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Things have come down to the last lift: With the Olympic gold medal hanging in the balance, it is going to be either you or Boris Lifterupski on the winner's podium.
Visions of hearing "The Star-Spangled Banner" dance inside your head, and there's a glimpse of you signing a lucrative contract with Coca-Cola.
Events have unfolded quickly up to this dramatic moment; despite getting off to a shaky start by missing your opening snatch, you settled down and made your next two attempts, plus your first two clean and jerks. Boris lived up to his billing as a fabled, well-oiled Eastern bloc athletic machine and went six-for-six, emerging with a total that's five kilos ahead of you. Even better for Boris and worse for you, each and every one of those five kilos between you and him represents a new PR for you. But you are the lighter lifter and have one lift left, so who knows? Those five kilos-and the gold medal-just might be within your reach, if only you can really get focused. You are understandably nervous, and from deep inside of you a little voice is screaming, "Concentrate! Concentrate! Concentrate!"
Even after you wake up and find yourself late for school in Des Moines, Iowa, rather than dueling for Olympic gold in Barcelona, Spain, the message for success lingers: "Concentrate! Concentrate! Concentrate!"
And the story is pretty much the same for bodybuilders: No less an authority than Arnold Schwarzenegger has repeatedly said that bodybuilding is a matter of training the mind as well as the body, and since the mind leads the body, beginners especially need to learn how to develop their mental abilities to the max.
Concentration is one of those critical mental skills for the bodybuilder, and Arnold says that with practice you can eventually learn to concentrate so well that you will be able to send blood to a particular muscle just by thinking about it. (Incidentally, this isn't just gym hocus-pocus: Well-trained subjects can demonstrate this ability under the strictest laboratory conditions.)
Arnold's belief in this need to focus precisely on the muscle you are training is so firm that he has suggested that you carefully note the exact site of muscle soreness when you begin a new exercise. In this way you'll know just where to concentrate each time you do the movement.
Whether you are a weightlifter who has to concentrate in order to produce increasingly powerful explosions of muscular force or a body-builder who needs continual concentration in order to coax your muscles to grow, concentration is a key to your continued progress. Let's take a look at what concentration is- and is not-in order to develop some training guidelines and routines that will help you boost the size and strength of this crucial cognitive skill.
Concentration is selective attention. The best way to understand this idea is to look at what psychologists call "the cocktail party phenomenon." This label describes how even when you are involved in a primary conversation (such as talking to someone at a party), you can end up paying more attention to a secondary conversation (such as what someone else is saying about you) even if it has less physical presence (e.g., it's quieter and coming from across the room). Research psychologists have done a lot of work in this area by playing one message in the subject's right ear and another in the left ear; and without getting bogged down in technical nuances, the consistent basic finding is that people overwhelmingly pay attention to just one of the messages (often being so oblivious to the other message that they don't even know whether it was in a foreign language).
Think of each set as being your primary message and the rest of the world as your secondary message. Ever wonder about people who can "train" while keeping up a conversation or those who can make eye contact with and say "hi" to everyone who walks by while they're doing concentration curls? Both of these are cases where the mouth takes precedence over the muscles, and that's just the way the results will line up too.
Another way to look at this idea is to say that concentration is a scarce resource, one that you should conserve and use wisely. Ace motorcycle racing instructor Keith Code likens your attention to a $10 bill-spend too much on trivial things and there won't be enough left over for the important ones. He constantly urges his students to "save" their attention for the things that count most. Sherlock Holmes put a little different English on the same idea by explaining to Dr. Watson that he (Holmes) always tried to avoid cluttering his mind with unnecessary facts, lest the important ones get squeezed out.
At least for lifters the stereotype for concentration is to pace back and forth while exhorting yourself to attack the barbell. And when all else fails, some modern-day powerlifting coaches have taken a lesson from the corner men in boxing who haul off and slap their charges, "to get their attention and make them concentrate harder." The problem with all these approaches is that they are really "adrenalizing"; that is, they coax the release of epinephrine (adrenaline), which fuels the "fight or flight" reaction, unfortunately, getting a little more jazzed is the opposite of what most people need for better concentration. Most people, most of the time, can boost their concentration by relaxing. Here's how it goes.
To get a little mystical about it for a minute, think of ultimate concentration as merging with your chosen activity-there's no more you versus it, and certainly no more of you standing on the outside of your task looking in at it. You just melt into it. Don't think that this means you have to trade in your jeans and baseball cap for a white tunic and turban; even if we go ahead and say that full concentration involves "ego transcendence," the feeling is no different from what you have when you are fully absorbed in a book. To increase your ability to really concentrate, then, you need to boost your skills in blanking out everything around you-especially your own thoughts. Do the opposite-by letting your mind race around-and your performance will fall. That's why baseball players say, "Full mind, empty bat."
Physiologically, our goal is to reduce efferent activity; that is, we want to reduce the number of messages your central nervous system is sending to your muscles. One of the most effective ways to lull your brain into a relaxed state is to focus your attention on a repetitive event: You can repeat a sound or a phrase over and over (that's what chanting a mantra does), or even simpler, you can just focus on your breathing pattern. Let's try the breathing approach.
Sit upright in a chair or on a stool or bench with your fleet flat on the ground and your forearms and hands resting comfortably on your thighs. Try to sense the rhythm of your heartbeat, or you can actually monitor your pulse if you like by putting a finger from one hand on the opposite wrist. Inhale for three or four heartbeats, and then exhale over the next three or four heartbeats. Do about a dozen reps, ideally at least once in the morning and again in the evening. Every day while you are developing the basic skill focus on your breathing as a way to quiet your mind.
When you hit the gym, try to do all the little things that will aid your concentration: Leave your problems outside, don't talk any more than necessary while training, train in a compatible physical environment and so forth. If your mind starts to wander, or as a prelude to hitting the Big Set or making the Big Lift, try this routine: 1) Use the breathing exercise to refocus your attention, 2) visualize the exact movement(s) you want to make, 3) return to an empty mind, and then 4) attack the weight.
The next night, when you are back in Barcelona, you sit quietly breathing in a rhythmic pattern, first using a little verbal self-coaching, then just an image of the lift you want to make, and then nothing but a sea of white light. When you start your pull, you might be anywhere, for all you know. And even when the crowd goes wild as you get set for the jerk of your life, you still keep things on brain-detached autopilot. After all, once you have rammed the bar overhead, and won the whole thing, there will still be plenty of time to invite your brain back to the party. It might even come in handy negotiating that Coke contract.