Mental Training Exercises for Sports & Athletes

Mental Training

The Power of the Minds is Key to Success

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A car rolls onto a child's legs and, frantic, panicking, because she just has to, the kid's mother lifts the 2000-pound auto! With a flood of adrenaline and an unstoppable will she unofficially shatters all world records in the deadlift. She does what is seemingly impossible.

All of our bodies are capable of this and probably more under the right conditions. The key is not in your muscles or tendons or nerves. It is in the command center that controls these mere tools. The key to tremendous strength and huge muscles, and to virtually everything you do, are, or aspire to be, is your brain.

Over the years I've probably read more than a hundred bodybuilding articles on "the powers of the mind." Pseudo-mystical, pseudo-scientific, they invariably piqued my interest in this fascinating topic, but in the end they almost always told me nothing - nothing I could use. What I wanted with my pseudo-mysticism and pseudo-science was something to get me from here to there. I wanted to get progressively closer to the ability to pick up cars at will. I wanted a practical way to increase the mind/body connection. A framework. A routine. I wanted to meld the psychology texts with the gym.

There are exercises for dramatically increasing the connection between your mind and your muscles (and vice versa), but from the beginning let's be clear that individual brains are much more distinctive than muscles - which are fairly unusual in themselves. Therefore, different people react differently to particular stimuli, and they react differently for all sorts of reasons at any given time. How structured your routine is will be up to you depending on how you respond to specific techniques and modes of thinking.

Motivation is what we need to drive us through those treacherous workouts and torturous diets. We all had it when we got into bodybuilding. You can probably remember the first champion bodybuilder you saw in a muscle magazine. Fascinated by this unique world, you decided right then and there that you were going to look like Arnold or Rachel or Lee. At first the gains came quickly and you counted off the months before you would be Mr. or Ms. Olympia. Needless to say, bodybuilding is not easy, and your enthusiasm and perspective have probably been tempered since those initial workouts.

You need to regain that original level of motivation. The inspiration supplied by professional bodybuilders is great as a window into what is possible, but you must maintain a realistic connection to your own life. Clearly define your personal goals. Why are you training? What do you hope to accomplish within the next three months? The next year? Three years? Write specific attainable targets down and strive to exceed them. Example: Your reason for training may very well be to become a champion bodybuilder. To reach this objective you probably need to gain a lot more muscle. Perhaps your goals should be something like adding four pounds of muscular weight in the next three months, 15 in a year, 40 in three years.

If you know why you are training and what you hope to achieve in the future, you always have a reason to struggle through those last few reps or to stay on the diet. Be realistic, but also give yourself something to strive for- a carrot, always visible, but slightly out of reach. It is also helpful to mentally map out each workout ahead of time. Set attainable but challenging target weights and repetitions. Clear goals and a sense of purpose are the best defense against a failure of will.

Visualization is another technique for both chasing away doubts and establishing something to shoot for. Concentrate on how you want each bodypart to develop. During your workouts get your mind into your muscles, not into the weights. Visualize the muscle growing, improving in shape and quality - big, bigger, huge. Don't think about the weight or the act of making inanimate objects move. Remember: Your body can lift automobiles! You need to trick your mind into forgetting about the car, how much it weighs, and how hard it must be to lift. You need to just do it! For motivation some power lifters create a do-or-die duel between themselves and the weight. If this works for the occasional low-rep personal best, fine. But for the most part, concentrate on the contracting of your muscles. Better yet, think about the way you want the working muscles to look in the future. You cannot achieve what you cannot imagine.

Visualization is also important outside of the gym. As an exercise stand in front of a mirror and take inventory of your future body. Imagine each bodypart as you want it to be six months from now. As with other motivational targets, be realistic but challenging. Visualize your muscles growing as only your muscles can, as opposed to dreaming of Paul DeMayo's thighs and Flex Wheeler's back. Assuming you're rested, your body is ready and willing to work. The trick is to not clue your brain in about all the painful effort (the negative). Tell it only about the magnificent results (the positive). Paint a positive picture in your mind, and your body will eagerly follow.

