How do you motivate yourself to train?
July 20, 2009 5:59 PM   Subscribe

Strength trainees: how do you keep yourself motivated?

I'm looking for thoughts from weightlifters, powerlifters, or anyone else that has squatted more than their own bodyweight with a barbell.

How do you deal with motivation and the mental aspect of lifting heavy? My problem is that lately I tend to get nervous and worried about training, mostly about squatting, which I do 3x/week. I worry that I'll hurt myself, or aggravate one of my niggling pains, despite being confident about form. I worry that I'll fail to complete all of my reps. I worry that it will be very difficult and unpleasant. So I put off leaving for the gym, get there later than I want to, and then have to rush through my workout. Usually a lot of the nervousness bleeds away after my first work set, but it always comes back the next time. It's not rational, but I can't seem to shake it.

The obvious solution would be to find a training partner, but that doesn't look like an option for the moment. So, how do you make yourself sack up and go through with it if you train alone? I've found that the right song can help me clear my mind, so musical recommendations are welcome. I like indie rock, and my current lifting mainstays are Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs, and The Hold Steady. Any mental tricks or other suggestions would be appreciated.
posted by ludwig_van to Health & Fitness (30 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
How do you deal with motivation and the mental aspect of lifting heavy? My problem is that lately I tend to get nervous and worried about training, mostly about squatting, which I do 3x/week. I worry that I'll hurt myself, or aggravate one of my niggling pains, despite being confident about form. I worry that I'll fail to complete all of my reps. I worry that it will be very difficult and unpleasant.

This is all a part of lifting. Those things and worse happen to everybody. If it happens, it sucks, but then there's always next week to go back and succeed. Nobody makes progress every week. Nobody avoids plateaus forever. Nobody avoids calluses, cramps, minor or major muscle tears and sprains, etc. Realize that none of this is a game ender. Get under the bar, and remind yourself that success that day is great but perseverance is the only way anybody gets anything out of lifting.

So, how do you make yourself sack up and go through with it if you train alone?

When I was much more serious about strength training (Westside for Skinny Bastards, macronutrient counting, 3-rep maxes every few weeks, etc.), I mostly trained alone and sometimes with friends. I found for the most part that I felt more into lifting if I was listening to something on the death metal - sludge - old NYHC spectrum - something loud enough to drown out the retarded house music at the gym.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:08 PM on July 20, 2009

Music definitely helps, and I'll type some songs that I rotate through for inspiration...but as for mental techniques I really only have one. I just constantly remind myself that being there and doing the exercises is 100% of the battle. Don't complete all your reps? So what? Can't lift as much today as you could last week? So what? Felt like this one day you didn't give 100% SO WHAT??? There are no repercussions for you to not have an A+ workout as long as you make time out of the day to get there and do SOMETHING. That's the most important thing...the habit, the routine. Packing your clothes and shoes, eschewing the after work cocktail hour, diverting yourself from the comfort of home to go the gym regularly.

If its squats in particular that are feeding your anxieties, then ditch them. There are dozens of exercises you can do that will target the exact same muscles with little to no chance of injury. Hack squats, lunges, leg press, should really ideally be rotating your lifts why not forget about squats for a couple months and substitute other things? One other tings I often do, especially on leg day, is spend fully 50% of that workout stretching my 30 minutes of stretching and 30 minutes of lifting...seems excessive but it's every bit as important and beneficial to stretch as it is to lift.

Here's some of my favorite music that inspires me:

Afghan Whigs
Modest Mouse (especially Moon and Antarctica)
Johnny Cash
Nine Inch Nails
Aesop Rock

Good luck and keep at it!!!
posted by vito90 at 6:14 PM on July 20, 2009

I've posted it before, I'll post it every time it's relevant:

What is a workout?
"A workout is 25% perspiration and 75% determination. One part physical exertion and three parts self-discipline.

A workout is a personal triumph over laziness and procrastination. The mark of an organized, goal-oriented person who has taken charge of his or her destiny.

A workout makes you better today than you were yesterday. It strengthens the body, relaxes the mind and toughens the spirit. Work out regularly, you problems diminsh and your confidence grows.

