Often people struggle to focus when lifting heavy weights, especially in the olympic lifts, which happen so fast.
Other thoughts muscle their way in just as you are preparing to lift the bar. You’re distracted, you’re overthinking it, and all of a sudden your lift is gone.
I’ve found that one of the best ways to improve focus is to play games – either with yourself or with an entire class, if you are a coach. Create a situation where lifters are more likely to act on instinct and less likely to overthink.
Here are 3 ways to improve focus when lifting heavy. These methods apply to olympic lifters, powerlifters and anyone who loves the challenge of heavy single lifts in the gym.
Every Minute On the Minute (EMOM)
This is a great game to play, especially with groups. I do this with my Olympic Lifting Beginners class, usually in the final week when they have all mastered the technique. We do one snatch every minute on the minute for ten minutes.
It starts off feeling quite slow but as the weights get heavier, those 30-40 seconds of rest feel shorter! Because you don’t have much time to think, you just have to get on and snatch. You fix one problem at a time, and if it goes well, you put more weight on the bar.
There’s no time for overthinking or over analysis. Whenever I do this exercise with a group, I see them getting more focussed and putting in more energy as the minutes tick by. My beginner athletes generally do their best snatches using this method.
My last beginners group doing their EMOM:
I’ve also used this method with personal training clients. One protocol I have done recently with a Crossfitter client which has worked well is:
Week 1: EMOM 15 minutes at 75%-80% of best snatch
Week 2: EMOM 15 minutes at 80%-85% of best snatch
Week 3: EMOM 15 minutes at 85%-90% of best snatch
It’s important to note that this is for a lifter who is lifting somewhat below their true strength potential. In this case the client is a Crossfitter who has good endurance but needs to work on technique. He also tends to overthink, especially when the weight gets heavy.
Like many Crossfitters, this athlete is capable of lifting a high volume close to his max, so this method works well for him. He actually gets better as the 15 minute EMOM goes on, and his best lifts are usually in the last 5 reps. This is because he’s become more focussed both in his mental application and physical application to the lifts.
This is a method that my current coach Mike Causer uses at his club LOWA. This method is most suitable for intermediate-to-advanced lifters.
The idea is that you run up to max on snatch or clean & jerk, but if you miss any lift (no matter how light), you must stop. You then do drop-downs as follows:
Take 5kg off the last weight you made and do 2 singles
Take 5kg off that weight and do 2 doubles
This method also works for back squats, especially if you need to hit depth for powerlifting. Any lift which isn’t to the proper depth would count as a fail in this scenario.
This method is great for focussing the mind as if you want to have a go at a PB, you cannot miss a single warm up weight. The exercise makes you feel a bit nervous but also makes you concentrate.
As a coach, if you feel that sometimes your lifters lack concentration and focus while training, if they’ve got into the habit of throwing sub-maximal weights around and being a bit slap-dash, this is a great way to bring them back to earth.
If you are working with beginners, you can modify the method to give them, say, one ‘life’ (i.e. one miss only allowed).
Not missing lifts in training is generally a good thing to aspire to. Get into the habit of treating every single rep – no matter how light – as a must-get, and you will find your focus improve.
My old coach Giles Greenwood once went three months without missing a single snatch in training. What if you could do the same?
Create a routine
Every elite lifter has their routine from the moment they walk onto the platform. They set up for their lift the same way every time. It becomes automatic.
If you struggle with focus and get distracted as you address the bar, develop a routine that is the same every time.
It doesn’t have to be perfect; you can always change your routine later in your career. It’s not about having the perfect routine, it’s about having one at all.
Before addressing the bar, some lifters like to stamp their feet or make a noise. It’s a signal of commitment to what’s about to happen.
The way they walk up to the bar and get into their start position is always the same. Some lifters do this very quickly, others take their time. It doesn’t matter, so long as it is consistent.
Do your breathing, visualise, then lift.
It’s important to know yourself when lifting. I know that I get very nervous when going for a big lift, so part of my routine has to be calming. But I also know that I tend to ‘shrink’ away from the lift when I’m nervous (chest drops, shoulders cave) so I also need to make myself physically more open and confident.
If you are someone who has a lot of ‘chatter’ in your head before a lift, replace it with a powerful visual image or feeling. I picture myself as a speeding arrow.
Improving focus takes time and practise. It doesn’t happen overnight. If you don’t practise focus in the gym, you won’t have it on the competition platform or when going for a PB.
But if you practise, you can amaze yourself with how focussed and calm you can be when lifting, even if you’ve always seen yourself as a ‘nervous’ lifter.
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