You might think mental strength is separate from physical strength, but when you’re trying to become stronger through strength training, mental strength helps you get there. Mental strength is also related to mindset. It’s clear that mental toughness and mindset play a key role in athletic success and performance. In fact, mindset can separate a winning athlete from one who never achieves their potential. That’s why coaches spend time improving an athlete’s mental focus too. If you’re mentally tough, you’re more likely to have a positive mindset toward fitness training too.
What is mental strength? It’s the ability to deal with challenges, including the challenges unique to building a stronger and healthier physique. If you don’t have mental toughness, it will be harder for you to reach your goals and you might not reach them at all. The decision to do anything begins in your brain. So, how can mental strength help you reach your strength-training goals?
The Mind Muscle Connection
There’s too little emphasis in bodybuilding on the mind-muscle connection, how the brain and nervous system “talk” to muscles, but there should be. Your muscles move because your brain tells them to, and research shows that focusing on a muscle and its movement recruits a higher percentage of muscle fibers and improves the quality of the muscle contraction and the force it generates. Some research even shows you can strengthen a muscle through mind power alone.
Need an example? A study carried out by researchers at the Cleveland Clinic divided subjects into two groups. One group exercised their pinkie finger by flexing the muscles. The other group didn’t move their pinkies but focused on doing so in their mind. When the researchers measured pinkie strength before and after, both groups increased strength in their pinkies. The group who exercised their pinkies gained the most strength, an average of 53%, while the group who did mental pinkie movements boosted their strength by 13.5% despite doing no movement at all.
Another more relevant study for bodybuilders was a study where participants did bench press exercises under one of three conditions:
- While focusing on their triceps muscles
- While concentrating on their pectoralis major muscles
- Without focusing on any muscles
The study found that when subjects focused on a specific muscle; it increased activation of that muscle when they did a bench press. However, the boost in muscle activation only held when they lifted 60% or less of their one-rep max. When they lifted heavier, there was no improvement in muscle activation for the muscle they focused on. The explanation for this may be that when a person bench presses a challenging weight, it’s harder to concentrate on the muscles they’re working. Instead, you focus on getting the weight up safely. Still, this research shows how strong the mind-muscle connection is and how important it is not to let your mind wander when you train. So, don’t train on autopilot. Be engaged with your training and don’t just go through the motions.
Self-discipline is another prerequisite for success with strength building. Without it, you won’t show up when it’s inconvenient or on days you don’t feel like it. When you have self-discipline, you push through because you have the right frame of mind and you know you won’t be successful unless you’re consistent with your training. Being mentally strong means you’re more likely to have the self-discipline to show up consistently and put in the work to achieve your strength-training goals.
Even if you have great potential to build strength and understand how to do it, you won’t get far without the discipline to follow the plan. Self-discipline doesn’t always come naturally. Sometimes, you have to retrain your mind to be more disciplined. It’s not something you’re necessarily born with, but it is something you can develop.
Better Ability to Push Yourself
Muscles grow and become stronger when you challenge them beyond what they’re accustomed to, and that involves a little discomfort. Being mentally healthy and having the proper mindset will also help you push through when the going gets tough. To build strength, you have to use progressive overload and ask your body to perform harder than it did a month ago. When you’re mentally strong, your mind will tell you you’re capable of doing one more repetition and that can make the difference in gaining strength and muscle or staying the same. A strong mind gives you the motivation to push a little harder and when you push a little harder, you get greater returns.
Less Likely to Fall for Quick Fixes
When you’re mentally tough, you know that change involves hard work and are undaunted by it. You believe you have the power to make a change. Too often, people look for quick fixes to getting a leaner, more defined physique. They invest in supplements and exercise gadgets that aren’t a replacement for hard work, a healthy diet, and consistent training. Unfortunately, there isn’t a path to getting leaner and stronger that doesn’t involve work. Quick fixes aren’t a path to long-term gains, and they further reinforce the idea that you can get results for free. It’s an illusion and mentally tough people know that.
Greater Ability to Handle Frustrations and Setbacks
Becoming leaner and stronger is a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s often a winding path rather than a straight one. If you’re mentally tough, you realize it will be hard work and you’ll be patient and not expect instant results. Too often, people become frustrated after a few weeks when they don’t see results sand throw in the towel. Mental toughness will help you stay on course and not give up too soon. A strong mind will help you anticipate and overcome roadblocks and setbacks.
The Bottom Line
Mental strength and mindset matter when you’re trying to change your physique. Keep training your muscles but also focus on strengthening your mindset and developing mental toughness. It can mean the difference between reaching your full potential and never seeing results.
- org. “The Mind-muscle Connection”
- Calatayud, J. et al. (2016). Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 116, 3, 27-33.
- org. “Mental Toughness in Coaching: A Functional Definition Determined by Elite Coaches”
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