Why Weightlifters Should Meditate and How to Do It
A guide to improve physical performance through mental practice
- Meditation vs Mindfulness
- Benefits of Meditation
- How to Meditate During Your Workout
- Develop a Meditation Practice
- A Powerful Resource on Meditation
If you’ve never “meditated” before, don’t overthink it.
Meditation doesn’t have to involve hour long sessions requiring years of knowledge from spiritual masters. You can learn to meditate simply by choosing to focus on your breathing and mental state more often, and the relationship between your mind and body connection.
Weightlifters and other athletes often overlook the benefits meditation has for improving their performance on a mental and physical level. It has the ability to increase how much you do inside the gym and how well you recover after you work out. It could be looked at as a supplement to include with your protein and creatine intake because it truly is performance enhancing.
Meditation can take on various styles and have various purposes for practicing. If you feel inclined, follow your curiosity of yourself and learn more about the different types of meditation from all over the world, and try them out.
But for this case, it’s enough to simply use meditation as a way to train your mind to stay in the present moment, and place your full attention and energy on the task at hand.
Meditation vs Mindfulness
The two terms can often be used interchangeably, although there are differences to be aware of. I want to give respect to both, and understand them a little more without going too in depth for these purposes.
Meditation is often referred to as the act of non-doing, or being the observer of your inner world. Here, you practice remaining seated for a certain period of time. Again, there are many types of meditation, so what you choose to focus on could vary. Generally, you limit your external stimulus to shift your focus and awareness from the external envirornment to your inner environment.
Mindfulness is often referred to as a quality you have, and a form of meditation. You can practice mindfulness during meditation, or even consciously during any other activity from eating to exercising. You’re simply being more aware of your senses from your external and your inner environment.
Some would argue you’re not meditating while working out because you are moving and meditation is strictly for non-doing. I see where they’re coming from, but I don’t think the terms are black and white. There are overlapping similarities between the two, and I believe if you become so entranced in whatever it is you’re doing, it becomes more than simply mindfulness but a degree of meditation as well.
Benefits of Meditation
There are many ways meditating can help you get more out of your workouts. And don’t just take my word for it, this is something that has been practiced by legendary bodybuilders such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, 7x Mr.Olympia winner, and Dorian Yates, 6x Mr.Olympia winner, to name a few.
In an interview with Tim Ferriss on his podcast, Arnold said the following:
“I also figured out that I could use my workouts as a form of meditation because I concentrate so much on the muscle and I have my mind inside the bicep when I do my curls. I have my mind inside the pectoral muscles when I do my bench press.
So I’m really inside and it’s like I gain a form of meditation because you have no chance of thinking or concentrating on anything else at that time, but just that training that you do. So there’s many ways of meditation and I benefit from all of those today. I’m much calmer because of that and much more organized and much more tranquil because of that.”
Tim Ferriss, author of Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers, said in that book:
“More than 80% of the world-class performers I’ve interviewed have some form of daily meditation or mindfulness practice. It’s the most consistent pattern of them all.”
In an interview on London Real, Dorian Yates talks about his relationship with meditation. He talks about naturally having a strong ability to focus while working out but not fully grasping and exploring the concept of meditation until after his bodybuilding career.
He was asked the question, “You mention about meditation later on in your life. How different do you think your life would have been had you started practicing meditation from an early age?”
“I don’t know, you would have to go back with a young Dorian and do the whole process again.
There was a degree of meditation, as we covered in the film. When I went to the gym, I literally had white noise around me.
The bodybuilding fans in here know about the Blood and Guts DVD and video and everything like that. If you ever watch the video you’ll get a headache because my training partners are screaming and shouting, but literally I didn’t hear that when I was training.
Sometimes you just go into a different world which can happen if you’re under extreme stress and effort.
There was some degree of meditation there, and there was always something in the back of my mind that was interested in that but I didn’t really know.
What is this thing, you just sit there? What do you do? I didn’t know, but after London Real, people started sending me stuff and I started looking into it.
I think it’s amazing. It’s like I check out of here. I check out of this world and I connect with something bigger and I try to do that on a daily basis just to keep me in the right vibration if you like, or frame of mind, or whatever it is. I find it tremendously helpful and I would recommend it to anybody.”
— Dorian Yates
Like Dorian, I was at a similar place. I thought the idea of meditation sounded nice, and you hear people talk about it, but I didn’t understand it. After following my intuition and exploring it over the years, I’ve truly benefitted from it and would like to help others to do the same.
