Clifton Pho - Powerlifting Coach | Last modified on April 9th, 2023
Knees weak, arms heavy, there’s chalk on his singlet already. The bar is loaded for you and you’re up next. You can’t help but be anxious and the seed of doubt enters your mind whether you will be able to complete your next lift. This is the mental game of powerlifting.
Although you won’t know until you try, you can maximize your chances of a successful lift by inspiring confidence in your lifting and building the mental fortitude to persevere during times of high stress. Read on for strategies to build confidence and overcome plateaus to master the mental game of powerlifting.
Why the mental game is so important
How to build a positive mindset with mindfulness
Programming strategies to build momentum
How to overcome plateaus
Tips to inspire confidence in your training
Conclusion - find your flow state
You don’t have to take my word for it, overcoming failures is the name of the game. You would be remiss if you don’t practice mindfulness in your training. Research shows that mental toughness is correlated with not only better performance, but a whole host of other areas such as confidence, control, self-reflection and stress management to name a few (1).
Now, you can’t just use your brain or your ‘mentality’ to negate gravity and lift the weight up unless you’re telepathic, but your thoughts can make gravity seem a lot lighter or heavier than it actually is. In your own training, you likely have had a workout in the past where the weights felt bolted to the ground. If not well, chances are you probably will. Contrast that to days where you feel invincible almost as if the bar is weightless. Now there are many factors both inside and outside your control that influence your performance and how the weight on the bar feels. However one of the most important factors is your mentality and it’s one of the biggest things you have control over.
If you’re stepping up for a one rep max and you are not sure if you can do it, you’re already losing half the battle. Do you think Usain Bolt thinks he wasn’t going to win his 100m final dash? He even celebrated before he completed the race (although this probably isn’t best practice). You must prepare your mentality when it comes to lifting heavy. It is easy to do when things feel good, but the secret sauce comes when things feel tough and you’re still able to prepare yourself. Having the mental toughness to persevere and reframe how your situation can help you elevate your performance. This is where mindfulness comes into play and can be the ultimate game changer for your competitive powerlifting journey.
It sounds simple, but it’s more complicated than just “thinking you can do it”. There are many strategies you can utilize to help build a better mentality when it comes to powerlifting. Regardless of what your skill level is or what program you are running, you can benefit from improving your mental game in powerlifting.
One of the first things that comes to mind is cultivating a positive mindset in your training. If you have a positive framework in which to view your training, it allows you to make better informed training decisions. Here are some ways you can work on building a mindset that can enhance your performance.
Why do you have the responses you have when it comes to training? Well for one it boils down to your expectations. Your expectations can dictate the outcome of your workout or competition. If you have rigid numbers or a rigid feeling of how things are supposed to feel, then you may be disappointed if the outcome is a much different reality. Instead, if you stay flexible with your expectations and know that your performance is a range, it helps you to handle when things don’t go according to plan.
Don’t get me wrong, you should still have high expectations for yourself. But be sure to taper them and have a plan to deal with setbacks and obstacles that may arise.
For example: if you had the expectation to pull 200kg and only 200kg but you end up having a rough day and fail, you might be disappointed. If instead you thought you might hit anywhere from 190-205kg, it will better prepare you for the outcome and allow you to walk away from the experience more positively. This allows you to move on from the experience and focus on the road forward to become stronger, versus mulling over your emotions over a missed lift.
Expectations are one thing, but regardless things can still go wrong and suck. Perhaps you got a red light on your opener, perhaps you felt a twinge in your back during the last set. It happens, and the best thing you can do is take a breath.
Try to relax and analyze the situation. If you need to vent, yell, swear, go ahead but once you’re calm, cool, and collected it’s time to get back to the drawing board. It’s ok to be emotional, you don’t have to hide it. But giving yourself time to decompress can be the difference maker in walking away from a setback with a level head.
You’ll soon realize that it’s not the end of the world, the meet isn’t over and you’re not going to end up in a wheelchair.
When it comes to having a positive mindset, one of the greatest ways to cultivate this is to surround yourself with positive individuals. Training partners can help you reframe how your set went and give you their impressions and thoughts on your performance. This can help reassure you and guide your decisions moving forward. However, be sure you have honest training partners that keep you accountable. The last thing you want is someone to push your ego with your high squats only for you to bomb out of your next meet.
