build muscle and strength. It’s where I first maxed out on a barbell lift. That was almost twenty years ago. I’ve since maxed out many lifts in different gyms and at many types of barbell competitions since then, both small and large.
The Wall We All Run Into
Walls in training are the imaginary barriers we create and pit ourselves against that keep us from our potential and aim.
We aren’t discussing what keeps us from doing the work, but instead what keeps us from pushing to the limit of our strength capacity. These walls can show up in a competition, or during a training session where you planned to lift to a new max. It makes little difference.
The wall is made up of subtle influences that restrain our effort. You maxed out. You said aloud—and you know you could lift a more substantial weight—but you didn’t show them you could. What happened?
Why Do We Limit Ourselves?
There are times where, from a physiological standpoint, you’re entirely prepared to reach a new max.
You’ve physically peaked. Nutrition is proper, and so is sleep. You’re recovering as you should and doing all the things to support that. The training program was well designed and properly planned. Training went as planned, and every session was done exactly right. You lifted the intended weights during all sessions, and you felt recovered and ready to go between every training day.
And yet at the competition or planned max out, you didn’t lift the weight you had calculated you would.
Physically you were prepared. There’s nothing more you could do. You failed, instead, because of a limiting mindset, or a mentally limiting agreement, that you’ve made with yourself to borrow phrasing from the author, Don Miguel Ruiz.
To bring your fullest available physical capacities under conscious control, you need to learn to connect, but also bring your mental and emotional states under command. This isn’t easy, especially not at first. It’s hard not to get carried away by emotions or caught in a mental whirlwind and let it control you instead of using the energy of it toward a singular effort.
This literal integration is fundamental for many to find a place in which they can legitimately see the limit of their strength that they’ve developed in their on-going training. They can recognize the successes this training has projected their maxes to be.
Feel, But Don’t Be Controlled
This degree of arousal required to push to our real limit isn’t just physiological or mental in quality but is also emotional. All of this feedback needs to be harmonized to produce a strong, singular effort.
Barbell practices attract different personality types. It can draw in those who are wild, outwardly, passionate people. But it also appeals to more calculated, analytical types who treat training as merely process-oriented.
But to be successful in strength sports or progress in the barbell, even the most methodical brains need to learn to use a sort of internal heat to push their limits. The outwardly calm lifters who are successful may not show it, but they have this spark and aggression inside them. Sometimes keeping it all within rather than letting it out in a loud public display can be more useful for that personality type.
Ed Coan, arguably the best powerlifter of all time, looked cold, calm, and calculated on the platform. But when asked about it, he said that every time he lifted, there was a storm raging in his head. He called it his controlled aggression.
Don’t Slide Too Far
There’s undoubtedly a tipping point where you cross a threshold and reach a point of overstimulation. It’s too much to use and instead becomes ineffective, almost hysterical energy.
When I was competing in powerlifting in my early twenties, I lifted at a meet held in the college weight room where I worked as a strength coach. It was my home turf, and I wanted to show up. I worked myself into a frenzy right before the competition and took excessive amounts of caffeine because it was the only way I knew how to try to push myself back then.
I felt pretty decent warming up, but as I was about to step out for my opening attempt, I became way too jittery and overexcited, almost to the point where I felt agitated. My energy level and excitement were through the roof, but none of it useful.
I bombed out at that competition; I think it was my first time doing that. I couldn’t focus, couldn’t harness any aggression, couldn’t become mindful, present, and fixated on this single task. It was an impotent intensity.
It never reached a peak but instead just stayed as a low hum. I had so much energy left over after the competition, that I immediately put myself through a dumbbell workout to fix what I thought was the reason I failed. But looking back, I probably just did it to punish myself.
There’s a balancing act you flirt with when integrating the body and spirit. You need to learn how to work yourself right up to that red line without going over it.
Harnessing the energy you need to perform your best doesn’t end with learning how to rein in your thoughts and control your feelings.
There’s an almost esoteric peace to reaching the desired state where you hit a groove, and nearly any weight put on the bar for the day can be lifted. While there are specific techniques we can discuss, the exploration inward is profoundly personal and will take an extraordinary effort to figure out your particular triggers.
