When strength athletes think about gains, the first thing that comes to mind tends to be picking up heavy weights and putting them back down. Lifters — perhaps especially bodybuilders — also tend to consider nutrition to be a crucial part of their programming. Mobility, sleep, and physical recovery-related aspects of strength sports sometimes get their dues, too.
But too rarely do most strength athletes consider what is arguably one of the most crucial tenets of lifting heavy — mindset. Meditation can be an incredibly impactful way to improve your recovery, reduce your stress, and even help you get stronger and build more muscle in the gym. And while meditation for strength athletes isn’t a replacement for getting help with your mental health if you need it, it can be a good supplement to professional assistance.
Meditation might not be the first place lifters turn to when they need to improve their training game or bust through plateaus. But learning to meditate — and making it a consistent practice — can help elevate strength athletes to the top of their class. Learning to meditate when you hate meditation or when meditation has given you anxiety in the past can be difficult — but so is perfecting your barbell snatch or learning to squat heavy.
If you can add meditation to your training repertoire, you’ll be making a brave move into a whole new arena of potential lifting successes.
What is Meditation?
One reason many people don’t take up meditation is because the practice can seem intimidating (or uninteresting). But you don’t have to be able to sit still and meditate for an hour — or even five whole minutes — to develop a practice of your own.
Not all meditation is about physical stillness. Anything that helps you focus on your body and where you are in the moment can be considered a form of meditation. In that sense, you already might meditate more than you think you do — for many athletes, lifting weights is their form of meditation.
You can supplement that moving meditation — that heightened attentiveness to your breath and your body’s position in space — with other forms of movement-based meditation. Practices originating in various parts of Asia, like Tai Chi and yoga, can be tremendously helpful in this regard.
If any kind of consciousness about what your body is doing feels too much or too intimidating, you can also choose to be meditative about something you already do every day. Try tuning into what’s happening in your mind and body while you’re brushing your teeth, folding laundry, doing the dishes, or packing your gym bag for your next session. Are your shoulders tense? Is your jaw clenched? Is your breathing shallow or relaxed? Calling these things to mind can help you keep a meditative, present-focused mindset, even while you’re moving.
Meditating while moving definitely cultivates mindfulness — but in this case, mindfulness meditation is referring to a stiller form of meditating. Think about the image that comes to your mind with someone sitting or kneeling with their eyes closed and breathing slowly. The way you perform this stiller version of meditation doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s.
You don’t have to count your breaths the same way or try adventurous styles of breathing if it makes you nervous right now. You don’t even have to sit up straight or lie on your back if that’s not your vibe. But mindfulness meditation can help you get in tune with your body and your breath. You’ll focus on your breathing — some examples of how to do that are below — and try to stay present in your body.
It’s okay to check in with a therapist or support group if staying present in your body makes you nervous. You can also try a brief — 10 or 20 seconds — mindfulness meditation while you’re on the lifting platform. No one has to know you’re doing it, the time will pass quickly, and if you’re a lifter, you’ll already be in your happy place. Establishing that level of emotional safety within yourself is an important part of making mindfulness meditation accessible to you.
Sample Meditations for Strength Athletes
You don’t have to meditate for big chunks of time to “do it right.” Ultimately, there is no “right” way to meditate. The following meditations for strength athletes don’t have to take more than a minute or two, and you can slip them into your day whenever you’re feeling brave. Maybe that’s before your next work meeting or before your next max attempt.
Once you get accustomed to these kinds of very short meditations, you can gradually make them longer if you’d like. Much like with strength gains, where you gradually increase your training intensity or volume, you can progressively increase the amount of time you’re meditating as you get more used to the practice.
Square breathing is a great strategy for soothing your brain and body. You can opt for this technique when you’re lying in bed and trying to convince yourself to leave the warmth of your comforter to head to the gym. Research suggests that this type of controlled breathing can increase your emotional control and social well-being. (1)
Performing square breathing is fairly accessible because its name makes it pretty easy to remember what to do. You’ll breathing in a square shape. For example: inhale for four counts; hold for four counts; exhale for four counts; and hold for four counts. Then begin again. You can do as many rounds of square breathing as you desire. Even starting with one or two rounds will take less than a minute and can help acclimate you to the wide world of meditation.
