It has been well noted that powerlifting is every bit a mental sport as it is a physical sport. You must have your mind dialed in with imagery, but you also need to understand arousal.
What is Arousal?
Well, while it does sound like an overture, it simply is your level of “upness.” Some people call it psyched up, some call it jacked up, and some call it pumped up. Whatever it is, it is an up. Many people think all they have to do is get more “up,” and they’ll be able to lift more weight. If they can get into some raging, bull fury, they’ll be able to summon their inner demons and get some ungodly PR.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work that way.
The Inverted U Theory
Let me introduce you to something new—the inverted U theory. Essentially, what this says is that there is a zone, or optimal level of arousal, for each lifter on each lift. If you aren't up enough or you're under aroused, you can’t summon the intensity and motor recruitment needed to perform optimally.
Conversely, if you're too up, you don’t properly recruit the muscles, you lose your technique, and you don't perform optimally.
These things vary by person and vary by person for each lift. They also vary by person over a lifetime. As an example, I'll use my own lackluster powerlifting career.
For the squat, it seemed like I was just meant to squat. I never had to think about it. It was a natural exercise for me. I found that I had the ability to become very aroused and achieve bigger and bigger lifts. However, there would come a point, a near blind rage, where I would lose all technique, and something goofy would happen. I would be moving the bar up rapidly and just hit a wall, fall forward, or fall back. I blamed various things like my gear, but in all honesty, it was me, my mind.
With the bench press, I wasn't a natural. It came very slowly and it was difficult for me, even though I was built for benching (short arms and a barrel chest). I had to approach the bar in a very calm manner. I would come up calm, cool, and collected. Sometimes people wouldn’t get out of my way because they didn’t realize that I was Bryan Mann, the guy who was supposed to be on the platform right then. It even got to the point where my friends saw how I was on squats and thought I was just tired and couldn’t do it.
One time, a good friend of mine, Matt Reynolds, who is the owner of STRONG GYM in Springfield, Missouri, screamed at me trying to help me out while I was setting up. I looked over at him and said, “Matt, would you shut the hell up so that I can bench.” I found that if I got even slightly over-aroused for the bench, I wouldn’t be able to recruit properly and I'd shoot the bar over my face. For the squat, I was very up. For the bench press, I was very focused.
For the deadlift, I was somewhere in between. I would be bouncing around but nothing extreme.
Heavy Metal Vs. Classical Music
Different people will have different levels of optimal arousal. For someone who is always listening to heavy metal and head banging, he quite possibly will be able to have a higher level of arousal for optimal performance. In contrast, someone who listens to classical music may have quite the opposite.
Things may change over a person’s career. As you become better and better at an exercise, your technique will become more natural. The more natural the technique, the less you have to think about it during a maximal attempt and your focus doesn’t need to remain completely on this. When you groove the lift, you have the ability to possibly gain a higher level of arousal and reach a new level of performance. This isn't to say that it becomes a linear relationship. Far from it. Now, the place to examine the ability for a higher arousal level and higher performance level won't be at the meet—it will be at the gym. Never play with something on meet day. There's too much at stake.
Gear and Arousal
Something else that will affect arousal level is the use of gear. Unless you consistently train in gear, you won't have the same skill level with it that you do in your raw lifting. This will require a gain in skill before you can return to higher levels of arousal to achieve your highest possible performance.
For any given person on any given day with any given set of conditions for any given task, there is an optimal arousal. The key is finding what that level is for you and getting there consistently to be the best competitor that you can be.
Originally published in March of 2013