Get Psyched: In-Gym Motivational Techniques

Background:

The idea of lifting maximal weight is the very core of strength sport. The rush that one gets from completing a max effort lift on the platform and recording a new personal record is among the top feelings a lifter will experience over the course of their career. Naturally, lifters tend to stir up their emotional and physical senses in a variety of ways before a big lift. Dmitry Klokov, arguably the worlds’ most famous Olympic lifter, is famous for his “AHHs” and “YAAHs” he utters before a lift. Layne Norton, another big name in the industry, has become famous for his pre-PR sayings such as “Will you sacrifice to win?” and “It’s a good day to dominate!” Those are his personal ways of readying himself to lift maximal weight. Yet there are others that are not so physical or vocal before their big attempts. Lu Xiaojun, the current 77kg Olympic Weightlifting champion, is always rather calm and methodical before big lifts, and even after only offers a small celebration afterward. Even own Bryce Lewis can be seen pulling 720 lbs here with what seems like very little physical psych-up. This begs the question “Is there even a benefit to getting amped before a lift?” There are opinions on both sides of the argument. Some coaches and lifters are all for getting psyched before a big lift and do it often, both in the gym and in competition. Then there are others who are of the opinion that getting too hyped will actually throw off your technique because you are too excited. So, what can be said about psych ups and other forms of self motivation in terms of performance? Good or bad? 

What is a “psych-up?”

Tod and colleagues (2005) presented a standard definition for the act of a psych up: Psyching-up refers to the use of self-directed cognitive strategies designed to enhance physical performance. Strategies typically used include preparatory arousal, imagery, attentional focus, and positive self-talk. This definition will be used for the purposes of this review.

Purpose:

This review will attempt to compare studies on “psyche-up” techniques and their effects on strength output, with an emphasis on but not limited to maximal strength output. 

Selection Criteria:

For this review, studies have been selected where they at least compare at least one form of psyche-up technique listed in the definition given by Tod and colleagues effects on strength training to either: another psyche-up technique, multiple techniques, and/or a placebo or other form of stimulus. In addition, studies were also chosen based upon the span of full-text access of Syracuse University to allow for appropriate analysis. As such some studies that could have been used were not. 

Literature:

Tod (2005) a study was done on the effect of sych-ups on force production during the bench press over the course of 3 weeks in 12 men and 8 women with at least one year of resistance training. Participants had to perform the bench press for three sets of five repetitions within the rules of the Internal Powerlifting Association (ie with a pause.) Peak force was recorded by a Biodex isokentic dynamometer after either a free-choice psych-up, a cognitive distraction, or attention placebo. Peak force recorded after psyching-up (mean +/- SD: 764 +/- 269 N.m) was significantly different from both distraction (703 +/- 282 N.m, p = 0.003) and attention-placebo (708 +/- 248 N.m, p = 0.01). The mean percentage increase in peak force from distraction to psyching-up was 11.8% (6 to 18%, 95% confidence interval [CI]) and 8.1% from placebo to psyching-up (3 to 13%, 95% CI). Psyching-up showed a signifigantly higher increase in force production.

Brody (2000) the effects of a psyching strategy on max isometric strength of the biceps was studied in 15 resistance trained men over two sessions. Force and electromygraphic activity were measured before and after the following conditions: a 20 minute psych-up period, reading aloud, or performing arithmetic. Though subjects perceived higher arousal and greater effort and focus, there were no significant differences between the various conditions.

Murphy (1988) 24 male college undergraduates were studied to determine the impact of emotional psych-ups on maximal strength. Subjects were asked to select three different images they thought would make them angry, fearful, or relaxed. Isokinetic strength was assessed on a hand based dynamometer before any intervention and after each trial. Subjects were also given a post-intervention questionnaire. The highest strength scores were observed during pretesting under no emotional stress (52 kg/sq. in.) Although subjects in the fear and anger conditions reported increased levels of arousal, no increase in strength performance was noted in any of the conditions

Gould (1980) A study was done to test the effects of different length psych-up periods on leg strength performance in 40 males and 40 females, all of which were undergraduate college students. It was not indicated whether the students has previous experience with resistance training. Students were organized psych up duration and sex. They were tasked with performing a maximal leg strength output which was measured isokentically. There were no significant differences found in strength production between any of the trials, however males were shown to take significantly longer psych-up periods as compared to females.  

Shelton (1978) An intervention was done at an Olympic weightlifting competition to measure the nature and impact of “psych” up strategies among 30 male volunteers. Volunteers were placed in either a control or experimental group. Baseline measures of strength were taken. The control group was distracted during the task while the control group was allowed to freely chose a method to psyche themselves up. Measurements were taken using a dynamometer. Researchers then conducted post exercise interviews on each group. The post-experimental interview revealed the psyching strategies to be combinations of all or some self-efficacy statements, performance imagery, self-generated arousal, and attentional focus techniques. The psych-up group showed greater increase in strength as compared to the control.


Summary of Findings:

The literature may suggest a trend towards effectiveness of psyching up. Of the various psych up techniques, research seems to suggest a more positive increase in strength from internal, focused and intense types of psyches, though various forms have shown success. No specific research is done to show exactly how often psyches can be optimally used without negatively effecting training or recoverability, and thus further research should be conducted for purposes of practical implementation of psyching techniques. 

