Bodybuilding 101: The Psychology of Weightlifting
With some knowledge of the psychology of bodybuilding, you can take your workout to a whole new level.
That’s my experience, at least.
I first tried Bodybuilding For Beginners and gave up after one hour of torturing myself on my bedroom floor. A YouTube video was next; no fun. And the barbells, weights, kettlebells, dumbbells (and so forth) were too expensive.
Finally, I signed up for some YMCA classes – BodySculpt and Les Mills BodyBuilding – and loved them. Exercising with a group of nine adults, cavorting to the music, looking out of the window at the Tuckahoe woods while flailing on the yoga mat was stimulating. After leaving the classes, somehow the air smelled sweeter. I found my writer’s cramp had disappeared.
While most kinesiologists focus on the biosciences – the hows and physiological whys of the sport – there’s scarce to little on the social sciences – the mental aspect, or psychology, behind the sport.
And yet according to none other than the former president of the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF), Dr. Tamás Aján, it’s your mindset that mostly helps you succeed in building more muscle, losing fat, or just continuing with your workouts.
The Psychology of Training
Punishments & Rewards
People motivate themselves through approach or avoidance goals.
According to recent 2020 research, most people prompted to weightlift do so for the following three reasons. They want to:
- Lower their stress
- Increase their self-esteem
- Boost their mood and as a personal challenge
Other people motivate themselves by listing the worst-case scenarios if they don’t exercise. Dying from heart disease, for one – the number one killer in America.
For me, it was feeling my wrist cramp after 13 hours of straight typing. This is called “writer’s cramp,” which, if it continued, would need surgery. Bodybuilding exercises, I read, could cure it. And cure it it did.
So there’s this pain aspect: knowing what will transpire if we don’t exercise. According to Freud’s “pleasure principle,” avoiding pain is much more motivating than gaining pleasure.
There’s also the pleasurable aspect, converting this horror of a “workout” into something that attracts us. Like knowing it will improve our mental and physical health.
Triggers & small steps
That reminds me of a client who was not only hugely out of shape, but also an alcoholic. Today, that man owns a seven-figure coaching company and lives a life that he tells me he’s proud of.
How did he do it?
Through small steps.
- The man pin-pointed why he wanted to explore bodybuilding. What were his goals? Was it to become a bodybuilder, to get healthy, or to look better to pick up girls? He wrote down how his perfect life would look after a year of persistent bodybuilding. He also wrote down the potential results of inaction.
- He selected the 80/20 habits for the top changes that would make the greatest difference in his practice. He signed up for daily classes at a local gym. He ate enough protein and kept a nutritious diet. He also made sure to get eight to nine hours of sleep each night.
- During his first month of practice, the man chose one habit off of his list and, reducing it to its smallest elements, gave each piece a trigger. For example, the man decided to do a regular LesMills BodyBuilding morning class at his local gym. He’d set his sneakers and water bottle outside his door in the evening as his trigger for the gym first thing in the morning.
- He’d make that habit super easy. So instead of attending the full session six days a week that first month, he chose the easiest day of his week, Sunday, to attend only a 30-minute session.
- He’d do this one class regularly for a month. Each month, he’d increase his attendance to another class, until, by the end of six months, he was attending a 45-minute session each day.
The formula of Ability + Trigger + Motivation
For bodybuilder Wilfredo of the WilfredoFitness website, the psychology of Bodybuilding 101 is simple. Flip “habit” into a science of never missing a workout and you’re on the treadmill to success.
“First off,” Wilfredo says, “you’ve probably been using the word ‘habit’ wrong. Many people think of a habit as something you do repeatedly. That’s actually not true.”
Wilfredo talks about connecting bodybuilding habits to contextual cues – an idea that bounces off Fogg’s Behavioral Model. This psychological model says that habits are a formula of Ability + Trigger + Motivation.
- Ability - You must have the ability to do the behavior.