First off, you should be aware that when you’re “just sitting there,” you’re not just sitting there. There are processes happening within you that you aren’t even fully aware of.
Researchers use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), to take pictures of and record brain activity. Gaëlle Desbordes, neuroscientist at MGH and an instructor in radiology at HMS, is one of those researchers. Here are some of her findings:
“In 2012, she demonstrated that changes in brain activity in subjects who have learned to meditate hold steady even when they’re not meditating.
Desbordes took before-and-after scans of subjects who learned to meditate over the course of two months. She scanned them not while they were meditating, but while they were performing everyday tasks. The scans still detected changes in the subjects’ brain activation patterns from the beginning to the end of the study, the first time such a change — in a part of the brain called the amygdala — had been detected.”
In her current work, she is exploring meditation's effects on the brains of clinically depressed patients, a group for…news.harvard.edu
It’s not fully understood what changes are occurring in the brain — scientists are still using the latest tools to explore brain activity and how this affects our lives. But what inspired Gaëlle Desbordes to explore this topic?
“My own interest comes from having practiced those [meditation techniques] and found them beneficial, personally.
Then, being a scientist, asking ‘How does this work? What is this doing to me?’ and wanting to understand the mechanisms to see if it can help others. If we want that to become a therapy or something offered in the community, we need to demonstrate [its benefits] scientifically.”
You don’t need to be a scientist or to understand brain chemistry. Just know that when you’re meditating, there is healing happening below the surface.
Less Stress, More Gains
Lifting weights is a type of “eustress”, or a beneficial type of stress. One you can learn and grow from. “Distress” on the other hand, is what we want to avoid. Anxiety and pain that is keeping us from feeling well. This affects us not just on a mental level but it will trickle down into physical distress too if left unchecked. Meditation could be considered a type of eustress that reduces distress in your body.
Matthew Thorpe, MD, PhD and Rachael Link, MS, RD from Healthline.com wrote about science-based benefits of meditation. Here is what they had to say:
“Stress reduction is one of the most common reasons people try meditation.
One review concluded that meditation lives up to its reputation for stress reduction (1Trusted Source).
Normally, mental and physical stress cause increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This produces many of the harmful effects of stress, such as the release of inflammatory chemicals called cytokines.
These effects can disrupt sleep, promote depression and anxiety, increase blood pressure, and contribute to fatigue and cloudy thinking.
In an 8-week study, a meditation style called “mindfulness meditation” reduced the inflammation response caused by stress (2).
Furthermore, research has shown that meditation may also improve symptoms of stress-related conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, and fibromyalgia (3, 4Trusted Source, 5Trusted Source).
Increased cortisol levels in the body lead to physical and mental stress, which negatively effects your muscle growth and overall body function. If you’re trying to build muscle or just feel good in general, cortisol is your enemy. Meditation is known to be great at reducing stress, which can keep you growing versus spinning your wheels not making any progress.
Through becoming more mindful with meditation, you can better differentiate eustress from distress in your life. Then you can begin to choose more eustress activities for yourself and try overcoming aspects of your life that cause you distress.
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” — Dalai Lama
Athletes know about breaking past limitations in your head, digging deep and pushing the limits. Pain is part of the game. If you can learn to meditate, you can learn to dig deeper, to push even farther past your self-imposed limitations.
Meditation can help the buffer between pain and suffering. This goes for physical and emotional pain. Your perception of the pain you experience can have a big impact on how deeply it affects you.
Another science-based benefit of meditation from the same Healthline.com article is pain management.
“Your perception of pain is connected to your state of mind, and it can be elevated in stressful conditions.
Some research suggests that incorporating meditation into your routine could be beneficial for controlling pain.
For example, one review of 38 studies concluded that mindfulness meditation could reduce pain, improve quality of life, and decrease symptoms of depression in people with chronic pain(40Trusted Source).
A large meta-analysis of studies enrolling nearly 3,500 participants concluded that meditation was associated with decreased pain (41Trusted Source).
Meditators and non-meditators experienced the same causes of pain, but meditators showed a greater ability to cope with pain and even experienced a reduced sensation of pain.”
Instead of having a knee-jerk reaction whenever you experience pain in one form or another, meditation can help you find time and space in those moments surrounding the incident to ask yourself how you want to respond. You can let it consume you for weeks or months or consciously accept it as part of life and move on to focus on the present moment where no more direct pain is being inflicted.
- Mental Fortitude
It doesn’t matter whether you’re an elite level professional athlete trying to beat the competition, or simply just wanting to stay in shape and promote good health. Learning to incorporate meditation in your workouts will help you strengthen and maintain a strong and resilient mind and body.