A workout is a wise use of time and an investment in excellence. It is a way of preparing for life's challenges and proving to yourself that you have what it takes to do what is necessary.

A workout is a key that helps unlock the door to opportunity and success. Hidden within each of us is an extraordinary force. Physical and mental fitness are the triggers that can release it.

A workout is a form of rebirth. When you finish a good workout, you don't simply feel better. You feel better about yourself.

by George Allen
posted by vito90 at 6:18 PM on July 20, 2009 [14 favorites]

Find a gym that carries the Hammer Strength plate-loaded line of machines. I find that those are best for lifting lots of weight without a spotter, and without fear of killing yourself.

I'm told a lot of pro athletes use these things. I can see why. If I was a multi-millionaire, I'd fill up my basement with these.
posted by mikeand1 at 6:27 PM on July 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

mikeand1, not only does that reek of Pepsi Blue, but machines are simply not the same as free weights. Heavy compound lifts involve more than one plane of motion. Anyone can get in the leg press and do 500, but they shouldn't be shocked when squatting 135 pins them to the ground.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:33 PM on July 20, 2009

Everyone has had this anxiety at some point and they all got over it the same way: workout.

Start light and work your way up. Even if your body can do twice the weight you are lifting, your confidence can't. You just have to get your brain to match your muscle.
posted by munchingzombie at 6:44 PM on July 20, 2009

I have a simple rule that I use for both weights and cardio (note: I may disqualify, still 10kg shy of squatting my body weight, and I'm skinny!).

Shoes on.

I have an agreement with myself, if I go to the gym, get changed, and get my gym shoes on, if I still want to back out, I totally can. If my determination to not go through with it outwieghs the hassle of chaging twice and no exercise, then it's probably for the best that I don't do anything that day - whatever the reason.

It's always worked a treat for me, really takes the pressure off.
posted by smoke at 6:48 PM on July 20, 2009

"machines are simply not the same as free weights."

Have you ever used one of the Hammer Strength machines? They aren't like typical machines. In fact I won't use any other kind of machine. Most of them are basically very high-tech levers (no chains), and they are very, very ergonomic. They let you overload while letting you maintain great form.

And how much free weight will you be lifting after you seriously injure yourself by lifting hundreds of pounds w/o a spotter? If you think it can't happen to you, you haven't been lifting long enough.

I've been lifting for 30 years, and I've seen guys come very close to killing themselves. After seeing it enough times, and having a few accidents myself, I finally decided it wasn't worth it. If you can get an experienced spotter, go for it. But if you're overloading yourself w/o one, you're asking for it.
posted by mikeand1 at 6:49 PM on July 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

BTW, Inspector.Gadget, I guarantee you that this machine will blow away free-weight squats when it comes to lower-body development.

If you think this involves "one plane of motion", you have obviously never seen or used one. Additionally, it's iso-lateral.
posted by mikeand1 at 7:09 PM on July 20, 2009

First off, telling him to use machines is a waste of time judging by both his other posts on AskMeFi and the nature of his training. Hammer Strength machines are not the same as free weights. They are equivalent to Nautilus machines. Free weights are just as safe as long as you know good form and know how (and when) to bail. Pretty much the only thing you need a spotter for is the bench press.

That said, get used to bailing. If it's over your head, drop it. If it's on your back, let it roll off and hit the deck. If you know you aren't going to get hurt, you are willing to push yourself more. It doesn't matter if you miss a heavy rep, since there is always a next time. When you bail, you admit your limit. If you know your limit, you know where you have to go next. That's motivation right there.

Adrenaline is your friend. Do you visualize? Start. On a heavy day, off and on throughout the day I visualize not only my lift but also what I hope to gain from the strength training. Rugby and boxing matches, namely. I'll watch YouTube videos of highlights. You gotta psyche yourself up. You want to be on edge when you get to the gym. It's all about intensity.

Also, never be afraid to take a rest week. You'll come back feeling better than ever and your lifts will have probably improved from the lack of stimulus.
posted by Loto at 7:13 PM on July 20, 2009

Okay. I lie. I really did enjoy using that machine you linked, mikeand1. It was great for development up until I learned how to properly do a pistol which is as much about balance as it is about strength.
posted by Loto at 7:16 PM on July 20, 2009

Squats freak me out too, which I why I switched to deadlifts as my big lift - worst case you just dump the bar on the floor and apologise for the crash.

