I've been involved with lifting, competing, and coaching for a long time. Throughout the years, I have read many knowledge bombs dropped by "this guru here" and "that top-level coach there," and they always seem to leave out one thing from their teachings — the one thing that, in my opinion, is the single most important coaching tool for getting the most out of your athlete. What's that one thing? It is coaching and cueing the mental aspect of strength training for the lifter or athlete. It's the one thing that I try to emphasize the most when coaching. Once a lifter has a firm grasp on the technique of the lifts, it is the mental edge that is going to really carry him to greatness.

When I talk about coaching the mind, I am saying that you should strive to prepare your athlete to approach the bar with a certain mindset. Coaches can easily yell out fairly obvious physical cues to a lifter who is squatting: “CHEST UP!” “TIGHT!” “SIT BACK!” However, any lifter who has been training for some time is already beyond most of those cues. More often than not, he is actually cueing those things to himself.

I've been observing people train for 35 years, and I can see by a lifter's walk, face, eyes, the things he says, the way he puts on his belt, and the way he chalks up whether or not he is ready to hit a big lift. As a coach, there are many telltale clues that can tip you off as to whether your lifter is really harnessing his aggression and is ready to take command of the lift the way he should. In turn, there are those that will tell you if he is genuinely scared, overexcited and unable to think, or too damn calm and sleepy. If that is the case, no amount of physical cueing is going to help that lifter's chances. It's time for Plan B.

Plan B is actually sitting your athlete down and setting his head straight. Coaches like me are forced to really address this situation all the time because we don't usually train traditional athletes. I might get lucky and find a natural lifter or lifelong athlete, but more often than not, I train lifters who might only have six months of training under their belts and want to do a power meet. Some of these people have never done a single athletic thing in their lives. Remember, though, the “Do or Die” attitude that Chuck Vogelpohl has when he's squatting just doesn't come naturally to your neighborhood housewife.

Asstrodomis makes another haunting prediction.

Tips that allow coaches to help their lifters bust through mental barriers:


A lot of people I train with have heard this cue from me quite a bit. Although it may sound basic and simple, and you may be saying, “No shit, Steve,” when you approach the bar for a heavy lift, these are the things you want to be. It seems that many never think of this at that most crucial time. Remember, most people who are new at this have too much swirling in their heads as they approach a heavy lift. Your cues should cut through that shit and make sure they shut out everything except what is really important. You can never have too much strength and confidence.

2. Them Against the Bar

When coaching somebody who's doing any kind of strength event, I always tell them where the focus should be. It's not them against another lifter, and it's not them against themselves. It's them against the bar! Teach your athlete to never fear the bar. It is your sworn enemy that must be conquered. So, if you approach it with fear, you have already lost. Now, I don't like to see my lifter tweaking out—screaming and yelling or banging his head into the wall like a psycho before he lifts. That doesn't show me anything except frantic energy. I do, however, like to see a lifter approaching the lift with a look of utter disdain for that fuckin' bar! If you have ever watched videos of the great Ed Coan lift, you’ve seen that he always approached the bar quietly, yet very determined. He didn't jump around, wear silly outfits, or run his mouth. He just crushed shit. That's what you want in a lifter.

3. Confidence and Trust

I always tell my lifters something that will give them confidence and trust in me as a coach. When we train, I always assure them that I will never put something on the bar that I don’t honestly believe they can lift. If they miss the lift, it's because they didn't believe that they could. Once they give me their full trust, then they will stop missing so many lifts. Sometimes I won't even let them know what's on the bar by loading it with kilo plates. I'll just keep putting the weights on, never once making it seem like it's a big deal for them.

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Most people, at least in the U.S., don't know kilos that well and can't just glance at a bar and know how much is on there. I usually do this to people the very first time I work with them. They probably think, “Steve must know what he's doing with these funny colored plates. He would never put on some crazy weight I can't lift.” In fact, I have tricked people into 30- to 50-pound personal records by using this mind-fuck. It would be safe to say that it works 90% of the time. So, in psychological terms, what conclusion can we make from this? People get way too hung up on numbers. Is there 200 kilos on the bar or is there 440 pounds on the bar? Who cares? Just trust me, trust yourself, and lift the son-of-a-bitch.

4. Be Smart Between Sets

What a lifter does between sets is just as important as what he does during the set. If things aren't going so well that day, then it doesn't help to stalk back and forth, get pissed, and lose focus. And it sure as shit doesn't help to text people and take gym selfies. Sit the hell down and do two things:

  1. Think about what exactly put that last lift in the shitter.
  2. Think about what you plan on doing to un-fuck it on your next set.

If you are coaching a hot-headed lifter, then this could be a valuable point to remember. Many times, being mad may make you feel stronger. However, more often than not, a novice lifter will just shit the bed because of a lack of focus while he's throwing his tantrum, and he will end up making stupid mistakes on the next lift.

5. Balance Fear and Confidence

Being afraid to place your body under a sagging barbell loaded up with enough weight to pulverize your skeletal system and tear your connective tissue does not make you a pussy. In fact, it actually makes you quite smart, if you think about it. You would have to be a compete moron not to think about possibly maiming yourself at some point before a huge lift. Hell, it has happened plenty of times to bigger and stronger lifters than you! The key is to find a balance between fear and confidence. Understand that what you're doing is serious, but never be afraid to try. That absolute fearlessness is really a learned behavior amongst big lifters.

