What we do before we do “The Big Thing” in life matters. I use several examples to illustrate this. For the warm-up sets before the “real” training sets in a workout, I speak of packing for a trip. Just as the packing of your suitcase is not the vacation itself, if you fail to do it well, you will be without things that might make the whole experience more pleasant and rewarding.
So too, the warm-up for exercise needs to be done well, or the training will suffer. The packing is not the trip, nor is the warm-up. But each has an important function that contributes to success. If we expect a smooth trip, we need to think about packing the right stuff. And if we want a smooth, productive training session, we need to warm-up well.
Let's look at the things that come before "The Big Thing" and see how they relate to greater or lesser success. The reason I want to do this is that I want to highlight the connectedness of the entire process. This is often (almost always) overlooked. Let me make what I'm talking about clearer to you.
What is “The Big Thing” when we think about a max bench? When I ask this question, I mostly get the answer that “The Big Thing” is to push the bar from the chest to arm's length. That is ”the Big Thing” about benching that matters. I concur. But that is not the ONLY thing that matters. It is just the biggest and most obvious. But it is easy to see that other factors are involved to varying degrees that influence “The Big Thing.” They are connected, even though they aren't the big deal. They are like packing for the trip.
Let’s trace backward from pushing the bar off the chest and pay attention to how many things matter. Does the bar path down to the chest matter? Is it okay to let the bar drop and touch just anywhere? Or is the descent and control down to the touchpoint on the chest important if we want to begin right in our “groove?" Well, I can assure you that it is!
To continue down this road, does the speed of the descent matter? Does the tightness of the shoulders and the triceps matter? Does the grip matter? Does the foot placement, the arch, the chalk on the hands matter? Wrist wraps? Belt? Yes, yes, and yes, all the way back. If you mess up something in the setup, the chances for success go downward.
But how far back? Back to what? How far back from pushing the bar from the chest upward do we retrograde until it becomes unimportant? That is exactly the point I want to discuss!
I am going to argue that it should go back much farther than you may have originally thought. This is not a discourse on the law of Cause and Effect. But it is related. I want to highlight the connection that indeed exists where it is perhaps not so easy to see it.
I'll throw out some easy ones for you to agree with. Can you see the connection between the night’s sleep before the lift and how likely success will be? How about the things you had to eat in the meals prior? What about how stressful the workday was? Can you even see how the drive to the gym might be more or less stressful and thereby affect things? If you got a speeding ticket or a flat tire or even had a fender bender, I will bet it absolutely had a bearing on your lift! Contrast those events to a smooth, trafficless commute to the gym!
What I'm pointing out is that there are connections everywhere. Some are big and some only tiny, but they all add up! They all contribute in either a positive, negative, or neutral way. I believe that we categorize too many in the “neutral” category that doesn't belong there. We erroneously think that our drive to the gym has nothing to do with our training. I'm saying it does.
It is important to recognize what has an effect on us and what doesn't. But discounting things because of unawareness is a huge mistake. Why? Because many of these things are somewhat under our control! We can tip them in a positive way so that we enhance our chances of success. You CHOOSE your route to the gym! We will shortly return to this.
If things go well in your max bench attempt that day, you could be tempted to continue to ignore the connectedness I'm speaking about. Hey, if it isn't broken, why fix it? Okay. I'll agree. Sooner or later, you will load a bar up and get under it, and it is going to stall. If that never happens, then you aren't pushing yourself hard enough!
When it does, this concept becomes much more essential to grasp. And easier to see. Especially if it is one of those “barely missed it” misses! The ones that are just a hair away from getting past the stick. On those close ones, you have to evaluate why it is that you miss. If you made a big technique error or did something egregious, it is evident. But what about when you did everything right?
It is then that your mind goes into overdrive, assaying the situation. You analyze everything. Or do you? Do you ask yourself about the last night's sleep? Or your pre-workout mix? Or your relationship drama this week? Or do you stay focused only on what happened in the gym and during the lift proper? Do you really believe that “what happens in the gym stays in the gym”...and vice versa for life? Can you keep them separated? Really? I doubt it.
Can you see where I’m taking you? I want you to connect ANYTHING that might have cost you the fraction of a percent that was required. What was it? Who knows for sure. But if you make EVERY attempt to control as many things before “The Big Thing,” you know in your heart that you did all you could. There are no regrets that way. That is the best you could do.
But if you botched the dinner or breakfast before the session, well, perhaps if you had not...the lift would have been successful. Perhaps. But you blew your nutrition, so you are not sure if that could have been the ticket to victory or not. The answer is to recognize the things connected and concentrate on the ones you have something to say about.
