Ever seen a lifter absolutely rip into a heavy bar and think ‘I wish I could be that aggressive too’?
Here we talk about what it takes to be more aggressive in your lifting and why you should even bother.
2,100 words = 8-10 minute read
Why aggressive lifting?
It is common in strength sports like powerlifting and weightlifting for people to be told that they need to be more ‘aggressive’ in their execution of the lifts.
For people who struggle with this or who do not see themselves as ‘aggressive’ people, this can be a problem.
The immediate reaction is to say ‘But I just can’t do that, I’m not an aggressive person’.
You watch other lifters yell, stamp their feet, headbutt the bar and think ‘there’s no way I can do that!’
But increased ‘aggression’ in lifting can be learned, and it is worth doing as it will have a positive effect on your performance.
So let me break down exactly what we are talking about, and then how you can use this in your lifting.
Aggressive lifting doesn’t necessarily mean angry lifting
I put ‘aggressive’ in inverted commas because it means something specific in sport that is different to the everyday meaning.
When we think of an aggressive person in life, we likely think of someone who is loud and shouty, maybe angry, probably has a bullying manner, talks over people, throws their weight around etc. It’s a very negative, emotional image.
In sport, doing something aggressively means doing it with high levels of energy, commitment and focus.
In sport, you often have to put yourself in an uncomfortable place; whether that is a place of extremely high energy/fatigue, or a scary place where it could all go wrong with potentially injurious consequences. To do this requires a high level of commitment. You need to be all in. You have to ‘go for it’ in order to pull it off.
This certainly applies to lifting weights. If you don’t positively act on the bar, the bar will act you on!
In sport, you also need high levels of concentration and focus. You have a job to do. This could be a very high skill movement, like a tumble in gymnastics, or a snatch in weightlifting. Or it might be the tactics and problem solving required in a field game or a race.
There’s a state we all utilise in sport when we have uncomfortable tasks like this. You know what it is…
Fight or flight response
Fight or flight is the body’s stress response to a ‘threatening’ situation. It is a hormonal cascade (the best known of which is adrenalin) which increases heart rate, increases blood glucose and blood flow to muscles, increases muscle tension, slows down digestion and increases attention. It prepares us for action.
It’s possible for the fight mechanism to be dialled up too high, when the situation is very stressful. Here we are less controlled, we waste energy, experience tunnel vision and reduction in hearing.
The flight mechanism, on the other hand, can cause us to freeze and/or avoid, backing off without really trying.
A mild-to-moderate level of stress is very helpful in extreme situations. It helps us focus, pay attention, and it increases working memory (short term memory), where conscious thinking and problem solving occur.
Having too high a level of stress is having the fight mechanism dialled up too high. We get tunnel vision, we lose the ability to process information. Higher level thinking is gone.
This notion of having just the right amount of stress became what is known as ….
The Performance-Arousal Curve
For simple or well-learned tasks, the relationship is linear, with improvements in performance as arousal increases.
For complex, unfamiliar, or difficult tasks, the relationship between arousal and performance becomes inverse, with declines in performance as arousal increases.
There is an optimal arousal level for particular tasks. This also means that your optimal arousal level for different tasks will necessarily be different, depending on the complexity of the task.
A deadlift is less complex than a snatch. Therefore, your arousal level can (and probably should) be higher for a deadlift than for a snatch.
Should you be shouting and screaming before your next big lift? Well, arousal levels are an individual thing.
Some people perform their best with low anxiety, some with a medium amount and others with a high amount.
Crowd favourite Dmitri Klokov has a particularly long and aggressive psyche-up process for an olympic weightlifter (click to play video in new window):
How do you know which category you fall into? You can simply note how you react to stress in your life, and more specifically, in your sport.
Exercise: How do you typically react when facing a stressful situation in sport? Note one or two specific instances and how you reacted.
I know that for myself, I perform better when my anxiety is lower. High anxiety and anger don’t work as well for me. I prefer to keep myself in a positive frame of mind, with a low level of fear/stress. Particularly for more complex movements like the olympic lifts, I perform better this way.
This doesn’t mean I can’t be aggressive in my approach to the bar. It means that my energy has to come from a positive place, rather than from being angry.
Other people might be quite laid back types, who actually need to hype themselves up or psyche themselves up in order to get enough energy and oomph to lift well.
A simple physiological way to psyche yourself up or calm yourself down is by using the breath.
Taking a few short breaths (hyperventilating) will psych you UP. Take slow deep breathes will calm you DOWN.
Exercise: next time you are lifting heavy, first try a rep preceded by long, slow breaths. Next, try a rep preceded by quick, short breaths. Note the difference.
Watch GB lifter Abi Graham’s (63kg) full psyche up before her 177.5kg deadlift! (click to open video in a new window)
Emotions vs Thoughts
We are engaged in emotional self regulation all the time. It’s an important part of living in human society, that we are able to control our emotions to an extent.
The pre-frontal cortex is the region of the brain where self regulation occurs. It is the centre of execution function, the part of the brain that makes us sophisticated humans. We can use this higher level thinking to influence our emotions.
We also have fear and aggression, centered in the amygdalae (there are two of them). Remember the fight or flight response? This starts in the amygdala. The amygdala forms part of what is colloquially known as the lizard brain, the most primitive part of our grey matter.
