If you were driving along a familiar route and wound up heading to work instead of your intended destination, you might say you had been operating on “autopilot.” Just as this kind of “spacing out” can get you lost directionally speaking, fitness training on autopilot can prevent you from getting where you’d like to go performance-wise. By understanding the two modes of concentration explained here, you can steer yourself in the right direction—the one that will help both body and mind learn and adapt, so you can perform better.
Richard Eastwick, MEd, certified personal trainer and fitness instructor from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and peer reviewer for Human Kinetics Publishers, explains the two modes.
Automatic Pilot (Bottom-Up Mode)
One mode of focusing is the bottom-up mode. This is essentially the automatic pilot function mentioned above. In bottom-up mode, you may not even be aware that your mind has drifted. When you space out during a set of squats, for example, you may still be doing squats, but your mental focus is elsewhere. This mode is not conducive to learning.
Executive Function (Top-Down Focus)
When you pay close attention to a task, you make use of a brain mode known as top-down focus, or executive function. The brain is operating in this mode when you make a conscious choice to exercise or to eat healthy foods. Top-down mode is characterized by “internal guidance of attention based on prior knowledge, willful plans, and current goals” (Katsuki & Constantinidis 2014). This is the only mode in which learning can take place.
During exercise, top-down focus will determine the number of muscle fibers that need to contract (more fibers = more force), as well as the speed of those contractions (Svondal 2009). It’s important, then, that you are actively engaged, not reminiscing about vacation or stressing about your workday.
Interestingly, our brains cannot be in both modes at once: When one mode is operational, the other is not. This gives us the ability to focus on just one target at a time (Levitin 2014).
Strategies to Improve Intense Concentration
These two methods can lead to better focus.
Strategy #1: Mindfulness: Rein In a Wandering Mind
Mindfulness, the state of knowing exactly what you are doing and knowing when your mind wanders, is improved by applying a laser-like focus to a single goal (Begley 2007).
Being in the moment includes focusing intensely—whether it’s on healthy eating, executing a forward lunge with perfect form or pedaling efficiently on an indoor cycle. Practicing mindfulness in eating might include sitting down at a table to eat, savoring each bite and putting the fork down between bites.
As you develop mindfulness—becoming better at shutting out distraction and concentrating on one goal at a time—you will operate increasingly with top-down focus, remember more of what you have learned and improve your performance (Afremow 2016). Mindfulness will also help you establish long-term daily habits of good nutrition and exercise. At the cellular level, intense concentration will facilitate greater neuronal rewiring, called neuroplasticity. This can occur at any age—a fact that should be of great importance to baby boomers intent on continued improvement (Begley 2007).
Strategy #2: Goal-Setting: Be “Smart” and Supportive
Another strategy for improving concentration is the establishment of clear-cut goals. Working with a certified personal trainer or health coach will help you develop individualized goals. Goals should be quantifiable, recorded (in writing) and given time limits for completion (Goleman 2013).
Making your goals SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-Bound) can help you chart progress and measure success (NASM 2018). Begin by establishing bigger, long-range goals. Then select one specific goal, and divide it into smaller, more easily achieved goals (daily, weekly, monthly). Accomplishing small goals with determination eventually leads to major successes (Marcus 2008).
Afremow, J. 2016. The Champion’s Comeback: How Great Athletes Recover, Reflect, and Re-Ignite. New York: Rodale Books.
Begley, S. 2007. Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves. New York: Ballantine Books.
Goleman, D. 2013. Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Katsuki, F., & Constantinidis, C. 2014. Bottom-up and top-down attention: Different processes and overlapping neural systems. Neuroscientist, 20 (5), 509–21.
Levitin, D.J. 2014. The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. New York: Dutton.
Marcus, G. 2008. Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine). 2018. NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training (6th ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning.
Svondal, S. 2009. Cycling Anatomy. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
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