Picture this: You are at a small venue, a local gym or maybe a youth center-type setting, and the stage is set for the squatter to approach the loaded bar in his first ever competition. He looks over at the bar as his buddies scream and yell, “Do it man! You can do it!” Then, the alpha-male of the group gives his buddy a good smack in the face to insure maximum intensity. After being smacked around by his boy (who is just as pumped up as he is), the lifter (after smacking himself a couple of times, too) heads toward the squat rack, bound in his knee wraps and squat suit. He violently grabs the barbell and yells something unintelligible and begins shaking those plates around. He gets under the bar, squirms and yells some more before finally taking those couple of steps back, and begins his descent on his first competition squat ever. Sure enough, he sinks it waaaaay below parallel and, unfortunately, down is the only direction he is going to be able to accomplish on this day. Two failed attempts later and our pumped-up, slapped-up-side-the-head squatter is out of the meet.
Same day, different venue. In this case, let’s go back in time and choose a lifter. Ah yes, the lifter for this illustration is big, multi-world champion Bill Nichols of the APF and WPC. Don’t know of Bill? As George Bush would say, “Use the Google.” But anyway, Bill is a lifter who is full of fire and fierceness, just as the novice lifter mentioned previously. However, except for the few grunts and mutters, Bill is as still and silent while looking at the bar as one can be. The reason for this is because Bill does not really look “at” the bar, rather he looks “through” the bar—at the mental image of himself performing and succeeding at this lift. Bill, a frequent member of the 1,000-pound squat club, is very familiar with competition and with controlling the Id which Freud believes we all possess (some more than others). Bill knows that shaking the weights releases energy and that yelling releases energy… and that is energy he is not willing to expend, nor squander, prior to the lift. Following a few moments of visualization, Bill approaches the bar, sets up under the bar, stands up with the weight… and there it is—the look of intensity; the look of a champion. The judge yells, “squat!” And Bill, with his impeccable form, squats deep and shoots up with the weight like a Pop-Tart being shot out of a toaster. All of his energy, adrenaline, and hormone release was contained until the precise moment it was needed.
Bill’s ability to summon and then harness all of his focus and fierceness does not come from any external force transferring the power over to him. It is him, as an individual, allowing the power he already possesses to be accessed when he desires. Ed Coan once stated in an interview that prior to a meet, during his down time, he relaxes as much as possible—listening to relaxing music and thinking very little about the meet so as not to trigger that rush of adrenaline we all feel when we think about an approaching meet.
We, as lifters, want to have our body, specifically our body’s chemistry, working for us, not against us. Therefore, suppressing our cortisol release and production by not getting all worked up prior to a meet is just as important as summoning our other powerful hormones at exactly the right/needed time. Just like our favorite song can pump us up, we can pump ourselves up as well. We just need to practice when to bring forth and when to release this energy and power—just like we practice our lifts. What do we see at the meets? Typically, we see the novice lifters pacing about and the champions napping or relaxing prior to the start of the meet or between flights.
If you are that novice lifter, take some time and go to a larger meet, preferably one that is sanctioned by one of the larger powerlifting federations, and watch the truly gifted lifters. Then watch the not-so-polished lifters. The difference between those two types of lifters, as it relates to this context, is remarkable. A good decade ago, while I was competing at the North American Powerlifting Championships in Canada, I had the opportunity to watch the great Brent Mikesell squat. In the warm-up area, there was no fan fair or crazy antics around this powerlifting icon, just the power and poise of a powerlifter who, for a time, owned the heaviest squat in human history. (Side note: his squat would have been considered deep in any federation. He is one of the most impressive powerlifters I have had the chance to see while at their prime).
Getting psyched up is not only important, it is a must for the competitive powerlifter. However, allowing your precious energy to be strewn all over the place via shaking the weights, slapping yourself in the head, and yelling will ultimately serve to deplete your strength and power. It is analogous to a fire hose with tiny holes in it. The water is simply erupting out of the hydrant with tremendous force and power, but because the pressure is creeping out of this and that hole, when the water reaches the mouth of the hose, the fierce velocity has been compromised. Keep in mind that a powerlifting meet is a total of nine lifts, warmups, equipment changes, strategy, pacing, mental focus, keeping tabs on your competitors, and so very much more. Also remember that no champion marathon runner sprints the first mile all-out at 100%, and no champion powerlifter expends all his/her energy on openers and warmups. Always try to stay inside of yourself and learn where that power is stored. Most importantly, learn how to call upon it when the time comes. If the meet is a three-flight meet and the warmup room is full of competitors, keep your head. You are always competing against yourself. Use that finite amount of energy you have when it is needed.
Nearly everyone starts as a “weight shaker” to some degree. It is when we learn to focus that energy more efficiently that we truly begin to use our power to a fuller potential. Become a student of the sport. Look at the commonalities of the truly great lifters. They have an internal drive and focus that allows them to train harder and push their numbers beyond the norm. Also, always keep mind when watching these great lifters that, as hard as it might be to imagine, even they (like the great Ed Coan) had a first couple of meets too.
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