We know that the pre-frontal cortex can affect the amygdala and vice versa, but research suggests that there are more connections from the amygdalae (fear centre) to the pre-frontal cortex (thinking centre) than vice versa.
So we can think ourselves out of fear, or at least reduce it – but it takes practise.
One way to influence our fear response is to reconsolidate our memories. It has recently been discovered that we can do this. When we think back to stressful events we are able to add a different interpretation to our remembrance. We can cast our memories in a new light.
This technique is used by, among others, free solo climber Alex Honnold. He regularly records the details of his climbs, revisits them and notes what he can do better.
You can use this too. You can think back to a time when you were highly anxious and fearful, and think about how you could overcome it. When you do this again and again in your own mind, you can start to do it in real life. The pre-frontal cortex communicates with the amygdala with rational thinking, to explain why you don’t need to be fearful.
Exercise: Write down a time when you were very anxious and fearful. Rationalise why your fear was unfounded or exaggerated. How could you overcome fear in that situation?
I experience fear around failure, which is a type of social anxiety. We have a deep need to be accepted by those around us. It’s an important evolutionary mechanism. But it can also make us afraid of failure when being watched/judged. I work on ways to reduce that fear by looking at the situation differently (nobody wants to you fail and they don’t care how much you lift).
Controlling anxiety, increasing arousal
There are two methods of controlling anxiety: somatic techniques, which focus on the physical body; and cognitive techniques, which focus on the brain.
Somatic techniques include progressive relaxation technique and biofeedback (becoming aware of your body’s physical reaction to stress).
Cognitive techniques include imagery, self talk, mental rehearsal and music. These tend to be used immediately pre-performance, to increase performance arousal but also to stop it tipping over into excessive anxiety.
Many athletes use music to keep arousal high. Go into the warm up area in any athletic competition and you will see athletes with their headphones on, staying in ‘the zone’.
Pre-task music has been shown to optimise arousal, facilitate task-relevant imagery and improve performance in simple motoric tasks. – Music in the exercise domain: a review and synthesis
My personal go-tos are positive self talk (which I use right up until the moment I address the bar), and reflection on past experiences, which I do in a journal and in exercises away from the competition floor.
I mean that in the American sense of getting angry – not going crazy!
Many people struggle with generating anger or aggression that can be used in a positive way in sport. I’m one of those people. Often angry thoughts just make me stressed, which increases anxiety levels and detracts from my performance focus.
The solution is to think of things that make you mad – but in an action-taking way. For me, thinking about my elderly mum getting mugged is a good one. My gosh, that would make me want to fight! For many people, thinking about something happening to a loved one can generate angry feelings that are more fight than flight.
Some people can get really fired up remembering a time when another person insulted them or cast doubt on their abilities (the ‘prove them wrong’ scenario). You have to find what works for you.
Actors do the same thing when they have to cry on cue. They have a sad memory that they have practised bringing forth at the right moment to induce tears.
Exercise: think of a time when you were so angry you were ready to go out and smash something. The stronger the recreation of the memory, the better. Do you feel more aggressive?
Body language is incredibly important right before you start your activity.
I was really struck by Amy Cuddy’s viral TED Talk, Your Body Language Shape May Who You Are.
She uses ‘power positions’ to increase confidence. She presented evidence from her research showing that standing in powerful positions, such as arms outstretched, legs akimbo, makes you feel more powerful.
I tried it in my own lifting and it seemed to work. It is now something I recommend to my lifters. One of my olympic weightlifters, Paul W, took it to heart and now uses the power stance in his lift preparation routine.
Other ways to use body language to influence how you feel are: game face, grabbing/squeezing the bar with purpose, rattling the bar or otherwise moving it aggressively, stamping the feet, yelling, snarling. They all work!
You might prefer some to others, but I would recommend giving them all a good try to figure out which might work for you.
Swedish elite powerlifter Isabella von Weissenburg uses almost the full gamut of psyche ups, including slapping her own face. Whatever it takes to deadlift 210kg for a double…
I used to see lifters shouting and yelling, getting amped up before a big performance, and think it was a bit silly. I didn’t understand why they were doing it.
And yes, there’s a thin line between getting yourself amped up and being a jerk. You occasionally see it on the platform. Someone may be so psyched up that they actually tip over into being disrespectful to those around them (swearing, being rough with people, dropping the bar on the spotters etc). The aim is to improve your performance, not be a dick!
Reflection and journaling
When you are employing strategies to improve performance, it’s helpful to reflect on how they are working and make adjustments.
Personally, I keep a separate ‘mental’ journal to record my mental strategies after each training session and competition.
If you do something that works, write it down so that you can refer back to it and use it again.
Putting it all together
There are technique and strategies you can use to increase performance arousal to your optimal levels. You will need to try and experiment to figure out which ones work best for you.
These techniques are both cognitive (thinking) and somatic (physical).
You will need to practise these strategies regularly for them to be strong enough to override your natural inclinations.
My suggestions here are based on personal experience and an overview of what the top performers in strength sports are doing. Sports and performance psychology can also help, but there is no reason why you cannot try and experiment with these techniques yourself.
You could transform your performance, both in training and on the platform.
Go forth and grrrrr!
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