In bodybuilding as well as in the rest of our daily activities, we have what I call an optimal zone of functioning. Once in this zone, we can attain effective results with a minimal amount of stress and strain. The optimal training zone provides the base for consistent gains.
Achieving an optimal training zone requires less effort than many believe. An example is in order. Today's cars are designed and engineered so that their optimal zone of functioning is around 50 to 55 miles per hour. In this zone the car achieves good results (speed) with efficiency (good gas mileage) and little wear and tear on the parts. Sure, I can "push the pedal to the metal" and go 90 miles per hour. This is called a maximal level of functioning. At this speed I achieve better results (getting somewhere quicker), but with less fuel economy, more wear-and-tear on the parts, and an increased chance of having an accident or seeing those little red revolving lights in my rear-view mirror.
In our lifting we want to have an optimal level of functioning. In this zone we attain results by allowing our muscles to work together and recuperate fully. We need a sufficient amount of intensity to bring us up into this zone. If we fail to do this, we are not getting much out of our training and are really just going through the motions.
Once we are in this optimal zone of training we need to use just enough intensity so that we can remain in this zone. If we apply too much intensity, we will cross over a fine line that pushes us beyond this optimal zone so that we really work against ourselves. The trick to training intensity is to find out where you fine lives are and to stay just short of them. Something like this:
Trying Too Hard, Working Against Yourself
------------- fine line-----------------
Optimal Training Zone
Now, I do not want to give the impression that this optimal zone of training intensity is not demanding. Quite often this zone is very demanding and might approach 90% of a maximum effort. Once in this zone you can effectively and safely stimulate your muscles and give them a chance to strengthen. As your muscles strengthen over the course of weeks and months, you can progressively elevate this optimal zone higher and higher. This is the format of intelligent training.
Staying in your optimal training zone also helps you endure long workouts. It makes sense that the more efficient you are in your energy expenditures, the longer you can sustain your efforts. Lifters who exceed their optimal training zones by being too intense and trying too hard waste precious energy, so they have little of it at the end of the workout. Appropriate intensity means both focusing in as well as sustaining quality efforts.
Granted, there are times when you may want to push yourself beyond your optimal zone and give a maximum effort. However, it must be understood that your success in these maximal lifts depends on developing the strength, technique and resiliency from consistent training in optimal zones of functioning. A true max effort also implies that you will have to take some time out to recuperate and go back into your optimal zone so that you can build again.
Maximal efforts are challenging and exhilarating indicators of progress that cap off weeks of hard training. However, do not lose sight of the fact that maximal efforts are based on a series of consistent optimal efforts. Achieving these optimal zones of training provides you with the strength and balance to attempt maximal attempts.
Like our muscles, our concentration has various ranges of motion. Versatile and enduring concentration is dependent on being able to zoom in and out. At one end of the concentration spectrum is the narrow, pinpoint focus called ATTENTION. At the other end of the spectrum is the broad and expansive form of concentration called AWARENESS. Attention is more of an active process that expends energy in a directed way (for example, "paying attention"), while awareness is more of a receptive process that provides perspective and endurance (for example, "becoming aware"). Both attention and awareness are crucial in concentration during our workouts. We need to pay attention to the specific muscles being worked in order to achieve the best stimulation. However, we must also be aware of how one muscle group relates to another so we can achieve balance and proportion of effort.
At various times during our training we need to emphasize each form of concentration. For example, during a set I want to pay very specific attention to the muscles I am working so I can stay appropriately intense, giving optimal stimulation with minimal risk of injury. During warmups, breaks, evaluating my performance or physique, I would want to to be aware of the interplay between muscle groups to learn how they influence one another so I can improve my overall symmetry and efficiency of movement.
We can liken attention and awareness to a telephoto lens on a camera. Sometimes we need to zoom in to pick up specific details while other times we need to zoom out in order to take in the big picture. In the same way, we can zoom our concentration in and out to make it more adaptable, appropriate, enduring, and complete.
In bodybuilding and lifting, control is the name of the game. I am sure we have all seen novices of show-offs in the gym who quickly bang the weights down with a crash, thinking they are getting a good workout. During the bench press, for example, they strain to get the weight up and then drop the bar back down on their chest. The result is that instead of developing the shoulder girdle they get bruised and eventually injured.
