The Devil In The Details: 24 Small Things To Improve Your Lifting & Mindset
While recording an episode of The Grafters Podcast with Steven Cuthbert (host of Strength Chat Podcast) he chatted about a guest who would delve into the tiny details that help rugby players with consistency, results and simply feeling good in the gym.
It got me thinking about applying this to powerlifters, general population clients, and everyone who goes within 10 metres of a barbell.
Below I will talk about various ways you can get in the zone, or more specifically how you can build a more consistent training process that should result in better results in many areas of your life.
You don't need to hit every one of the factors to have a good session as life happens. You can go into a session having a bad day, you can apply some of these concepts and make the day slightly less awful, you can make it so you are slightly less distracted and who knows, maybe we can get you in a good place again.
Here we go:
Have A Regular (Planned) Training Time/Commitment
When you train at a different time than usual it can throw you off. Try to train at the same time each day if at all possible.
Don't listen to people who say you should train on a morning or on an evening if strength sport isn't on your agenda. Train at the time where you can fit it in or when you feel the best.
If strength sport is on your agenda I recommend training in the evening as your spine is less at risk of injury according to Professor Stuart McGill. If you need to train on a morning, make sure you warm-up for longer and for maximum adaptation, have a nice warm shower as soon as you get up to help your spine get moving properly
If you have to train earlier or later than normal, your training may feel slightly off. You haven't suddenly gotten weaker, your body or mind, or both isn't primed for training. You may need to adjust your training loads appropriately to accommodate how you are feeling.
If you are training at your usual time, it will help you get in the best state of preparation for your session, so it's best to have a regular training time.
Training at a different time to normal is fine by the way. You won't die, but it may make you feel a little off.
Another tip is to have a training commitment. I know I will train Monday, Wednesday Friday, and either Saturday or Sunday. Having a training commitment means you no longer have to make a decision to train because you have a regular slot where it happens.
Avoid Willpower Fatigue
Your will power only has so much to give and it fatigues like a muscle. Training and everything that companies it fatigues your will power too. This is why if you have an emotional or hard day at work involving making lots of decisions you'll need to have some time to decompress, maybe do some journalling, have a coffee, look over your workout and let your willpower muscle recover.
James Clear (in THIS article) gives the following tips to avoid decision fatigue:
Plan decisions the day before
Do the most important things first
Stop making decisions, start making commitments
If you have to make decisions later in the day, then eat something first
To get in the zone, try to put the above tips into action. If you have a long, decision fatiguing day, take some time to let the "decision-muscle" recover and you'll be in a better place when you get to the gym and it's time to hit some heavy weights.
Make sure you no creases in your socks
Sock game is on point!
This is one I've stolen from rugby. If your socks are creased your feet are uncomfortable as you lift, no matter what exercise you are doing. This is something that can disrupt your lifting unnecessarily.
If you are like me and insist on wearing odd socks at least make sure they are the same kind of odd socks so the left and right foot don't feel different in your shoes because of your socks.
Fill your water bottle
Having a full water bottle before you start warming up means you don't have to disrupt anything or worry about dehydration because you have water to hand.
As soon as you run out of the water, fill it back up.
I always irrationally worry about dehydration if I don't have a water bottle to hand. Making sure I've always got it near me means I don't have these irrational thoughts floating around when I should be getting ready for my next set.
Clear up your rest between sets
Keep your rest is as undistracted as possible. Unless you need to, don't be checking Instagram, Twitter, your email, and messages. When you are training, try to train, it's not the time to talk politics or to argue on Facebook.
Make sure you aren't standing or sitting in a position where any niggles will feel aggravated (like if I sit for long periods with my knees higher than my hips, my back will feel horrid during my next set.)
Keep chatting to a polite minimum so you don't get in the habit of having full, deep conversations between sets. It distracts you, you will cool down and end up lifting worse and your program won't be as effective.
Keeping rest times lower helps you get in and out of the gym as fast as possible so you can crack on with the rest of your life and have some you time away from work and the gym.
Taking some extra time between sets can improve your power output. Find the optimal amount of rest for you.
Consider the music you'll be listening to
If you use Bluetooth headphones, charge them on the way if you drive. If you don't drive, stick them on charge as you are warming up.
Make sure your playlists are downloaded onto your device in case the internet goes down.
