Enhancing the most underused muscle

with No Comments


‘Train insane, or remain the same,’ ‘What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,’ ‘if you aren’t begging for rest, you aren’t doing your best’ – Any of these sound familiar?

If you’ve ever felt a little low on the motivation needed to get you into the gym, then at some point in your life, (yes, it’s okay to admit it,) you’ve probably googled ‘Gym Motivation’, ‘Motivational Quotes’ or even ‘Fitspo’.


You needed a spark, a fire lit in your belly, a swear-word filled slogan that acts as a childhood bully to stalk your safe, comfortable playground and force you to take the long road home. But there’s a problem here. Motivation is very rarely a permanent thing in your life. A characteristic of being human, is inevitably being down, feeling low, losing motivation which makes training feel like a chore; and whilst listening to C.T. Fletcher tell you to get your sh*t together because it’s still your motherf***ing set, may give you the kick you need, the flame eventual burns out, you’ve had enough, and unlike the realistic childhood bully in the playground, you can simply switch off C.T. and occupy your mind with something, shall we say, more PC.


There’s a logic behind this cliché and rather leading headline, however. Let’s take a standard 5×5 linear progression program, for example. Week 1, let’s squat 100kg for 5 sets of 5 reps. Your body adapts, your body grows, and your strength begins to increase. Week 2, you take 105kg for a spin. Great! You got 5×5 again. Week 3, 107.5kg, Week 4, 110kg etc. I’m sure we all know what’s going on here. This is the principal of progressive overload.


Over the course of x number of weeks, you expose your muscles to a certain load, volume or intensity and the next week increase it. This leads to muscle adaptation and growth, leaving you by the end of Week 12 with a new level of strength in the squat. Perfect!


This is pretty standard in the world of strength and aesthetic sports but why is it never applied to one of the most important, yet most underused muscle in our entire body – the brain? When we look at motivation, we usually follow this kind of pattern: we feel down, we watch a video, we get a surge of motivation, we go train, we come home and perhaps we feel great for the next 5 training days but by the 6th training day, we feel drained and tired and the whole cycle repeats itself. We can use quite a broad example to compare this: Take a coffee drinker, someone who enjoys one cup of Americano coffee to give them the kick they need to grind out the working day. If they continue to drink in the same way (1 shot of espresso in one cup of coffee per day) for a series of weeks their caffeine tolerance would increase due to bodily adaptation, therefore, they would need to increase the ‘load’ to perhaps, a double shot American or two Americanos a day and so forth. Eventually, there is such a high tolerance that the use of a cup of coffee for a caffeine pick-me-up ceases to provide the desired effect, we plateau and find only two options left are: drink more coffee and keep pushing the caffeine tolerance or suffer the plateau and feel sluggish without our extra kick. The caffeine stops working because it’s overused. But what do you do when your motivation stops working?


Utilising ‘Progressive Overload’ for the Brain

Using the term ‘progressive overload’ is perhaps, taking a leap, but for an athlete, thinking about our minds and brains as a muscle works to our benefit. Positivity is something that is today cringed at, it’s something we associate with hippies, yoga mat-toting soccer mums and gap year students who have spent a week in India and claim to know the meaning of life. It is in fact, a tool we as lifters may use in the same way as mobility work – Something that is beneficial to our performance but is rarely practiced enough. But fear not, I’m not proposing that we all switch to eating kale, walking around barefoot and connecting ourselves with Mother Gaia, what I am proposing, however, are ways in which we as athletes and sportspeople alike, can try simple ways of reworking our thinking to exercise and enhance the power of the mind.


Poor Environment

There’s a common saying that states: we are the average of the top five people we surround ourselves with. If we surround ourselves with negative, emotionally draining people then we are going to find ourselves burnt out and emotionally drained by association. This isn’t to say that we should ditch our angsty amigos, but rather, attempt to minimize their influence over our sporting life. This goes not only for the people we surround ourselves with, but the locations we chose to thrive in. If you’re in a gym where everybody acts with hostility toward each other (those Bodybuilders who are against Powerlifters who are against Weightlifters and everybody who is supposedly against Crossfitters, you know who you are), it’s likely that you’re going to attract this negative attitude too, which will inevitably leak into your own training. It’s a similar case in a gym where everybody is everybody’s best friend, nobody has boundaries, people talk to you mid-pause on a bench and you feel it only polite to smile and answer (not recommended unless you like to do the bench roll of death when the weight doesn’t go back up). This means you’re in conversation with every Tom, Franco and Arnold who passes your rack. Your 1.5-hour session turns into a 4 hour mother’s meeting which can be extremely stressful when we also have life outside the gym and we realise that we can’t spend 4 hours every day talking to our best gym buds. This section probably seems a bit counter-intuitive. The friendlier gym the better right? Right – Everybody needs a friendly environment, but if you’re someone who likes to train and works better alone, for therapeutic reasons or simply because you’re not the social butterfly that other people may be, this might not work for you. Therefore, choosing our environment is a crucial element to keeping our training sessions as relaxed and as efficient as possible. This is hard in the grand scheme of life-related things, we might not have access to the perfect gym or it might be right on our doorstep but cost £100 a month for membership, what we can do, however, is become aware of our environment and observe the way in which it affects our attitude and positivity, and be conscious that sometimes if a training session is going poorly, it’s not your fault, it’s because your chatty gym-bro friend wants to work in a conversation between every set.


