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How To Stop Overthinking Your Lifts

Updated: Feb 26

Overthinking: overthink verb
over·​think | \ ˌō-vər-ˈthiŋk \
overthought\ ˌō-​vər-​ˈthȯt \; overthinking
Definition of overthink transitive + intransitive To think too much about (something) : to put too much time into thinking about or analyzing (something) in a way that is more harmful than helpful


Has overthinking ever overwhelmed your training?


If so, this article is for you.


When overthinking abounds, lifting weights becomes a lot harder. And less fun.


It is demoralizing and can make you feel broken.


Below, I discuss the various methods I use to help people stop overthinking their lifts.


Establish Your Base Technique


Nothing makes someone overthink more than uncertainty.


You can't feel competent when you are second-guessing what you are doing.


If you can, get a coach to help you with your movement questions because this is the stage where you'll be deciding HOW you will perform certain lifts.


Next, we need to decide on a way of lifting and stick to it for a while.


Establishing Technique


To use squats as an example:


Where should your feet be pointing?


Where are your hands?


Do you break at the knees, the hips or from both at the same time?


These are some of the questions you may have about the lift and there will be many more.


Answer these questions and we'll go on to establishing how much wriggle room you have.


If you are struggling with technique, I would always recommend a coach.


Using external cues like sitting on a box while squatting may help here too.


The point is, establish your minimum standard technique and go from there.


Establish What Wriggle Room You Have


What do I mean by wriggle room?


Your wriggle room is the range of positions you can be in while doing a particular lift and be able to perform well.


If you are a beginner or someone who doesn't have any injuries the chances are, you have more wriggle room.


This is because beginners lift lighter weights and have fewer lifting related injuries.


To use squats as our lift again, if you can put your feet in a large range of positions, your knees never hurt when you squat and you have mobility enough to decide how deep to squat, you have a lot of wriggle room and you don't need to be considering every detail before you lift.


Enjoy the wriggle room. Wriggle room is good.


On the other hand, if you can only squat to depth without hip pain with everything in a specific position, with specific warm-ups, and Venus in a specific place in the night sky, you don't have a lot of wriggle room.



Establish how much wriggle room you have in each lift you are overthinking.


This dictates how much attention to detail you need for the next stage.


Create a Repeatable Routine


Your big lifts should be a well-rehearsed script.


You should be a Daniel Day-Lewis level method actor, and you should know the role so well you will be able to execute a lift in an excellent fashion 80-90% of the time.


Having a repeatable script is like tracking your calories; if you follow it for long enough, you won't have to think about it.


When you finish your script, refer to it between every set and over time refer to it less but keep it handy for any technique/script refresher blocks you may do. Or get a coach who can do all this for you. You can find out more about my coaching services HERE.


During this process, film your lifts.


Watch them. Once you find a great rep or two, save the videos somewhere easy to access. Don't know what you are looking for? Have a coach look over them.


Aim to have a simple script. Too much detail is unnecessary and counterproductive.


Using squats as our example lift, it could be as simple as:


"Put a barbell on the upper back, make sure feet are pointing in vaguely the right direction, perform squats"


If you don't have a lot of wriggle room you will need a much more detailed script which will take practice to memorize, make subconscious and progress.


Get your scripts written out before moving on to the next stage.


Turn Your Script Into A Short Film


Film your lifts until you have a video of you performing high weights using the form you want following the script you've created. Save this somewhere accessible so you can refer back to it if needed.


You may overthink less when you have a visual representation of what you should be doing.


You can use these videos if you need to snap out of an overthinking headspace.


Once you can perform your script competently without referring to it often, and you can replicate your videoed reps closely it's time to make the switch from a technique focus to an INTENTIONAL focus.


Shift To An Intentional Focus


It's time to stop gathering data and start applying it. This is where you can begin exploring your limits in a movement.


Once you've put in the groundwork with the lifting scripts, the videos etc you can move on to thinking about performing your lift in a particular way, with a particular intent.


Here are some examples of intention within strength training:


  • Moving the bar as smoothly as possible

  • Moving the bar as fast as possible

  • Fight hard when a rep is tough

  • Be aggressive with the bar

  • Lift while relaxed

  • Lift with control


By shifting from thinking about everything in a technical way, you are now using a one to two word prompt to make you lift in the desired fashion. You will overthink less by focussing on intent rather than technique. For many, this requires intentional practice.


Focus On Thinking ONE THING Per Lift


It's time to come up with triggers to unleash the desired lifting intention in a simple way.


