When you work out at the gym, you want to have optimal focus. More focus = greater strength, better form, enhanced motor learning, less injuries. For total focus while lifting, you want your working memory to be devoted to nothing other than
- completing your current repetition,
- using your breath and muscles properly, and
- resisting the temptation to quit due to muscle pain or fatigue.
When powerlifting with high intensity (< 6 reps), you’re ideally focused exclusively on breathing and motor performance. When bodybuilding with high volume (> 5 reps), you’re ideally focused to varying degrees on breathing, motor performance, specific muscle activation, and willpower exertion, but nothing else.
In reality, however, you’re also focused on counting reps. To ensure long-term progress, you must count reps and log them in your training journal. But counting reps increases your cognitive load such that your working memory has less room for focusing on present rep performance.
Here are three ways how you can lighten your cognitive load to optimize your focus:
- Offload the cognitive effort of rep counting onto your training partner. Let him do the counting for you.
- Offload the cognitive effort of rep counting onto a video recording that you review afterwards. While this additionally gives you a chance to analyze your form, it also requires time and distracts your focus on resting and breathing between sets.
- Reduce your cognitive load by counting smaller numbers. Instead of counting to six (1-2-3-4-5-6), count to three twice (1-2-3-1-2-3); instead of counting to ten, count to five twice; etc.
Now, listen, I’m not saying that counting to ten is a huge cognitive load on working memory. But if you’ve ever worked out so hard and focused that you lost count after seven or eight repetitions, you know that cognitive load is a real factor here. Sure, lightening that load won’t add twenty pounds to your squat, but it’s a viable step to optimize your focus and thus your performance.
However, if your focus is relatively weak to begin with, don’t even worry about rep counting. If you tend to be all in your head about something that happened at work, in your relationship, or with some dude or chick at the gym, then you should rather first learn how to enter a state of mindcoolness at will. The cognitive load of counting reps is negligible compared to that of distracting emotions you fail to control.
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