When was the last time you were actually aware of the breaths you were taking? One quick way to learn to meditate when you hate meditating is to simply count 10 of your breaths. They don’t even have to be particularly slow or deep. Just make an agreement with yourself to look away from your computer screen — or squat rack — long enough to count 10 of your breaths. You can close your eyes if you feel comfortable, but it’s not a requirement. Neither is sitting or lying down in a particular way.
That’s what makes counting to 10 breaths a very accessible form of meditation. If you lose track on your way to 10, that’s no problem — everyone loses track of their rep count sometimes. Give it your best estimate and keep going or — if you’re feeling ambitious — start again from one and try again.
Meditation to Calm Your Nerves
When you need to calm your nerves — like before a big competition — meditation can help. Research suggests that meditation can reduce your stress levels and soothe your nervous system. (2)
You’ll close your eyes or focus on a still, fixed point in front of you. You can also hold a comfort object or something to help increase your focus and center yourself in your body. Put on some music or a guided vocal meditation if that will help you stay present.
If these acts of preparation make you nervous — if you’re still very new to the practice — that’s okay. You can skip right to this breathing part. The key here is calming your nervous system. Research suggests that making your exhales longer than your inhales can calm your nervous system and reduce levels of stress hormones in your bloodstream. (3) Simply focus on making your exhales longer than your inhales.
Try counting to three during your inhales and counting to five or six during your exhales. If this feels too slow and you find yourself nervous about exhaling for so long, you can alter the numbers or speed up your counting. Just make sure you count higher during exhales than you do during inhales.
Meditation Before a Max Lift
If you’re nervous before a max lift, you need to strike an interesting balance — stay pumped up enough to move big weight, but stay calm enough to maintain focus and impeccable form. To accomplish this, try taking a big belly breath just like you do in preparation to brace your core. Then, forcibly exhale by pressing all that air out of your belly with your mouth closed.
Keeping your mouth closed will help keep your focus regulated. It’ll also keep the energy you need for your lift circulating in your body. Try this type of breathing for at least two or three breaths if you’re new to meditation. Up the “rep count” of breaths if you’re more experienced or otherwise feel comfortable doing so.
You can also always throw affirmations into your meditation. Keep them short and memorable so you can call them to mind even when you’re not formally meditating. For example: “I am strong enough to lift this,” or, “I will be alright,” or “I can lift this weight.” Feel free to add one of these or an affirmation of your own to your breath work.
Meditation for Between Sets
You don’t have to be trying for a PR to integrate meditation into your workout. Between your sets, try sitting or standing while closing your eyes. Stare at a fixed point on the ground — instead of your phone. Take at least three or four big belly breaths and release them slowly through your nose. You don’t have to be explosive about this.
This strategy for meditating can be especially helpful if you’re performing sets that leave you particularly winded. You don’t have to think of it as meditating — you can trick yourself a little bit into saying that you’re just regulating your breathing before your next set. And that’s very, very true. Focusing on that goal — instead of the goal of meditating — might help you remove some intimidation or anxiety barriers that you may have about meditation.
How to Start Meditating
There’s no one way to meditate, so there’s also no single way to start developing a practice. But as with anything in strength sports, there are some common starting points to work from.
Step 1 — Reflect on Your Why
Start by checking in about your goals, just like you would before starting or designing a workout program. Is your main goal to reduce overall stress? Is it to sleep better so you can make more strength gains and feel better during the days? Or are you trying to bust through a strength plateau that you suspect might be fear-based rather than purely physical? Reflect on your “why” and consider jotting them down on a sticky note or in your training journal.
Step 2 — Choose Your Method
Decide how you want to integrate meditation into your program. Do you want to start by adding a few intentional breaths between your sets in the gym? Or do you want to try practicing guided meditations — which you can find on many different apps and on YouTube — every morning or evening?
Whatever the situation may be, take some time to explore the options and experiment with what you think might work best for you. As with any training program, be open to the idea that what works for your gym buddies might not work for you. And what works for you might change from time to time.