These people do not understand that a muscle can be fully stimulated only by a series of controlled movements. Controlling the muscle effectively means that you have to concentrate exclusively on what you are doing. How can you control your muscles or the lift if you can't even control your own thinking? Effective concentration implies that you have to be in control.
Some advanced bodybuilders or lifters take this notion of control a couple of steps further so that they strive to tune in so fully with the muscles being worked or the lift itself that their consciousness is actually in those muscles or that lift. They get to the point where they identify so strongly with the muscles being worked or the lift that their identity is that muscle or that lift. This is the hallmark of lifting concentration.
Psychologists have a fancy name for this process. They call it locus of control. This essentially means that only you can influence you. You are the captain of your metaphorical lifting ship and only you can chart the course to your development.
Locus of control implies that no one can make you mad, distracted, frustrated, or even intense. You make yourself that way. Or you can allow someone -- or some thing -- else to do it to you. In either case, at some level of your consciousness you are deciding to allow other people or other things to influence you.
I do not have control of everything in the gym. I don not have control of the blaring music, the woman who is using the equipment I want to use, some idiot repeatedly banging the weights down, or other such distractions. However, I do have complete control of how I react to those distractions. I can allow myself to get all wrapped up in them, or I can tune in to the next set I need to perform.
Now, all of us become distracted at times. The important thing is to get back on course as quickly as possible. In this way, you can maximize what you can control, namely your muscles and your lifts.
On one hand, effective concentration is really tuning in to yourself to focus your mental and physical energies in an intense way. On the other hand, effective concentration is staying in charge of yourself and controlling what you can control.
The System of Concentrating
Okay, you now know more about concentration than you ever did before (or perhaps ever wanted to know!). The next step is effectively applying these concepts.
First, you must convince yourself of the necessity of concentrating during a workout. Sure, it takes a little more energy to concentrate as opposed to spacing out, becoming constantly distracted, or mindlessly going through the motions, but the results you achieve will be well worth it.
In order to help convince yourself of the necessity of concentration, ask yourself, "What do I go to the gym to do?" If your answer is "to have some fun" or "to meet people," fine, but don't expect to achieve steady gains. If your answer is, "to train," good, but realize that in order to maximize your time and energy while in the gym you have to concentrate on what you are there to do.
It's helpful to plan your workouts ahead of time and prepare to apply yourself intensely. As you are getting to the gym, changing, or warming up, start narrowing down your attention to what you want to accomplish. And then go about doing it.
Realize that your workouts will rarely go as planned and there will always be distractions. Get back on course as quickly as possible. By keeping your mind on the tasks at hand, you will soon find that you are getting better workouts in less time.
At first, concentrating for long periods of time may be difficult. Take heart in the fact that the more you exercise your concentration, the stronger and more sustained it will become. Sound familiar?
Continually focus your mental camera and zoom in (pay attention to specific muscle groups) or zoom out (become aware of the interrelationships between muscles and overall balance). Use your mental magnifying glass to focus your mental and physical energies so intensely that your muscles sizzle and your lifts are all crisp (as in, that 315 is toast, or, crisp, as in a high-weight snatch that seems take you along for the ride). Your workouts will then be more concentrated.
Review the key points below, which are essential to effective concentration. Put a check by the points you understand and put a star by those points you have to get a better handle on and practice.
_________ 1.) Remember that concentration is a narrowing of your mental focus.
_________2. ) Always be a Doer instead of a Tryer.
_________3.) Have specific plans for each training session. For example, plan for the specific muscle groups you want to work (or movements - push, pull, squat, press), the sequence of exercises you want to do, the sets and reps and specific techniques you want to use.
_________4.) Channel your intensity as you would direct the sun's rays through a magnifying glass.
_________5.) Stay within yourself.
_________6.) Learn what an optimal training zone is for you and stay within it. This is the only way to remain as intense near the end of your workout as you were in the beginning.
_________7.) Learn how to effectively zoom your concentration in and out between attention and awareness.
_________8.) Focus only on what you can control, specifically, your muscles and the next rep or attempt.
_________9.) Keep in mind that properly practicing your concentration will strengthen it, both in intensity as well as endurance.
Next: Staying Motivated
Fred R. Howell