It’s 4 PM.
That means it’s time to hit the gym. I’ve been looking forward to this all day long.
I don’t need to get ready. I got ready an hour ago.
I am already wearing my gym clothes. I am prepared physically and mentally.
When I have these clothes on me, I feel like lifting heavy weights.
When I put on my workout clothes I start my pre-workout routine by activating familiar positive mental associations. This makes me feel good.
I’ve drilled this process over and over for the past 3 years.
Before I walk out the door I do a power pose, I stand with my hands above my head and keep my back straight. Then I move around a bit to the rhythm of the music I am listening to — to enter flow state.
I start focusing on my breathing and shift my focus from random thoughts into the core of my body.
I start walking towards the gym.
I feel inclined to walk my usual–(habitual)–route towards the gym. Doing that requires less mental energy. Fortunately, my metacognition expertly alerts me of this. . .
. . . So I force myself to walk another route to the gym. A new route. I can feel a new mental pattern emerge, as a result of deliberately inducing novelty and variation into my life. It’s a small decision, but it is necessary for breaking out of homeostasis.
I look dead ahead.
My gaze is calm, focused and steady. I walk upright. I have an excellent posture.
I feel good.
I feel strong. . .
I feel like I want to explode.
But I don’t.
I hold it in. I’ll save that energy so that it reaches a crescendo for when I intend to break a record 15 minutes from now.
I enter the gym.
I take off my shoes and go down to the dressing room. I put my gym bag in a new locker every time to avoid routine behavior.
Then I do a warm-up set of some compound exercise (only 10-14 more sets to go now).
The Mental Aspect of Your Workouts. . .
. . . Is just as important as the physical aspect.
Probably even more important.
Arnold Schwarzenegger said that one set executed with strong mental focus was better than several sets done mindlessly.
This makes perfect sense to me.
Working out = meditation
There have been studies of people imagining themselves lifting weights — and those people were able to slightly increase their physical strength and muscle mass by doing so.
My experience is that the best-looking, strongest and healthiest people are those who consciously and consistently:
- Summon strong emotions during the workout (leave it all in the gym)
- Feel their body during the workout (no thinking, just feeling)
- Infuse as much intent as possible into each workout (“one more rep!”)
. . . And I think these things are heavily overlooked by most people.
I constantly see people in the gym who are messing with their cell phones, gossiping with their friends or fidgeting about excessively.
All of those things distract them from building up their focus to enter a meditative state (flow) of deep concentration. This leads to a negative downward spiral:
- Because of their poor mental focus they fail to generate positive emotions as they are lifting.
- As a result of this they associate lifting with pain, instead of pleasure.
- Since they associate the gym with pain they make slow progress. . .
. . . And they end up with average physiques!
This is logical, because they’re putting in a minimum of effort; trying to avoid pain rather than finding some way of making their workouts pleasurable.
They’re not at the gym because they enjoy it.
They’re just there because someone told them it was good for them.
Let’s look at how to make your workouts great and enjoyable, starting with. . .
Getting Addicted to Working Out
Let me tell you a story.
There once was a guy with an average physique who could see the benefits to working out, as lots of people had told him it was a good thing to do. But he was struggling with consistency in the beginning, because he was unconsciously trying to avoid pain during his workouts.
Fortunately, he was smart enough to understand that if he wanted to become consistent at working out, he would need to get himself addicted to lifting and start enjoying the long-term process.
So he ordered himself some unhealthy—but powerful–pre-workout stimulant and started consuming it right before each workout he did. That instantly boosted motivation.
Next he created a pre-workout routine to mentally separate working out from the rest of the day, so as to clearly show his brain that this activity was exceptionally important. He did this by setting aside 15 minutes before each workout, where he would sip his pre-workout stimulant, distance himself from computer screens and people to meditate briefly — to stop thinking and start feeling.
The result of this was that the stimulant gave him a lot of energy and the meditation gave him intense mental focus.
This made him feel really good.
After about a month of doing this several times per week it became the highlight of his day.