Discussion:

First of all, there is the idea of external vs internal psyches. All the studies used some form of internal stimuli as a control, usually a form of distraction. The experimental group, however, took their stimuli from themselves. That is to say that they were given some type of internally motivated psych to do, either of the researchers choosing or of their choice. In all the studies where psyches were shown to be effective for gains in strength, the internally stimulated group (self-psych-up) was the breadwinner in terms of strength gains. This means that using a source of internal motivation is probably the best choice for someone looking to output maximal strength.

Next, we can compare focus verses intensity; the type of psyches- which is more effective? Interestingly amongst the studies many saw no significant differences between a variety of different techniques. However, Shelton and colleagues, one of the earliest groups to study psyching-up, noted that focusing techniques had the greatest popularity amongst the lifters lifting the most weight, in combination with some form of self arousal technique as well. Though the later research only seems to confirm that these strategies are indeed effective, and not necessarily superior, it’s worth noting that these two types of techniques may hold some kind of advantage compared to other psyches.

Arousal forms were another point addressed in the literature. Murphy and colleagues looked at various forms of emotional arousal and found that anger and fear had no special effect on strength, nor relaxation. Subjects actually had the best performance on the trial during the pretest when they were simply asked to exude maximal strength, meaning that the psyches (or in one case relaxation) actually decreased lifter performance. This seems to point again to the need for a feeling of confidence or lack of doubt in terms of a lift, but also some kind of focus or intensity.

Lastly is the idea of the time duration and constraint of a psych-up period. Intuitively, one would think with large, unlimited amounts of time that the longer the psych-up the better the performance might be. However, in the study by Gould and colleagues, they found no significant  differences when various time constraints were enforced upon subjects then when unlimited time was given. This may indicate that, though lifters may believe we need a lot longer to prepare for a large lift, a short simple psych may be all one needs to elicit performance gains.

Overall, the literature is vast is seems to show a trend towards internally motivated, confident, focused and intense psyches with no specific time recommendations for increased performance. Not all research showed significant gains in performance.


Possible Application and Discussion of Constraints:

There are so many cool things to discuss here. Intuitively, as a lifter (or heck as a human being) we become aroused and increase our adrenaline in times of excitement or during important events. There are plenty of people that argue that this can have negative effects (as one study even showed). So what does one have to do in order to elicit the most out of their natural response to a high stress event?

I would argue that someone would need to follow along the trend that the research has shown to produce the best results if they want to get the most out of their psyches- that is an “internally motivated, confident, focused and intense psyches with no specific time.” So perhaps a lifter could begin with motivational self-talk of some kind before stepping on the platform (internal focus, confidence builder), then once moving to attempt the lift, have some kind of auditable primer ala “Will you sacrifice to win?” (Internally motivated intensity) and then of course take your time before the lift to feel the actual intensity of the task you are about to perform. (no specific time limit)

Again, though these are specific recommendations, the possibilities of psyches that fit within the general trend are endless. At the end of the day, the type of psyching that gets you most primed to lift is what you should do.

When/how often to use a psych is both something individualized and a possible constraint. Using psych ups to release more adrenaline may elicit greater performance gains overall, but it can impact your recoverability in terms of lifting. The central nervous system is bound to occur fatigue from the added stress over time. This means that, like lifting itself, a degree of auto regulation must be exercised in order to make the best use of the ability to psych-up. There is a genetic component to this as well: some bodies are naturally better at handling higher stress situations more often. A lifter that comes to mind is Pete Rubish, who often is seen in his YouTube videos screaming and getting extremely excited before and after his lifts. His personal genetics allow this. Research could definitely be done to indicate if there is a standard for how often psyches can be optimally implemented across training.

Another constraint is the idea of over-psyching leading to form breakdown. This is the number one argument I see against going for huge hypes for yourself. While I agree that this can hold people back, this is why psyches of focus have their merit- visualizing the lift with great form and telling yourself you are going to hit the lift can surely prevent something this from happening. But this will take practice. It is good to note that most of the subjects from today’s study had lifting experience, and therefore probably had a predetermined notion of how to properly amp themselves up for a big lift. As such, I would say newer lifts should try to avoid hyping so there is no large degradations in form.

One other constraint worth mentioning is the sociocultural impact of the environment. A lifter in a crowed commercial gym verses a lifter on the platform at the meet are two very different things. A lifter in a commercial gym might be inclined to tone down their natural response to a PR simply because they are afraid of being judged by others or it may be against the rules of their particular gym. On the complete opposite side, a lifter in a meet is prone to be beyond exited and may psych-up for every lift. Environment completely changes psych-up aspects.

Psych-ups are not without their draw backs, but it seems that with the proper constraints addressed, they could have their benefit in training. As always, I would suggest further avenues of study to examine possible implications and applications of this technique, as well as self-testing to find what may be optimal for you. 

Thank you for reading,

Joseph Stanek, TSA Intern, Syracuse University

@Joe_Stanek Instagram/Twitter

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