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The Ultimate Commonplace System

How to Have Awesome Workouts [Warning: you may become addicted]

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great workout

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:

  1. Because of their poor mental focus they fail to generate positive emotions as they are lifting.
  2. As a result of this they associate lifting with pain, instead of pleasure.
  3. 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

3 years ago workot

Here’s how the guy looked 3 years ago.

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 unhealthybut 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. . .

3 years later workout

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. . .

Summary

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.

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The Ultimate Commonplace System

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Comments

  1. Hey Ludvig! I don’t have much to say on your topic here but I have something else to say.

    I’ve read your site for 2-3 months now. I gotta say I was positively impressed by the 75 Practical tips and that you offer it for free. You should sell it, I almost feel like I owe your something! Because it had so much helpful value to me.

    I shall give you a few examples.

    First when I skimmed through it one thing caught my eye, to eat oregano! I thought “this can’t make a difference, can it??” So I tried that for over a month and to my surprise I have not been sick, and I always get sick this time of the year usually. And a lot of people at work at sick and I am not, which makes it even stranger. So it must be the powerful antioxidants I get from eating the oregano every day! Funny like you say, that people only view it as a pizza spice normally, when it’s some kind of “superfood”!

    Second I have begun to use multicolored pencils when I take notes at work and it makes it much easier for me to see different things, especially when I draw mindmaps, which I like to do, and I also got a whiteboard for my work room, to remind me off all important tasks and people to call and clients to help.

    There is more things too… anyway, thanks a lot for the cool stuff. You have a loyal reader in me.

  2. Wow this is f*cking inspirational man. Just reading this is getting me excited to go to the gym today. I feel like I’ve turned into a hardcore reader of your website. It’s become the new facebook for me, I check it every few hours. Probably time to put a leash on it and force myself to only check it every week or so.

    By the way, is there any chance you could send me the old version of “Breaking out of homeostasis”? You know me, I’m definitely going buy your new version when it comes out anyway. But I do feel it would be useful for me at this point in time given the habits I’ve been focusing on lately.

  3. Have you taken any steroids and if so what is your opinion??

  4. “One more rep!” – It feels so good every time I manage to push myself like that. I do it a lot. Also reminds me of back when I was in the army. We pushed each other a lot that way.

    • Hey Jeremy!
      I never went to the army, but the guy I did my thesis with was part of the paratroopers and some other elite squad, and he had some friends who were trying out for the Swedish version of SEAL. After hearing his stories it made me slightly regret not participating.

  5. He, he, for once I’ve felt more mature than you. ;)
    I just skip the rituals and do the job. I don’t need hours on the gym to feel better about myself.
    Body is just the vehicle of of the mind. A few series of pushups, pullups, dips are enough to keep my vehicle in a good shape.
    I use prayer to focus on my exercises.
    “One more rep” is powerful. I went from 40 pushups to 137 (last time when I checked my max) in several years thanks to it. The same with my chin-ups, from 14 to 45 in 3 years.

    • I have to disagree with you sir. The more muscle you have the younger you will live for longer. That is what I have seen to be the case from knowing Army men who gave up weight training and those that maintained it.

      I think (and I could be wrong) that you are assuming that Ludvigis doing this out of vanity. I don’t think that is the case. Muscle mass deteriorates after age 40 and given how dangeorus it is for the joints after that age it makes sense to build as much muscle mass prior to that as possible.

      And of course it is an empowering feeling getting stronger. He doesn’t “need hours on the gym to feel better about” himself, he is doing it for his well being and having fun doing it. What’s immature about that?

      • Heathenwinds says:

        I have to ask you: why would being /more/ muscular be harder on your joints?

        As an example, Bob Peoples, a dirt farmer with little equipment, deadlifted 725 lbs. with what is almost definitely be the most unique form I’ve seen for the lift.

        Also, if you have some time I’d look into the lives of some strongmen like Jon Cyr and the Saxon trio. Not necessarily to address your claim on joint story, but just to read up on some seriously badass dudes.

      • Ludvig and vanity? Are you kidding me? ;)
        Ludvig seems to do everything on purpose (sorry bro for talking about you in the 3rd person ;) ).
        From my point of view he just took the excessive route. If he is not going to work physically or participate in the pro competitions he doesn’t really need this cool body.

      • @Heathenwinds I wasn’t saying muscle mass is dangerous for the joints. I was saying after 40, age makes it harder to build muscle because you are more likely to get injured at that age. That’s why you should build as much muscle mass as you can when you are young.