But, one thing that has helped me (I'm squatting again) is practising dumping the bar on the arms of the squat rack and crawling out, so that I could convince myself that's an option. Somehow knowing that I can abort the last rep gives me the confidence not to need to.

Note I generally never do less than 5 rep sets with squats, so YMMV.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:21 PM on July 20, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the wisdom so far. To clarify some points, I'm not going to stop squatting or start using machines. I can handle the weights I'm working with well enough, but I'm following a linear progression right now so they tend to be limit weights most workouts. I know how to bail out of missed reps (I squat in a power rack and bench with a spotter), and have done so many times. I think the real likelihood that I'll injure myself is low. Like I said, it's not a rational anxiety.

If you graphed the nervousness I feel, it would be at zero when I leave the gym. Then it starts gradually climbing during my rest day, and peaks as I approach the next workset.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:35 PM on July 20, 2009

Response by poster: Also I'm almost exclusively doing sets of 5. I think I'm more afraid of the fifth rep in a 5RM set than going for a 1RM.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:39 PM on July 20, 2009

As Loto said above, don't be afraid to bail. On the other hand, with a 5RM, it's OK to overshoot and go for six now and then. The key with any sort of maximum is not to keep hitting it again and again every time because lack of variation is a certain road to a plateau.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 9:33 PM on July 20, 2009

If you don't have / can't get a training partner, is there anyone to whom you can be accountable. Someone you can share you goals for your training session with and then report on whether you succeed or fail? This would be inferior to having a training partner, but a close second, maybe. Maybe a contest with someone you know to see who can reach a fitness goal first? Put some money on the line, like significant for you money against someone you know but don't really like. If you can find someone to be a little accountable to, it might give you the little nudge to get out the door and squat big.

I read an article by Charles Staley somewhere (of course I can't find it at the moment), where he talks about doing heavy supports and walkouts after doing his squats to break through the mental barrier he had with certain numbers. Here's a nice article about some mental tweaks to help you perform better in the gym from Staley (another).

Are you still doing Starting Strength? I have a distinct and very vivid memory of dreading every workout when I was ready to move on to a new (intermediate) program. All that squatting was killing me! A 5x5 (Madcow's) or westside template might give you a little novelty and motivation to get under the bar. Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 also gets high marks from internet reviewers, though I haven't tried it yet.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 9:59 PM on July 20, 2009

Few weeks ago I started doing those half ass shitty squats that you and your buddies tease other people for wasting space in the cage with. Not the whole time, but after I just can't stand the thought of one more ATG on my last set or two. It worked surprisingly well for burning off whatever extra energy was in my quads and definitely helped my max by more in the last three weeks than probably the previous three months of lifting.
posted by GooseOnTheLoose at 10:03 PM on July 20, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the articles, Barry. At present I'm following the SS template with light squats on Wednesday. I wanted to change my programming and I thought it was time, but Mark Rippetoe said I should stick with it because I still need to gain weight. I'm now back at the weights where I stalled last time, so that's definitely a part of the dread.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:45 PM on July 20, 2009

Free weights are just as safe as long as you know good form and know how (and when) to bail. Pretty much the only thing you need a spotter for is the bench press.

Come on. You know that isn't true. The very thing that makes free weights better than machines is what makes them more dangerous.
Although good advice about the bailing, I'm not sure what gyms you guys are going to. Most gyms you can't just start dumping weights left and right. Especially if they don't have either well padded floors or rubberized weights.

Anyway, back to the question. Since this sounds like it is some kind of rhetoric on loop inside your head, you should put in something you do want to hear. I know positive affirmations sound corny and are corny when you do them, but you can put in something simple as "I really want to get to the gym. I'm going to destroy those squats." They can work wonders for your attitude.

