Mind Over Muscle: Psychological Components of Fitness

Training Tips

Mind Over Muscle: Psychological Components of Fitness

Reading Time: 10 minutes 4 seconds

By: Ronnie Nicastro

Date: 2021-02-20T00:00:00-05:00

Commitment to exercise is most commonly driven by the desire to improve self-image. The most common of all goals is to build the best physique possible, feel comfortable in our own body and be physically fit. This applies to an athlete and our entire client population. After completing a workout, we benefit from chemical endorphins our brain releases, which causes a reduction in stress levels and anxiety, and boosts self-esteem and energy. Runners often refer to this feeling as ‘runner's high'. Although these benefits are phenomenal, physiological matters still tend to provide the greatest amount of importance in our minds.

Fortunately, there is another part to exercise in itself. To perform to the best of your ability and get the most out of your workouts, you must consider the psychological part of fitness. Not only do psychological principles play a pivotal role in performance enhancement, but your health and well-being are greatly impacted by the factors mentioned throughout.

What Are the Benefits of Sports Psychology?

The mental aspect should be the main fuel for every workout. Having a positive and thought-provoking approach to exercise is crucial. Not only is this great for mental health purposes, but if you genuinely want to be in the gym exercising, you will perform better. Positive neurological reactions lead to massive effects on physiological and muscular responses. However, having the right outlook when entering a gym or exercise setting is pivotal to induce this. The same idea applies to sports and athletic performance. Striving to achieve a stress-free environment can greatly benefit an athlete or your client.

Exercise promotes more than just weight loss, strength gains, and muscle gains. As we know, the benefits extend way beyond these. How often do you take the time to coach your client to have the right mindset about exercise? Fixating our clients' mentality on how the devotion to show up is important in increasing performance will help guide them to better results. This is true no matter the client's goals as long as the program they are following is tailored to them specifically. This is heavily maintained in sports psychology coaching and mental skills training.

Takeaway: Mental preparation before exercise and motivation to exercise will enhance performance leading to better physical results.

When training clients, the initial objective should be determining how you can help them remain motivated and have a consistently positive outlook on the exercise time frame ahead of them. This is where you begin to focus even more on each client.

Factors Affecting Athletic Performance and Client Results

There are three major techniques you want to communicate with your clients to greatly enhance their motivation levels, understanding of commitment, and mental toughness.

1. Goal setting

Goal setting is a powerful technique crucial to enhancing the mindset, performance, and results of clients. Setting specific and ambitious goals enhances motivation and exercise performance (5). By setting standards with and for your clients, they are more likely to achieve them.

You must stress the importance of goals being specific, realistic, and timely when teaching your clients how to set goals suitable for them. The goals they set mustn't be too extensive or unattainable. If they are unrealistic, the opportunity they have for achieving them is going to be minimal. This can lead to discouragement, decreased commitment, and lack of motivation.

You want their goals to be difficult, but realistic. Clients should be able to reach them by putting in hard work and effort, but by no means should the goals be so difficult that they are nearly impossible to do.

Lastly, you want them to set a time frame in which they will achieve the goal. Whether the goals set are short- or long-term goals, if there is no set time in which they are required to achieve it they will most likely put in less effort and direct less attention to it. Planning training and rest days are also important to ensure your client is not overtraining. Learn how to not over-motivate your clients to avoid this.

Recognizing how elite athletes use this technique will support how useful goal setting can be. For example, Olympic gymnast Shannon Miller emphasized the importance of short-term goals. Setting smaller goals to achieve daily to lead up to bigger accomplishments was the key to her success. She believes that no matter the situation, implementing goal setting in this manner will assist anyone (10).

Types of Goals

When discussing goals there are two main types: outcome goals and process goals.

Outcome goals should be avoided as much as possible. Outcome goals refer to goals such as the final result of work that normally takes a longer time frame to achieve. The problem with outcome goals is that clients want results fast. As we know, results do not happen fast and setting outcome goals that are too far out of reach will not help. These goals cannot be achieved unless smaller action steps are taken every day over a long period of time. Coaching clients indirectly to avoid outcome goals will keep their level of focus and skills where they should be, therefore lowering stress and anxiety levels.

