Contagion: Your Gym Behavior Matters

Sometimes I watch people lift, and they look they’re doing their taxes. There’s a lot of sighing, slumping down on a bench between sets, leaning on racks, head down, shoulders forward, scrutinizing their program or scrolling social media (lord knows that’s me sometimes; okay, lots of times), the minutes inching by while they plod around the gym like they’re in a funeral procession (but not a fun, New Orleans one). The actual lifting is even worse, because if you’re lifting hard, a little sitting down between sets certainly seems appropriate, but if your lifting has all the excitement and sound of a body being wheeled down an empty hallway to get put on ice, I have to ask: What. The. Hell? Aren’t you supposed to be achieving something? Aren’t you supposed to be pushing your body to its absolute limit? Aren’t you relishing one of the few opportunities modern life affords to express all that rage, aggression and pain that our culture tells you to shove down as deep as you can and ignore? Aren’t you trying to create enough physiological mechanical stress that your actual tissues change?
 In the words of the late and great Terence McKenna, “What is going on?”

Terence McKenna in his late 20s/early 30s, lookin' like a bespectacled Jesus Christ, complete with flowing locks and buoyant beard.
Terence is not impressed by your shitty attitude. Drop 5 dried grams and then come back to the gym with some appreciation for the miracle of your existence.

I’m not saying everyone needs to be at a 10 out of 10 arousal level to lift weights, everyone’s optimal is different: but 2 out of 10 is optimal for exactly nobody, and I see a lot of 2s out there.

Here’s the thing, I’ve been this person many times. I’ve come in from a hard day of work, energy tanking, and collapsed onto a bench, to halfheartedly “warm up” and “mobilize” for thirty-two life-wasting minutes. For a long time, I thought that my mood and arousal state pre-and-mid-lift were just luck of the draw; whatever I had left was what the gym is getting. But that was ignorance and inexperience. We get to cultivate and conjure what we want to feel, if we are intentional and learn to understand what works for us individually. Not only that, but we owe it to ourselves and the other lifters in our sphere, to try and bring the fuckin’ heat.

There is a LOT you can do about your mental and physiological state for your workout. We have the power cultivate conducive states of being, mental and physical, in anticipation of our workouts, for our sake and for the sake of those who inhabit the same lifting space. I mean, assuming you want to have a productive training session, right?

The human brain seems to be wired for imitation. There is an intimate connection between perception and action, seeing and doing, in the human brain. A nice example of this intimate link is the so-called mirror neuron, discovered by a group of Italian researchers in the mid-1990s. These brain cells are active both when people perform a certain behavior (e.g., grasping) and when we merely see someone else perform that behavior. These brain cells do not discriminate between our own and other people’s behavior. 

– IResearch.Net

Humans are hyper sensitive: we pick up the energy and behavioral cues of other people easily and unconsciously. Behavioral contagion, the official term, is a well documented phenomenon. This can be good or bad. When everyone is having a great day in the gym, it can lift you up like a rising current and before you know it, you’re crushing your sets, yelling at your buddies, or just smiling and laughing between lifts for no reason, because you just feel GOOD. But the downside of this is if everyone, or even just one person with a strong presence, is having a shitty day, you could easily be affected by it, unless you’re on high alert.

Personally, I don’t want to take that risk, so I do what I need to do to energetically come out swinging. It’s also a bit disrespectful to all the lifters around you, who are  hopefully trying to break their asses off and accomplish something, if you’re moaning and groaning in the background like some kind of Dead Marsh wraith attempting to lure unsuspecting hobbits into an early watery grave.

Careful, hobbitses, lest a marsh zombie steal your gainz

People affect your state of being, and this is why, for me, it is critical to lift with people who are there to fuck shit up, kill themselves with weights, and give their workout violent attention and excitement, or nobody at all. I would rather lift alone than with a wet blanket whining about how heavy everything feels, or how tired they are. You are actively hurting the lifters around you when you indulge in expressing sentiments like that. Shut. Up. Keep it to yourself, or call someone who gives a shit. It’s one thing to acknowledge that you’re having a harder day than usual, it’s another to go on and on about it. You know the difference.

Listen, if you’re having a rough day and you need to get something off of your chest, talk to your lifting partner(s) or coach. Take a moment and do that! That’s totally reasonable and often necessary. We all have hard days.  But then move on. Or go home! That’s fine! Live to fight another day. But dragging that downer energy around like a giant, rotting, maggot-ridden albatross around your neck isn’t helping you or anyone else. DO something about it.

Performance is not a mathematical phenomenon, it is a human behavioral one.

-Front page of ThePerformanceVibe.com

Your warm ups can completely change your energy; in fact, they should. My coach, Andrew Triana of The Performance Vibe, specifically designs the first movement set of each workout as a potentiating sequence for not only the second movement, but to (obviously) get the whole system online. I love my warm ups, because…drumroll…they always make me feel ready to go lift! Whoa! Amazing. If your warm up doesn’t accomplish that, it’s not a good warm up for you. Sometimes, if I need it, I do a little extra: jumps, jog, short sprints, etc. Experiment with and design a warm up that gets you where you want to be, and note that every day is different, and you will have different needs. You’re not a robot. Figure out what you need to get your shit done.

Oh look, Jenny Todd and Donna Moore, two insanely powerful Strongwomen, train together. Color. Me. Shocked (Todd is also Moore’s coach).

Some of us boot up faster than others; some people need more prep/warm up time. Some people, and some people on some days, need something extra: a little meditation to shed the workday, a little music to get your mind right; hell, dancing is probably my favorite and one of the more effective pre-lift rituals to change up your energy and to paraphrase my colleague Dr. Pat Davidson, probably way more effective than stretching or foam rolling if “loosening up” is the goal.

I’m also not saying that you have to be a joyful songbird shitting sunbeams your whole workout. Some workouts are just especially rough and hard, no way around it. You don’t have to love it; you just have to get through it. And ideally, one might try to find a way to get through something shitty with a determined and victorious mindset. Personally, I like to sort of enter this semi-crazed state where the worse it sucks the more I tell myself either A) “I love it!” or B) “let the hate flow through youuuuu.” Sometimes I just have to put my head down and try to cry quietly. It happens!

Actually me whenever I have to squat more than 8 reps

Ultimately, the meta experiment of training is figuring out what works the best for you, and that might not be what’s best for me. You can get ragey or stoic or whatever your jam is, at the end of the day, it is about paying attention to your mental state and how that feeds into your physical state, AND the environment you’re in. But, if what works best for you is being loudly annoying, and talking about how you’re tired, everything hurts, you hate this exercise, etc, then A) that probably doesn’t actually help you at all and B) I resent you intensely.

Your energy is your responsibility, and it affects everyone else, so take charge of it – it will help you as much as the rest of us. There are many ways to do this, and each of us can come up with something unique to us that will get us ultimately where we all want to be: Crushing weights and having a great training session. And if that’s not what you want, figure out your shit or get the hell out of the gym.

Unrelated bikini pic because I was the most shredded I’ve ever been when I was in Thailand in 2017 and it’s my blog, I do what I want. PEACE.

[Image of Todd and Moore.]

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