By the way, good on you for calling it a Power Rack. People often mistake it for a Squat Rack or some such. Just a small pet peeve of mine.
posted by P.o.B. at 11:08 PM on July 20, 2009

P.o.B: the floor where I train is padded, but I wouldn't plan on just dumping a bar from a squat, just plonking it on the cross bars if I can't get out of the hole.

ludwig_van: if you stalled last time, make sure at least variable is different -- like eating more.

Another thing I tell myself, I just realised, is that I'll just do what I can manage. I usually find once I've done the first one or two that I'm over the hump and can do the rest.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:15 AM on July 21, 2009

Easy answer: Don't squat! When I went through a phase of the squatting blues, I switched to the leg machines--quad lifts, hamstring curls, and the leg press machine on which Pat Robertson claims a 1000 lb. press. To work on my core, I exercise on the back press and crunch machines.

In my gym, these stations are inhabited mostly by overweight, less hardcore members, and I spent several weeks in self-recrimination over my wussiness.

But I've made better gains in strength, size and tone with the machines than with squats--largely due to being an unmotivated and lackadasical squatter.

Be a wuss, take a break from the power rack, and try the machines. If you don't achieve your targeted gains in a few months you can always go back. And if you feel a need to be hardcore, do deadlifts.
posted by Gordion Knott at 2:38 AM on July 21, 2009

Stop making a distinction between your mind and body. Look at lifting as an activity that trains both your mind and body as a single system (because that's what it is).

If you can squat 245 for 3x5, but the idea of doing so makes you want to avoid the gym, it just means that your mind is not fully adapted to squatting 245 yet. This is not a problem so long as you keep going to the gym. Look at the fear the same way you would look at physical soreness after heavy lifting.

Anxiety about lifting only becomes a problem when it prevents you from going to the gym (the way a physical injury would). If your mind can not handle the weight, treat it just as if your body could not handle the weight: Drop the weight by 10% (or to whatever weight doesn't make you fear the gym) and then resume your linear progression.
posted by tipthepizzaguy at 5:33 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Or maybe a video for motivation
posted by P.o.B. at 6:59 AM on July 21, 2009

A partner always makes everything 100 times easier for me to stay motivated. Are you training at a gym with other series lifters? I'd imagine that if I was without a partner I'd get a similar motivation to not want to look like I can't hang if there were other dudes that (in actuality probably aren't) watching me. Just pretend that other dudes care and it might push you harder.

Also, it might be harder without a partner but Joe's spleen's point about the first couple sucking the worst on the work sets is so true for me, so if I'm feeling a little stressed about it I just focus on each rep as a singular event and my partner tells me if when I've hit the full 5. Sitting there after my last warm up set and feeling like "aww fuck, I have to add how much more now?" is always the toughest for me.

The fear of not completing is something that doesn't bother me too much personally, I just figure that when I'm pushing hard, I'll have good days and bad days and it's inevitable that I'll fail once in a while. Then I just keep pushing next workout, with the same weight. Presses have always been a struggle for me but just doing something even if I fail in the middle, is helping to make some progress.

For music I like to listen to old goony hardcore if I'm feeling meh... first Hatebreed record, Madball, Trial etc. Fast and pissed off, makes me wanna throw the bar through the wall so just picking it up is a lot easier. haha
posted by teishu at 10:16 AM on July 21, 2009

I really feel you. The fear does not keep me from the gym, I go at lunch, it is my precioussss time and I would never miss it, but when I have to squat I really feel The Fear. So I guess my suggestion number 1 would be to try and schedule the time so that it is a break from something even more crappy (not that my job is crappy but...) and you look forward to the change.
As others have said above, get comfortable with bailing. Easier said than done, I know, I feel like a fucking idiot every time I do it. But every time I have to do it I'm reminded that I'm not going to be trapped and hurting myself under a squat I can't finish, and it helps the confidence.
You're on the SS program so I won't say too much about messing with your programming, but I did some pause squats recently as part of some stuff on, and I really think that while I was doing them they helped my squat strength and confidence immensely. Just picking a slightly lighter weight, sitting at the bottom of the rep for a couple of seconds and powering back up really made me feel much more in control when it came to test my next 1rm.
posted by ch1x0r at 5:59 PM on July 21, 2009

ludwig i know you're much more experienced than i am so i am hesitant to chime in but i can squat my bodyweight all day so here goes. it sounds to me like you've let benchmarking (and its concomitant anxieties) become your workout, and you therefore don't really enjoy it anymore. what's the point in progressing at something that you don't find fulfilling or gratifying?