If you’re interested in reading a practical guide into how to understand and practice visualizing, I highly recommend the book Mind Gym. It’s the only resource I’ve come across that gives you workable, realistic methods to improve physical performance through imagination.
My biggest takeaway from the book was how imaginative your visualization should be. The author directs athletes to first recall their best performance to date. Think of the following elements of that experience:
How you felt. What you could smell. What were the shapes and colors of everything around you? Can you remember how the barbell felt in your hand or on your back? Can you remember the quality of your state of mind? What was the sensation of being so engrossed in your effort that you instinctively reacted physically?
After you create a vivid picture from your memory, the author recommends taking not only the visual but also the feelings and state of mind and spirit and apply it to imagine a future competition when you want to perform well.
The idea is to take the same emotional state you just recalled from your memory and imagine yourself in this future, taking with you the same spirit. With this feeling, envision how things will feel, look, and smell. Then see yourself accomplishing what you aim for, both through your own eyes and the gaze of a third person.
I use this type of visualization and see the potential benefit in it, but it never really suited my particular temperament. What always did improve my performance was a definite belief. This is different from a common belief, and it’s very abstract in quality. It’s a manifestation of the reality you want to happen. It’s an assumption it will come true and recalling it toward your living present.
Much of the belief that you can perform at the highest level comes from the confidence of past success. If you’ve had success, you can recreate it, and of course, practice in competition or in maxing out makes you better at it. Still, some seem to have a proclivity toward self-belief, even when inexperienced in the practice. And some seem to never really get it, despite consistent training and experience.
Those who never manage to muster belief have limiting beliefs from a crucial developmental period in their youth. They possibly had positive, healthy encouragement withheld by their parents and other adults. They could have grown up never knowing that it’s possible to change the physical reality around them through their focused efforts. But I’m not an expert to speak about this.
The belief I’m referring to, though, is not about squashing or ignoring all doubt. I know this was never the case for me. Even the best competitors will admit that at least some of the time, they have fractional doubts during low points in training and even at moments during competition. It’s not about eliminating all doubts; it’s about accepting them as a part of the whole and making room for them.
Accept and Make Room
This is something that I was able to take into my meditation practice to make me a more introspective person, which then I, in turn, could feedback into how I approached my lifting.
Negative, distracting thoughts arise. Constricting and closing them off puts limits on your growth and capacity to stay conscious. We all need to learn to see the fear, doubt, and pessimism. Then we need to understand that these are only feelings and thoughts, and not necessarily part of you and not all of who you are. Just because we have an idea, doesn’t mean that thought is us.
Believe it or not, the story of Buddha’s enlightenment speaks to how important it is to see the limiting beliefs that keep us from reaching our physical targets. I’m talking about the story here, not religion—and it’s all a story.
The story goes that when Siddhartha (the Buddha) sat down to meditate and he was on the brink of actually reaching his enlighted state, the god of all things lousy guy, Mara, came at him, tempted him, and then sent demons to attack him. But none of it harmed Siddhartha, and he reached his enlightenment.
After the Buddha went on to teach others, Mara would still show up from time to time, and the Buddha would see him. The Buddha’s assistants would grow afraid and overwhelmed that Mara had shown up. But the Buddha would acknowledge his presence and even call out to say: I see you, Mara. And as the story goes, the Buddha also invited him to sit and have tea with him.
And that’s it—that’s the intangible quality we need when we set out to push our limits. We see the doubt, the fear, and the rock we have to push up the mountain, and then we accept it for what it is. We recognize that it’s there and just a part of everything, part of the whole.
But we can have the presence of mind to know that we don’t need to act differently. We don’t need to think these random thoughts that appear are part of us; they’re just there. And we can make space for these thoughts and feelings and still act decisively toward our purpose.
If you need more confidence behind you for these big moments where you max out your squat and feel like you lack the tools, check out our free guide on the principles of squatting. It’s a free video that will help you build a more solid foundation for yourself.
Jesse competes in the sport of Olympic weightlifting, and he was also formerly a competitive powerlifter. He was featured in main strength and fitness publications. You can read more of his work on his website.