- Trigger - You have to be triggered, or prompted, to do the behavior
- Motivation - You have to be motivated to change the behavior, or persist with your new habit.
Returning to my client who progressed from alcoholism to running his own fitness center, this man’s trigger for his weightlifting classes was placing his sneakers and water bottle by the door. This contextual cue reminded him of his appointment at the gym. He had the ability to weightlift. All he needed was the motivation. And his motivation started with the first step – the trigger.
Wilfredo suggests you can also trigger your behavior by connecting your workout class with contextual cues – namely, by stringing it to a certain period in your day.
- Go immediately after waking up.
- Go immediately after breakfast.
- Go immediately after work.
- Go after watching a motivational video.
Goggins’ “40% Rule”
For many people, hacks don’t help.
That was the experience of David Goggins, who transformed himself from a depressed, overweight young man with no future into a U.S. Armed Forces icon and one of the world’s top endurance athletes. Goggins acknowledges that for self-transformation, which includes bodybuilding, there’s only one item that works. And that’s self-discipline.
Goggins “40% Rule” for “running towards the dragon, not away from it” includes the following steps:
- Do one thing daily that takes you outside your comfort zone. Friction fuels you.
- Visualize overcoming your obstacles.
- Mentally imagine someone you’d like to impress with your new persona.
- Reach your pain/ exhaustion limit and push just 1% beyond that.
- Monitor your current schedule. Build an optimal schedule and analyze whether you’re following it.
- List each tiny step of your goals on, say, post-it notes that you paste, for example, on your mirror, and as you achieve each step, remove that particular note.
“I don’t stop when I’m tired, I stop when I’m done.” (David Goggins)
The Psychology of practice
Weightlifting is a mental conviction: You’re Batman
Had I ever imagined I’d be lifting dumbbells weighing ten, twelve, and 20 pounds just 12 weeks from starting, I would have thought myself delusional.
You see, 20 pounds sounds heavy. That’s my mental correlation. But if I change the contextual association of heaviness to 30 pounds, 20 pounds seems light in comparison and loses its power to tire or overwhelm me. My mental mindset powers my mood, and, in turn, my actions.
That’s also the experience of Dresdin Archibald, an Olympic weightlifting, strength and conditioning coach based in Canada. When Archibald describes what kinesiologists do, he tells readers:
Look at any coaching manual or even the coaching courses. There is ample material on technique and programming, reps and sets, and equipment, but often the abstract concept of mental conditioning is barely mentioned... Lifters arrive in great physical condition but then fizzle. Form breaks down on the platform and the coach is right there with "you didn't extend enough" or "you backed away from the bar" or whatever. In most cases the lifter knows what he did was wrong. The block is his mental conditioning.
Archibald’s solution? Imagine yourself as Batman. Better still, become Batman.
When Archibald’s lifter Arron catapults himself over the bar he’s no longer simply Arron. Nah, he’s become Batman in spandex. That’s because Arron imagines himself as a superhero in spandex tights and a cape, which gives him that extra jolt to head up and over the bar.
Research shows that when students imagine themselves to be mathematics professors they whiz their maths tests.
Why not imagine yourself as Superman or Superwoman and swing that bar? Would Superwomen be afraid of that weight? No way!
When you grab a bar, imagine that you’re a superhero or power animal, like a gorilla or giraffe, and lift more weight.
Fake it till you make it
If imagining doesn’t do the trick, there’s the psychological hack of “fake it till you make it.” In other words, go through the motions. Increasing those pounds, dumbbell by dumbbell, helps you see: “Hey, ten pounds is not as heavy as I thought it was two months ago. I can do it now!”
That was my experience with the LesMills BodyBuilding class, which made my regular Body Sculpting class seem like kindergarten. I felt like a four-foot Charlie Brown in a DC Comics superhero movie. All those scrawny, tattooed six-foot adults flinging themselves on the floor and vaulting barbells loaded with aggregated weights of 10, 12, 18, even 30 pounds on each end over their heads. They jumped, did lift-ups, bobbed up and down, and finally flopped on the floor like gasping goldfish.
