How to Infuse Mindfulness in Your Workouts

We all know the importance of getting to the gym and working out.  Is showing up really 80 percent of the challenge? If so, why do so many people show up to their workouts but have not gotten closer to their personal fitness goals?  Does your workout look something like this: you’re on your phone reading or sending messages, your face is tense, at times you forget to breathe and hold your breath, you are speeding through each exercise to get it over with as quickly as possible, you stop when the movement becomes challenging.  If this sounds a lot like your gym experience you are not alone, but you may be hindering your ability to reach your fitness and health goals.

One of the most profound messages within a yoga practice is to stay mindful of the body and breath while you enter into each posture.  We are guided to explore what comes up when we face challenges, even though our first response is to tense up and try to avoid the challenge. If we breathe through it, however, and keep the mind still our exploration of the movement will continue. We might want to stop, but guiding ourselves through the movement is a powerful awakening of the spirit.

While this is true in yoga, I also believe it is true in all physical endeavors: lifting weights, running five miles, practicing a martial art or hiking in the mountains. There are opportunities everywhere to be in the moment and experience mindfulness without having to be on a yoga mat.  

When I started working with clients, I realized something interesting about their facial expressions. They all had intense expressions on their faces before, during and after they lifted. Sometimes I would notice people just touch a weight and exhibit the same facial expressions that a Strongman would have while trying to pull a 747 airplane 100 feet across the tarmac.  We’ve all been guilty of it.  But think about it; what does your face have to do with the rest of the bodies?

Let’s take a bicep curl as an example.  In an effort to tone the arms most people pay no attention to the face, grip or the position of their shoulders.  In turn, they usually grab too much weight and fling their bodies back and forth in an effort to complete the 10 or 15 reps. You should never try to work one part of the body at the expense of another.  The bicep curl is just as much a core and posture exercise as it is an arm exercise.  Executed properly, it resembles a person standing tall with their shoulders back, abs braced and legs straight. They then bend the elbow and pull the weight to the shoulders. When the weight is lowered, it is done slowly while resisting gravity’s pull on the arms, shoulders and core.

To do this properly, it takes complete attention to every part of your body, from the bottoms of your feet up to the head, along with relaxing the face and controlling the breath by breathing calmly.  Even when the resistance becomes so challenging that you want to stop controlling the mind, allow yourself to push further until you reach the desired outcome, being muscle exhaustion.

When you are not mindful while lifting, you create unnecessary tension in your entire body and mind. In fact, you end up tensing parts of the body that have nothing to do with the exercise. Therefore, you are wasting energy that should be reserved for your workout.  The fear of the discomfort from the exercise is manifested larger than it really is when you do not calm the mind and the breathing.  I’ve witnessed clients believing that they could not do another rep and after talking them through calming the mind they were able to complete 4 to 6 more repetitions.  This is where the results lie.  If you can complete 10 repetitions of any exercise the reps that will get you closer to your goal are 11 to 12–and 13.   

Inattention leads to incorrect execution of movements. This leads to discomfort, pain, injury and lack of results for the amount of effort that is put in. In the end, people get frustrated and quit because they are in pain and they aren’t seeing results.

Furthermore, if you speed through your exercise, your body won’t align itself in the correct position. It takes a conscious and present mind to focus and continually make adjustments through an exercise. Think about it. When a plane takes off from New York to California, it doesn’t fly in a straight line to land in LAX. Instead, the pilot is constantly making adjustments to direction, speed and altitude. He makes these changes so the plane will land safely in spite of the weather and wind.  It’s the same way with exercise. If you try to put your mind on autopilot the body will not follow.  It takes a conscious and directed mind to make adjustments and allow you to execute each movement to hit your mark.

If you are more mindful while you move and push yourself, then you will get more out of every minute that you put into your workout. That means you don’t need to spend 60 mindless minutes in the gym. You can go to the gym, have a really focused 20-minute workout, produce strength and endurance and end up progressing more than you would have during the mindless 60 minutes. Focus equals more engagement. When you engage, more muscles you have better potential for results.

How To Be Mindful

Mindfulness begins before you lift a single weight. In order to be mindful, you need a proper warm up. You don’t just want to go straight into lifting heavy weight. You need to get your body and your mind prepared for what you are about to do. Move into the exercise gradually with movement prep.

Work out barefoot and without gloves. This gives you more contact with the environment and with your body. When you can sense the bar, the weights and the floor, you will be more conscious about your surrounding and be able to focus on what you are doing.

The most important way to be mindful is to get rid of any unnecessary distractions. This means no texting and no chit chatting. You need to be present in your actions. Have a conversation with yourself; pump yourself up. Tell yourself, “Okay, I am going to do eight reps and we are going to exhale before each one. Ready? Go.” Then, when it gets difficult and you are tired, you are less likely to turn to your friend or your phone, and you are more likely to turn inward and pump yourself up instead of giving up.

When you break down your thought process and turn to outward sources for a distraction you create more fatigue than you do motivation. It’s similar to when you do yoga. When you are in a difficult position you don’t turn and talk to your neighbor. Instead, you focus on it and push your way through it by staying present to the moment.

Mindfulness while lifting should transcend into your everyday life. When things get difficult and complicated at the office or at home, it is important to stay calm in your mind and in your breathing. The mindfulness developed through lifting will develop your mental toughness to get you through any situation.

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