Step 3 — Set Reminders
Have trouble remembering to do things, especially when you’re busy and trying to ingrain a new habit? Try setting a reminder in your phone. You can even set a few reminders throughout the day if you’re the type of person who’s likely to hit snooze on a task the first few times. If you have a few reminders going off, at least one of them will likely stick.
You can also tie these reminders to tasks throughout the day that you’ll already do — things like brushing your teeth, leaving your house to go to the gym, or washing the dishes.
Step 4 — Start Very Small
When your alarm goes off, you don’t need to do a “session” of meditation at all. You can use the reminders, especially at first, to remind yourself to take just two deep breaths in the middle of your work day.
Step 5 — Practice
As with anything in strength training, consistency is key. Whatever method you choose, practice in whatever way feels sustainable for you. That might mean committing to practicing some form of meditation twice a week. Or it might mean trying to go for it every day. You can play around with different strategies to help yourself stay consistent, but practice, practice, practice.
Benefits of Meditation for Strength Athletes
Once you develop a meditation practice as a strength athlete, you may just realize that it’s been the key to lifting success your program has been missing. Much like an athlete adding a mobility routine to their warm-up and basking in the less painful, improved lifting mechanics, adding meditation to your program can be a great boon to your training.
Increase Strength and Muscle Mass
It might seem like a stretch to say that meditation can increase your physical gains — but truly, it can. Studies have shown that meditation can help you sleep better. (4) And when you sleep better, you train better. Research has also demonstrated that when you sleep better, you can recover faster, train harder, and ultimately make faster, more quality progress in the gym. (5) So really, by not meditating, you may be leaving strength gains on the table. And who wants to do that?
Improve Your Breathing
Breath work is the underrated key to any excellent set. Even if sitting still and counting slow breaths isn’t a style of meditation that works for you, meditating can still help you get a lot more in tune with your own breath. You’ll increase your focus on breathing into your belly rather than taking shallow breaths in your chest.
That’s excellent for learning to brace well for heavy lifts. It can also help you slow your heart rate more efficiently when you’re out of breath — and the more efficiently you can use your rest time, the more effective the rest of your training session can be.
Cultivate a Beginner’s Mindset
Strength athletes need to be able to pay attention to more than just the latest popular lifting trends. But, lifters also benefit tremendously from being open to different training techniques and scientific advances in the field. Being open to new information and change — cultivating a beginner’s mindset — can help make sure you’re really maximizing your time and energy in the gym.
When you’re serious about your training, you have to believe that you don’t know everything. Starting a meditation practice can help you feel safer saying things like “I don’t know” and “I’d like to learn more about that.” That open-mindedness to learning in the gym can be a huge asset to making sure you’re always at the top of your game.
Improve Resiliency on the Platform
If you’ve ever gone for a big max attempt and thought for even a moment, “I can’t lift this weight,” you know that this thought is a huge PR-killer. A healthy dose of self-doubt — also known as beginner’s mindset — is a great asset for mentally tough lifters. But to bolster your resilience on the platform — and to bolster your lifting totals — confidence also plays a key role.
Meditation can train you to tune out the self-doubt in your head when it gets more mean than constructive. You’ll learn to soothe your inner bullies faster and more effectively than you generally can without a meditation practice. It can also help you learn to quiet everything around you so that you can focus on nothing but the lift you’re about to perform.
The name of the game in strength sports is causing your muscles intentional stress. Lifters often talk about the importance of time under tension, as well as mechanical and metabolic stresses produced by training heavy. These factors — these stressors — are indeed crucial parts of strength gain and muscle growth.
But life stress — whether it’s your kids, your job, caretaking for older family members and your community, or your own mental health — can take a huge toll on you in the gym. The more overall stress you have, the harder it will be for the positive stressors you produce while lifting weights to have the desired impact on your body. In other words, stress in the weight room is great — unless it’s overwhelmed by all the stress and anxiety from the rest of your life.
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Research suggests that the more stressed out you are in general, the harder it is to get stronger in the gym. (6) The good news is, studies also show that meditation can significantly reduce stress levels. (2) This can do a lot to help ease mental health struggles that you might have. And, it also can help improve your strength training game by bolstering your recovery from heavy training.
