Respect the Bar: Strength Training Psychology

Respect the Bar: Strength Training Psychology
Respect the Bar: Strength Training Psychology

By Riley Gould

When participating in a structured exercise program/routine, you may find yourself absolutely killing it some days and barely holding it together on others. You’re not alone, as this can be a common occurrence during all modalities of training from lower intensity cardio-based efforts through to explosive weight lifting efforts (Olympic lifting). Does this mean that a higher perception of effort on your ‘off’ days, necessarily result in your quantitative measures (running times, weight lifted) reducing along with it? This article will discuss the psychological factors which may affect performance, in particular strength and power based exercise, and strategies which you can implement to improve your training and testing outcomes.

Firstly we have to discuss ‘Respect the bar’, which is terminology that can be used to summarize an individual’s mindset before, during and after a weighted lift. To simplify this even further, when you are lifting a heavy external load (weighted barbell) you should only be thinking of the lift itself and what you need to perform to complete it, not what you are going to cook for dinner or the workload waiting for you at the office. Now, this may seem like an easy enough concept to implement, however eliminating external influences can sometimes prove to be quiet difficult, resulting in decreases in performance or even injury. In fact, being distracted during your lift may result in decreases of peak force production up to 10-11% (less weight lifted), while adequate mental preparation can result in peak force production increases up to 8% [3].

Your ability to respect the bar is greatly influenced by your mental preparation before even setting foot inside the gym. The mental preparation I refer to is the stage of psyching yourself up for the entire session rather than an individual lift within the session itself. Being able to identify the factors which negatively influence your mental preparation, and implement strategies to combat them will help put you in the right mindset to perform heavy or explosive lifts.

Identifying which factors influence your mental preparation may not always be straight forward, and require further discussion with your coach to discover just what affects you. That being said, research has found some common factors reported by strength trained athletes [1]. These factors (below) are listed and ranked for their influence in both training and at competition (testing).

Confounding Factor During Strength Training At Competitions or Testing
Emotional Stress (excitement, bad mood) 4 1
Physical Fatigue 2 7
Refereeing (assessment of participant readiness, judging rep depth) 5
Geographical Conditions (change in climate, cold & heat) 8 8
Level of competition (ability of competition or training partner) 3
Mechanical interference (problems with equipment) 5 4
Sound effects (phone calls, music, foreign talk) 7 10
Previous injury 1 2
Social factors (home or work problems) 3 6
The human factor (presence of strangers, watchful eyes) 6 9

Note the change in ranking between training and competition as this will be referred to later in the article. Now these ranks may change depending on the individual, and even then depending on your current situation (physical or emotional), the ranks can continuously alter. Therefore, it is essential that you know a number of strategies to combat any of the above factors if there is any possibility that it may affect your mental preparation. Further research was performed to help develop effective strategies (see below) which can combat these mental distractions [2]. Again these are ranked from the most to least influential in promoting a strong mental preparation.

Ways to Overcome Confounding Factors Rank
Selection of training partner (more experienced, successful, congenial, similar training objectives) 4
Altering training methods (periodisation, training time of day, or mode) 6
Coach’s assistant (analysis of approaches to mental preparation, verbal cues and feedback) 1
Medication 7
Instructional techniques (visualization of success, pre-routine) 3
Home like behaviour (nutrition, socializing, communication with spouse) 9
Social isolation (time to self, relax from external factors) 5
Selective communication (choose appropriate peers to communicate with, experienced in similar training) 8
Mental attitude (develop a routine, being alert) 2

There is one point in the table above, ‘instructional techniques’ which requires a little bit of extra attention. This strategy can become quite a significant factor when completing competition or testing lifts compared to your weekly training. What I am referring to here is your pre-routine before completing a 1RM (personal record’s) lift. Being mentally prepared for your session is one thing, however that can all fly out the window if you do not approach your heavy lift with ‘respect to the bar’.  Before the lift, you shouldn’t be thinking of anything but the lift, and develop a pre-routine of rehearsing the important cue points of the lift. Understand that the bar will be heavy, however have the confidence that you can lift it as long as you focus on what you need to do to move it from point A to point B.


Performing a 1RM squat

  • Thinking about cue points before the lift (knee’s out, chest tall, breath hold, push hips forward as you stand, weight through heels, lock hips out).
  • Approach the bar, only thinking of the lift (eliminate external distractions).
  • When un-racking the weight, treat it as a squat rep (don’t pick it up with staggered feet or half braced torso).
  • Understand the weight will be heavy, but be confident with it (once I hear ‘shit that’s heavy’, the lift is already over).
  • Small steps back into position, listen to your spotter.
  • Perform the squat (don’t stop lifting).
  • Small steps to guide it into the rack (spotter will help, don’t race it back into the rack).

This may seem like a long process on paper, however it is quiet quick and autonomous if developed during early stages of training. Practice these methods when first developing your primal lifts, as this process should not be thought of as a check list by the time you complete your first round of testing. It should be automatic!

The psychology behind completing heavy strength training or powerful lifts is often overlooked until 30 seconds before it is performed, rather than a holistic approach to your training session. As you can see however, there are definitely grounds to implement it as a part of your strength training program. Now I am not saying spend 15 minutes at the start of your session meditating, but if you find yourself quiet lethargic in your training or lagging behind in your big lifts (testing), look at the possibility of possible distractions during your session or your behavior/routines leading into your sessions. These are quite simple alterations in the way you approach your sessions which can lead to significant increases in training or testing performance.

Reference List

  1. Ljdokova, G. M., Razzhivin, O. A., & Volkova, K. R. (2014). Confounding factors in sport activities of powerlifters. Life Science Journal , 11 (8), 410-413.
  2. Ljdokova, G. M., Razzhivin, O. A., & Volkova, K. R. (2014). Ways to overcome confounding factors in powerlifters’ training workouts. Life Science Journal , 11 (11), 481-484.
  3. Tod, D. A., Iredale, F. K., Mcguian, M. R., Strange, D. E., & Gill, N. (2005). “PSYCHING-UP” ENHANCES FORCE PRODUCTION DURING THE BENCH PRESS EXERCISE. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research , 19 (3), 710.

Comments (2)
  1. Colleen Ginty Reply

    Great article thanks Ryles .. just what I needed to read! I find it interesting that medication is one of the ways to overcome confounding factors.. Do you think adding a grunt here and there helps with the physc 🙂

    1. Hammer Athletic Reply

      Most definitely!

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