If you are learning new movements, having your music lower and calmer is usually a better option. If you need to get psyched up and in the zone, have songs you know and love ready rather than spending 17 minutes skipping through your playlist trying to find a song fitting your mood.
Use the 'correct footwear'
Make sure you have the correct footwear packed in your training bag permanently.
Make sure your footwear feels comfortable without sacrificing your movement patterns. Big, spongey heels while lifting are usually a no-no for so many different reasons I should go into on another blog post.
The number one reason is ankle stability and feeling in contact with the floor. A thinner heel or a harder heel like in a lifting shoe will help ground you and give you a more solid base to lift from.
Rather than doing that now, I'll find you an article to explain the issue far more succinctly than I could at this point.
Personally I lift in some very sturdy converse pumps. I find I feel the most support in these. Lifting in a heel or weightlifting shoe changes my technique and results in poorer performance.
Do you need to use a weightlifting shoe? If you are performing Olympic lifts regularly, yes.
If you are powerlifting or bodybuilding maybe not.
If you can squat deeply with a bar on your back without your back position changing at all then you probably don't. The best way to find out is to speak to a coach about the issue and they can give you more information.
If you want to talk with me about this issue I can assess you via video or in-person drop us a message.
Wear the appropriate clothing
Make sure your clothing doesn't restrict movement.
If you are low bar squatting or front-squatting make sure your t-shirt isn't slippy or shiny as that will cause the bar to move position and place more pressure on your shoulders.
When powerlifting, I like myself and my lifters to lift in cotton t-shirts with chalk on their upper back for maximum purchase.
This has the added benefit of placing less stress on the elbows which often end up battered by lots of heavy low bar squats, bench presses and various other elbow heavy movements.
If you are someone who uses a lifting belt, make sure it's always over a t-shirt or vest. Don't wear it over your hoody. If you have to wear a hoody, make sure the belt is under it.
Don't squat in a hoody. The bar sits funny.
If you HAVE TO squat in a hoody, make sure your hood goes over the bar, don't set it on your hood.
High or heavy reps in lots of reps will overheat you quickly. If it's cold, layer up between sets rather than during sets.
If you wear a sports bra, make sure it's high quality. Those who are, "heavily-chested" will need much more support than those who aren't. I am reliably informed additional support and perhaps expense is more than worth it.
Hydration (Keep your pee straw coloured)
Being hydrated before your session is essential for feeling good, moving well and helping to prevent injury during your session.
Here are some quick and easy tips to help prevent adequate hydration from being an issue:
1. Monitor the colour of your urine, if it's straw-colored you are doing well
2. Keep a bottle of water or a large cup of tea/coffee near you at all times. Refill as soon as you finish to always have a drink on hand
3.If you don't like the taste of plain water simply add a slice of lime or lemon
4. In cold environments, while doing low-to-moderate intensity activities like lifting, water is normally the best choice before, during and after training
5. In warmer environments or where you are sweating a great deal or where training goes on for a number of hours a drink which is 6-8% carbs is a great choice
6. NO ALCOHOL EVER LOL
7. Eating a healthy amount of fruit and veg helps one stay hydrated and healthy
What strategy works for you?
Hit the caffeine sweet spot
Sweet, sweet caffeine.
It keeps most coaches alive.
For optimal performance on caffeine, it's about hitting the sweet spot.
What is that sweet spot?
Most adults can consume 400mg per day according (to examine.com) with a high degree of safety. Most can consume more, but above this threshold is where people start to experience the negative side effects of caffeine consumption It's not recommended that you consume caffeine on an evening as your sleep will likely be terrible.
When you have too much caffeine in the form of a pre-workout supplement or, like 19 cups of coffee per day you will tend to make bad decisions when you train and be overstimulated. This increases the risk of getting injured while training.
We don't want this.
Find a pre-workout that doesn't cause you to feel "overstimulated" or "like your face is melting" or a pre-workout coffee strength or energy drink you can consume to perform optimally.
If you have blood pressure problems or any issue that increases your risks of health issues relating to caffeine consumption please consult your doctor before taking it.
I usually have a coffee or sugar-free monster 30-40 minutes before training and feel great assuming I'm having a relatively normal day.
Sometimes you'll have days when you've had to use caffeine to survive and you can't go by the optimal dosage. Life happens. When you have days like this, try to keep your training ritual as similar to normal as possible so your decision-making isn't fatigued even more and adjust your weights as you need to.