    • “I use prayer to focus on my exercises.”

      And how is this not a ritual?

      • Point scored. I contradicted myself using mind shortcuts. The difference in my case is that I “carry around” my ritual in my head. I don’t need gym clothes, music and the gym itself. And I use the prayer only once a day, but I’m exercising 2-5 times a day.

    • Michal, you probably are ;)

      137 pushups and 45 chinups — that’s very impressive. How much do you weigh?

      When I was 18 I did 100 pushups (and 20 one-arm pushups, but not at the same time obviously) but I’ve never gone beyond that.

      Also, Shaun’s on point. The earlier you get in good shape, the better.

  6. Can you apply this method to other things like studying?

    • Hell yeah. And just so you know, your comment inspired me to fire up my old Tom Dolby LP. Not that I wasn’t a dork long before I was blinded by science.

    • Hey Gaston,

      Stephen King did something similar for writing, you can learn more about it if you read his book “On Writing,” only he went a bit too hard on the drugs, as you may know.

      I haven’t put as much effort or deliberation into creating a “pre-studying routine”, but here’s what I usually do when I have decided to study something for many hours:
      1. Read a book for 15 minutes and start taking notes (physical notes preferably) ASAP to “activate the brain”
      2. Drink tea or coffee and read for another 45 minutes
      3. 10-20 minutes meditation
      4. Start studying for many hours

  7. Excellent article. Comments (as usual):

    1. RITUAL: You are (as you know) homing in on something very powerful. I am very interested to see where you will take it.

    2. PAIN: People in modern first-world nations know far too little of pain, and of hunger, and every other kind of discomfort. Not long ago (<200 years), our ancestors endured the amputation of limbs with no more anesthetic than "shut the fuck up and hold still". I think that every healthy man should seek not just to sublimate pain and deprivation, but to cultivate a tolerance – even an appetite – therefore. What does not kill us, makes us stronger – but what we flee, makes us weaker. What great man ever shrunk from /exertion/ or /fasting/ ?

    • “People in modern first-world nations know far too little of pain, and of hunger, and every other kind of discomfort. ”

      –YES.
      We live in a civilization where it’s extremely easy to blunt pain, dissatisfaction and other negative emotions without actually solving the root problems that cause these negative emotions to begin with (emotions are important feedback — and should be treated as such).

      “What great man ever shrunk from /exertion/ or /fasting/ ?”

      –Well, Nietzsche didn’t fare too well from exerting himself (that’s why he changed his writing style for a while, correct?). And a man with diabetes doesn’t emerge stronger from fasting.

      ;)

  8. P.S. Music: An enormously powerful motivator, all too often overlooked. In bygone days, men by the hundreds of thousands marched and charged – with enthusiasm! – to mutilation and death, inspired by the fife, drum, and bugle. If your aspiration is merely to stay on the treadmill, I recommend “Radar Love” by Golden Earring. If you can’t work yourself into a heart attack with that beat, you aren’t a man.

  9. Why don’t you just monetize your blog now, sit back and watch the passive income flow in? You have already provided more value than 99% of the bloggers out there.

  10. Those are good shoulders (traps). Got i want to get bigger shoulders, right now I do shoulder presses, got any suggestions?

    • I think it’s mostly genetics to be honest. I haven’t made a conscious effort to accomplish it.

      I do a A LOT of deadlifts, stifflegged deadlifts and shoulder presses. Sometimes I also do lateral/vertical raises.

    • Other than the usual techniques for gaining muscle, remember that the deltoid is a broad muscle, with three basic divisions – anterior (front), posterior (rear) and lateral ( in between). If you concentrate on just one of these, the others will underdevelop. The common shoulder press works all three but especially the lateral delts. Bench press works the anterior delts and bent rows work the posterior delts, but if you really want to make shoulders your main focus, you can do isolations for the anterior and posterior delts and push them extra hard.

      One simple thing that you can do is to do your shoulder press behind your neck, toward the scapula (shoulder blade), instead of in front, toward the clavicle (collar bone). This puts more work on the anterior deltoid (because your shoulder is rotated backward, pointing the anterior delt upward against gravity). When you reach muscular failure, duck back under the bar and grind a few more reps (to the collar bone) shifting work to your (relatively fresh) lateral delts.

