The Power of Self Talk

As far as I can tell, the fitness/lifting community is a motley bunch in terms of both consistency and results. There’s the ‘no pain no gain’ crew that seem to have an insatiable appetite for work – these folks will get in and crush it whether it’s 4am or 9pm and somehow seem to always have a smile on their face while doing it. There’s the casual lifters who go through phases of consistent training, and then fall off the wagon for months or years. There’s people who seem to enjoy training whenever they get the chance, and have no guilt about missing a few sessions, just so long as they’re getting in there and doing it. And don’t even get me started on all the different training methods there are – everyone has an opinion.

Personally I feel like I’m probably closer to the first group but I’m definitely not putting myself out there as an example of how to do it right. At this point I’ve been lifting consistently for over 5 years, and aside from a couple of 2ish week breaks after some minor surgeries last year, I don’t think I’ve ever had a break longer than 3 days from lifting – that includes holidays both interstate and overseas. My desire to train consistently no matter what doesn’t necessarily always come from a healthy place – I’ve written before about how I started lifting during the Great Diet of 2016 where I decided that I was going to change my life and never be obese again. I hated my body back then, and although I now look in the mirror and see a completely different physique, those scars are deep. Even though there’s been massive positive changes, I probably won’t ever be satisfied and will always be trying to improve. Another factor driving me on is that deep down in my core I still fear that if I take a break it’ll become permanent and I’ll balloon into the fat guy I used to be. Having taken forced breaks and come back to lifting, my rational mind knows that this is unlikely, but the subconscious mind is a powerful thing.

From day one I’ve trained alone in a home gym, because it’s convenient and provides more flexibility with scheduling – I have a wife, a child, a full time job and a mortgage, and all the duties and responsibilities that come along with them. Fitting in sessions isn’t always super easy, and over the years I’ve tried various schedules and frequencies but what seems to be most sustainable is 2 early morning weekday sessions a week and 2 daytime sessions on the weekend. On those weekday sessions I’m normally getting out of bed at 4:30am so I can do the normal morning stuff, imbibe the magical wake up juice and train before walking the dog and eating a proper breakfast. I’m mindful of getting enough sleep, but at that time of the morning I often don’t really feel like going to my gym and lifting heavy things, especially if there are other life stressors going on. The weekend sessions are usually easier since I can wake up and fuel properly beforehand, but even then sometimes my mind will make up all sorts of excuses why I should put it off or even skip it altogether, especially if it’s a heavy squat or deadlift day.

The idea of this post was to reflect on the stuff I say to myself that gets me through those difficult days. Maybe it helps someone, maybe it just shows I’m nuts, but I like to write, so eh… I’m putting it out there.

Getting Started

When I roll out of bed at 4:30am, unless it’s some kind of red letter day, the last thing I want to do is a heavy squat or deadlift. The first thing I usually do is go to the bathroom, weigh myself and get dressed. That gives me a few minutes to think about the session ahead and whether I really want to do it or not – and even when things are going well, I probably flirt with skipping or postponing it 20% of the time, and when I’m feeling very sore and tired that number would be much higher!

There’s a few different techniques I can use to make it happen, but the most common self talk is an old faithful: “you can always go out and start warming up, and if it feels really bad, call it off”. To date, I can’t remember ever stopping once I’ve started (short of an actual injury)1.

I’ve felt like this even during deloads and periods where the training’s been relatively light, and at those times it’s a pretty easy sell to internally say “it’s only going to be light, let’s just get it done”.

The third thing that I fall back on is a focus on the outcome. I definitely think about the progress my lifts have made, the improvements in my physique over the years, and my “why” for doing this (that’s a whole ‘nother topic in itself). But all those things pale in comparison to the acute outcome – I’ve never, ever felt worse after lifting than I have beforehand. It’s hard to describe the feeling I get after training – some people call it euphoric, but I wouldn’t go quite that far. It’s pleasantly tired, sore, and satisfied that I’ve pushed myself to do something I didn’t really want to do, but that I know is good for me and my goals. So some easy self talk to get going is ‘think how much better you’ll feel afterwards’.

Being Data Driven 2

I was always taught ‘what gets measured gets managed’. Unfortunately, I’m also someone who gets obsessive about things, and if you’re like that (maybe even if you’re not) collecting too much data can add more complication to life than it’s worth, especially if you’re not actually doing anything with it. So make sure you’re not just tracking things because they’re nice to look at – if you’re not using the information for something tangible, maybe it’s worth assessing whether the juice is worth the squeeze.

But all that said – having good solid data on my training is a fundamental tool in my toolbox that helps me push myself each session.

If I’m anxious about a heavy squat, and I look at my training log and know that I squatted that same weight (or even a little less, or a little more) at RPE 7 a week ago, then I can be absolutely sure that this week it’s not going to be a grind. My performance doesn’t fluctuate that much from week to week, and under normal circumstances I doubt most people’s would. And under abnormal circumstances (malnourishment, sleep deprivation, illness, etc) you’re gonna feel it in the warmups and can make adjustments.

My self talk then is something like “you’ve got this, it’s nothing you haven’t squatted before”.

What if it’s something I haven’t squatted before? Then it becomes a matter of faith.

Having Faith

If you’re getting programming from a coach, do you think they’d program you something beyond your capabilities?

If you’re using a program or template written by someone else, do you believe that it makes sense for your situation, and that other people have successfully made progress running it?

Can you honestly say to yourself that you’ve given the program your absolute best efforts, without regularly skipping or half arsing sessions?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then the simple answer is that if you’ve put in the work, the rewards will come – and the worst that can happen is you’ll miss the lift and get on with your session. my self talk in this situation is usually “you CAN do this, just focus on executing the lift”. If I’ve got a favourite cue for that lift then I might remind myself of it – but it really helps not to think about it too much and just get on with the job.

If the answer to these questions is no, then maybe it’s time for some honest evaluation of whether your coaching and/or programming are appropriate.


1. Ironically, or something – between starting this article and finishing it, it actually did happen – I walked out of a training session while warming up because it felt so crap and something in my brain said nope. No guilt really – some disappointment, but tomorrow is another day.

2. This post originally started as a thought bubble from Josh Pelland’s great article How Hard Are We Training? Additional Considerations for RIR Accuracy (and the podcast that went along with it).

In the article, Josh has collated some evidence that perceived effort in the gym (in the form of RIR) is influenced by a bunch of external factors including (but not limited to) stuff like music, the presence of spotters and mental stress. He goes on to provide some practical suggestions to try and use that information to make training more effective – things like standardising your training environment where possible, and biasing training towards lower rep ranges. It’s well worth a read.

My immediate reaction to this was “yes, but…” – because while the evidence clearly supports outside influences having an effect, I feel like maybe the magnitude of those effects are probably pretty variable from individual to individual. Some people seem to train alone and use RPE accurately enough to make great progress, so I don’t think they’re consistently undershooting RPE because they don’t have spotters or training partners to push them. Likewise some people can barely manage a regular gym habit unless they have a fun environment to train in and people around them to encourage effort. Neither of these mean the effects aren’t real, but perhaps there are different phenotypes of people and we gravitate towards the training style that suits our personality – and perhaps we can also develop techniques to mitigate the negative effects of those outside influences when they can’t be avoided.

Ultimately this ended up being a bit of self reflection about how I personally keep myself on track, and it probably only tangentially relates to the article, but it’s well worth considering the points Josh makes if you want to get the most out of your training sessions.

Add a Comment