Jennifer looked at me defeated with tears in her eyes after a workout one morning. She couldn’t understand how after months of consistent training, cutting back on alcohol and treats, her arms were still not looking the way she wanted. She was weeks out from her wedding and wanted the photos to capture a happy time in her life, not her dissatisfaction with her arms.
I sat with her as she cried and tried to comfort her by pointing to all the things she had accomplished so far. She was considerably stronger and had lost weight. She had adopted better eating habits, cut back on alcohol, and made positive lifestyle changes.
Jennifer had a lot of wins under her belt, but her narrow focus toward a single body part – her arms – put her in the wrong mindset. It’s hard to stay motivated when you constantly view yourself as a failure.
Building Mental Fitness with Yourself and Clients
Clients come to us fitness professionals with various viewpoints, perspectives, and stories about themselves and their bodies. It’s not a trainer’s job to unpack someone’s emotional baggage in a training session, and for the most part, clients don’t expect it.
We trainers can, however; produce more resiliency and mental fortitude in our clients by supporting their achievements along the way.
Resiliency isn’t built in the easy times. It’s created through stress and friction. This is why people who have been through difficult or challenging seasons in their lives tend to be strong willed and harder to knock down.
Mental fitness and resiliency are built in the weight room when the load is heavy and everything sucks. Even if you love what you’re doing in the moment – the very real physical challenge of it, the give-it-all-you-got effort to grind out that last rep is what makes one mentally fit.
Not everyone likes to be pushed this hard in this way. It’s important to demonstrate understanding while also pointing to a previous success. What other time has this client successfully shown mental fortitude? When have they shown resilience?
For my client Jennifer, she needed to be reminded about where she began – out of shape and out of breath. She had built up her mental fitness by showing up consistently for our sessions, giving her best effort every time and doing everything from back squats to pushing the sled, to rowing 45lbs kettlebells. And she had accomplished this while juggling a demanding career and wedding planning.
There will be times you or a client may need to zoom out and look at the bigger picture. The size of one’s thighs or a number on the scale hardly captures the full story. As humans, we tend to underestimate how much time it takes to make a significant change in our bodies. Zooming out helps you see that despite not having it all 100% perfect, you have still made significant strides.
New level, New devil
Becoming mentally fit isn’t just a process for beginners. The more training years under your belt, the more mental fortitude is required, and that is subject to change with every new level you hit in your life.
The saying “new level, new devil” rings true for all of us at several stages in our training lives. Going from casual training to serious weight lifting requires a new strategy on all fronts. Nutrition, recovery, coaching, and programs need to shift to accommodate this new level. Life will revolve around making this new endeavor successful, and it won’t be an easy, breezy one either.
With every new level you reach, persistence becomes the #1 tool that sees you through. Persistence is trying again for that PR after several failed attempts. It’s looking at the problem from a new perspective to determine what to change about the approach. It’s taking a deload week (or several) to address an imbalance or injury instead of throwing in the towel completely.
Persist, and Don’t Quit
I can attest to this mentality. After years of struggling with the bench press due to injury and fear that I’d do further damage, I decided to persist and try again. This required a shift in perspective and strategy.
First, I looked at my programming to determine if I was benching enough. The answer was “no”.
Next, I reviewed videos of my bench press. My setup and technique had improved drastically but I could feel one side dominate during heavy days. I added in more unilateral exercises to improve muscular strength and balance – single arm overhead press, single arm rows, pulls, and presses.
I rewrote my program to bench press within a certain percentage, never surpassing 80% of my 1RM.
Finally, I went for the 1RM (without a spotter) and nailed it at 110lbs. It is by far one of the proudest moments I’ve had in strength training because it took years to build the mental fortitude for this lift and stay persistent.
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Getting mentally strong puts you in a much better position to push past the suck in a training program. It’s the not-so-secret sauce that keeps athletes going after a major injury and what gets us back on track when motivation runs out.