I'm no expert on nutrition. Once again, I will refer to the expertise of examine.com:
Supplemental vitamin D is associated with a wide range of benefits, including increased cognition, immune health, bone health and well-being. Supplementation can also reduce the risks of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and multiple sclerosis. People deficient in vitamin D may also experience increased testosterone levels after supplementation.
The body produces vitamin D from cholesterol, provided there is an adequate amount of UV light from sun exposure. There is only a sufficient amount of UV light coming from the sun when the UV index is 3 or higher, which only occurs year-round near the equator, between the 37th parallels.
Most people are not deficient in vitamin D, but they do not have an optimal level of vitamin D either. Due to the many health benefits of vitamin D, supplementation is encouraged if optimal levels are not present in the body.
Once again, please be sure to consult with your doctor or another relevant professional if you are unsure about whether you should use this supplement.
Personally, when I started using it, I felt like a new man!
Supplement With Creatine
Here is what examine.com say about creatine:
Evidence-Based Recommendation on Creatine
Creatine is very safe, and has been proven to increase power ouput (which lets you build more muscle). Do note that it can cause bloating, but this is purely water weight.
There is promising yet very preliminary evidence for certain neurological benefits.
Taking into account efficacy, safety, and cost, creatine is among the surest supplement bets.
You can find the article HERE.
As a rule, creatine monohydrate is the best and most cost-effective type of creatine to go for.
I take 5g per day and I have for the last 6 years at least with no side-effects. I can't recommend creatine highly enough.
You don't need to worry about timing, just take it when your routine allows you to.
Forget to take it one day? Don't worry, it takes a while to get out of your system. Start again on it tomorrow. Even if you train on a day you've missed taking your creatine, you won't affect your performance beyond the placebo effect until at least a few days have passed without taking it.
If you are unsure whether to take it, please consult your doctor.
Have a pre-workout ritual that prepares you to train
People often struggle to get 'in the zone' after long-drives and after long days at work. If this is you, and you need to get in the zone for optimal training you are in need of a new pre-workout ritual.
Maybe chilling for a while at the gym while having your pre-workout caffeine. Some people write their to-do lists to get thoughts out of their head before training, some people journal and others (the lucky bastards) can just crack on with their training.
If that is you, well done, you've won at life. Getting in the right mindset can be the difference between loving training and hating it!
Rushing means injuries, don't rush. If you are short on time, a focus on form is key to remaining injury-free.
Normally, if time is short, I recommend just doing as much of your session as you can, or do the rest of a session another day.
If you are very short on time, often it's great to change up your session to something like a circuit involving 2-5 exercises you can blast through. Even 10 minutes doing something like this is incredibly effective and helps maintain yo' gains in the short-term.
When in doubt, wee
Solid advice for life as well as training!
Sleep Enough and avoid placebo sleep effects
Here is a great article from BARBELL MEDICINE discussing the potential downside of tracking your sleep.
When I tracked my sleep, it was the most fatigued I've ever felt and I ended up getting hurt, whereas Coach V loves it and sleeps like a baby no matter what her tracker says.
You SHOULD absolutely prioritize sleep and try to make sure your sleep quality is high but if tracking it makes you feel anxious or when you see you've had one night where it wasn't quite optimal and you find you are destroyed because of it then it's probably best not to track it but to simply follow the advice of getting good sleep which I can boil into a few points:
Stop consuming caffeine in the early afternoon
Use blue light filters so you don't fry your brain (read that in a joking tone, blue light won't torch your cranial matter!)
Keep your bedroom cool
Have a relaxation routine
Make your room as dark as possible
Keep technology as far away from your person as possible
Turn off notifications
Don't check your messages or emails just before bed
Your gym environment (things around you like clips, a bag, bands, etc.)
Make sure the area around where you lift doesn't throw you off.
I know that if I can see a clip on the floor, I'll worry that the bar doesn't have a clip on even though I know it does!
Madness, but, I know I'll lift better if I move the clip out of my eye line.
I also get thrown off if I start lifting without using the clips (like an idiot) and put clips on when the weight gets heavier. It's almost like when I've put the slip on it means I'm worried. It's best if I just clip up my bar from the very start (which I should do anyway!)