i used to run quite a bit and i always felt that it was really beneficial to sometimes just go out for a run completely free from any benchmarking--take a new route of unknown length; pay little attention to the time of your run or your pace. the benchmark should be of secondary or tertiary importance to your sport but it naturally creeps up until it becomes the only thing you think about. and for what? a record breaking run, or squat? doubtful. sure, you want to be bigger, faster, stronger; rippetoe whines about people who train but don't progress...but you should train principally because it's awesome, not so that you can hit some arbitrary set of squats as part of a training schedule that you spend all day worrying about.

i would stop if i were you. go workout in a group, crossfit style. it will motivate you better than just a partner and the social aspect both lowers the stress and enables you to achieve more. one day we're all gonna peak, sadly; who gives a shit exactly where if we don't enjoy getting there?
posted by holympus at 7:48 PM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I did 5x5 for a while and remember going from really digging it to OMFG not more heavy squats. It was around 120% of my body weight when this happened. I had to switch to something else - mostly because there are other areas of my life that take some serious psyching up to do and I couldn't be doing that in my lifting too.

If mentally the rest of your world (work/home/school/family) is great then I say keep going. Change your music, do the visualization, decide that the pain of squatting is less than the pain of quitting, pick an aspect of your form to focus on for each rep, watch a motivational video - whatever it takes.

If the rest of your world is NOT kosher and this is part of your stress relief time, find another program. SS really pushes the hell out of you - it is possible to make good progress a bit slower. Keep in mind you want to be lifting for the rest of your life - so what is your hurry? I really like MEBB Crossfit. It has max effort lifting exercise at each session, but its only one. Then you do a more metcon crossfit type workout. It's working pretty well for me.
posted by jopreacher at 8:48 PM on July 21, 2009

Response by poster: holympus, you make a good point. But for me, hitting a PR is what makes training gratifying. Unfortunately I haven't PRed in awhile.

I joined a Crossfit gym and I work out there once a week -- I certainly prefer it to my regular gym, which is full of dudes who do 10 kinds of curl in front of the mirror, but Crossfit programming is a whole different ballgame, and I don't think I'm ready to shift gears.

I like the way you put it, jopreacher -- the problem for me is when the pain happens before the workout. I'm dealing with some kind of chronic triceps/elbow/shoulder inflammation at the moment which is a bitch. It's miserable to wake up in the morning with a painful elbow and know I've got to move heavy weights with it. I had the same problem a few months ago on the left side, and it went away on its own eventually, but now I've got it on the right side. But I suck it up, for the most part, because I tell myself it's part of getting stronger. But it's starting to make me irritable and unpleasant when I'm not in the gym.

Anyhow, I appreciate the comments, I've got a lot to think about.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:39 PM on July 21, 2009

I'm dealing with some kind of chronic triceps/elbow/shoulder inflammation at the moment which is a bitch. It's miserable to wake up in the morning with a painful elbow and know I've got to move heavy weights with it.

Whoah. Deal with that before you worry about your squatting. How do you know this pain is simply part of getting stronger, rather than an injury that you won't allow to heal?

(Personal anecdote: I thought that when I had gyp in my shoulder -- turned out to be rotator cuff impingement that took a long time to deal with. Grrr. It's a permanent weak link now and a limit on various other activities.)

Seriously, one of the most miserable, sad people I ever knew was a former very talented musician with arthritis. I gather that's an important part of your life -- you're young and have many years to grow big muscles/big lifts, but joint damage can be really hard to heal or reverse. How are you going to be practicing and playing for long periods in your 30s and 40s if this pain gets worse and turns into a chronic problem?

I think you have to consider the possibility that your body and hindbrain are sending you messages you shouldn't ignore. Rather than asking for advice on staying motivated you should be seeking professional help for your elbow pain.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:10 PM on July 21, 2009

PS: apologies for the hectoring tone if you are in fact taking medical advice but didn't mention it.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:20 PM on July 21, 2009

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