I’ve yet to repeat the class, but it was good for me because it stimulated me. During my next workout, I reached for a heavier weight and felt motivated and energized.
- Lesson 1: To keep the stimulation, raise the bar (or barbell). Increase the weights. Make it more stimulating.
- Lesson 2: “I have always thought that you lift as you live (and think).” (Archibald)
The Psychology of Focus
In their book Weightlifting: Fitness for All Sports, Dr. Tamás Aján and Romanian coach Lazar Baroga give three psychological heuristics for bodybuilding success:
- The ability to keep calm despite high stress.
- The ability to concentrate.
- The ability to persevere.
Bodybuilding success, the authors summarize, reduces to mindset.
Successful weightlifters are able to concentrate to the extent they can block out external as well as internal noise.
On the last, it’s all these voices inside our heads that tell us stuff like, “Those weights are heavy,” “I’m tired,” or, “I’m a wimp compared to the others. They’re amazing!”
Unfortunately, we can always rely on this Johnny-on-the-spot critic to be perpetually around. It only retires when we fire it and replace it with positive voices.
According to Edward Smith in Not Just Pumping Iron, the four parts of a lifter’s psych-up are centering, charging, grounding, and discharging. Each of these stages has its own abysmal mental clutter. To cope with the clutter – or to transform it into positive voices – Dresdin Archibald suggests that nothing helps as much as throwing ourselves in Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow”.
Legendary psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s famous investigations of “optimal experience” show that what makes an experience genuinely satisfying is a state of consciousness called flow. During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life.
For a bodybuilder, flow, according to bodylifting Olympics coach Dresdin Archibald, can be achieved through modulated breathing and by focusing on that breath:
“A weightlifter needs concentration for a great effort done in a second or two, all with correct form.”
How can you as the weightlifter achieve this focus?
The Psychology of Focus
The practice of bodybuilding demands perseverance.
One person who’s an expert at that is Michał Stawicki, Habits coach on Coach.me. Michal perseveres by “streaking” habits on a 12-month at-a-glance wall calendar, where he strikes through day after day of a specific habit, testing how long he persists.
This method is also called “don’t break the chain” and is especially important with new habits to encourage us to get used to them.
“My habits,” Stawicki tells me, “are ingrained into my days and into the core of who I am. In the last 1015 days I reviewed my personal mission statement 1008 times, I did my pushups 1007 times and read Catholic Saints’ works 1010 times. An occasional hiccup means nothing. My streaks helped me to build my habits to the point where they are me.”
We can use this “streaking” method for our body lifting challenge – to persevere in our practice. We can also replace traditional wall calendars with Trello or some online productive habits trackers or apps.
How do we deal with failure, like setbacks in our practice or lost weightlifting competitions?
Scientific studies show it’s the optimistic rather than the pessimistic athletes who win. The optimists consider setbacks temporary. They also tend to be more self-efficacious. They tell themselves stuff like: “The effort depends on me. So I failed this time. If I work at it, I’ll succeed next.”
They have an internal, rather than an external, locus of control. Rather than blaming their coach or environments for their failure, they turn inward and strategize how to improve. They also screen their defeats for lessons on how they can succeed next time. Optimistic athletes recover well.
That said, fear of failure could help us too:
I'm here to tell you that the fear of failure is the engine that has driven me throughout my entire life. It flies in the faces of all these sports psychologists who say you have to let go of your fears to be successful and that negative thoughts will diminish performance. (Jerry Rice, Hall of Fame speech)
Bodybuilding 101 all comes down to mindset.
In the words of Dresdin Archibald, “Success comes not via ‘better lifting through chemistry’ but simply ‘better lifting through thinking.’”
That was Schwartzenegger’s muscle-building strategy too: 100 percent mental.