This is a single word or phrase which encompasses everything you've worked on and the intent you have in mind for the lift.


Distilling the desired intention into 1-3 words for maximum effect:


  • "Moving the bar as smoothly as possible" becomes "SMOOTH"

  • "Moving the bar as fast as possible" becomes "FAST"

  • "Fight hard when a rep is tough" becomes "FIGHT"

  • "Be aggressive with the bar" becomes "dominate"

  • "Lift while relaxed" becomes "relax"

  • "Lift with control" might become "control!"


These can't be pulled from nowhere and are imbued with meaning over time.


These words should be chosen by the lifter but a coach can make suggestions as long as the lifter is on the same page.


MAKE YOUR LIFT SUBCONSCIOUS


A subconscious lift is when you perform a lift well without having to think about it.


Gregg Slater of Lift The Bar suggests making this happen through gradually reducing the cues and prompts over time.


Your progression from start to subconscious lifting may progress in the following way:





BASE TECHNIQUE/WRIGGLE ROOM STAGE


SESSION 1- ESTABLISH HOW A LIFT WILL BE PERFORMED, RECORD IT

SESSION 2- PRACTICE/FEEL OUT THE LIFT, LOOKING AT YOUR NOTES BEFORE EVERY SET

SESSION 3- LOOK AT YOUR NOTES BEFORE EVERY OTHER SET

SESSION 4- LOOK AT YOUR NOTES BEFORE THE FIRST SET ONLY


REPEATABLE ROUTINE/SCRIPT STAGE


SESSION 5- ESTABLISH THE FINER DETAILS OF THE LIFT WHICH ARE REQUIRED FOR HIGH PERFORMANCE AND CONFIDENCE, ADD NOTES WHERE NEEDED

SESSION 6- REVIEW YOUR REPEATABLE ROUTINE NOTES BEFORE EVERY SET, FILM A SELECTION OF REPS AT MODERATE DIFFICULTY

SESSION 7- REVIEW NOTES BEFORE EVERY OTHER SET, FILM A SELECTION OF REPS

SESSION 8- REVIEW NOTES BEFORE FIRST SET, FILM A SELECTION OF REPS

SESSION 9- SELECT YOUR PERFECT/EXCELLENT REP VIDEOS


SHORT FILM STAGE


SESSION 10- WATCH A VIDEO OF YOUR GREAT REPS BETWEEN EVERY SET

SESSION 11- WATCH YOUR PERFECT REPS BETWEEN EVERY OTHER SET

SESSION 12 WATCH YOUR PERFECT REPS ONCE DURING YOUR SESSION

SESSION 13- WATCH YOUR PERFECT REP WHENEVER YOU LIKE


INTENTIONAL FOCUS STAGE


SESSION 14- ESTABLISH WHAT INTENTIONAL FOCUS CUES YOU ARE GOING TO USE, CREATE REMINDING PROMPTS OF THE CUES

SESSION 15- REVIEW THE CUE BEFORE EACH SET

SESSION 16- REVIEW THE CUE BEFORE EVERY OTHER SET

SESSION 17- REVIEW THE CUE WHENEVER YOU FEEL YOU NEED TO


SUBCONSCIOUS FOCUS


SESSION 17 ONWARDS- LIFT AS SUBCONSCIOUSLY, REVIEWING YOUR PERFECT REP VIDEOS AND INTENT CUES PERIODICALLY


You could go from overthinking lifter to a subconscious lifter in a matter of 17 sessions if you use my timeline. The more complex a movement, the longer this process takes. Olympic Lifts may take years, noone overthinks bicep curls but if you do, it will take you fewer than 17 sessions to fix it.


This process is highly sensitive to life stuff, stress and environment.


Be ready for the lift to feel crap, to have doubts, and to occasionally leave the gym in a strop because deadlifts didn't feel good.


But you will get there and if you don't fully succeed, you'll make many improvements despite not making every exercise a flawless performance in subconscious lifting.


Perfect Reps Are Rare


Good reps are a product of diligent work, luck/randomness and consistently turning up to do the heavy reps.


Excellence doesn't require perfection and every rep doesn't need to be perfect.


Overthinking will take the average quality of your reps down.


You'll do some awful reps, you'll do amazing reps. Noone does perfect reps all the time.


To stop overthinking, LET PERFECTION HAPPEN RANDOMLY, you cannot force it.


When lightning strikes, enjoy it, savour it, and appreciate it. The more you think about it, the further away the perfect rep is.