Having a good group of support is pivotal when it comes to building your mental game. Sometimes you might just need a shoulder to lie on, or some help to pick you up when the weights beat you up on the day. It’s not a prerequisite but additional support is always welcome.
Regardless of the situation, your superpower is to zoom out. This is just one instance in your long journey. It’s one lift, it’s one set, it’s one competition. There is always another one on the horizon. Knowing this will help you reframe your situation so you can focus on maximizing your performance overtime versus being clouded by one bad meet. Everyday is an opportunity for you to become a stronger version of yourself both physically and mentally, so be sure to take advantage of that.
Although the mental strength comes from within, there are things you can do externally to help cultivate a better mentality. Your programming is the backbone of your progression in powerlifting, and you can utilize these strategies to help build confidence.
With lower intensities, you’re almost guaranteed to build momentum. Keep your training at around a RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion) six or seven or 60-70% of your one Rep Max (RM). What this means is if you think you can do ten reps, you keep three or four in the tank. Another way to put this is that you save three or four Reps In Reserve (RIR). With low intensities, the workouts should not be too taxing mentally, and you can always adjust the load to ensure the workout is appropriate for your performance on the day. As you build week to week you will start getting some solid momentum in your lifts.
If you want a program with relatively low intensity, you can browse boostcamp’s selection of programs. For example, Alex Bromley’s 70’s Powerlifter workout is an 18 week program that has you training four days a week. Intensities start from 60% and ramp up to 80% of your one RM. With this program, you can be sure you’ll be building some momentum week to week in your lifts. It won’t be easy though, so be sure to mentally prepare yourself. Read more at the link below.
Similar to lower intensities, you can introduce progression caps to maintain your momentum. Having a progressing cap of around five to ten kilograms can help you increase your performance but limit the excess fatigue you accumulate. By leaving some room in your lifts, you will ensure there is some room to grow on subsequent sessions.
This can be very powerful for your mentality, as building momentum will help you feel like you are on the right track and inspire confidence in your own lifting.
Here’s an example of what this might look like for an athlete using progression caps and not using progression caps:
Program one with progression caps of 5-10kg
Week 1 - 100kg
Week 2 - 105kg
Week 3 - 110kg
Week 4 - 115kg
Program two without progression caps
Week 1 - 100kg
Week 2 - 115kg
Week 3 - 110kg
Week 4 - 112.5kg
Although there is nothing wrong with the second strategy, some lifters may feel like they are getting weaker or not progressing since the weight is going down after week 2 of program two. Whereas with program one, having a progression cap has you slowly increasing the weight week to week. The progression cap strategy can help you build momentum and facilitate a better mindset.
There is a caveat with this as obviously progress is not linear. In fact non linear progress is completely expected and normal… So be careful not to expect linear progression. It is absolutely ok to go down in weight if you need to, you should not feel bad about it. After all you do want to improve your mental game, not take away from it. You can’t discount how good it feels for your mental state when the weight on the bar keeps going up though, just don’t get used to it.
Remember that your workout is just that, a singular workout. Look at your program over a longer period of time and you’ll learn to find the confidence in your previous training. If you have one bad session in a week, or even a few bad sessions over a couple weeks it can really hit your confidence. But when you look at those few sessions over months or even years, it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal anymore. Reframing how you see your programming will allow you to make better decisions that inspire confidence.
Regardless of how good of a mindset you have or how much momentum you have built into your programming, you will inevitably run into a roadblock. Plateaus are part of the game and can be the hardest thing to overcome both physically and mentally. Not making progress for weeks, months or even years can make you feel like you’re just spinning your tires in the mud. Good news is that there are many ways to overcome plateaus to kickstart your lifting back into gear.
Your first line of attack is to change up your training. Not only can this provide a different physical response, but it can also help with your mentality. Adjusting training with different rep ranges, volume and intensity can be a refreshing experience. The key here is to shake things up. If higher intensities are not working out for you, try lower intensities. If low rep training has been stale, try high reps. You can even change up the frequency of your lifts. This change in stimulus can be what you need to break through your plateau.