It does no good to obsess over what lies outside of your control. But it makes perfect sense to me to hone in on the things that are in your grasp. Even the small ones! Why not? The only legit answer to not do so is if they absorb too much time or energy to be worthwhile. But most of the things are not in that category. They are easy, accessible, and well understood. Why do too many people ignore them? Lazy, I guess. Unaware, perhaps.
This concept is the most applicable to single rep max attempts. Often in set work, you can “muscle it” or try harder. But there is no such thing as trying harder when you are at your max. So if a miss occurs, it could have been lots of things together, one colossal mess up, or maybe just one single, solitary, tiny thing that held you back. I am advocating that we erase all those tiny things. But we must recognize them and see their connection first.
This can be very overwhelming if we go TOO FAR. I'm not advocating that we must try to influence absolutely everything. I did, but I was facing a World Record that did not want to be broken! I was ready to trace things back to my mother's womb if they could have been corrected or influenced to give me an edge! But what I am telling you is that you should look a little further back than you may have thought necessary. How far? You decide. If you want a lift bad enough, it won't be a problem. Go farther than your setup, your pre-workout drink, and the hour before training.
Now that you have decided how far back to go, and let go of all the things you can't control, let's talk about setting up a RITUAL.
The value of rituals is well known. But in my mind, one of the highest benefits is that by establishing a ritual, the body AND THE MIND will learn it and respond AUTOMATICALLY. By doing the same thing every time before a max lift, the entire system knows what is about to happen...and it gets ready for you! The physiological responses are easy to prove. Heart rate goes up, blood rushes through vasodilated vessels to the muscles, breathing gets deeper and faster, pupils dilate, and the rest of the response that you all have heard of before.
But the same holds true for the mind. It has changes that are not so easy to measure or see. But they happen. Attention narrows, awareness of important factors go up, and zeros in on the task. This happens so much so that some things are completely ignored! Some people don't even notice a bleeding scratch or wound until the event is over! Needless to say, there are many pluses to this “peaking” of mental acuity. In a word,...you want this!
And if you have a pattern of ritual, you train the mind and body to prepare themselves for you. It is great. You just follow the ritual, and the organism gets in line. Often a half step ahead of you! This is exactly the subconscious reaction you want. You want it all to become rote. Automatic. Ingrained. Trained in.
It happens all by itself...almost.
The ritual you choose is relatively unimportant. Tying your shoes extra tight, okay. Visualization, fine. Prayer, alright. Anything that you can repeat over and over. Here is the caveat; if it is too complex or time-consuming, it can become a bane instead of a boon. You want something that is your style, but also not too complicated. If you spend energy on the ritual needed later for the iron…you misunderstand. This goes back to knowing the packing for the trip isn't the vacation! Please don't spend your wad on the packing… save it for the trip!
There is no wrong way. Just efficient and less efficient ways. Do it your way. Music was a huge part of my ritual, as was breathing and meditation. Mine was very long. But I enjoyed every minute of it. It was no burden. It was a groove. Mine lasted hours...plural. Because I liked it, not because I needed it. But if I needed to, I could flip the switch in an instant. I preferred a long ritual. My warm-up in the gym before my first big lift was an hour. My ritual outside the gym was longer. But there is no reason that it needs to be. I chose that. You can do yours in 15 minutes if you like. I liked the feeling of purposefulness that being in my zone gave me. It felt good to me. So it was long. Yours must suit you. But it shouldn't be nothing!
I also used my journals and my training log. It had pictures pasted in it that motivated me. There are no rules. If it floats your boat and has an acquiescing partner, sex has been touted as a regular entry in some people's rituals. No rules! Just make sure it doesn't waste energy you might need...no matter how good it feels!
The point is that we need to see how many things are connected to our success besides "The Big Thing." And we can control many of them to lend an edge. Secondly, we can use ritual to train our body and mind to respond automatically. To access our subconscious mind to also lend an edge. If we fail to recognize these easy factors that have nothing to do but help, we are shooting ourselves in the foot.
Think over your pre-workout ritual. Try different things and make notes on the success or failure of them. Fine-tune it. Then never stray. It will become habit and rote. It will be an ally that you never have to think about nor question. It will always be there for you!
I admit my rituals are excessive. But my goals are big! I'm not saying at all that they are commensurate. I had long rituals because I liked them, not because they needed to be long. Time is not the factor of note. But if you don't have one and do something different every workout, you miss out on some free help! If the weights are heavy enough, you won't be able to afford that for too long.
So experiment and look back to all the connections. If you see things this way, you have just gained a really useful helpmate that many people leave out in the cold.