Kentucky Strong: Mental Barriers

TAGS: unlocked potential, mental barriers, Chase Karnes, iron game, strongman, powerlifting

Mental barriers should never exist. In the moment that I realized this, it was like literally flipping a switch. I didn’t purposely have any mental barriers in place. It just kind of happened. This was my “ah ha” moment and one that unlocked my strength potential.

It was my first full powerlifting meet after deciding to get out of bodybuilding and focus on strength. I had done some push/pull meets in the past, but I was still pretty new to powerlifting in general. I had just nailed my second attempt on the squat and was deciding on my third and final attempt. I had just hit 405 pounds for a nice PR. At a body weight of 190 pounds fully dressed that day, I was pretty happy with a squat that was more than twice my body weight. After all, I thought that was pretty strong.

I had almost made up my mind on 415 pounds when an older gentleman approached me and asked what my next attempt was going to be. I told him that I was thinking 415, and he said, “No, son. You have much more than that. I saw your last squat and you’re good for at least 450.”

At first, I thought he was crazy. There wasn't any way that I could squat 450 pounds. Hell, I had just squatted 405 for a PR. But I could tell from the look in his eyes and the tone in his voice that he was serious. He believed that I was good for 450. He had confidence in me. Why didn’t I? So I went over and told the meet promoter that my next attempt would be 450 pounds.

At this point, I was very nervous. I put on my headphones and blasted some Pantera. The nervousness subsided and I realized that I had the confidence to kill this weight. When it was my time, I walked up to the monolift and set myself up. I stood up, waited for the squat command, and then dropped down in the hole. As I started my ascent out of the hole, the pressure hit. I had felt a lot of pressure on squats before but nothing quite like this. I felt like my eyes were going to pop out, my nose was going to bleed, and my head was going to explode. It felt like an eternity and it was a pretty slow grinder, but I didn't doubt this squat at any point. I just kept pushing up without any doubts.

I drove up to lockout, heard the rack command, and racked the weight. I got three whites and walked away from the platform pretty freaking excited. The guy who had told me to attempt the 450 pounds walked up and congratulated me. I thanked him for his recommendation and soon found out that he was powerlifting legend, Ernie Frantz. At the time, I still didn’t realize how big of a deal this was. But the rest of the day, Ernie helped me out and gave me advice. I went on to hit PRs on both the bench press and the deadlift as well.

Unlock your potential

I got back home after this meet and was amped to do my next. Little did I know that I would find (and fall in love with) Strongman just a month later. So while that was my first and only full powerlifting meet to date, I had unlocked so much potential. I had subconsciously created these barriers or limits of what I thought was strong. Number wise, I had told myself that strong was two and a half times my body weight on the deadlift, twice my body weight on the squat, and almost twice my body weight on the bench press. By creating these benchmarks, I had severely limited myself. Now that I had unlocked these self-limiting barriers, I was more motivated than ever to get back in the gym and compete again.

Don't be the big fish in a small pond

You may have set these barriers yourself without even realizing it. Are you the strongest guy in your local gym? Have you set benchmarks (barriers) of what you think strong is? And if so, have you reached them only to maintain around that same level of strength? (That’s what happened to me.) You may just be holding yourself back.

While having goals is great—and I’m a firm believer that everyone should have training goals—labeling specific amounts of weight as “strong” limits your potential. It creates a false sense of strong. Think about what you considered "strong" when you first started training. Now think about what you considered "strong" after you had been training for a few years. Chances are, the numbers that you considered strong when you first stepped foot in a gym are probably submaximal or even warm-up weights for you now. Have goals but don’t label them. Don’t settle for being the strongest guy in your gym because at the end of the day, you may just be a big fish in a small pond. If you do, you're only limiting yourself.

Don’t make comparisons

There is always someone out there stronger than you and there always will be. I definitely strive to be the best and strongest Strongman competitor that I can be, but I also know that there is an equal sized lifter out there somewhere in the world who can lift more than me on every lift. It’s the pursuit of being the best that keeps me going though. While it may seem like I’m comparing myself to others, I’m actually not. I don’t let what other lifters do affect me.

When I go into a competition, my goal is to set as many PRs as possible. When my PRs are better numbers than my competitors PRs, I win the competition. When they aren’t, I don’t. However, as long as I’m hitting PRs and improving, that’s all I can ask for. Comparing yourself to others is the easiest way to get discouraged and frustrated. Use them as motivation if you like but never compare yourself.

Don't create limits

As humans, we create limits. The four-minute mile is a great example. At one time, it was thought to be impossible. Doctors even went on the record saying that if someone was to complete this, he would die. Once one person ran a four-minute mile, the flood gates were opened and many others went on to do the same even at the high school level. The same goes with the first 1,000-pound deadlift. I have plenty of goals and PRs that I’m chasing, but they aren’t the end point. They're simply stepping stones during my journey.

A few years back, I was competing in my second Strongman competition ever. The first event was the max log clean and press. On my second attempt, I hit a 280-pound log. Another competitor in my weight class did the same. We both went for and were successful on a 300-pound log that day. Unfortunately, NAS doesn’t keep records for the 200-pound weight class, but the NAS president told me that to the best of his knowledge, we were the first two competitors in the 200-pound weight class to hit a 300-pound log.

Fast forward four years and I’m now hitting that for five reps and I'm still competing in the 200-pound weight class. Now, even a few competitors in the 175-pound weight class are capable of hitting a 300-pound log. The 300-pound log press barrier was there not because it was impossible but because it hadn’t been done yet. We create those limits.

Celebrate PRs and then get back to work

I used to get super excited about PRs. I’d celebrate and get all worked up. I still get excited now but not to the extent that I used to. Maybe it’s because I view PRs differently. I used to look at PRs as my best ever for that lift, especially as I got stronger. Now I view them as stepping stones. While it’s nice, I know that I have more. Maybe not today or next month but eventually I’ll surpass that PR.

This probably won’t sound right, but nothing is ever good enough. I always want more—more weight on the bar, a faster yoke time, more reps on the circus dumbbell. It’s never enough, and it’s that pursuit that keeps me going and striving to be better.

With that mentality and the ability to unlock my mental barriers, I’m now hitting numbers that I used to only dream about. I’m literally hitting reps with weight that I used to hope I'd hit as a PR one day, some as an all-time PR. I don’t say this to brag because that isn't my style. I say this to make you realize that you're capable of much more than you think. Every time I hit a PR, my first thought is, "On to the next one…" I’m happy to have hit that PR, but I’m even more excited about the next one because I know it’s just a matter of time.

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