How to Integrate Meditation into Your Strength Training
Whether you work it into your training session or your recovery, you can integrate meditation into your workouts to help you get a taste for the practice. This can be a very useful strategy for strength athletes who want to meditate but are intimidated by or anxious about the process. You’ll get comfortable with short and/or guided meditations or meditative breathing during activities you already perform — like warm-ups, working out, and sleeping — and you can form a solid habit from there.
Meditation in Your Warm-Up or Cool-Down
Your warm-up or cool-down can be excellent places to integrate meditation. That might mean moving through 30 seconds of cat cows during your warm-up. Or, you might close your eyes and breathe deeply and intentionally for a few seconds during your post-workout stationary bike ride.
If you’re feeling especially brave, you might also include a still, mindfulness-based breathing session into your workout bookends. Plenty of meditation apps or guides you can find on YouTube have affirmations and full meditations specifically designed for athletes. You might find these especially helpful immediately before or after your training session.
Meditation During Your Workout
Much like meditating while you’re brushing your teeth, meditating during your workout can help you meditate without thinking about it too much. And not thinking about it all that much may be exactly what you need to improve your relationship with the practice.
Whether you pause and take a few intentional breaths before each set or only focus for now on meditating before very heavy attempts, meditating during your workout can get you accustomed to the practice more generally. Once you associate meditative breathing with your happy place, you may well be more able to embrace the practice outside of the gym. And — just like with lifting — the more you practice, the more benefits you can receive.
Meditation Before Sleep
Getting full and deep sleep is a crucial part of every strength athlete’s recovery game. Studies show that your lifting can suffer when you’re not sleeping enough or well — goodbye maximizing muscle growth and strength gain. (5) The good news is, meditation can help you out.
Research suggests that meditating can help you sleep better. (4) And it doesn’t have to be formal, either, or take more time out of your day. Especially if you’re new to the practice, meditating as you fall to sleep can be one of the most accessible ways to start. Find yourself a meditation app you like — many are free — or find a guided meditation on YouTube. All you have to do is select a meditation and press play after you get snuggled into bed.
Starting your practice at night, when you’re already in bed — and using a guided version with peaceful music — can take away some of the anxieties many people feel about meditation. Fears like it’ll take too much time, or even getting anxiety from sitting or lying still and not being “productive” can be big obstacles to starting a practice.
Pressing the play button on a guided meditation when you’re already trying to fall asleep can be a great entry point. It’ll get your mind and body more used to the practice — and help you sleep better. If it helps, tell yourself it’s part of your recovery routine to gain more muscle and strength.
Your primary goal right now might be straight up gaining more strength or muscle mass in the gym. Or, it might be to reduce your overall stress levels so you can actually enjoy your training more. Whatever the case may be, meditation can help strength athletes get closer to their goals. Even if you’ve hated meditating in the past, there are accessible, quick ways to integrate the practice into your daily training and life. It might be difficult — but so is lifting heavy weights. Once you start, don’t be surprised if you find yourself lifting better — and living better, too.
- Zaccaro A, Piarulli A, Laurino M, et al. How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing. Front Hum Neurosci. 2018;12:353.
- Turakitwanakan W, Mekseepralard C, Busarakumtragul P. Effects of mindfulness meditation on serum cortisol of medical students. J Med Assoc Thai. 2013 Jan;96 Suppl 1:S90-5.
- Komori T. The relaxation effect of prolonged expiratory breathing. Ment Illn. 2018;10(1):7669.
- Rusch HL, Rosario M, Levison LM, Olivera A, Livingston WS, Wu T, Gill JM. The effect of mindfulness meditation on sleep quality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2019 Jun;1445(1):5-16.
- Knowles OE, Drinkwater EJ, Urwin CS, Lamon S, Aisbett B. Inadequate sleep and muscle strength: Implications for resistance training. J Sci Med Sport. 2018 Sep;21(9):959-968.
- Stults-Kolehmainen MA, Bartholomew JB, Sinha R. Chronic psychological stress impairs recovery of muscular function and somatic sensations over a 96-hour period. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Jul;28(7):2007-17.
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