Weightlifting is 100% mental—if you have 100% of the necessary physical ability. I joke about that because over the years I’ve heard all kinds of interesting numbers, which of course are silly because it’s an impossible phenomenon to measure. But I will absolutely concede that, like in all sports, the mental element is critical, and without the proper focus, confidence, aggression, positivity
and overall mindset, a weightlifter will never reach the potential created by his or her physical abilities.
Every weightlifter at some point has run into a mental block with a certain lift and certain weight. Often it’s an extremely clear line—everything is fine until you hit a certain weight, and suddenly you look like you’ve never touched a barbell in your life. Profanity and self-loathing ensue, and each time it happens, the block intensifies.
I’m not going to get into mental work directly here, because that’s an enormous topic that deserves more focus. This article is going to be about practical training strategies to try to get past such mental blocks. Most likely, none will magically work the first time—just like with technique work, you’re not going to fix a longstanding problem in one shot.
Following are some training strategies to work directly on mental blocks with a given lift and weight, whether it’s exact or approximate.
This is a simple way of sneaking up to a weight and possibly past it. Rather than running up to the wall and then smashing your head into it repeatedly, using progressive waves creates a more gradual approach that can help with confidence and consistency.
When working to a heavy single, take 3 waves to reach it. Let’s say for simplicity that your freakout threshold (the weight at which you shit the bed) is 100kg. Rather than working directly up to 100 like you normally would, you might take weights like this:
90-93-96, 92-95-98, 94-97-100
80-85-90, 85-90-95, 90-95-100
This not only helps you creep up on the big scary weight, it also gives you a lot of quality reps at weights near that bed-shitting threshold, which will benefit you physically and mentally. You can also add 1kg to all of those weights to go for the PR.
If you worked up to a heavy single and had your typical freakout, you can also call an audible and drop down and work back up rather than continue attempting the weight you missed.
Let’s say you snatched 90, 95 and then missed 100. You might go back to 92, then 97, then 100 again. In this way you set yourself up to beat what you’ve done already (97 instead of 95), and give yourself another shot at the big number with the additional confidence you gained from the two more makes. This won’t always work, especially if you’re short on energy, but it will nearly always work better than simply repeating the missed weight 6 times and hoping for divine intervention.
With threshold training, rather than sneaking up to the threshold and trying to surpass it with progressive waves, you’re going to try to get in some quality work as close to the threshold as possible and gradually creep it up over time. Sticking with the 100kg example, rather than simply working to a heavy single and trying to beat 100 and continuing to fail in the same way repeatedly, you would work up to the closest weight you’re confident you can make for 3-5 singles—this may be something like 90-95kg. When it’s a mental issue rather than a physical one, you can typically get surprisingly close to that PR weight for multiple singles. The next time you train this lift, you do the same thing but with 1-2kg more, and continue the process over the course of a few weeks.
On the Minute
If you know me, you know I love on the minute lifts. You also know that I hate the term EMOM
—of course it’s every fucking minute! No one says on the minute
and means every seventh minute.
In any case, OTM snatches, cleans and jerks can work wonders for consistency and confidence. Most often I’ll use a Joe Mills type structure—5 singles each of 3 progressive weights on the minute, and then possibly followed by a few more singles working heavier off the clock, but still with relatively short rest (2 minutes or so). This will usually be with weights in the 70-80% range, e.g. 70-73-76%, or maybe even 70-75-80% depending on the lifter and the lift. Each time, the OTM weights increase 2-3% or so as long as all were made in the last session.
The OTM sets alone are great for building lasting consistency and confidence in the lift, but primarily immediately, so take advantage of that and work up to a heavy single. If you’ve never done OTM lifts before, it can be hard to imagine how on earth you’ll feel good enough to work to a heavy single after 15 singles, but you’ll be surprised at how good you feel if the OTM weights were chosen wisely. If you stick to the OTM structure for a significant period of time, you can work up to very high intensities—I’ve seen mid-90%s in multiple cases with my lifters.