Is there anything like this that throws you off?
If so, it's time to start managing that for optimised training!
Organize your Kitbag
Here's what I usually have in my kit-bag:
Screwdriver (for adjusting my belt)
Spare pair of lifting shoes
Spare set of headphones (I break headphones all the time)
This seems to cover all bases for me. Where you keep your training bag can also be important. If you forget it regularly, that won't help your consistency.
Personally, I keep mine in the car as I travel via car before ever training session so it means I never have to remember it.
If something like keeping it in your car or at the gym isn't possible and the risk of forgetting your gym bag is high, make sure you have a session plan you can do without needing anything, then you are prepared for any eventuality.
Have an adaptable warm-up ritual
What warm-up makes you feel the best? What warm-up makes you perform the best? As a coach, I don't foam roll anymore. I utilize lots of variation in my warm-up. Some things get forgotten and never done again, whereas things like the bird dog, side planks, and "the best stretch in the world" seem to have a permanent place in my warm-up.
I love band over backs, band pull-aparts, and kettlebell screwdrivers for my bench or upper body sessions. Sometimes I do my warm-up between sets with the barbell, sometimes I perform all my warm-up before touching a barbell.
If an exercise causes me to experience pain or makes me "feel weak" then it's normally removed. This tends to be anything that mobilizes my hips or ankles a little bit too much before squatting resulting in core instability and a back issue I have is provoked.
Build your warm-up ritual and stick with what works best for you.
Manage your eye-line
It's useful to be good at training without having to look in the mirror to check for depth, positioning, or anything else.
This means if you have to train at a gym without a mirror behind your squat rack you'll be more than capable of doing it.
If you perform most of your training away from a mirror and then have to lift in front of a mirror, you'll probably be thrown off.
In that situation, you will normally respond better to cover the mirror in some way.
Otherwise, as you are warming up, pick the spot you are going to look at. This will help you if you are training in a new gym, a new environment or at a competition. Nail down your eye line.
Plan for training in a new gym/ different environment
If you travel regularly, you will probably have to train in new unfamiliar gyms frequently. Here are some good suggestions to help get you in the zone in a new environment:
1) Listen to your own music if you can
2) Warm-up as close to how you would normally warm-up as possible
3) Take your time
4) Establish where you are going to look especially if you are going to do a powerlifting or weightlifting session where eye-line is so important
5) Train at your usual training time if you can
6) Have a few back-up programs you can do if the equipment isn't right or you don't have access to your usual kitbag
7) If you normally have caffeine before training, make sure you have caffeine before your training session
8) Fill your water bottle before you start training
Plan for your periods
Periods affect everyone differently. You have to see how you respond to training around your period. If every time you try to lift during a particular stage of the cycle, it's best to adapt training around that issue.
Some notice no difference in performance, others notice a big change in performance.
From the reading I've done, I've seen no real consensus about how women "should" train around their cycle.
Plus, if I say "at this stage of your cycle, you'll feel like this" you are more likely to feel that way, at least if this study about sleep is anything to go by!
The best advice is to see how YOU respond to a few cycles, to make some notes, and to plan how you'll react accordingly.
If you feel weaker or tend to get hurt, have a lighter lifting week planned. If you notice literally no difference in your performance throughout the month, carry on as you are.
I'll get back in my lane now!
Learn how to navigate busy times in the gy
Ok, most people can't train whenever they like, but if you can, train at times where it's a little quieter, especially if you are learning new movements or need to focus on technique. Busy gyms are normally a nightmare for Olympic lifters in particular.
If you have to train at busy times in a busy gym, you need to get used to waiting for squat racks, benches, and platforms.
You also need to be prepared for idiots getting in your way and everything else that comes with crowded areas.
If you are understanding and patient, you can still get great sessions done but it takes work and practice and is a higher risk than training at a quieter time.
That's why I love training on my own in the shed of dread so much.
Build your own list
Your list may contain very different things to me. I encourage you to build up your own habits and things that you know to get you in a good place to train
THAT WAS A JOURNEY WASN'T IT?
I want to emphasize again that my aim isn't to suggest that all the above need to be present to have a great session as that isn't the case.
By regularly applying even one or two of the above concepts, you'll be in a better place to smash workouts, be more active and you'll feel better while you train.
By Chris Kershaw
The Heavy Metal strength Coach