Don't lose your focus—or should you?
Coaches, personal trainers, and our own brains tell us we can improve workout form if we just focus. Put enough mind power behind a burning muscle or agile movement and our technique should improve. Or to use the common saying, put mind over matter.
But research from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas recently disproved this line of logic.
“You can’t possibly try to be efficient and focus on what you are doing,” says Gabriele Wulf, Ph.D., the director of the Motor Performance and Learning Laboratory at UNLV. “When working out, I think the mind has more of a negative effect.”
According to Wulf, the world’s best athletes don’t have to think about how their bodies move because practice has made their competition and training automatic. Her research suggests that the rest of us can trick our minds into making movements feel automatic, mimicking the mental state of the pros and improving workout efficiency and form. Follow these tips from Wulf to harness your brain for better performance in the gym.
Think outside the body
In one of Wulf’s studies, she separated swimmers of equal ability into two groups. The first group focused on the movement of their arms through the water while completing laps. The second group focused only on pushing the water back. The second group recorded significantly faster times because of a phenomenon called “external focus,” during which concentrating on the effect of the body’s movement is more effective than concentrating on the body itself.
“When you adopt an external focus, you perform much more automatically and efficiently,” Wulf says. “Somehow the body knows what it has to do to achieve the desired outcome, and that results in more fluid, efficient, and accurate movements.”
This can be applied to any exercise. While lifting weights, focus on the motion of the dumbbell instead of the muscle. While running, focus on pushing against the ground instead of breathing or the movement of the legs. When you ignore specific motions and pay attention to your surroundings, your form and performance will improve, Wulf says.
Positive thinking does more than make you feel good—it actually improves your workout efficiency and oxygen intake. In a 2012 study, Wulf separated runners with equal ability into two groups. The first group simply ran for 10 minutes. The second group also ran for 10 minutes, but received positive feedback on their form—even if it wasn’t correct—every two minutes. The second group felt less fatigued and boosted their oxygen intake.
It turns out that if you believe you have good form, exercising feels easier and you consume oxygen more efficiently. Wulf says this is because confidence in your form makes you think less. “Positive feedback relaxes you, and you aren’t consciously concerned about your efficiency,” she says.
While working out solo, you can harness the power of positive thinking by telling yourself that you have good form or thinking about a recent success. If you work out with a buddy, encourage one another. This will help you worry less about your body movement, which will improve how you feel and perform at the gym.
Make your own choices
According to Wulf, motivation breeds success while working out. Feeling motivated not only boosts form, it makes you feel less fatigued.
The upshot? It takes surprisingly little effort to enhance motivation, Wulf’s research indicates—you simply have to feel in control.
In one of Wulf's recent studies, weightlifters who got to choose the order of their exercises lifted more weight for more reps than those who were given a set order. Those given the option to choose had better form and achieved better results because “people want to feel autonomous,” Wulf says. “It doesn’t take much—a simple little choice can do the trick.”
If you are on a set workout schedule, create small choices during the routine, like picking the order in which you perform each exercise or the type of warmup and recovery stretches you perform.