Most of us have very ingrained habits when it comes to the weights we use while working up to a heavy single lift. For example, when I snatch, I go 50-70-90-110-120 every single time unless something strange is happening. Normally, this is fine and arguably even a good idea, but when your head is stuck up your ass, it can help to make changes. Use unfamiliar weights and increases. If you always lift weights ending in 0 or 5, start doing ones that end in 2 or 7, or 3 and 8, e.g. 102-107 instead of 100-105. If you always jump 5kg, jump 4 or 6kg instead. The point is to disrupt the pattern and get your mind distracted from what it expects—because what it expects is to take these same weights and fail at the same point every time.
Similar to using unusual weights as you work toward a heavy single, taking smaller increases can be helpful. Often lifters avoid small jumps with the rationalization that it will mean too many sets and result in too much fatigue for them to succeed with the goal weight—except they’re failing with that weight anyway, so it’s a silly concern in the first place. It’s reassuring to remember that we’re talking about mental blocks, not physical limitations—this means that, while the goal weight may be heavy, the limitation is not in your physical ability to lift it, but in your mental ability to commit to lifting it. Take 2-3kg jumps—even 1kg jumps in some cases—and not only will it be far less of a mental challenge when you reach that big weight, you’ll naturally get quite a bit of good threshold training in the process.
Complexes & Reps
Sometimes the only way to get past a mental block is to quit trying—forget that weight for awhile and focus on something else. Spending a significant period of time (3-6 weeks or more) not even doing singles at all can work wonders in some cases. Instead, working on complexes, variations like hang or blocks, and/or doubles and triples gives you time to step back and get your mind off the problem, give your body and mind a break from attempting heavy lifts, and gives your mind some time to develop confidence in other ways.
Ideally you choose exercises that address the diagnosed weakness in your lift. For example, if the problem with your snatch is a weak, unaggressive or incomplete extension, exercises like hang or block snatches, 2- or 3-position snatches, or pull + snatch are good choices. If the overhead position is the problem, snatch + overhead squat or snatch + snatch balance or even snatch + snatch balance + overhead squat, along with holding all snatches in the bottom position for 3-5 seconds, are good choices.
Reps are also effective and doubles, once you’re conditioned for them, can often be taken surprisingly close to your best single. This obviously helps with confidence, and also helps remove some of the pressure on each lift because you’re thinking about more than a single lift.
Sometimes the problem is a lack of confidence with a specific element of the lift that can be addressed directly in order to improve it physically and in the process improve your confidence.
If you’re afraid getting under a bar because you’re not confident in your ability to support it overhead, work on overhead squats
, snatch balances
, jerk supports
, jerk recoveries
and jerks behind the neck
(and yes, hold everything overhead for 3-5 seconds).
If your pull feels so heavy there’s no way you can get under the bar, strengthen your pull with things like heavy pulls
, pulls on risers
, deadlifts on risers
, and overloaded pulls from blocks at the knee
. If you’re just afraid to pull under aggressively, train tall snatches
or tall cleans
, or snatches and cleans from power position
If you’re afraid to get under a clean because you always get crushed, push your front squat
, and use pause front squats
and clean rack supports
This is one that happens naturally with new lifters who don’t understand kilograms yet and make PRs because they genuinely have no idea how much weight is on the bar, but with more experienced lifters, you can still sometimes get away with it to some extent. If you always lift in kilos and have access to pound plates, lift in pounds, and vice versa. Yes, you can get a calculator and figure out the weight in your preferred unit, but don’t. Get yourself to 80-85% or so and then start working up without calculating weights. Just keep adding a little each set. You’ll have a very vague idea, but sometimes the lack of precision is enough to get you past your hang-up.
Stick with the Process
Keep in mind throughout the process that the goal always to remain focused on movement, not weight. In other words, you’re not snatching 100kg, you’re just snatching. Focus on what your body needs to do, not what’s on the bar.
Additionally, always remember to step back and see the big picture and understand the long-term perspective. One bad workout here and there doesn’t signal the end of your weightlifting career. Missing a certain weight several times doesn’t mean you’ll never make it. The more you stress out about those things, the harder it becomes to get past them and the more they’ll become self-fulfilling prophecies. If you believe you’ll never snatch 100kg, I can pretty much promise you that you’ll never snatch 100kg. If, on the other hand, you learn to be confident despite temporary and minor failures and setbacks, you’ll always continue progressing.