Ask any successful athlete how they developed their skills and they are likely to tell you that to be the best at what they do requires the very best use of their training time. In bodybuilding, with so many variables to consider, the athlete must focus upon a wide range of training factors. But attention does fluctuate and, for many, focus is often very difficult to sustain for extended periods of time. Distractions are everywhere. And in gym environments, with so many people congregating in such a confined space, there is much to attract the eye and divert attention. However, the gym is also an excellent training ground in which to develop the laser-like focus needed to optimize workout efficiency and to excel in other training-related areas such as meal planning and goal setting. With massive weights pressing down and poor training form often leading to serious injury – not to mention the requirement for full concentration to ensure maximum muscle fiber stimulation – our training endeavors are both reliant upon and a great opportunity to further refine attentional awareness.
Optimal workout performance hinges on two major prerequisites: selective attention (the ability to ignore distractions while zeroing in on our training goals) and perfect performances bolstered by a high degree of training intensity. The self regulation of attention lets us focus on our explicit training goals while resisting the distractions that are forever threatening to sidetrack our efforts. The result: performance improvements and training intensity increases. By expanding our capacity to attend to what we are doing, by applying mindfulness, we can accelerate our training progress. Strengthening focus does take time, effort, consistency, persistence and patience but it is one of the most important ways to enhance the quality of all that we do. By fully attending to this article, focusing on the content within, and applying its insights you will, over time, become more adept at handling distractions and better able to focus your efforts on all that is meaningful in your life, including the many training factors important for physical progression.
ATTENTION DOES FLUCTUATE AND, FOR MANY, FOCUS IS OFTEN VERY DIFFICULT TO SUSTAIN FOR EXTENDED PERIODS OF TIME.
The ability to focus only on the task we are committed to, and nothing else, can significantly heighten performance to ensure that training time is fully maximized. However, unless you are a master of meditation it is often impossible to fully direct your attention on a specific task for any great length of time. For example, in reading the above text you may have found your mind wandering repeatedly. By continuously re-diverting your attention to this article you have now reached the 428-word mark. Unfortunately, because interruptions to cognitive awareness compromise learning and the retention of information, your recall of facts based on what you have so far read will be poorer for such distractibility. The same holds true in the gym. Whenever our attention is diverted mid-set, basic movement patterns may be broken. Repeated often enough, such inattention can result in poor technique and, in turn, sub-optimal results or even injury.
Because the brain learns and remembers best when focus is greatest it is important when learning any skill that we fully concentrate on all of the crucial performance steps needed to master it. By being aware and fully conscious of our gym efforts we become more receptive to mentally crystallizing important movement patterns, biomechanical considerations and the most effective ways to target specific muscle groupings. Thus, when learning the weight training basics, or a new training system, we must direct our attention to all that is necessary to complete each exercise or training method. Then once we have learned the correct form we must continue to focus each time we attempt a certain movement or training protocol.
REPEATED OFTEN ENOUGH, SUCH INATTENTION CAN RESULT IN POOR TECHNIQUE AND, IN TURN, SUB-OPTIMAL RESULTS OR EVEN INJURY.
From the moment you walk into the gym until the final rep has been completed, you must focus, precision-guided missile-like, on the perfect execution and cadence (time under tension) of each rep – but only if you want the best possible results. Otherwise, feel free to talk to others between sets, check your text messages, take selfies to post on Facebook and periodically check how many likes you have received for said selfies. However slight the disruption to our training, such distractions will undoubtedly lessen the amount of intensity we are able to apply. One of the worse times to become sidetracked in the gym is mid-set. With much day-to-day detail swirling around in our heads and much going on in our immediate environment it can be extremely difficult to apply total focus through the duration of one set, much less an entire workout. However, by fully focusing on each set from beginning to end – by feeling the working muscles in action and how fatigued they are becoming, monitoring the way the body is positioned at all rep ranges and angles, and counting each rep while observing our breathing patterns – we increase the degree to which a muscle can contract. In turn, the appropriate area of the brain responsible for controlling a particular movement and contracting a specific muscle is activated. This strengthens neural connectivity, establishes greater efficiency of movement, and, ultimately, enables us to develop larger, stronger muscles. Proper training focus also applies to the specific goals we have for each workout. Personally, I prefer to go by feel. Having reached the upper limits of a certain range, if extra reps are achievable then they will be completed without hesitation. Other trainees may have a specific rep range in mind and will not deviate from this target. To get the most from each set – to ensure overload is optimal and failure is reached on the final rep – proper loading parameters must be in place in both instances. Most importantly, attention must be directed toward targeting a maximum number of muscle fibers. Without the requisite focus, we are more likely to ‘cheat’ the weight up when the going gets hard, thus removing tension from the working muscles and compromising training intensity. Over time, a propensity to become distracted may become habitual. However, by repeatedly applying focus, such attentional awareness can become the foundation upon which great workouts are achieved.
Jennifer Neil and Paul Anthony – David Ford
Aside from leaving the instant messaging device in the locker and forgoing pointless social encounters, there are several ways we can improve focus in the gym. First, before specifically seeking to develop greater focus, determine the time of day your concentration levels are naturally highest. We all learn better when we are mentally at our best – a fresh, alert mind will be more receptive to processing the below-listed insights.
