Throughout my years of participating in active sports such as running, football and weight training, I have learnt a great deal about the mind-body connection and its relationship to sport and exercise. Is it the mind that pushes the body to its limits? I think so. But then without the body what use is the pushing mind?
I have often heard the saying : ‘the body has a mind of its own’ in reference to its ability to operate on its own accord and in line with its own rules and laws which we are largely unaware of. Is the mind some kind of unifying force that is mental as well as physical? Something that is inside us as well as outside? I don’t know. But what I do know is that when it comes to sport and training you need two essential things: a goal and the mental determination to reach that goal.
So here are some tips to help you reach that goal.
1. Push yourself.
Perhaps one of the hardest things to do in the gym is to go all out. Whether you are weight training or using the CV machines, going all out – or working to a high level of intensity – can be extremely uncomfortable. But intensity is the very thing that will either get you to your goal or not. I always found that the most effective way of getting to a significant level of intensity was to perform a tri-set exercise or a 5 exercise giant set repeated 5 times with relatively heavy weights; by either hitting the same muscle group or a variety in continuous fashion and with little rest. Ensuring that you are using the correct technique and reaching the correct rep ranges in accordance to your programme (I always found that doing one or two more extra reps doesn’t hurt), and that if your training regime is strictly adhered to then your body should start responding to the resistance.
However, everyone’s goals are different and not every one’s body is strictly the same. This is where understanding your own body – its limits, initial energy levels and capability is so important, and it’s only through experimentation that we learn to understand it in relation to training. And the only way to experiment and come to this understanding is to put the body through tests such as:
- Running as fast as you can over a set time.
- lifting a heavy weight for 1 to 6 repetitions.
- Conducting a giant set until fatigue
In other words, trying, experimenting and always changing your exercise routine to avoid plateau.
2. Know your muscle type
The question of knowing yourself is closely associated with understanding what muscle type your body is predominately made of. There are 2 main types – appropriately named: Type 1 slow twitch muscle fibres and Type 2 fast twitch.
In essence, Type 1 slow twitch fibres tend to tire at a much slower rate than type 2 fast twitch muscle when they are under load. The result of this is that such muscle fibres are able to work for longer before the onset of blood lactate buildup and eventual fatigue. Those who predominately are Type 1 slow will therefore be able to endure endurance based sessions like long distance running for a longer period, where as those who are Type 2 tend to get tired at a faster rate.
Of course, if you really want to find out what muscle type is tucked beneath your skin, you will need to go to a lab for tests. Another way of course is to go to a gym and test yourself through a combination of weight training and distance running. If you find you can complete many repetitions of a certain weight over a certain amount of reps, and that you can run at a continuous speed over a long distance, then the chances are you have more type 1 slow twitch muscles than type 2.
Understanding your muscle type can therefore help you develop and chisel your exercise goals much more accurately which in turn will make them more achievable.
3. Don’t use over training as an excuse.
I have heard this phrase time and time again: ‘don’t over train’. Of course over training can lead to significant disadvantages in your training like regressing. However I have found that it can also be used as an excuse for not pushing yourself appropriately and at high intensity.
Throughout my own personal experience of using gymnasiums , I have found that the large majority of gym users don’t even get near the point of the over training threshold. The body is capable of going beyond its limit at times, indeed it can be argued that the first thing to fail is not the muscle – but the mind itself.
It is so easy to stop once a certain amount of reps has been reached, or even a certain amount of sets. I too have been guilty of this when I know deep down I could have pushed out another set or two. In fact in one interview , Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke about going up to 25 sets a body part! Indeed, this would have been executed prior to a competition. But whereas the large majority of people do around 3 to 4 sets, there really shouldn’t be an excuse not to do 6 or 7 sets instead. The body will no doubt adjust to this intensity which will in turn stimulate growth rather than over train it.
In saying that, what are the signs of over training? The first thing that must be said is that the over training threshold is different for everyone. Some people might be able to withstand a high intensity workout over a long period before feeling fatigued where as others might tire within a week. Again it comes down to understanding your own body. That is why I firmly believe that exercise is also a journey of self discovery; a method or tool that can be used in making our self aware of our physical and mental capabilities, as well as creating meaning in our lives. Yet through personal experience I have come to understand over training as the following:
- A continuous feeling of fatigue which is more prominent in the gym.
- Tiredness when I should feel more alert.
- An abnormal increase in appetite.
Again, these are the sort of feelings I go through and hence they may not apply to you.
No subject of over training can be complete without the subject of rest. Some people may take too many rest days, while others may go weeks on end without a single rest day. I for one am in the later category. It is said that through rest the body begins to repair itself from all those gym hours, where all the nutrients in the body are replenished and sent to the areas of the body that has been worked. It also gives the nervous system a chance to relax and rest after sending all those electrical signals to the contracting muscles. This may be a profound argument against the saying that when you exercise a body part , another part is resting and so one can continue this cycle indefinitely. This indeed may be true but the nervous system – a system which is being constantly activated and engaged in muscle contraction – also needs time to recuperate, and the only way for this to be achieved is through 100% rest – i.e. no training or exercise at all.
5. Eat clean and often and cut the bad stuff gradually
No exercise programme is complete without a sufficient diet that incorporates all the essential macro-nutrients (protein, carbs, fats) in accordance and inline with your body weight, exercise frequency and training goals.
Through my own personal experience, I always found dieting – eating good nutritious clean meals, while avoiding high sugary and fatty foods a big problem. However over the last two years I am in more control, which often makes me think why I wasn’t able to control my bad habits before, but that’s another topic of discussion.
Whatever you put in your mouth must at all times be inline with your training goals. That means if you desire to loose weight by burning and getting rid of fat, then you need to be eating less calories than you burn – in other words your total daily calorie intake must be lower than what you expend. So say for example you eat 2000 calories a day, but due to your daily activities you burn 2200, this will put you in the calorie deficient zone which means after 8 to 12 weeks you will start noticing your body transform into a leaner state.
Indeed , it is often difficult to maintain a strict diet since we all get the craving for fatty sugary foods. So my advice is to slowly cut down calorie intake by eating small healthy and hence cleaner foods. I found that cutting out things like bread , butter and margarine to be extremely helpful. Sugar tends to be the thing that is hardest to avoid since it is found in everything! So cutting out sugar – gradually of course – from teas and coffees for example is a good start. If you want to go to the next extreme then you can then cut out milk e.t.c. However you must find a replacement of all these nutrients. Fruits contain a good deal of ‘clean’ sugar. Vegetables contain fibre and carbohydrates such as boiled potatoes and sweet potato, and clean fats you can get from fish like salmon. Alternatives must be sourced at all times.
Eating clean will also increase your weekly shopping bill so that is something you must bear in mind – particularly if you are a fish lover like myself!
Indeed cutting out the bad stuff doesn’t mean you can never eat it ever again. Don’t forget you can have cheat days, but keep it limited to one meal and a few snacks.