Once that had happened he replaced his addictive pre-workout stimulant powder with eating 2-3 teaspoons of raw cocoa, which is a natural stimulant that is much healthier (and doesn’t contain strange chemicals).
In addition to these things he also made sure that he listened to motivating music during workouts. To avoid exhausting the motivational value of these songs he listened to them exclusively during workouts, never otherwise. As soon as one of his songs no longer gave him a motivational boost he ruthlessly replaced it with a new one that did. He updated his song list religiously to only have potent workout songs.
Fast-forward three years and he looked like this. . .
Oh yeah and, by the way, the guy in the story is me.
And I’ve never skipped a workout since I began this routine.
Not because I have supreme willpower or anything, actually, you don’t even need willpower when you are. . . ADDICTED.
Now then, let me tell you. . .
Why This Works (and how it gets you get addicted)
This process (as described above) produces a number of psychological effects:
- First, the pre-workout ritual contains a number of cues (putting on my workout clothes, eating cocoa, etc.,) which trigger specific habitual behavior I’ve trained myself for, namely, to get myself pumped up.
- Second, it works by classical conditioning (Pavlovian association) which induces stimuli associated with positive emotions (lifting is associated with flow state).
- Thirdly, it works by operant conditioning (positive reinforcement) which rewards my behavior with the good emotions (endorphin high after pushing through pain).
When I put it like this it seems like these effects are separate but, they are not. They all work together.
In combination they trigger the brain’s spreading activation which starts to trigger thoughts, emotions and memories that are closely associated to my “gym-state”.
And it becomes a powerful, and very addictive, feedback loop:
- When you get inside this feedback loop you’ll quickly see positive results in terms of building muscle, strength or losing weight.
- And when you start seeing gains, you’re breaking records and getting other positive feedback, your motivation goes up.
- This in turn boosts your testosterone and dopamine, which may propel you into a winner effect
Need I say more?
In fact, I find this process so heavily addictive that my situation is the exact reverse of most people; most people have to force themselves to workout. I have to force myself to not workout.
Now let’s do quick recap. . .
Try to combine all three of these feedback loops for maximum impact.
Positive feedback loop #1
- Create a pre-workout ritual = buy yourself some addictive stimulant and take it at a certain time each day before working out. Get away from the computer and sit down for a 10-15 min meditation to shift your focus from your head to your body. Do a power pose and move around a little.
Positive feedback loop #2
If you did your pre-workout ritual well you should be energized and focused:
- Better focus = More fun
- More Fun = Positive mental associations
- Positive Associations = You will naturally want to go to the gym
Do this consistently and you’ll soon be like Pavlov’s salivating dogs when he rang his bell– only you’ll be aching to lift weights or go for a run.
Positive feedback loop #3
- Operant conditioning = Push yourself hard enough in the gym to trigger an endorphin rush
- Keep excellent music for workouts = Ruthlessly remove a song when it no longer motivates you and, don’t listen to these songs except when you’re working out. Songs are like drugs, the more you do them, the less efficient they are.
- Get “fast” mental feedback = By flexing in the mirror (to see how chiseled you are) and so forth.
That in turn may put you in yet ANOTHER feedback loop — the winner effect — where you want to put in more time and want to outdo yourself, break new records and get better.
And it’s powerful stuff.
However, if you’re in a position where you’re mentally struggling for each workout. . .
. . .Remember, it takes a while to reverse:
You can’t get stronger physically and mentally unless you’re having pain, because you’re stretching yourself, you’re going into a new level. So pain is good if you’re exercising, right?
Go exercise at the gym. It starts off painful, but as you start to get going with it, and you start to see the benefits of it, and you start to actually change your brain physiology in terms of what determines whether it’s painful or not, it becomes pleasurable. Behavioral modification usually takes place over about 18 months of doing something. So you start to get into an environment where it’s pleasurable.
–Ray Dalio, CEO of Bridgewater
Most people fear the pain of doing that extra repetition.
If you do these things, you’ll start looking forward to the pleasure of doing that extra repetition.