Perhaps surprising to many is how important a relaxed mind is when working to improve focus. Rather than forcing a state of extreme concentration, it is important to keep your mind calm and serene, both in the gym and in other areas which require consistently high levels of awareness. Know in advance exactly what it is you would like to achieve from your workout, be confident in your ability to complete all of your sets in an exacting manner, and accomplish your task with the lowest possible amount of mental tension guiding your actions. By maintaining composure and staying relaxed, the mind is more observant of its surroundings but is less likely to become distracted: we are better able to monitor performance, stay on task, and redirect focus if necessary. Martial arts masters and experts in meditation, for example, are known for cultivating calmness of mind in order to stay focused. Though it may appear to counter all that we have read about channeling maximum training intensity – with images of aggressive, pre-workout fuelled bodybuilders informing us on how best to display the hardcore training mindset – staying mentally relaxed will, in fact, allow us to apply more effort than ever, in a more focused fashion.
All good trainers will make a point of emphasizing the role of correct breathing in promoting workout productivity. By deeply inhaling on the negative phase of a lift and forcefully exhaling when contracting a muscle we may better control the trajectory of a rep while offsetting muscle fatigue. Improper breathing can lead to increased blood pressure and dizziness. Correct breathing, on the other hand, increases oxygen supply to the brain without which concentration and energy levels may soon begin to dissipate. By practicing deep breathing immediately before and during training, levels of the stress hormone cortisol are lessened – which calms and energizes – performance anxiety is reduced, and our ability to focus is instantly increased.
Counting reps is not simply an effective way to determine how much of a set we have left. By numerically tracking our training we are less likely to stop short of complete failure and more likely to focus on the quality of each rep – again, provided proper loading parameters are in place. But everyone counts reps, right? Well yes, but there is a right and a wrong way to do it. One can still become distracted when counting reps. The key to using rep counting to our advantage is to know exactly how many reps we must complete (or a minimum number of reps that must be completed to ensure a productive set based on the amount of weight we are lifting) and to focus only on each rep in turn, where each rep fits into the sequence, and a set’s major performance indicators (degree of target muscle stimulation, exercise technique, and body positioning). With only these variables in mind, we are less likely to become mentally sidetracked and complete focus throughout the entirety of a set can be achieved.
A SURE-FIRE WAY TO DIMINISH TRAINING FOCUS IS TO WORK OUT WITHOUT A CLEAR PLAN.
Have an agenda
A sure-fire way to diminish training focus is to work out without a clear plan. By having a definite goal in mind – as opposed to a vague idea of where we are heading – our determination to do whatever is necessary to inch closer to it is strengthened. Entering the gym with a vivid mental picture of exactly what it is we want to achieve will provide the drive and heightened focus needed to maximize workout efficiency. Apart from our ultimate goals – long-range targets such as 10lbs of additional muscle or first place at our next bodybuilding contest – are our immediate workout objectives: sets, reps, and muscles to be stimulated. For example, by setting a workout goal of curling an extra five pounds for three additional reps we are faced with a challenge that demands our full attention. Losing focus under such conditions may not only result in an inability to achieve our goals but, with an unaccustomed stressor to contend with, we become more susceptible to injury. Training without firm goals and an ardent desire to improve may see the lifter simply going through the motions in a directionless manner due to their periodically becoming distracted and losing focus.
THE GYM IS NOT A PLACE FOR SOCIALISING, BUT A PLACE OF WORK.
Focus to improve
A training session without complete focus is wasteful and, for the serious athlete, counterproductive. Yet so many people seem to routinely train on autopilot, seemingly oblivious to the futility of their efforts. A lack of awareness when working out may lead one to become frequently distracted. Such distractibility lessens training intensity and increases the likelihood of injury. For the truly committed, the gym is not a place for socializing, but a place of work. Such individuals know that training time is a finite resource and that there are only so many hours in the day to build the physique. So they give it their all each and every time. By focusing their efforts they save valuable time and accelerate their results. To improve focus, to make every workout count, it is important to first plan each training session. Determine explicit training goals (both long-term and short) and have these in mind when you enter the gym. Make sure your head is in the right space: leave the stresses and struggles of life behind and focus exclusively on the task of extracting all that you can from each rep of each set. By following the advice outlined above there is nothing to stop you from improving your physique by focusing on your training game, one rep at a time.
Jeary, T. Learn to Develop Extreme Focus. Success. [Online] http://www.success.com/article/learn-to-develop-extreme-focus retrieved on 24.3.15
Heinrich Rizzo, T. Developing Better Concentration. IDEA: Health & Fitness Association. [Online] http://www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/how-to-improve-concentration retrieved on 24.3.15
Mind Tools. How to Develop Long-Term Focus. [Online] http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/long-term-focus.htm retrieved on 24.3.15
Mayo Clinic. Weight Training Dos. [Online] http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/fitness/in-depth/weight-training/art-20045842?pg=2 retrieved on 23.3.15