Process goals are in fact those smaller goals more on a daily to weekly basis so overtime the end goal is reached. Process goals should be realistic, specific, and timely, and they should be continuously updated as your client continues to progress. Process goals are more effective in helping a client adhere to a program without quitting (9). This helps clients prepare for real support from you, the professional. If your client sets out-of-reach goals, they will get discouraged with a lack of progress or success. Whereas, if they have smaller and achievable goals every week they are regularly accomplishing, they will be encouraged because they will see they are making progress. Sometimes clients need to see progress in different forms to help keep them going, which is something this type of goal can provide.

By setting goals, your client will have something to look forward to. They will know what to expect when they come into the gym and be more mentally prepared for what is ahead of them. It will keep commitment, drive, and motivation levels soaring, leading to better workouts.

2. Self-talk

Self-talk is a direct form of talking with oneself, which can also support goals. This technique can be extremely useful for increasing performance moment to moment. No prior planning is needed to engage in this technique, although preparation in learning how to efficiently perform self-talk is crucial.

You must be able to explain to your client that encouraging themselves through the act of talking to themselves during a specific task is essential. When clients meet with you, they are entering the gym with different mindsets each time. Some days will be disrupted, imperfect, and draining for the most part. This can lead to a lack of motivation to even get to the gym to meet with you. There are many reasons a client has scheduled to meet, but the main focus should be on if they are prepared to perform their best. No matter the life circumstances present, they can be overcome temporarily even if it is improved a tiny amount.

Having the client learn how to tell themselves they will get through that day's session with you, they will achieve personal records today, and they will achieve the best results from their workout can be highly beneficial. Making this skill habitual and natural will enhance the effect even more.

Just by having your client meaningfully tell themselves they can do something can boost their confidence, which in turn will allow them to perform at levels they may not have known they had at the time. Self-talk enhances self-confidence and reduces cognitive anxiety. An increase in self-confidence leads to increased performance (4). This is true even in the careers of professional athletes.

Self-talk is seen a lot in the sport of tennis, especially in Chris Evert's career, for example. Chris's father instructed her to ensure negative self-talk remained absent from her training. He explained to her that anything she spoke would either contribute to her success or her lack of achievement. After much practice, Chris Evert's became exceptionally well at handling emotions and using self-talk to her advantage (7).

Neurological Aspects: Are Clients Truly Physically Fatigued?

During exercise, fatigue is thought to be caused by metabolic reactions and build-ups that occur, but actually, fatigue is also heavily influenced beyond musculature safe zones by the mental aspect. The brain and efferent neural pathways regulate the degree of locomotion to make sure maximal muscle capacity is never utilized. This is a result of inhibitory processes (6).

The nervous systems efferent neural pathways are in control of sending signals out to the limbs and muscles. Blocking this to a certain degree will create a set point to which we cognitively believe is our volitional fatigue. In other words, when we reach this volitional fatigue that our brain views as our body's safe capacity, we will mentally feel as if we are completely done. This happens for many reasons such as downregulation of power output, cardiac protective mechanisms, and inhibition of harmful stressors (6).

This just goes to show how much our brain can control and how our mentality is so important. To get as close as possible to this safe zone fatigue, we must use self-talk with our clients. This will help them get closer to their personal ceiling limit, creating a better chance for optimal results. The idea that we can feel physically drained without any physical activity greatly supports this.

Lastly, a huge part of self-talk is psyching up. We as fitness professionals have all experienced or used some form of psyching up within ourselves and our clientele. Getting a client psyched up before they perform an exercise or while they are exercising can enhance their performance, force production, and power output, which will allow more efficient metabolic reactions and muscular breakdown (8). This will help your clients push themselves beyond their known limits. By helping them psych themselves up, you can get them to complete a few more repetitions ensuring the most muscle breakdown and absolute fatigue. Again, this technique will also help lead to better results in the long term.

3. Imagery

Imagery is the simple act of imagining yourself doing something. This links directly back to goal setting by making clients more susceptible to achieve their goals. Educating our clients to visualize themselves doing something right before actually attempting a personal record or an exercise will give them more of a chance to do so.

