When most people think of mindfulness, they envision a serene scene in which a practiced yogi zens out in a wood-paneled room as their effervescent eucalyptus oil tingles the skin and fills the nostrils. The very name—mindfulness—brings forth misconceptions that it’s solely meant for those who exist more readily in their minds than their bodies.
But the mind-body connection isn’t limited to a yoga mat, nor is being present-focused and harnessing breath control. Thankfully, over the past few years, as evidence has mounted about its efficacy and utility for both prevention and treatment, mindfulness has entered into everything from school curriculums to the Special Operations community.
Mindfulness is the psychological process of intentionally bringing your attention to experiences occurring in the present moment calmly and without judgment. It can be developed through meditation or other training. It’s that “other training” that often doesn’t get as much attention and is likely why mindful practice has failed to enter the common lexicon of those who prefer or engage solely in strength-based training.
Integrating a mindfulness plan alongside weightlifting and nutrition protocols has the potential to increase strength-based training outcomes. What’s more, outside of the gym, it can improve emotion regulation and general tolerance for the natural ups and downs of life. The bottom line is there are no risks, only benefits.
The most challenging part is making mindfulness a function of your routine and accepting that, while the tangibility of reward is slow and less visible, its benefits are lasting and far-reaching.
One of the core tenets of mindfulness is awareness. In this context, awareness is most commonly defined as “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Applying the principle to the gym, the best place to start is with isometric training. Isometric training develops muscles through static exercises during which muscles contract without changing length. Think wall-sit versus a traditional squat. The benefit of being in a prolonged holding position allows you to identify and pinpoint sensation.
Understanding where and when muscles are engaging, firing and fatiguing breeds awareness and fosters control. The fusion of action with intention allows you to concentrate on form and feeling, both sensory and psychological. In doing so, strength-training encourages mindfulness and weight lifting begins to mimic yoga in powerful ways. Interestingly, there are some who believe that the marriage of yoga and strength-training forces you to mentally slow down so deeply it compounds the efficacy of traditional yoga practice.
Mindful strength training is not about being peaceful or quiet (two of the most common misconceptions about the practice). It’s about preparing your mind for consolidated action. Strength-based mindful practice can take place before you even step into the gym.
Studies have shown that visualization training, by which you quietly visualize a lifting technique at regular intervals, paired with regular training improves physical strength more so than lifting alone. Mindfulness is as much about preparation as it is about awareness as preparation lays the groundwork necessary to develop awareness.
A few tips.
Don’t practice mindfulness or visualization right before bed. Try to do it during the day when you’re relatively alert so you can reap the most benefit. It’s also called “practice” for a reason. There is no World Series of mindfulness, it’s not a skill you achieve or compete with but rather something you strive for.
Start small. Dedicate your warmup to integrating a mindful protocol. In the beginning, try to do this without music blasting through your headphones. While the effect of music has shown to increase duration and thereby endurance over time, it is a distraction from what you’re experiencing in the moment. Distraction isn’t always a bad thing but if you are consistently distracted you can’t be mindfully present and truly experience what’s happening in your body.
Not to be too dramatic but practicing mindfulness necessitates a fundamental shift in how you view the mind and body while requiring constant and consistent work.
But the juice is worth the squeeze. Mindfulness has been scientifically proven to improve cognition, reduce stress, increase body satisfaction, and prevent and treat depression, in addition to a whole host of other theorized benefits like increased objectivity, self-control, emotional intelligence, and, you guessed it, strength.
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Meaghan Mobbs, M.A. is a West Point graduate, Afghanistan Veteran, and former Army Captain who is currently a Clinical Psychology pre-doctoral fellow at Columbia University, Teachers College where she researches and writes about modern day veteran issues. She headlines the Debrief on Psychology Today and her work appears in numerous publications. Mobbs is a President Trump appointee to the United States Military Academy Board of Visitors, George W. Bush Veteran Leader Scholar, Tillman Military Scholar, David O’Connor Fellow, and a Noble Argus and National Military Family Association Scholarship recipient.