The focus should be on producing good to excellent reps.


I should say a few words to our neurodiverse friends who often suffer the ill-affects of perfectionism more than my fellow neurotypicals. If this rings true, know that a bad rep may haunt you for days/weeks/years but eventually you'll see bad reps as a learning experience, data and an opportunity despite being REALLY ANNOYING. Know that the best lifters in the world do terrible reps sometimes.


STOP CHANGING THINGS ALL THE TIME

There is a danger of changing too much in the search for perfection.

Swedish musician/singer


You cannot prevent overthinking if are are changing a lift all the time.

By changing things all the time, you have no time to practice lifting in a particular way.

If you change things all the time, you can't make a lift subconscious as you have to think about the changes you've made!


Planning Your Technique Changes


Use technique phases where you work on new things, experiment with different positions, and weave things into your repeatable routines. Unless you are in pain. Pain should be addressed s quickly as possible even if it can't be fully eliminated.


I call this an experimental block or a change block.


I like a 4-8 week technique block to happen post-competition or post- strength testing. These can be repeated, blended with other training blocks or thrown out if they do more harm than good. These are good times to try new ideas you've researched or seen that weren't appropriate near competitions or strength testing days.


Less experienced lifters tend to have a change block after most competitions or testing days while experienced lifters may only need a change block once or twice a year.


If progress is good and things are going well, an experienced lifter may go years without a change block.


An experienced lifter is more likely to be given a refresher block of training where they revisit their old notes to remember them, refine and remaster them over 2-6 weeks. Experienced lifters who are forgetful like myself will need more refresher blocks because they forget stuff. Lifters with great memories will need fewer refresher blocks as their brains don't need refreshing if the information is still at their beckon call.


Once a change or refresher block has been completed it's about following the above processes to integrate any new things into the lifting routine.


Have Some Time Away From The Lift


Sometimes, your overthinking becomes so entwined with a movement that time away is required to reset your relationship with it.


Time away from a lift allows for "just lifting" without worry and over-attention to detail.


As long as you are doing fairly similar movements, to a high enough intensity, you'll maintain most of your strength even if you have months away from the lift.


How much time off you will need is difficult to say, but it's often between 4 and 8 weeks. If your overthinking is caused by a bad injury, you may need much longer away from the lift. I took years away from conventional deadlifts after repeatedly injuring my back. It took years, but I'm finally able to push this lift.


You'll know when it's time to start a lift again when you can perform the movement without obsessing over every detail of it.


Recognise Your Overthinking Triggers


When you find yourself overthinking lift think about how you got there.


Did you read an article about squatting before the session?


Are you trying to change your lifting technique without starting with lighter weights?


Do you become a lifting perfectionist when you are tired and you've been smashing Call of Duty until 2 am every night?


By recognising what triggers your overthinking, you can intervene, and put in coping strategies.


I know researching the lifts too much makes me overthink.


I know making too many decisions about things out of the gym while trying to train makes me overthink.


If I try to change technique while working on an intent cue, I know I'll overthink a lift.


I limit my decision-making, I schedule my lifting research appropriately and I no longer try to change my technique without reducing the load or my expectations.


A Note For Our Neurodivergent Readers


Dyspraxia is a condition where motor skills both large and small are impaired. I've noticed with my neurodivergent clients who have dyspraxic traits tend to struggle with how a lift feels when they have taken time away from it. This feeling weird often manifests itself as them thinking they've forgotten how to do a movement resulting in overthinking and stress when a lift is reintroduced.


In order to reduce overthinking, I always include certain lifts in their plan. To use powerlifting as an example, if they low bar squat and it feels weird after time away, I'll always program them low bar squats in some form to stop this from happening.


Conclusion


Avoiding overthinking completely may be impossible but improvements can be made.


Most people aren't doomed to overthink their lifts forever.


Lifting is more enjoyable when you can enter that flow state and "just lift."


As fatigue masks performance, overthinking masks your ability to showcase maximum strength.


When overthinking strikes, put in the work to get rid of it to keep enjoying the iron game.


If you have any questions regarding the above subject matter, please don't hesitate to get in touch via Facebook, Instagram, or email. I've found my group training clients are best at avoiding overthinking as they see me more often and I can intervene. I see group clients up to 4 times a week. This means we can quickly work through a block designed to reduce overthinking.


Once the overthinking is reduced, amazing results are far more likely.


Thanks for reading :)


By Chris Kershaw

The Heavy Metal Strength Coach

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