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Cycling Up

You know your next client, Doug, really well. He’s been working with you for 2 years, he’s committed to his fitness program, and while his body is already well-conditioned, he is determined to keep improving.

His session will focus mainly on intense weightlifting, and Doug is used to “psyching himself up” before each set—he finds it helps—but you’ve both observed that it’s getting harder for him to make real gains. How can you help?

It could be that self-directed psyching up is no longer enough for Doug. But if you train him in various psyching-up methods that have proved effective, you may be able to coach him over the hump. And if you combine psyching up (before intense effort) with relaxation (after intense effort)—in a joint strategy that I call “cycling up”—Doug’s progress may improve even more.

This article looks at research findings on psyching up; suggests how relaxation may be used to extend clients’ stamina; and provides practical guidelines for implementing the cycling-up technique during training sessions.

Psyching Up

Internal readiness is a critical variable in maximizing work output during exercise. Psyching up refers to using self-directed cognitive (mind) and somatic (body) techniques to activate oneself internally (Tod, Iredale & Gill 2003; Tenenbaum et al. 1995).

Psyching-up techniques include imagery, attentional focus, self-talk and preparatory arousal, each of which can assist in preparing the body for performance skills (Perkins, Wilson & Kerr 2001). “Arousal” refers to intensity of physiological activity (heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, skin sweat activity, etc.); “preparatory arousal” is the act of getting “pumped up,” usually by breathing at an accelerated rate (Perkins, Wilson & Kerr 2001; Williams & Harris 2005). Psyching up can include using a combination of these modalities to achieve optimal arousal state.

Psyching up is particularly useful when clients are about to exert near-maximal effort. This type of effort occurs at some point during most competitive activities, but when it will occur and how long it will last are easiest to predict during anaerobic efforts and intense weightlifting. This discussion will focus on these types of activities.

Research Findings on Psyching Up

Psyching up has been shown to increase performance in dynamic strength. The classic experiment on psyching up studied handgrip strength in 30 experienced weightlifters aged 12–48 (average age 23). Subjects were divided into an experimental group and a control group. Results indicated that the experimental group, who were instructed to psych up in their own way, performed significantly better than the controls. Subjects typically used self-talk, attentional focus, preparatory arousal and/or imagery to psych themselves up (Shelton & Mahoney 1978).

Since then, many studies have examined the role of psyching up in improving dynamic strength. In 2000, for example, Theodorakis and Weinberg focused on the effectiveness of motivational and instructional self-talk for improving leg strength. Subjects were 48 university students aged 18-24, and results showed significant gains in strength among self-talk subjects versus controls.

An earlier study examined the effectiveness of imagery and preparatory arousal for developing handgrip strength (Elko & Ostrow 1992). The sample included 15 volunteer male and female subjects about 60 years old, as well as 15 male and female subjects in their early 20s. Handgrip performance improved significantly among imagery subjects across all ages compared with a control condition. Some older subjects reported feeling unable to psych up using preparatory arousal; this approach may therefore be more suitable for younger clients.

More recent studies have examined psyching up with “real-world” measures of dynamic strength. Tod et al. (2005) found that subjects who psyched up had significantly greater force production than two control groups. Another study was one of the very few to examine psyching up with a multijoint exercise, the squat. Experienced weightlifters were tasked with performing a 1-repetition maximum, and researchers found no differences between the psyching-up group and the control group. This may have been because trained individuals have less room for improvement, and the mental strategy needs to become more precise (McGuigan, Ghiagiarelli & Tod 2005).

It’s at this point that self-directed psyching up may no longer be enough—and experienced weightlifters may need training in the various techniques.

Teaching Psyching Up to Conditioned Clients

The goal of teaching psych-up strategies should be a twofold process:

1. Explain the various methods of psyching up (listed below), since clients may not know all the approaches that have proved effective.

2. Allow clients time to practice the methods at home and/or during light activity. Practicing these skills will further accentuate their effectiveness during periods of intense activity. It is very important to encourage clients to practice a skill daily, even if their initial response to it is negative.

  • Shallow breathing pattern. The focus is on breathing more quickly than normal, but not so quickly that you feel out of control or anxious. In fact, highly trait-anxious individuals may experience high anxiety, or even a panic attack, if they engage in intense shallow breathing. If you work with clients who suffer from anxiety issues, or who are generally anxious or nervous people, caution them and have them gradually speed up their breathing. In addition to the shallow breathing pattern, draw attention to the feeling of producing more energy during inhalation and of shedding excess waste, fatigue and soreness during exhalation.

  • Imagery. Instruct clients to close their eyes and get a mental picture of an image (this could be nearly anything; let each client choose); draw clients’ attention not only to the image but also to the “feel,” as well as the sounds and smells. For example, instruct a client to close her eyes and picture an image that gets her excited. Then ask her to describe the image. She may tell you it consists of her playing with her young son. Ask her about the different colors and shapes of her son’s clothing, the noises he makes and her responses to him, how his hair smells and how it feels to pick him up. Ask these questions separately, giving your client time to pay attention to each part of the image.