To facilitate this chain of events, be aware of your body-to-mind connection. You are not a machine. You're a living organism with cycles of strength and energy, as well as hormonal changes and biochemical fluctuations. As you undoubtedly know, your body will not always perform on cue. Some days you'll feel stronger or weaker, bigger or smaller depending on a multitude of circumstances. Listen to your physique. Be aware of how alterations in training and diet (and everything else, for that matter) affect you, and adapt accordingly. This body awareness is one of the key differences between a champ and a chump.

Note also that training affects the mind in real and tangible ways. Exercise releases endorphins (natural, morphine-like substances) which alleviate pain and elevate mood. As we always knew, and science has confirmed, working out makes us feel better. As an added benefit, rigorous discipline, intense concentration and an increased pain threshold - all of which are furthered by bodybuilding-also have positive effects on our mental abilities outside of the gym.

All right, you're probably saying by now: "Enough dancing around the topic. Put up or shut up. How do we get closer to picking up cars and building a physique like a pro bodybuilder's?" It's brain-training time. The mind-to-body connection is the key to your success. At least it's the most important element under your control, as opposed to genetic variables. Heighten the pathways from your mind to your muscles and you'll soon need a whole new wardrobe.

Perhaps the most basic mind-to-body exercise is "float sensation." Lie on your back, perfectly flat (no area elevated), with loose clothing or none at all, in an area void of noise, bright lights and disruptions. Close your eyes with your arms and legs spread comfortably. Now imagine your feet floating. Wilt away the sensation of the bed against your skin. Calmly concentrate until you no longer feel anything against your feet. You probably didn't know this was possible. Flaky as it sounds now, you can do it. Proceed to your calves without losing the floating sensation in your feet. With your feet and calves "turned off," move on to your thighs. Continue on tip.

Eventually your whole body will feel as though it is hovering. You will have effectively controlled the nerve impulses throughout your physique. Your first few attempts may not be totally successful (though, trust me, it's easier than it sounds). It is often especially difficult to turn down the nerve impulses in your upper body while keeping them turned off in your lower extremities, or vice versa. (You can start anywhere, by the way, but most people choose to move like a wave from their toes to their head.) Some areas are harder to control than others. Still, with a little practice and a lot of concentration, you should be able to keep your entire body "floating:' This process is extremely relaxing, but, more importantly, it directly strengthens the control of your mind over your body.

Once you have the hang of float sensation it's time to turn up the heat. "Heat inducement" is similar to the preceding exercise and works best the first few times when it follows under the same conditions, while your nerves are still "turned off." Begin with any bodypart. Those that pump and grow the easiest are good starting points. Concentrate totally on making the muscle heat up. Imagine it red hot, a simmering ember, broiling, sizzling. Of course, it won't get anywhere near that hot, but it should start to feel warmer. With practice the bodypart under your mental control will feel flushed to the touch, like an isolated fever, sometimes bringing sweat to the skin.

Proceed to other bodyparts. In training you put extra effort into bringing up your weak points. Likewise, after you get the Knack of this, spend a disproportionate amount of time building a fire in stubborn muscles to foster your mental connection with them. This is truly an amazing exercise that requires a lot of concentration and a fair amount of practice to master, but, guaranteed, once you can put the heat into your muscles, you will be able to lift more, recover better, grow faster. The technique will have very significant effects on your bodybuilding success.

Float sensation and heat inducement do not require a huge investment of time. It varies with individuals, but 15-minute sessions are about average. Once you master these mental exercises, they will take even less time. You must continue to do them occasionally or your mind-to-body strength will diminish. Approach float sensation and heat inducement with the same dedication you do every other exercise. You needed time to learn the rhythm and motion of squats, leg presses and leg extensions. Now, if you do not train quads for a couple of weeks, your strength probably suffers. Cruise for three months and you'll lose much of what you gained. Similarly you have to train your mind-to-body pathway regularly. Once a week is recommended.

It is vitally important that you consciously strive to increase the power of your brain over your body. Because you have probably neglected this area, the potential for improvement here is much greater than in, say, switching around the exercises of your chest routine or altering your diet. Your untapped fountain - the secret to your success - is your brain. Believe it: Your body is capable of some unbelievable feats. Remember the automobile deadlift. Utilize more of your mind's incredible power and your body will reap the rewards with incredible results.

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