• Samuel Spinelli

What should you be thinking when you lift?


Essentially the answer is as little as possible.

From the world of motor control & motor learning, we know that in order to learn a task there has to be thought and consideration about that task. For example, if you begin to learn how to perform a clean for the first time and just go through the motions, without thinking about what you are doing and why, you will not learn the movement as well. When someone is learning a technique, it is beneficial to think about what you’re doing; conceptualizing what should be happening and why helps to the learning to make the movement more meaningful. However, when trying to lift as much weight as possible, you want to think as little as possible.


You see this is where people get confused. If you’ve spent much time around “good” lifters, you’ll learn that their mind is calm/relaxed/blank/etc. while performing the lift. Before the execution of the lift, some will be thinking of a cue, or a few cues, but as the lift truly begins no more thought should be occurring.

Walter Payton is a fantastic example of this (football reference, not weightlifting). He was quoted

“People ask me about this move or that move, but I don’t know why I did something, I just did it. I am able to focus out the negative things around me and just zero in on what I am doing out there.”

What better description of truly experiencing it. What happens in a highly skilled individual is that their brain actually decreases activity(1).

Now before the hate starts coming, this doesn’t mean to stop thinking ENTIRELY when lifting, but to stop thinking when lifting heavy - truly heavy. In training we should be TRAINING to hit heavy weights, not thinking to hit heavy weights. If we look at training systems like China & Russia, their athletes perform a wide variety of technical drills & variations of the lifts that force them to hone their technique. From a motor learning perspective, to perform at your best you want to do technical drills to begin learning, then use lift variations that help to ingrain the patterns so when you transition to full lifts we can just attack them.


Credit ATG - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cv_EWWDV2O0

For example, if we have a lifter who tends to let the bar drift away from them during the snatch, we can have them do some light technical practice where they are thinking about keeping the bar close, pulling it into themselves. We could even place a band on a rack in front of them to pull the bar away to help teach them the sensation of pulling the bar back into themselves.

Following that, they could go on to do pause snatches - pausing at the knee for a full second - where the upward motion will be delayed and expose any horizontal translation that occurred. This will help to force them to keep the bar close.


Credit ATG - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cv_EWWDV2O0

Then they transition back to full snatching and should be keeping the bar closer. While warming up and in the early stages back with full snatching they can think about keeping the bar close, but once things get heavy they stop and allow their body demonstrate what its been practicing. Utilizing this style of skill development further out from meets will allow you to hone your technique so when you come to meet prep you no longer have this issue (or have minimized it) and can just focus on completing the rep.

This method of motor control can be translated over to powerlifting (and any other sport) very well. As an example, if we have an athlete who slows down out of the hole on their squats we can follow the same pattern. Initially we can have them practice with a lighter weight where they focus on driving up into lock out forcefully, feeling the bar want to leave their back (since the weight is light). Then we can transition to a drill in which the athlete is now squatting against bands and must continue to drive into the bar throughout the whole lift. Then they can transition to the full squat and practice driving into the bar forcefully with the shoulders again - focusing on accelerating to standing.

That’s it for today folks, if you find yourself thinking too much during lifts, give this method a try for a few months and feel the results. If you need help figuring out a way to implement it, head on over to the store we can set up a consultation.

Move well, get strong, stay healthy,

The Strength Therapist Crew

References -

1 - Hatfield, B.D., D.M. Landers, and W.J. Ray. Cognitive processes during self-paced motor performance: An electroencephalographic profile of skilled marksmen. J Sport Psychol 6:42. 1984.


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