A smart-aleck newspaper columnist recently made fun of the “guys who bench a lot and then stare at the wall.” You have missed the point, champ. These gents have their act together. You should have made fun of the nerdlings who “update their profile” and tweet about their chicken sandwiches between their sets of “Bulgarian split squats.”
A cultural observation: today’s young Americans are afraid to be left alone. They have to be constantly chatting or texting, and they are afraid of silence. If this describes you, either change your ways or be content to be weak.
Do Not Be Afraid to Be Alone
There is a finite amount of nervous energy you possess. Any accomplished athlete is a Scrooge when it comes to using it sparingly and only on things that matter. A strong lifter will rack the bar, then sit down and zone out for ten minutes until the next set. Being alone, meditating, whatever you call it, is how a lifter restores his nervous energy with interest.
Contrast the many ways a typical gym rat wastes his precious nervous energy. The worst drain, by far, is the infernal device called the cell phone. It must have been invented by a Machiavellian mind with a deep hatred of the Western civilization and a burning desire to bring it down. He is succeeding. Americans used to be known for thinking big, dreaming big, living big. Not any more. Consider the new fashion, “life logging.” A nerdling straps a camera to his scrawny or fat carcass to record every moment of his petty, meaningless life.
Leave that pathetic little device in the car. If you are bringing your own music (not a bad idea given the testosterone-inhibiting drivel played at gyms), get a music player that is just that. No communications and no “apps.”
The headset, in addition to covering up boy bands with Motorhead or Saxon, will limit unwanted social interaction. I wish I could wear a “Do Not Disturb!” hotel sign around my neck, but headphones and a reptilian absence of facial expression are the second best thing.
Make no eye contact. Do not look away; look through.
Several years ago I watched an amusing scene at a powerlifting meet. A spectator started waving frantically at a top lifter he knew. The lifter was in the warm-up area. Although it was not his turn to lift, his thousand-yard stare failed to register the fan. The latter thought the lifter was rude. I knew better.
Do not talk. A conversation, pleasant or unpleasant, is an engagement of nervous energy.
Do not smile.
Stop Smiling and Lift
Prof. Stuart McGill tells a fascinating story in Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. Jerzy Gregorek, a weightlifting world record holder from Poland whom I had the pleasure of meeting, cleaned the bar and was ready to jerk it for the final attempt. He knew the lift was his and he smiled internally. “Not an external smile that any observer would detect, but a smile in his brain.” Gregorek missed the lift and lost the championship. Prof. McGill concludes, “Several high performance people have suggested that smiling inhibits muscle activation. There is some evidence to suggest that this is true. It may well turn out that ultimate muscle contraction requires a ‘game face’!”
Kraus & Chen (2013) examined pre-fight photos of 152 MMA fighters facing off and correlated them with the fight records. Those with a more neutral expression were more likely to win. The fighters who smiled less were also “more likely to end the fight by knockout or submission, more likely to land a higher percentage of significant strikes and more likely to wrestle their opponent to the ground during the fight.” Other studies show that smiling can be a sign of submission and that men with higher levels of testosterone smile less.
I am not suggesting you become a jerk. Just save your smiles for outside the gym.
Strength is a decidedly individual pursuit. You may have a coach and training partners, but when it comes down to it, it is between you and the iron. Do not be afraid to be alone with the iron.