Fear – do you run from it, or does it bring out the best in you?
Fear plays a huge role in just about every sport and every method of training. Bodybuilding and strength training are no exception. Whether you’re dealing with bone-crushing weights, gruelingly long workouts or even the pains of hard dieting, fear can either crush you or help you make the best gains possible.
That said, not everyone responds to fear in the same ways – nor should they. Everyone’s psyche is different, and the mental stimuli that might take some athletes to new heights can break others down and prevent them from ever performing at their best.
If you want to make the most of your time in and out of the gym, you’ll want to know how fear affects you. You’ll also want to know how you can conquer it and how it can keep you in the game for the long haul by preventing you from doing something stupid. Here are a few pointers on fostering your relationship with fear…
Using fear as a tool
I’ve heard plenty of lifters – usually the ones who are a little crazy – say that if you’re not afraid of the weight, it’s not heavy enough. But what does that really mean? If two guys are both about to squat 500lb, should they be equally afraid of that weight? If so, is that fear going to help both of them push their bodies to the limit and stand up with the weight? Maybe – but maybe not.
If you’re the kind of lifter who thrives on fear, then that mindset is definitely for you. That visceral feeling you get when you look at a loaded bar or feel its weigh on your back or in your hands – that feeling will make your body do what you want it to do. Embrace that part of your personality and allow yourself to get a little scared before your heaviest lifts and most painful sets.
Eliminating fear to lift big
On the flip-side, fear can be absolute poison for other trainees when it comes to lifting big and breaking new ground. You’ve probably seen that guy who seems strong but can’t seem to bench three plates or squat four plates – no matter how long or hard he trains. Maybe that guy is you. Arbitrary mental barriers can trip you up and keep you from progressing for days, weeks or even years.
If that describes the way you feel about fear, you need to take a different approach from those who thrive on it. Logic must prevail. You have to convince yourself that lifting a certain weight – whether it’s a round number in pounds or kilos, or another arbitrary measure – isn’t going to determine your success or failure. Just as importantly, you’ve got to have faith in your abilities and in your routine. If you’ve been regularly adding 10 pounds to your squat every week, there’s no reason why 405lb should be any more difficult this week than 395lb was last week – those four plates be damned. Avoid arbitrary fears and believe in yourself. There’s virtually no limit to what you can accomplish.
No matter how you feel about fear in the weight room, you’re going to have to embrace pain in order to progress. Pain comes in many forms too: the burning sensation of a drawn-out set, the shaky feeling you get under heavy weight and even the hunger and mental discomfort you feel when you’re in the deep depths of a diet.
In fact, the ability to manage and even work towards pain is what separates the average gym rat from the truly successful gym rats and bodybuilders. Shy away from discomfort, and you’ll never become anything exceptional. Embrace it – do what most people aren’t willing to do – and you’ll be able to build an exceptional physique as well as a rarely-seen level of strength and muscular endurance. If those are your goals, you’d better get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
At the same time, you’ve got to make sure you’re looking for the right kinds of pain and you’re facing your fears in a smart way. You’re not going to tear a muscle by eking out a few extra reps on curls, for example. Nor will you break your back by squatting super-heavy with good form. However, you can absolutely put yourself out of commission by ignoring your body’s warning signals.
The most important distinction to draw is the difference between good and bad pain. Good pain includes things like the pump, the burn, the crushing feeling of properly-lifted weight and even hunger pangs during a hard diet. Bad pain, on the other hand, includes joint pain, tendon tears, chronic muscle aches and other signs that you’re doing something wrong in training. You may not be eating or resting enough to recover between sessions, or you may just be lifting with poor form that’ll likely lead to injury. Whatever the case, you need to avoid these kinds of bad pain if you want to stay injury-free and make continual progress.
Psyche-ups: Use Sparingly
Finally, pumping and psyching yourself up is a big part of facing your fears and dealing with pain – but you can’t do it all the time. Take a look at the bodybuilders and lifters who’ve had the longest, most successful careers. You’ll probably notice that most of them don’t go crazy for every lift. It’s not a sustainable way to train!
In fact, psyching yourself up with yelling, slapping, smelling salts and all sorts of other gimmicks is extremely hard on your nervous system and can even require as much recovery time as your muscles themselves. It can also place you in a fearless frame of mind that won’t even allow you to realize when you’re about to injure yourself. To make continual, sustainable progress, you’ll need to develop a confident mindset that doesn’t require you to go to some ‘dark place’ just to get through a workout. A little fear, a little pain and smart training should become regular parts of your everyday life!