These two go hand in hand. When you train your mind against resistance, you’re able to take your body further out of your comfort zone where growth occurs. When you train your mind to override all other thoughts besides the present moment to give your absolute 100% effort and energy into every movement and every breath that you take, you take your body along with you. You don’t second-guess, you don’t pump the brakes. You go until the mission is complete.
If your mind is the driver, your body is the vehicle. A better driver makes for a better ride.
- Focus on reps and form more
Close out those unnecessary tabs you have in your mind slowing you down. Learn to lower the volume in your mind to help you listen to your inner voice more. Instead of listening to your mind chatter about nonsense, listen to your mental cues. Shoulder blades back, full range of motion, squeeze your glutes. Whatever it is you tell yourself to keep integrity in your form, focus on that.
Having a healthy mind is important for optimum performance. When you’re stuck in a mental loop of worrying about the past or the future, you’re not fully in this present moment. You’re not able to give your 100% effort to the task because you don’t have your 100% attention and focus — you’ve let it slip into other unimportant areas.
Instead of feeding your drive, your motivation to get things accomplished, you’re feeding your worries about what happened yesterday and what needs to get done tomorrow. I’m all for coming to terms with the past and planning for the future, but there’s a time and place.
When you can become more conscious of what thoughts you are thinking more often throughout the day, you can help yourself by better directing the flow of thoughts towards what you are focused on and avoid a scattered brain that doesn’t perform as well. Similar to a spot light, the light is much clearer and sharper if focused on a single point versus trying to focus on a wide range at once.
Your brain only has so much bandwidth. Focus on the vital few and ignore the trivial many.
- Recover more for more intensity
Between sets, keeping your mind focused on your breathing can help you slow down your heart rate. Once rest time is over, psych yourself back up to finish through all the way to the end of what you set out to do.
The weights provide the stimulus, but it’s what you do outside of the gym that helps you grow. Meditating for even a few minutes before or after your workout can help prime your body to recover by lowering stress levels and helping your mind and body to relax.
It all begins with the mind. Before you move a muscle, your mind sends the signal first. So let’s start from the beginning.
How to Meditate During Your Workout
Before you can begin to practice meditation in your workout, you must be clear on what your objective is, and how to achieve it.
What is meditation? For these purposes, we’ll use the definition, “to become familiar with.” As in, to become familiar with your breath, your attention, your body, and your energy you carry with you.
How can you practice meditation while you workout? By funneling your attention as best as you can solely on the present moment. Drop all worries about what happened earlier today, and what will happen later today.
It is normal to have thoughts pop into your train of thought as you begin to consciously clear your mind. No need to get frustrated with yourself — just simply become aware that you are thinking of something other than the present moment and return back.
In fact, consider every time you catch your mind drift away from the present moment as a win because this is exactly what you are practicing to do. You are becoming aware that you are focused on unimportant areas that are not serving you, and redirecting that focus back onto what does serve you.
Don’t worry about clearing your mind completely, just settle in and slow down. Think about how you feel in that moment. How are your energy levels, how are your muscles feeling? Thank yourself for making it in to the gym to improve yourself. Feel good about what you’re about to accomplish.
There is no one way to meditate while you work out. Just like there is no one way to work out, the possibilities are endless. But there are some key principles that need to be applied when applying meditation into your workout routine.
- Set your anchors.
Your anchors are where you place your attention and your energy. The best anchor to set is on your breath, because it is always with you, and it is a great way to stay in touch with your mind and body. Stay mindful of your breath. Is it short and choppy? Are you relaxed, taking long and smooth breaths?
Another anchor to set is whatever area of your body you are targeting. For example, you are doing barbell curls. Your anchor here would be focusing on the main muscle you are trying to target, your biceps. Think of Arnold here, this is where he would “have my mind inside the bicep when doing my curls. I have my mind inside the pectoral muscles when I do my bench press.”
A lot of people focus solely on the concentric contraction during the movement, but there is great benefit in focusing on the eccentric contraction as well.
As far as vision goes, I like to find a point ahead of me on the wall or in the mirror to fix my eyes on. This keeps me from darting my eyes around, I like to take in as little extra distractions as possible and put as much focus on my form and reps as possible. During ab work, I will sometimes close my eyes and try focusing more on the contractions of the muscles.
