What Others Are Saying...

  • " Not only is Sean a great nutritionist, but he's an excellent strength coach. I've coached athletes with him on multiple occasions. The most impressive attributes I've seen in him is his integrity, work ethic, ability to work with athletes and desire to be the best coach possible...."

-Luke Richesson. Head NFL Strength & Conditioning Coach for Denver Broncos


The Brain Game

Quick Hit Summary

One of the most overlooked areas of training is the mental side of things; especially during the hours leading up to a training session. In this article, we examine 7 key areas that one needs to “dial in” on for optimal success in the gym and athletic platform.

Gettin’ Your Head Right

Are all areas of your mind dialed in for your next workout? Image source.9

Let’s explore the topic of mental attitude and its profound influence on weight-training success. The psychology of an athlete can be the difference between failure and success. Before we eat to build stronger muscles, an adaptive response must be triggered with physical exertion. Likewise, before we exercise with conquering zeal, we must achieve the right mental outlook. Proper “armament” of the brain is imperative!

Let me state for the record that I’m in no way a schooled psychologist of any type. What I know is by way of observation, listening, and experience. In a lot of ways, such practical wisdom holds more weight than the theoretical ramblings of a hundred professors. Boastful? Perhaps, but the majority of pro and elite muscle athletes don’t perform 700-plus pound squats and possess 250-pound physiques without some degree of mental mastery.

So what is the right mental attitude for success in resistance training? There’s no single right answer. Rather, a winning mental attitude can take shape in any number of ways. We’re all individuals with unique characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses. What might motivate me may do the opposite for another athlete.

Of course, cultivating positive surroundings and relationships in one’s life can’t be ignored. Everyone knows the importance of avoiding negativity; overall health and well-being demand it. So what I’ll focus on is those vital hours leading to actual iron combat.

My friend, legendary bodybuilder Tom Platz, has helped me understand that much of what influences gym success is what’s done (and thought) during these “small hours.” With each athlete, patterns develop over time and rituals form. We’ve all heard those stories of hockey players not shaving during playoff season, football players refusing to talk minutes before game time, and baseball players wearing lucky clothing. These rituals may seem silly but they’re crucial to the athlete’s mental preparation.

Ritualistic behavior in the hours prior to a workout can help establish performance consistency. In my years talking with pro-bodybuilders and elite competitive lifters, it’s become clear that familiar surroundings and actions result in the best performance. Platz once stated that the most difficult aspect of his hectic traveling schedule in the 1980’s was training consistency. Being in a different city, hotel and gym every day made performance consistency a challenge.

Below I’ve listed the seven key components an athlete must consider, individualize and be at peace with in the time before a workout to achieve an optimal mental state. These are in no particular order.

Seven Key Components of Being Mentally Prepared for a Workout


Do action-packed movies put you in a kick-a** mood? Or maybe you need soothing music to help calm your over-stressed mind and better focus on the job at hand? I use my other passion in life, heavy and aggressive music, to give me the edge. Likewise, metal videos and concert performances help unleash my beast within. What gets you in the right mental state for optimal training? Figure it out and use it.

Set aside anywhere from half an hour to two hours before a workout to personalize the sights and sounds of your environment. This is where the performance enhancing skill known as “psyching” begins1. Walking into the gym directly after a big meeting at work and expecting your best on the deadlift platform is nonsensical. Once again, optimal performance, like a muscular body, doesn’t happen by accident.


As a general rule, I don’t advocate eating much just before gym action. Although debated2, a protein containing shake may be helpful34; otherwise your last regular meal should be no less than one hour prior. Advanced athletes, however, recognize the symbolic significance of certain beverages.

Coffee is a popular pre-game drink that stimulates your nervous system56. I reserve its consumption to just hours before “show time.” In this way, I’ve developed a strong association between coffee and exercising. Combined with heavy music and aggressive visuals, my cup o’ mud puts the ritual into effect.


Like it or not, some amount of time is needed to get your head in order for what’s to come once you step foot into the gym. I feel the least you can get away with is half an hour. If even 30 minutes is difficult, my suggestion would be to take this mental prep time from your actual gym time. It’s better to only lift for half an hour than a full hour if it means you’ll have the extra 30 minutes to prepare mentally. I really do. As extravagant as it may sound, I take anywhere from one to two hours to “get jazzed.” A weapon without ammunition is useless, after all.


Any successful athlete must accept his shortcomings and weaknesses, and what’s required to bring them up to par. If your legs can squat 300 pounds but your back can only squat 250, how much do you think you’re going to squat? That’s right, 250 pounds. We all have those body parts and exercises that are our strong points, but focusing on these instead of our weak points gets us nowhere.

Moving massive weight and displaying a massive and proportioned physique requires prioritizing, so it’s imperative to accept what must be done — and love the challenge — instead of doing what comes easiest and most naturally. Where’s the fun in that? Have a firm handle on reality, dude. Lying to yourself is not a positive mental attitude.

