Why should I be more present during exercise?

Arnold Schwarzenegger is known for many things. He’s been The Terminator, Conan the Barbarian, he was an early addition to a growing list of men that have been pregnant (not in reality of course), and he’s been the Governor of California. But initially he found fame as the most successful bodybuilder of his era and in becoming the most iconic muscle man of all time. For this reason, if you work out using weights to any degree, it’s likely you workout in ways that have been influenced by Arnold. The Arnold press is a shoulder press variation that is still commonly performed. He is also famously quoted as saying, “you have to get your mind into your muscle!” What did he mean by this? In my opinion, in some sense he meant, be acutely aware of what you’re doing. So, why is it important to be present when you exercise?

At White Line Coaching, our clients are used to being reminded to, “feel your hamstrings whilst you do that Romanian deadlift.” Or to, “be aware of how the body feels during that movement.” Or to, “stay with yourself as it’s starting to become painful.” Why does this matter to us so much? Isn’t it enough to pick up a weight and just get through it?

Well, you can do it that way, and most people do. In fact, most people you’d observe in a gym will be less than fully present with what they are doing. But this is not optimal. Here are 3 reasons we encourage our clients to be present with the experience of working out and how you can start to be more present with yours.

  • It’s a more optimal way to train – Exactly in the way that Arnie identified, it is true that if you put a high level of concentration onto the muscle you can potentially get more from it. If you can find a way to get present, you will notice over time that you squeeze more reps out in those sets when compared to sets where you’ve let your mind wander. It’s so much easier to give up when we’re absent minded. Why is this? Well, in my opinion, the wandering mind is either ruminating over and lingering in the past or worrying about and projecting into the future. That state of mind is largely concerned with avoidance of pain. From that state of mind, you give in to pain, and stop much earlier than you otherwise might. There may well be pain in the moment, but the moment isn’t concerned about what pain like this meant in the past or what it will lead to in the future. It can stay where it is, and you are able to perform more reps. Which over time makes you much stronger.


How can I achieve this? – If you find your mind wandering, say inside your head, or out loud if you don’t mind people staring at you, exactly what it is you’re experiencing. Do it in a way that makes sense to you. “I can feel my biceps muscles tightening.” “I can feel heat building in the muscle.” “I can feel my breath becoming faster.”

  • It’s free meditation – The word meditation comes from the Latin word meditatum, which means “to ponder” or “concentrate.” Whilst the image that immediately pops to mind is of a person sitting cross legged and upright and engaged in hours of agonising quiet contemplation, we can of course ponder and concentrate whilst engaged in many other things. My first conscious moment of quiet where the chatter in my mind seemed to stop was whilst sitting on top of my bobbing surfboard whilst waiting for a wave to drop into. 

Meditation, or mindfulness, as it is more popularly coined these days, is possible from running, spending time in nature, whilst creating art, when practicing martial arts, and indeed from more standard forms of exercise, such as weight training and bodyweight conditioning. It’s about noticing that there is only this moment, and it helps us cultivate our choice and free will.

How can I achieve this? – Whilst working out, try to stay conscious of the part of you that is the watcher. Not the part that thinks, or feels, or does – but the part that is just aware that it’s having these experiences.

  • It helps you to breath more efficiently – The more traditional forms of meditation do often use breathing and the awareness of it, as an anchor to keep yourself in the moment. Staying in the moment is easier when we find ourselves in a parasympathetic state. In this state, we are relaxed, accepting, and can perform activities in a state of flow. To encourage our clients to stay present we often instruct them to tie their breathing in with their movement. When we become aware of our breathing, we often become powerfully aware that our normal breathing pattern is counterproductive to our wellbeing. Often, we hyperventilate which is a symptom of being in a sympathetic state. In this state we are tense, may feel the urge to escape, and can be clumsy in our actions. When this becomes apparent to us, we notice it in everyday life, and then adopt healthier patterns which enhance our health in both the short and long term.


How can I achieve this? – Perform your exercises using a controlled tempo. For instance, use a 3 second tempo on the concentric (shortening) phase of an exercise and a 3 second tempo on the eccentric (lengthening) phase. Then tie your in-breaths and out-breaths in with the rhythm of the exercise. Whether you are breathing in or out on either phase depends on the nature of the exercise. Generally, an in-breath occurs as the spine is extending and or the ribs and shoulders are opening. As an example, a cable face pull would require an in-breath on the concentric phase and an out-breath on the eccentric phase. Whereas a squatting exercise would be the opposite of that.

So next time you work out, let Arnold’s words ring in your ears, “you have to get into your mind into your muscles.”

“I’ll be back” with another blog next month. (Sorry, couldn’t resist)

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