2. Limit distractions.
The point of meditation is to become familiar with yourself. Your mind, your body, and your spirit. If you allow distractions such as texting on your phone constantly through your workout, talking to people for minutes between sets, and letting your mind wander to what your social media feed is up to, you’re not giving yourself the attention it needs. Your mind will constantly move from distraction to distraction, leaving you feeling less fulfilled by the end of your workout because you weren’t fully there.
If you have a hard time refraining from notifications on your phone but still use it for music, try turning on the “Do Not Disturb” function or airplane mode.
You could also try not listening to music to be as in tune with your breath and your thoughts as possible. I do this during yoga, but while I lift weights in a gym I do like to listen to music. It helps pump me up listening to high energy music. It keeps me focused on my goals rather than catching glimpses of other people talking around me and sending me off to thinking about random, unimportant thoughts.
Limiting distractions will help you funnel your energy towards your goals. This could be the difference between getting that extra set or that extra rep in, and overtime these could add up.
3. Know your goals.
Having a clear vision of what you are trying to achieve is an important element in any strategy for getting your desired result. As you’re limiting your distractions to allow you to focus on your anchors more, having your goals clear in your mind makes them that much easier to hit and keeps you motivated to achieve them fully.
Why did you show up to the gym today? Do you have strength goals you’re trying to reach? Trying to pack on some more muscle and fill out your frame? Simply building confidence in yourself? Having goals even in something like meditation is important because it keeps you on track to make the progress you want to see in yourself.
If you notice during or by the end of your workout you’ve started to be more in tune with your breath, your mind, or your muscles, consider that a goal reached. Just like your muscles become more developed through practice and repetitions, so too can your mind become more mindful. It won’t as much a visual difference as a new found awareness that you can sense and feel.
Develop a Meditation Practice
Learning to meditate while working out will help you get better workouts, but why let it stop there? Meditating will help you live a better life by giving you peace of mind and clarity to show up in the world and be your best self.
I suggest trying these ideas next time you go to the gym, but also try fitting in at least a nice 10-minute session of pure meditation somewhere in your busy schedule. If you do, you’ll start to love it over time. It will feel good to unplug from the external world, even if for just a few moments. More meditation has more benefits, but recommending 10 minutes is a good way to start etching it into your routine.
Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lay down. You could find a guided meditation online to keep your focus on — Headspace has a nice app to try out. Or simply set a timer on your phone. The timer is to ensure you remain seated until your allotted time is up.
You may have the urge to get up and do something before you forget, or just get uncomfortable and want to stop. Don’t. Remain seated for the time you said you would sit with yourself and your thoughts. Learn to be less reactive to your thoughts. Learn to control those thoughts, rather than let them control you.
A Powerful Resource on Meditation
One of my most influential teachers on meditation is Dr. Joe Dispenza. He is great at explaining meditation, how to do it, and the benefits associated with it. He bridges the gap between spirituality and science. Very studious in his approach, he has a team of neuroscientists and researchers to get real-time meditation brain measurements. In other words, he studies how meditation benefits your brain and body, and ultimately you as a whole.
On the Muscle Expert Podcast, host Ben Pakulski, Canadian IFBB professional bodybuilder, interviewed Dr. Joe Dispenza on episode 54 “Becoming Supernatural & Breaking the Habits That Hold You Back”. There is a lot of great information there if you want to check it out.
Dr. Joe Dispenza has a lot of great quotes and here is one I think goes well with this subject:
“Every time we have a thought, we make a chemical. If we have good thoughts, we make chemicals that make us feel good. And if we have negative thoughts, we make chemicals that make us feel exactly the way we are thinking.”
Being aware of the thoughts we are thinking is important because it affects our health. If we are talking negatively to ourselves, we are making ourselves feel worse. We have the power to talk nicely to ourselves and make ourselves feel good.
Just like reps in the gym, get those reps in your mind. You can’t just go to the gym once and expect a transformation. Same with meditating, you can’t meditate once and expect to overcome your negative habitual thought pattern. Consistency can help you rewire a better mindset.
Learn to generate your own feelings of positivity.
Don’t wait for a promotion, a new relationship, a new purchase, or anything else outside of you to feel good about yourself and the present moment. The present moment is truly a present to be enjoyed right here, right now. There is always something to find that’s going wrong around you, train your mind to find the good that’s going on around you.
Your thoughts are powerful, but even more so are the feelings you have. Learn to be mindful of not only the thoughts you allow yourself to think, but the feelings you allow yourself to feel. Learn to feel empowered, learn to feel confident, learn to love yourself. This will not only help yourself, but those around you.
Take these ideas with you as food for thought, and grow inside and outside of the gym.