5) Belief

Too many think they have belief in themselves when, in fact, they don’t. It takes time for most of us to develop complete self confidence and belief that our goals are not only do-able, but inevitable. This isn’t conceit, but rather an unswerving dedication to what we believe is ours, if we’re prepared to put in the time and effort. It’s the warrior’s spirit, I guess you could say. When we march onto the battlefield we must only know victory in our minds.


Who says a vivid fantasy life is unhealthy? When we fantasize about the truly impossible with regularity, soon enough our highest goals seem minor. Lots of strength athletes are comic book devotees and fans of monsters-demons-wizards-type movies. What do we say when we see a huge and strong athlete? We say he’s a monster! Monsters aren’t real. They’re fantasy. Get it? Imagine yourself rowing 800 pounds for ten and suddenly 300 is a cinch. The role that mental visualization plays on physical performance should not be taken lightly!78


Not injurious pain, of course. Resistance athletes experience their fair share of discomfort when training. We must not be afraid of it, but rather embrace it as meter for our efforts. To embark on a program of real weight training — squats, rows, deadlifts, presses, etc. — means that we’ve assured ourselves physical discomfort. I’m not suggesting we turn ourselves into pain-loving perverts. What I’m saying is that we must fully accept the pain and not fear it. It’s just a given — get used to it!

Bottom Line

There’s little doubt that how we think in life (and especially those few hours before workouts) affects our ultimate chance for success. If you walk into the gym in the wrong mental state, your session will be a failure. It’s simply too late.

In a way, our training never stops. We must strive to develop ourselves mentally into fierce warriors prepared to take on any and all challenges required to get that much closer to our goals. Vibrant and focused energy is necessary for all athletes; regardless of your sport of choice. These attributes can’t be harnessed by chance. Program the computer correctly and functions will run smoothly and efficiently.


1 Tod DA, Iredale KF, McGuigan MR, Strange DE, Gill N. “Psyching-up” enhances force production during the bench press exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2005 Aug;19(3):599-603.

2 Fujita S, Dreyer HC, Drummond MJ, Glynn EL, Volpi E, Rasmussen BB.Essential amino acid and carbohydrate ingestion before resistance exercise does not enhance postexercise muscle protein synthesis. J Appl Physiol. 2009 May;106(5):1730-9. Epub 2008 Jun 5.

3 Tipton KD, Rasmussen BB, Miller SL, Wolf SE, Owens-Stovall SK, Petrini BE, Wolfe RR. Timing of amino acid-carbohydrate ingestion alters anabolic response of muscle to resistance exercise. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2001 Aug;281(2):E197-206.

4 Tipton KD, Elliott TA, Cree MG, Aarsland AA, Sanford AP, Wolfe RR. Stimulation of net muscle protein synthesis by whey protein ingestion before and after exercise. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2007 Jan;292(1):E71-6. Epub 2006 Aug 8.

5 Astorino TA, Roberson DW.Efficacy of acute caffeine ingestion for short-term high-intensity exercise performance: a systematic review. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Jan;24(1):257-65.

6 Bazzucchi I, Felici F, Montini M, Figura F, Sacchetti M. Caffeine improves neuromuscular function during maximal dynamic exercise. Muscle Nerve. 2011 Apr 12. doi: 10.1002/mus.21995. [Epub ahead of print]

7 Yue G, Cole KJ. Strength increases from the motor program: comparison of training with maximal voluntary and imagined muscle contractions. J Neurophysiol. 1992 May;67(5):1114-23.

8 Ranganathan VK, Siemionow V, Liu JZ, Sahgal V, Yue GH. Neuropsychologia. From mental power to muscle power—gaining strength by using the mind. Neuropsychologia. 2004;42(7):944-56.

9 This image is a modified image. The original image created by NASA. This file is in the public domain because it was created by NASA. NASA copyright policy states that “NASA material is not protected by copyright unless noted”. Accessed on May 4th, 2011 from:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:MRI_brain.jpg

Click Here to find out "Why we do, what we do."

Written on April 28, 2011 by Rob Fortney
Last Updated: January 02, 2012

This information is not intended to take the place of medical advice.Please check with your health care providers prior to starting any new dietary or exercise program. CasePerformance is not responsible for the outcome of any decision made based off the information presented in this article.

About the Author: Robert Fortney is a veteran weight-training enthusiast who has competed successfully as both a bodybuilder and powerlifter. Fortress, as he is known within the industry, has a diploma in journalism, has served as assistant editor at MuscleMag International and managing editor at the legendary underground publication Peak Training Journal. Currently he can be found on the Iron Radio podcast. Fortress has trained with and befriended many of the top names in the global strength and muscle subculture. He is known for his highly technical and intense style of training, natural strength and no-holds-barred approach in his written work. His coaching services are avalable by clicking on the Strength Sport Consultation tab.