Lack of Motivation

As mentioned above, it’s a part of us as human beings and particularly as members of this stress-filled 21st century society, to get demotivated. To put it simply – life happens. Let that be your mantra. Whether it be a stressful day at work, a family problem at home or you simply cannot be bothered to train, it is imperative that you do not let this dictate the remainder of your programme. Our handy ‘Train insane or remain the same’ outlook will tell you that regardless of personal problems, the gym should be our therapy. The gym should be where we go to blow off steam, to channel our aggression healthily and to crush the weights like we want to crush our problems (or perhaps our in-laws and exes). This is beneficial. This is extremely beneficial, in fact; if it works for you. Some days you’re going to be able to go to the gym fuelled by stress and agitation and that risky 120kg bench will fly up. Other days, our mind and body just don’t sync up. What is important and what is a more important mentality to adopt is one which allows us bad days.


So what do you do in this scenario? You arrive in the gym, start training despite the fact that everything is a bit of an effort and you really would rather be elsewhere, but ultimately, training isn’t acting as your therapy today, the fact you’re not in ‘the zone’ is making you feel worse than it is better, you just don’t want to be there. That’s fine. In these situations, something that we need to learn is not to bully ourselves into thinking that this training session is the be all and end all. It’s good to push through if you can, I’ve had several training sessions where I’ve not been in the mood, would have preferred to grab some easy dinner and just rest at home, but have had a better workout than regularly. But I’ve also had some days where I’ve been in tears training. Nothing felt right to being with and nothing went right as a result of it. Those training sessions are more demoralising than they are beneficial as therapy. What’s essential is becoming self-aware in these times. Noting if training ‘as therapy’ is making you feel worse and accepting that it is okay to take a step back and come back tomorrow. Mind-muscle connection isn’t just a technique for bodybuilders, it can be employed on all aspects of life. Listen to your muscles. Listen to your mind.


Bad Training Days

These types of days really go hand in hand with lack of motivation. If anything though, they’re worse. You go to the gym filled with energy, a plan, questionable amounts of caffeine – and something is still missing. Your bench pauses feel longer, you’re misgrooving weights that should easily be your warm-ups, you feel like a terrible lifter and then convince yourself that you are. I know these days all too well. The amount of times I’ve dug myself into a rut because I’m grinding out RPE5 warm-ups and they feel like RPE I’m-going-to-die. These are the days, where if you’re an emotional lifter like I so often find myself to be, you want to un-lever your belt and throw it across the room – perhaps you have. What we tend to do when we find ourselves in these situations where stress is being accumulated over the course of the workout until your breaking point, is delve into a process called catastrophising. This is when our thoughts spiral into the worst possible scenarios. Most commonly, these include I’m not a good lifter, why am I even bothering? I can’t even do this right and often, our brains also like to drag in elements from our personal life. I had a terrible mark on my last paper and now I can’t even lift 75% properly, I can’t do anything right! Self-awareness comes in here too. This is an approach that comes with great difficulty at first, but can be improved and developed upon until we reach a level of greater stress management; much like progressive overload.


It starts by observing your thoughts. This can seem useless to begin with because what are we really doing? I feel like a terrible lifter, okay, I observe that I feel like I feel like a terrible lifter, now what?


Now we attempt to rationalise.

  • I feel like I’m a terrible lifter.
  • I observe that I feel like I’m a terrible lifter.
  • Why? Because my training session feels awful today, I can’t even lift x% of my max!
  • But why? I’ve got a lot of external stress. My body is tighter than normal. I’m just not feeling my groove today.


The key word above is today. When we observe and recognise that a bad day is simply a bad day, we allow ourselves to recognise that these days come and these days go. One bad day out of seven does not equate to you being a poor lifter. You’re not going to lose your gains. You’re not going regress to back where you started.


It takes a lot to withdraw ourselves from our own minds and it takes a lot of practice for this to become habitual and to look at our lifting and mood behaviors objectively, but when we do, we become our own coach so to speak. If you have a coach, you probably submit videos of your lifts to them every session. They see the pattern of your lifting, they also see when you have bad days, they know your true capabilities. But unlike a coach, we only tend to see our bad days and we tend to exaggerate them far more than what is true and realistic.


Objectivity allows us to recognise that we are all trying our best to be the best lifters possible and it prevents us from letting a bad day become a bad week. Exercising kindness of the mind and self-compassion makes our brain more receptive to this kind of desired objectivity, and in a similar way to adding weight to your lifts each week, adding this type of practice to every bad session means that eventually we will all become more positive lifters and despite the reality that we are all going to have bad days, lack of motivation and imperfections that drag us down, we find them to be more manageable when we see them for what they really are – just bad days.



Friday 4th May 2018

Elis Harrington for Project Barbell

Elis Harrington is an undergraduate at Oxford University, -57kg powerlifter with Project Barbell, and former Captain of the Oxford Women’s Powerlifting Team.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.