It’s 7:30am on a Tuesday morning. You’re at the gym: ear buds in, music pumped, and treadmill cranked. You’re trying to focus on reading the closed captioning on the TV screen in front of you, so you don’t have to think about how much longer you need to spend running. Next, to help you get through your weight training circuit, you keep in mind that delicious chai tea you get to have when you’re done your workout. Anything to distract you from the hard work and muscle pain, right?
Unfortunately, you might be selling yourself short by counting on these distractions. (And by doing cardio before weight lifting! But that's another story for another time.) If you’re not getting the results you want - or if you want to amplify the results you’re already getting - mindfulness is key. Mindfulness is one of the most effective – but also one of the most overlooked – strategies for increasing your results at the gym. When it comes to weight lifting, the mind-body connection can be your springboard to faster and more pronounced results.
Mindfulness is being consciously aware of what’s happening and what you’re doing at a certain moment. You’re not thinking about the past or the future, but instead focusing on the present.
Concentrate on how your muscles feel while you’re doing your warm-up. Then, with each strength training set, focus on the specific muscle being worked. Let’s say you’re starting with a shoulder press; focus on your exhalation as you push the weight overhead. Focus on how your contracted shoulder muscles feel at the top of the rep (are they burning yet?), and how it feels to return your arms to the starting position. Feel the difference between relaxed and contracted muscles. Try not to worry about which exercise you’ll do next, or what you’ll be making for dinner tonight. Also keep tabs on how your body feels as a whole. When do you start to feel tired? Or do you feel energized instead?
Here are four ways your mindfulness practice translates into better results:
1. Correct form:
When you actively concentrate on what you’re doing, you’re more likely to use correct form for each exercise. Correct form is crucial to getting the results you want. The other bonus? You’re less likely to injure yourself when you’re using correct form.
2. Increased muscle contraction:
When you focus on your muscle working, you actually increase the degree to which it contracts, and a larger part of your brain responsible for that muscle is activated. What’s in it for you? Better results! Numerous clinical studies have found that intentionally focusing attention on the muscles we’re working leads to increased muscle contraction, and thus better results compared to workouts riddled with distractions.
3. The importance of breathing:
Breathing is an important part of weight lifting. Most trainees should exhale when the muscle contracts the hardest (e.g. the “up” motion in a biceps curl) and inhale when the muscle lengthens back to the start position (e.g. the “down” part of a biceps curl)*. This breathing pattern prevents you from holding your breath, which leads to a spike in blood pressure if you’re lifting weights. It also prevents excess muscle tension in areas like your neck and upper back, which are often culprits when it comes to tension headaches. Paying attention to your breath takes mindfulness.
*More advanced athletes and competitive weight lifters/powerlifters will have breath-holding as part of their reps.
4. It’s all about attitude:
Paying attention to your mind and body while training can revitalize your strength routine and improve your attitude toward your workouts. The more you enjoy your workouts, the easier it is to stick to them! Mindfulness can help you to view weight training as an enjoyable, empowering activity, rather than something to merely “get over with” so you can move on to the rest of your day.
Next time you’re at the gym, skip the ear buds and opt instead to focus on precisely what your mind and body are experiencing. Concentrate on the present, and watch your results skyrocket!
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