  • Energizing cue word or phrase. Ask clients to think of a word or phrase that for them has a personal meaning of “Energize” or “Activate.” Steer them away from generic terms. Then have clients close their eyes; “see” the thickness, size and colors of this word or phrase in their heads; and then repeat the cue in their heads on each exhalation. Instruct them to do this continually for some time.

  • Any combination of shallow breathing, imagery and energizing self-talk. There is no one universally accepted method of combining and/or ordering these techniques. Generally speaking, breathing techniques should come first, followed by imagery and self-talk. But the preferred order will depend on how someone responds to the individual modalities, so allow clients to practice all of them a few times.

  • Home field advantage. Cue clients on their surroundings, and see if they can draw energy from the sights, sounds and feeling around them. Tell them to think of the workout facility as their home field, and to use that advantage, much as athletes do with spectators cheering them on.

  • Music. This is clearly a tool that is becoming more prevalent with the proliferation of technology over the past decade (Harris 2010). It is addressed further in the sidebar.

  • Energy transfer. If clients become frustrated or experience other negative emotions, suggest they transfer these emotions into useful energy by employing any or all of the skills listed here.

Reversal Theory

The idea behind psyching up is that increased arousal levels lead directly to better performance. However, a person’s motivational state may determine whether being in a high state of arousal is helpful or hurtful for performance.

Reversal Theory (Apter 1989; www.reversaltheory.org) is a theory that explains quality of performance by connecting high arousal and emotion. When individuals are psyched up, they can feel either anxious or excited. Which they feel is likely to depend on the type of goal they have set for their current activity, according to Apter’s theory. If the goal is focused on achieving an outcome in the future (reflecting a serious mindset), anxiety usually occurs in the psyched-up state. Conversely, if the goal is focused on enjoying the present activity (reflecting a playful mindset), excitement usually occurs in the psyched-up state.

Perkins, Wilson & Kerr (2001) explicitly tested Reversal Theory by reading two highly arousing scripts to participants who were performing the same tasks. One script reflected a serious mindset that was focused on a goal in the distant future. Another script created a playful mindset that was focused on being in the moment and enjoying the activity at hand. The researchers found that the more playful script led individuals to interpret their situation positively, which led to the emotion of excitement. These subjects performed better than those who heard the serious script, which led them to interpret their task negatively, leading to the emotion of anxiety.

Goals are the critical difference between the two types of motivational states. Exercisers tend to be in a fairly high arousal state, especially before and after engaging in high-intensity activity. Thus, it seems beneficial to draw clients’ attention to goals that center around enjoying the process (appreciate and welcome the challenge, be in the moment) and not to serious goals that focus somewhere in the future (“I have to complete this set,” “I must lose 10 pounds in the next 6 weeks”). This may require a shift in your communication because it is customary for fitness professionals to cue clients to do a number of repetitions for a set (“C’mon, let’s get six reps here!”). Have those repetitions in your head, suggests Reversal Theory, but cue clients on enjoying the moment and working to exhaustion.

Relaxing After Intense Activity

Continually psyching up before important lifting sets or intense anaerobic activity can be an exhausting endeavor. Compound this fatigue with the actual lifting and/or anaerobic activity itself, and simply put, our bodies could use a break. We may be able to extend clients’ stamina by teaching them to do relaxation exercises after highly intense periods of activity. Somatic intervention strategies, such as deep breathing and progressive muscular relaxation, are helpful in lowering arousal; however, they are difficult to implement when clients are already trying to catch their breath. Cognitive methods may be more appropriate, and one method that is effective and easily teachable is the relaxation response (Benson 2000). The basic premise of the relaxation response is that when the mind is relaxed, the body usually follows. This mind-body relaxation occurs when the following two conditions are present:

  • a passive (nonjudgmental) attitude
  • repetition of a cue word or phrase (mantra)

The passive attitude is arguably the most important part of the relaxation response. It means you engage in the mental exercise without judging how effectively you are doing it. Clients are taught this nonjudgmental attitude by learning to accept the fact that other thoughts may come into their heads. This mindset helps to expedite the exit of these extraneous thoughts. A client’s cue word should have a personal meaning of relaxation and calmness for that individual, and it should be repeated at a relatively slow pace. This mental representation of deep meaning helps to relax the mind while also lowering the body’s high arousal level. This gives the client a break before it is time to psych up for the next intense effort.

In Conclusion

Unless exercisers have been trained in specific techniques for psyching up, self-directed efforts are likely to fall short at some point—so it behooves trainers to teach these techniques. And just as clients may benefit from learning to regulate arousal before intense activity, they may also benefit from knowing how to relax after the effort. Actively manipulating arousal levels in both directions is what I call “cycling up.” If you have clients who have reached a plateau in their training and are looking for new ways forward, try teaching them this approach.

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