#34 – Training Out of Your Element

Coach D and Coach Trent discuss how routine and habits can impact your mindset and sometimes get in the way of good training. As the saying goes, humans are creatures of habit, and that holds true for training. Whether it’s a pair of lucky underwear, a rocking tune, or doing the haka before a PR deadlift, we all develop habits and quirks which help us focus, clear our minds, and prepare to train. But what do you do when something’s off? Maybe you left your gym bag at home and you’re without a belt and shoes to squat in, or you have to run a new route with unknown surfaces and unfamiliar inclines. Is that workout a bust, or can you adapt on the fly and get some productive training?


Good coaches encourage productive habits and routines. Teaching a lifter to approach the bar the same way every time, for example — right hand, left hand, then right foot, left foot, take a big breath, brace hard, etc. — promotes the repeatability of a movement and gives the lifter’s mind something to focus on while executing a complex movement pattern. Naturally, over time trainees develop their own personalized routines to mentally prepare for training and get into the right frame of mind to exert a high level of effort.


Sometimes these routines can shift our mental attention away from the body cues we can control — things like “hips back” or “stay in the midfoot” — toward ambient or circumstantial cues which we cannot directly control, such as what music is playing, what is going on in our peripheral vision, having clear sight lines outside the normal gaze of the movement. While these details are often what separate the good gyms from the bad, we cannot always choose where we train, and chances are we will encounter unideal environs.


Likewise, equipment can become a crutch, particularly for strength training.  Again, a good coach will recommend you to buy and use basic tools which facilitate productive lifting: shoes, a belt, perhaps some wrist wraps for heavy pressing and benching, straps for the advanced deadlifter. However, form creep happens to everyone and equipment use can become a crutch masking poor technique. Using wrist wraps to maintain a moderately extended wrist in a heavy press, for instance, may be masking the fact that the grip is wrong, and needs to be corrected to carry the bar over the supportive bones of the forearm instead of the smaller, weaker bones in the hand and wrist. A lifter that has learned to push out against her belt rather than tighten her abs with a proper Valsalva may find herself unable to control her back position in a heavy squat, because she has compromised her ability to engage the abdominal wall in the lift.


All that said, don’t try to fix what ain’t broke! Habits and routines absolutely have their place in training. On the other hand, if you find yourself struggling with a lift, a movement, or a skill, examine your routine, and occasionally put yourself in totally new, unfamiliar environments to learn how to self-asses and adapt more readily. Some of us train for competition, where the field of play, the weather, and a host of other factors are unpredictable, and learning to thrive under pressure is a key skill. For the rest of us simply training to live a healthier life… well, life still throws curveballs, and the skills of adaptability and versatility is just as important in life.


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