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As you coach people, you can do your best to help this along. However, it will take time for it to really settle deep into a lifter's personality, if it ever happens at all. I used to have a guy at my gym who was a naturally strong lifter. He would do perfectly executed 700-pound squats, 500-pound benches, and 700-pound deadlifts totally raw. The only problem was that he was scared shitless to go any heavier than that. It got to a point where he was doing the same 700-500-700 for so long that he could roll out of bed on any given day and do them. Yet, he would never attempt to lift any more than that. He just had the fear in him, and none of us could talk him out of it. It seemed like such a waste of strength and talent: what we like to call a million-dollar body and a five-cent head.

6. B-E Aggressive!

Can aggression be taught? As a coach, this is what I find myself doing the most. I find myself reminding people to get their heads out of their asses and to attack the bar. Sometimes all it takes is a cue to remind them to “BE AGGRESSIVE, DAMMIT!” But here is a fun fact: I have noticed that when it comes to coaching a novice man and a novice woman, the woman usually has far more natural aggression inside of her. (Or maybe it's just because Stevey P. likes to surround himself with aggressive women). Either way, don't judge a book by its cover. I have worked with neighborhood housewives, hairdressers, and Jewish lawyers who were much more determined in the weight room than the high school football jocks I've seen come through here.

Yet, the aggression required for strength sports has to be properly focused. I've seen aggressive lifters who were just frantically running all over the place yelling and screaming, but it didn't carry over to the bar. It was a lot of internal rage without the external payoff. On the other side, you have your cases of external aggression—people who are only aggressive when feeding off an external stimulus. I had a training partner when I powerlifted named Beef. He was one of those blocky, naturally bull-strong Italian guys. Well, Beef was a couple of years older than me and his lifts were all above mine. However, while I would bust my ass in the gym to keep up with him, he wasn't interested in training much at all. I would be there well before him, warming up to squat or already into the workout with 315 pounds on the bar, when Beef would stroll in. He would do nothing to warm up and would take 315, 495, 675, and 750 all for singles...and then leave. I, however, would be there long after him doing assistance stuff. Still, when meet day arrived, it was the Beef show! He would purposely camp out in the corner that was farthest from the competition platform to get ready and wrap his knees. Then, he would jump up when they called his name and start barreling through the warm up room, screaming and yelling as he kicked away any chair in his path and pushing people to the ground that were between him and that bar. He looked like a gorilla charging through the jungle. It was quite a show. But “the show” was the part that turned him on. He saved all his real aggression for game time. It's your job as a coach to find out what flicks that switch in your athlete.

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7. Keep Fighting

The longer we lift weights, the more we forget what it was like as a beginner. We start taking certain things for granted when we train. For example, the ability to fight through a tough lift when you feel like your back is going to snap in half isn't exactly a normal human function. As a matter of fact, when you think about what we put ourselves through to lift a really heavy weight, well, it's medically stupid. When a “normal human” tries to lift something that feels like it might be too heavy, his or her normal human tendencies take over and the fight or flight systems are alerted. More often than not, flight takes over and he or she quits on the lift. I usually institute one law when I'm watching someone take a big lift: unless that bar starts coming back down, you had better NOT STOP pushing or pulling on that bar. Again, as a coach, you should know what an athlete's body can physically lift. Sometimes it's just a matter of talking his mind into believing it and convincing him to make the lift. Bottom line: keep fighting.

8. Use Criticism

Don't be afraid to exploit someone's competitive drive. Figure out ways to challenge your lifters. I like to make wagers with my training partners to up the intensity a little. Nothing makes you push a set good and hard like something on the line (while making everyone else eat shit in the process). I'm good at this; everyone knows me as a dick.  I will prey on people's insecurities in order to get them to perform better. It has been well documented that I am “hard on people” as far as mental and verbal cruelty is concerned. My assistant, Pepper, who is a great personal trainer, keeps telling me that I need to make a “criticism sandwich” out of my coaching critiques. In other words, I should be more sensitive and deliver my negative statement lovingly nestled between two positive statements. For example, Pepper might say, “That lift looked great. You could probably try to sink that squat deeper next time, but I'm sure you will do it perfect on your next attempt.” My approach, however, is usually something like, “Wow, dude. That lift looked like a third trimester abortion. I sure as shit didn't teach you that crap. If you fuck this up again, you should consider quitting.” I know it's an unorthodox approach, but hey, I have my own style that works for me. Or at least I think it does...

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9. Less Talk

Here is some friendly advice for many of you newbies: Don't talk about it. Be about it. Posting silly crap on Facebook like, “A 300-pound bench will be mine. I will make it happen #roadto300” isn't helping you as a lifter. Plus, it's making me cringe...and I'm pretty sure making the baby Jesus cry. To me, that just looks like a desperate attempt to try to make something happen that you know will never happen. Also, from what I've seen, the people who post this bullshit are usually far from training hard and effectively. Your training should be like your job: you hit the gym, you get your work done in a workman-like fashion, and you go home. Your gains, reaching your goals, and the respect you earn from your peers and training partners will be your paycheck. Then, if you do eventually hit that 300-pound bench, well, then you can post it on Facebook. Oh, and please let me know if anybody gives a shit.

Now, to summarize what we just learned on how to Cue the Mind:

  • Learn to read your lifter's face
  • Be strong and confident
  • Don't fear the bar
  • Lifters—trust your coach; Coaches—earn your lifters' trust
  • Think between sets
  • Learn to be aggressive
  • Learn to fight through lifts
  • Stevey P is a dick as a coach
  • Don't post lifts on Facebook that haven't happened lest ye shall looketh like a douchemiester