      Deltoids respond well to isolations, if you’re at the point where you feel that’s necessary. They also participate in *every* exertion of your arm, at least isometrically, so pay attention to what the rest of your routine is doing. To maximize deltoid stress as part of a compound exercise, go “deep” on your range of motion, and pause there. The deltoids have an extremely wide angular range of effective strength and it is mainly your delts that get that barbell out of your chest hair or that make your nipples feel cold steel when you are doing bent rows.

    • I missed where you said “traps” (not usually what I think of as shoulders). The upper traps are normally a “helper”, isometrically supporting loads or finishing a deadlift where the barbell already has a little momentum. Shrugs are the only isolation I know of. You can get a surprising range of motion on shrugs but you have to pay attention, really let the weight drag your shoulders as far down as they will travel and then bring them up until they nearly touch your earlobes. Do NOT let your upper back bend forward, as is natural; keep your head up.

    • Hey thanks so much for the informative answers guys!! :)

  11. From the Ray Dalio quote:

    “So behavioral modification usually takes place over about 18 months of doing something. ”

    I thought it took 30 days to implement a habit??

    • He’s not referring to formation of habits. He’s talking about rewiring your brain’s reward system.

      Also, the 30-day habit thing has been debunked. No one knows exactly how long it takes to create a habit. It probably depends a lot on the complexity of the new behavior.

      60-67 days have been popularly suggested recently.

  12. Kyle Hoopes says:

    Interesting comments on keep your music playlist fresh–I completely agree with you, and I shall start doing the same.

    Would it make sense to have a preference for a specific brand of raw cocoa powder?

    • Hey Kyle,
      Regarding cocoa, I don’t know. I’ve tried 3 brands and while they taste slightly different (all good to me) the stimulant effect remains the same. I would also guess that they’re all equally healthy.

  13. Heathenwinds says:

    That’s really interesting. Your post reminded me of some things that I knew but forgot about.

    As far as workout methodology, I prefer a slightly modified version of Jamie Lewis’ workouts ). :Lewis’ methodology is different from yours in that instead of being based on the 80/20 principle (which in my experience is more like 65/35 in weightlifting) it’s based on the 100/100 principle and constant experimentation. In the last month or so, my squat went up from 225-ish to parallel to now around 260. Now that I’ve started wrestling for my high school I’m going to have to stop with the constant (and half-assed until recently, admittedly) bulking and cut every now and then for competition, but it’ll be interesting to see how the extra workouts effect the rate of gains.

    As for the whole Brain/OneNote thing I promised you, I had to ditch that because it was a whole lot to keep up with and didn’t seem to offer a whole lot of benefit.

  14. Great stuff!

    I agree with the ritual part. I watch approx 3-4 Zhasni Motivation workout videos before I hit the gym. No matter how sluggish I’m feeling, after I watch those and I realize the brutes out there and how far I have to go before I reach my potential and I instantly feel motivated.

    There’s also an element of fear involved in this as I realize when I watch these how low down the food chain I am compared to these guys haha.

  15. Again a superb and real inspiering article from you Ludwig. Thanks a lot.

  16. I got addicted to lifting weights by finding pleasure in tearing muscle.

  17. Interesting Ludvig. I never really thought about establishing a pre-workout ritual until quite recently, and I’m not the kind of person who miss workouts. I love the gym, and since I’m on the road quite a bit in this second half of the year, I started applying this feedback loop for myself. I take my pre-workout, wash my face, brush and floss my teeth and then head to the gym. Where your meditation is, that’s where my brushing of teeth lies. Turns out this ritual helps me a lot in getting in the zone when I’m working out, thus the loop.

  18. Ludvig,
    Great article!

    I have to agree with the importance of the pre-workout ritual. The last few months I have been listening to very loud metal while driving to the gym. I feel like I own the place when I walk in. The workouts have been more intense, and they take much less time. I used to spend roughly 75 minutes in the gym, but now I am in and out in 30-40 minutes and feel significantly more accomplished.

    Your comprehension of brain function is impressive, thank you for sharing your insight!

  19. Good advice and i will use most of them, but I don’t think you should use pre workout stimulants/supplements. Many are illegal, addictive, and bad for your health.

  20. nice post sir …
    well i have been working out since a couple of months and i will definitely add these things to it…. there is one more thing to having a great physique i.e. following a clean diet …. i try but i m not able to continue with it … i end up with bad eating habits … so from psychological aspect how would i get into “flow” when it comes to diet ….

  21. Hi there! Quick question: How many hours per week do you train Ludvig?

    Thanks!

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