Here’s an example:
Old program: Squat 5 x 3 @ RPE 8
New program: Squat 3 x 10 @ RPE 7
Old program: Bench 3 x 12 @ RPE 6
New program: Feet up bench 3 x 5 @ RPE 8
Old program: Deadlift 2x a week
New program: Deadlift 1x a week
Although changing your training can be refreshing and stimulating, sometimes you might just need to do something completely different. Perhaps you grow tired of squatting, benching and deadlifting, or perhaps the movements are not very tolerable. Doing something different can be a gamechanger for your mindset.
Think about if any other exercise/movement or sport interests you. Whether it’s volleyball or rock climbing, the world is your oyster. Your gains won’t disappear from powerlifting if you decide to take a momentary break. In fact, having other interests can help increase your motivation to train harder when it counts. Regardless if you are trying to break a plateau, try to have another hobby and activity, you’ll thank yourself in the long run.
It’s always better to do something than nothing, but it’s also ok to do nothing. If you are feeling excessively burnt out or just need some time off to recover, you can definitely do so with little consequence. Take some time off, explore and experiment with things. Try to find the joy in life again and it will feed back into your training.
There is more to your life than just lifting. You are more than just muscles and bones. Human beings are multifactorial, and the good news is working on any one of these factors can help improve your physical and mental body. Whether it’s improving your sleep, nutrition, or overall stress levels, they can really impact your performance. Consider what factors are within your control and work on improving them. Maybe take some time off work, or try to find a better suited job. See what changes you can make to your diet or perhaps your sleep hygiene to ensure adequate recovery. The beauty of it is that there are so many things you can do to not only help break your current plateau, but improve your quality of life both inside and outside of the gym.
You now have lots of tools and strategies to improve your mental strength in the gym and beyond. Here are some quick tips you can take with you day to day to inspire confidence in your training.
“It feels heavy.” You have thought about that in your head at some point, or perhaps even yelled it out loud during training. The thing is, this is powerlifting. It is SUPPOSED to feel heavy. You are lifting huge amounts of weight and pushing your body to the limit. Forget about the sensation and the weight on the bar and lift it. When you stop looking for weights to feel easy, you can be confident in your ability to lift the weight no matter the situation.
Treat every lift like a one rep max attempt
To the best of your ability, approach every lift with the same ferocious intent and effort. If you give it your all, you’ll ensure the weight can move the best it possibly can. You can walk away from the bar knowing you put in your best effort and leave no doubts on the platform. If you have a great day and the weight flies, you will surely increase your confidence. If it doesn’t move as well as it should, you can at least be confident in your ability to put in 100% effort even on an off day.
Use hype and other tools sparingly
If you love smelling salts, or getting really amped up for a lift, try to limit that in the long run. Contrary to popular belief, you don‘t need to slap yourself before every lift. The more you stay adaptable to different situations and don’t need to rely on external tools to lift heavy, the more confident you can be in your training. If you train yourself to require nothing but just your body to lift, you can be resilient and able to train given any situation. Forgot your lifting gear? Couldn’t sleep last night? Flight got delayed and you’ll show up a few hours before the meet starts? Train yourself to be resilient and capable in suboptimal conditions and you’ll shock yourself with the mental strength you have to perform regardless of the situation.
Believe in yourself
This may be corny, but you have to believe in yourself. Even if you don’t, just give yourself an honest shot before you write off the day or the lift. No matter the circumstances, you never truly know what you are capable of until you try. Visualize those three white lights and realize your strength on the platform. You have nothing to lose when you hear that the bar is loaded.
When it comes to powerlifting, your mental approach can make or break your lift. If you want to become the strongest version of yourself, you cannot discount how much your confidence and mental fortitude play a role when it comes to performance.
Every training session is an opportunity to build your mental game. Work on your mindset, your confidence, and break through those plateaus to truly elevate your performance.
Soundara Pandian PR, Balaji Kumar V, Kannan M, Gurusamy G, Lakshmi B. Impact of mental toughness on athlete's performance and interventions to improve. J Basic Clin Physiol Pharmacol. 2022 Jul 6. doi: 10.1515/jbcpp-2022-0129. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 35792085.