Imagery is not the determining factor and will not work with unrealistic attempts, but it does in fact help with realistic goals and can improve performance. This technique can increase exercise behavior and self-efficacy beliefs (3). By having a client's self-efficacy increase, their personal belief to achieve things will increase. This will transfer into exercise-related tasks and also outside factors. Pushing clients to increase their belief in personal ability and belief to successfully perform desired behaviors will help increase performance and results.

You cannot score a goal if you don't see yourself shooting it in the top right corner of the net, correct?

The same idea applies to any circumstance in the gym or on game day. A great way to incorporate imagery during training sessions is to have your client visualize themselves doing a bench press right before doing it. This will increase their belief and motivation when they go to perform the exercise.

Visualization and imagery also aid in priming the muscles. As you visualize a scenario the muscles used in that scenario are being activated even though you are not physically performing it. According to the psychoneuromuscular reaction, the brain is capable of sending such signals to the musculature through efficient imagery. Visualization can also benefit motor learning and should be emphasized almost just as much as physical practice is for any type of exercise, including sport (1).

An example of imagery being implemented is within Olympian Emily Cook's training. Being a part of the United States skiing team takes immense amounts of training and preparation. Emily Cook takes her mental training just as serious if not more than her physical training by visualizing each of her aerial jumps (2).

Effects of Psychology on Sports and Performance

To improve upon clientele results and training programs, you must work on performance factors. No matter the goals, whether they are improved quality of life, hypertrophy, strength, cardiovascular endurance, or muscular endurance, the only missing piece following an exceptional exercise program is the psychological component of fitness. Using each of the three techniques in combination with one another will produce significant psychological skills and performance training results leading to greater physical results. This gets them to the phase of maintaining the results they have now learned to achieve over and over. Teaching clients how to set goals and writing them down, and explaining to them to verbally tell themselves they can do it and visualizing it happening, will provide endless benefits beyond their prior expectations for exercise and prior beliefs of their capability.

If you want to skyrocket your professional career and clients' goal-setting skills then you should consider ISSA's Transformation Specialization. With this specialization you can expand your scope of practice, learning to understand the application of important concepts relating to positive psychology and motivation.

  • Allami, Nadia, et al. "Visuo-Motor Learning with Combination of Different Rates of Motor Imagery and Physical Practice." Experimental Brain Research, vol. 184, no. 1, Dec. 2007, pp. 105-113., doi:10.1007/s00221-007-1086-x.

  • Clarey, Christopher. "Olympians Use Imagery as Mental Training." The New York Times, 22 Feb. 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/sports/olympics/olympians-use-imagery-as-mental-training.html.

  • Cumming, J. "Investigating the Relationship between Exercise Imagery, Leisure-Time Exercise Behavior, and Self-Efficacy." Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, vol. 20, no. 2, Apr-Jun2008, pp. 184-198.

  • Hatzigeorgiadis, Antonis, et al. "Mechanisms Underlying the Self-TalkâPerformance Relationship: The Effects of Motivational Self-Talk on Self-Confidence and Anxiety." Psychology of Sport and Exercise, vol. 10, no. 1, 2009, pp. 186-192., doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2008.07.009.

  • Smith, Jeffrey A., et al. "Goal Setting and Exercise Performance." Human Performance, vol. 9, no. 2, June 1996, p. 141

  • St Clair Gibson, A., et al. "Neural Control of Force Output during Maximal and Submaximal Exercise." Sports Medicine, vol. 31, no. 9, July 2001, pp. 637-650.

  • "Tennis Self-Talk: Historical Examples and Solutions -." Essential Tennis, 5 Jan. 2017, www.essentialtennis.com/tennis-self-talk-historical-examples-and-solutions/.

  • Tod, David A., et al. "Psyching-Up Enhances Force Production During the Bench Press Exercise." The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 19, no. 3, 2005, doi:10.1519/14263.1.

  • Wilson, Kylie and Darren Brookfield. "Effect of Goal Setting on Motivation and Adherence in a Six-Week Exercise Program." International Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, vol. 7, no. 1, Mar. 2009, pp. 89-100.

  • "5 Goal-Setting Tactics Olympic All-Stars Use (That You Can Too)." The One Thing, www.the1thing.com/the-one-thing/5-goal-setting-tactics-olympic-all-stars-use-that-you-can-too/.

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