There have long been 2 completely separate worlds within the health & fitness field. You have the free-thinking mind-body types who lean toward holistic and often spiritual practices like yoga, and then you have the crowd that prefers the Western science approach and lean more toward a purely physical and highly mechanical approach to exercise. Both sides have valuable things to bring to the table, but luckily you don’t have to pick a side because it’s very possible to merge the best of both worlds. The 3 practices below are at the top of my list when it comes to integrating mental / mind-body practices into your physical training program, and I’ve also included 1 bonus practice that backfires for many people based on popular teachings…
1. Harnessing Relaxation within Intense Activity
This is the very first lesson that I teach every new client when they come in for their first workout (after having already done a consultation / assessment of course). You could say that this is the base that everything else is built from when it comes to efficient, effective movement. The best part is, the most effective approach that I’ve developed for this is remarkably simple and revolves around 1 single cue.
The irony of trying to harness relaxation within intensity is that the more effort you put into achieving this, the MORE tension you create – exactly the opposite of the goal. Imagine trying to follow 10 cues at once during an exercise and you’ll feel pretty quickly that there is no way to do this without some straining and awkwardness. By simply focusing on allowing your face to stay relaxed and your breathing to never stop, all of the other things just fall into place. If someone is straining and over-tensing, their face is guaranteed to show it, and to the contrary, if their face is relaxed then you can bet that they are moving more efficiently, When this happens, the breathing naturally takes care of itself because you can’t hold your breath without straining your face. So with a single cue, keep the face relaxed, we can monitor and eliminate excess tension in a way that is both easy to perform and easy for the me, the trainer / coach, to watch for and re-cue as necessary.
I won’t go too far into meditation because I could easily end up going off on a tangent and writing 10 pages, but this is a powerful practice that provides benefits so wide-ranging that it could help for just about anything – fitness, stress, anxiety, happiness, business success – you name it, meditation can help. We all accumulate stress every day, but most of us don’t have daily rituals to RELEASE that stress and prevent it from building up. That’s where meditation comes in… Techniques such as the one I covered above are fantastic for improving performance and relaxation within the moment, but meditation is the long-term strategy to compliment this. The less stress & tension you BEGIN with, the higher you can push your intensity without losing the ability to stay calm and relaxed.
Not only this, but the less stress you are under, the better you will recover. Under stress, your body releases the hormone cortisol, which can seriously harm your ability to recover between training bouts and especially your ability to build muscle. This makes overtraining MUCH more likely because overtraining is less about how much training volume you are under and more about the relationship between your training volume/intensity and your recovery. A person who has double the recovery capacity could train twice as hard before overtraining, so recovery becomes more and more important for more advanced training protocols.
3. A More Effective (and Realistic) Application of Will Power
I’m a big proponent of focusing on process-oriented goals (rather than outcome-oriented goals) because it allows you to stay in the moment and focus on what will actually CREATE the results you desire. But, even for people who DO focus on process-oriented goals, they often end up overwhelmed by trying to focus on too many lifestyle changes at once, and they over-estimate the role of will power. When many people see extremely fit individuals or high-performing athletes, they often assume that they have incredible will power to stick to their training and nutrition. The truth is, will power is very temporary and will never be enough to create a long-term lifestyle change if you spread it too thin.
High-performing individuals get to where they are by developing one habit at a time over a long period of time. Even for coaches, it can be easy to forget how long it took us to get to where we are now, and we can be in such a rush to help a client reach their goals quickly that we overwhelm them and get NO progress or very limited results. Here’s where the REAL role of will power comes in. By honing all available will power on ONE new habit, the chance of sticking to it long enough for it to become automatic is dramatically higher. Then, once it becomes a habit, it no longer requires will power. Since this frees up our limited resource of will power that was used to create that habit, it can now be re-directed to the next new habit. The people who dive in too quickly and try to make too many changes at once MIGHT be able to sustain that long enough to get some impressive short term improvement, but they are rarely the ones that compound those changes over time and become long-term high achievers.
BONUS: How Positive Self-Talk Can Backfire
Positive self-talk & affirmations are a very common practice taught in not only sports psychology, but across all realms of psychology and personal development. The short explanation of why it works is because it helps you to change your subconscious beliefs on a given subject (after all, your beliefs are essentially just thoughts that have been given enough repetition to be automatic) – and since your actions are simply a reflection of your beliefs, then you can change your actions by “targeting the roots” of those actions. In my experience and studies, I’ve found one primary problem with the way most people practice this approach to behavior change. As a result, most people who attempt to utilize it either fail or create the OPPOSITE effect.
The traditional approach that I’m referring to is the mental (or even aloud) repetition of complete-sentence affirmation phrases, such as “I am strong and confident” or “I train hard every day and remain consistent” (always worded in the present tense, otherwise your mind relates to them always being in the future and never NOW). This is all well and good if it helps you to eventually believe these phrases, but here’s how it tends to backfire… Let’s say you mentally say “I am strong and confident”, 2 qualities that you are trying to build belief in. If you don’t ALREADY believe this statement to be true, then repeating this phrase will likely lead to doubt and other statements to yourself, such as “no I’m not”, or even just the FEELING of not believing what you are saying. So now you are robotically repeating a phrase and creating thoughts and feelings that reinforce the exact opposite of what you are trying to instill, and you become LESS confident rather than more.
The method of self-talk that I recommend and practice instead is not only more effective, but it’s actually even simpler. Rather than trying to craft the perfect phrase to instill a subconscious reaction, you just focus on the CONCEPT of what you want to develop more of. So in the example above, you could simply concentrate on the single word and idea of “strength”. This puts you into a mental state of feeling and resonating with the idea of strength, without giving you any reason to respond in opposition to it. There is no statement to be agreed with or disagreed with, it’s just about putting you into a mindset of “strength” or any other idea that you want to develop and harness. Two great times to practice this approach to self-talk are either just before needing to perform (whether it be a workout, test, or presentation) or immediately after meditating, when the conscious mind is less active and less likely to “filter” based on your current limiting beliefs. Try spending just 2 minutes focusing on the idea of strength prior to a workout, and you’ll be amazed at the calm confidence and increased performance that results.