The Three Things You Should Be Doing at the Gym

This is not an article advising which movements, what rep schemes, or how much cardio you should incorporate into your gym program. The “perfect program” doesn’t exist because focus, goals, and fitness levels vary between athletes. But while the physical aspects of our training differ, the mental aspects are surprisingly similar.

They also translate across sports.

To a degree, we are all guilty of allowing our situations to control us—whether those conditions involve tangible items or the demeaning whispers from our subconscious. And when we find ourselves engulfed by situation, we tend to lose focus. We begin to doubt our abilities and perceive ourselves as failures. To reverse becoming a victim of circumstance, start doing these three things at each gym session: remove distractions, accept your emotions, and focus on the present.

1. Remove all distractions. What I mean is you need to put away your tech—your phone, tablet, or whatever device that may distract your focus. The post-Digital age has been revolutionary in terms of information sharing and connectivity; however, when we bring  technology into the gym, we become more concerned with what is happening in the virtual world than in the present. In scrolling through social media, we are likely to compare ourselves to others: we see our failures against their achievements, which feeds our frustrations and dilutes our performance. In receiving text messages or emails, we may have the urge to respond immediately, finding ourselves either caught in an enduring conversation or the opposite: hoping the other person emails or texts back. Even using our technology to record our workouts can be a distraction, especially as many of us are prone to focus on the immediate review of the exercise or the differences between past and present performance. Technology pulls us from the now into another time, another place—anywhere except where we need to be at that moment.

Removing distractions will enhance your awareness and clear your mind, allowing you to focus on the workout and the experience—the reason you’re at the gym in the first place.

2. Accept your emotions. When failure or fear appears, we typically take two approaches: we allow the emotion to consume or control us, or we attempt to bury it and ignore it. Unfortunately, neither of these options are effective. We obviously want to avoid feeding negative emotions, but suppressing them can be just as harmful. Instead, we can unearth our emotions, study them, and use them to enhance our training.

Emotions as Guideposts. We can use our emotions to help guide our training methods. For instance, frustration with a workout may indicate that we are pushing ourselves too hard, that our focus is not where it should be, or that our desired outcome is not necessarily feasible at our current level of fitness. Instead of driving that frustration into the ground—in essence, burying it and ignoring it—we should change our perspective, reflect on the situation, and consider why that emotion may be present. And if you’re not in the state to reflect, move on and work on something else. Continuing to feed that frustration isn’t going to help you improve.

Emotions as Teaching Mechanisms. We often find it difficult to acknowledge our emotions during less-than-stellar performances. We believe that accepting our emotions means we’ve given up and are doomed to fail. In reality, recognition allows us to move forward and even use the experience as a learning point. If we can identify the causes for our emotions, we can develop solutions to address them, build upon them, and thrive. Experience is a great teacher, and these perceived failures are opportunities we can use to grow as athletes.

Emotions as Motivation. In addition to learning from our emotions, we can also use them as an unconventional form of motivation. When we approach a new experience, such as a new trail, a new PR attempt, or a competition, several emotions may arise—namely fear and anxiety—and may cause us to question our abilities. While the temptation is to suppress these emotions, this action allows them to linger and gnaw at our thoughts, encouraging error or ruining the experience altogether. Instead, we should accept the emotions, challenge them, and include them in our sport. We can turn fear of a competition into a heightened sense of focus, and the challenge can be reimagined as an opportunity for success. In essence, we can take a negative and turn it into a positive. Work on developing your own strategy for tackling fears, and you’ll be better prepared to overcome them when they arise.

The adage of turning life’s lemons into lemonade applies heavily in the case of emotions. How a situation unfolds is less important than how we react to it. There will be negatives and positives that occur during our training sessions, but we can leverage even the worst experiences to reflect, assess, and grow.

3. Focus on the present. As athletes, we are often caught moving between where we were before or what we hope to become. We linger on the achievements of yesterday and hope for the successes of tomorrow, but existing in any state save the present will lead to disappointment.

When we exist in the past, we compare our current situation to a previous one (e.g., “I made that lift last time. There’s no reason I should be failing today.”). While this thought process may not appear damaging, it allows doubt to consume us. We begin to doubt our capabilities as athletes, and we may even lose motivation to continue. Living in the past may be especially damaging to athletes suffering or returning from injury: the urge is strong to reach previous levels of performance, but returning to those levels takes time.

Similarly, when we exist in the future, we create expectations for ourselves and rely on the happiness that should be realized in achieving that outcome; however, we fail to experience the motions and processes that lead to that outcome—i.e., the work. Furthermore, we arrive at the previous expectation, only to realize that expectation—that marker of success—has moved forward. We are left unsatisfied, burned out, and with little room for celebration. Granted, we’ve grown, but we’ve been so focused on what we wanted to be instead of enjoying what is.

The present has the potential to be amazing, but with the constant shifts of focus and comparisons, what we see isn’t always glamorous.  When we recognize that our current state of mind is the present, we start seeing action and growth occur—where our work has lead and will lead to more achievements. By focusing our energies on the present, we become aware of our developments, appreciate our achievements, and are ultimately happier in the process.

During your next gym session, consider applying these principles. Remove the distractions—both the technological and the mental—and focus on the present. And when emotions attempt to consume you, buckle down and make some lemonade.

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