What do you think when you lift?
What goes through your head?
It can, and does, make or break a lift, a set, a training session.
There’s usually a fair bit of chit chat amongst coaches online regarding internal vs external focus. People argue that one is better than the other, research states one is better than the other.
But like all things human animal related, the truth is rarely black and white.
Here’s a few of my own views based on my experience as both a dude who trains and a Coach to many people across a range of walks of life.
I’ve talked a lot about how a warm up sequence can be likened to the way an NLP practitioner sets triggers in their clients. Kind of like “if THIS, then THAT” where if “this” thing happens then it will be followed by “that" thing
Look up the Freerunner Dom “Tomato” Di Tomasso and the way he preps for his extreme stunts. He has a little ritual where he counts down, “3…2….1…” once he says “1” he will not back out, he is going.
If you're not familiar with the Tomato, watch this:
Look across the world of high level sports and this is a common thing you’ll see, top level performers with little rituals, triggers for the next action, that action being the sport skill itself.
Look up former English Rugby international Jonny Wilkinson lining up for a kick, in the time I watched this fascinating player, he NEVER deviated from this routine, and he is rated as one of the best in the business.
Here's a compilation video of Rugby kicks, Wilkinson is the first shown:
Look up record breaking Deadlifter Andy Bolton pulsing his hamstrings 3 times before he deadlifts.
This is his world record where he became the first man to lift >1000lb (since beaten)
What’s your favourite sport? I bet you’ll see some kind of ritual from at least one player.
In the gym, the warm up sequence can be that trigger.
It’s why I have my competitive athletes standardise their warm ups in the weeks running up to an event. We take time dialling in a sequence, then once we find the best version, they stick with it until it becomes a trigger.
Now, what about the lift itself?
Pre lift we can really do a number talking ourselves into succeeding or failing at the lift. Our job then is to talk ourselves into success.
We have space pre lift to run a script, to set the mind right.
Because once we start, that space reduces to near zero.
Pre lift, run a checklist.
“Set the feet, big chest, inhale, get tight, grip, tense, pull!”
This checklist is the voice in head playing coach, it’s saying the things I might be saying to you if I were there with you.
You can include something from the last set, for example, if your stance felt a bit wrong, you can adjust it in this set.
Then as you lift, it’s one rep, one thought.
That one thought can change each rep, or it may be best to keep that single thought through the whole set.
It might be “chest up”
It might be “keep tight”
It might be ”push through the heels”
It all depends on the lift you're doing and the intention for doing said lift.
If it’s Kettlebell Sport, you have a long time to talk to yourself.
In minute 1, you might be thinking “slow down, maintain pace”
Minute 2 might switch to “relax the legs, relax the face”
Minute 3 could be “just fucking breathe!”
What about internal vs external focus?
Again, it changes depending on the lift in question and the intention behind doing that lift.
A heavy effort, say a sub 5 rep / 30 second effort, it is clearly an external focus that helps.
Looking where you want to finish, Focussing on the ground reaction force are both external focus examples. You tend to go where you look, the brain frees up resources for you to reach that target if it is just within reach.
So look up on a pull up, eyes up on a deadlift.
Maybe pressing the ground away is a better way for you to think about the squat, bending the bar on a bench press, and so on.
But on longer sets, internal focus becomes more important.
Snatching a kettlebell for high double or even triple figures requires relaxation, requires weight shifting to counterbalance the bell.
It requires good breath control.
Watch Dennis Vasilev here:
It becomes almost meditative in application as you cut out the outside world and focus internally.
External focus is great for short, high intensity efforts, internal for longer, lower intensity sets.
But what doesn’t change is the pre lift
Run that checklist, tick off all the boxes as you do so.
I've been at this a looong time now, and everytime I touch a barbell, I still run my checklist. Before each set of Kettlebell Long Cycle, I run a quick checklist and set my target focus for this upcoming set.
The more you get involved in your own training, the greater success you will achieve.
It is a conscious effort.
But that’s what helps the mind become as strong as your body.