All in your head! 3 questions to ask yourself before setting foot in the gym

Painting a clear mental picture before attacking your goals head-on is hugely important, writes personal trainer Dean Merton.

WHILE I DO love to write about the physical aspects of training above all else, I feel as though the idea of training mindset can be infinitely more valuable. It’s like the old saying ‘Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for one day, teach him to fish and he will eat for a lifetime’.

Today’s piece is focusing on three questions I feel everyone should ask themselves in order to get a clear mental picture of what they need to do in the gym, how much time they need to dedicate to the gym, and what changes they may need to make if they aren’t on the optimum path to their goals.

1. What do I want?

The first question you should ask yourself could not be any more basic. It’s something that you need to know before you set foot in the gym. The beauty of this question is that there is no wrong answer, you can literally have any goal in the world from getting a six pack to deadlifting double bodyweight, to learning how to do the splits between chairs like Jean Claude Van Damme. Yes, some goals will be more realistic than others, but the only limits you have is your imagination.

I also think it’s worth noting that just training for leisure can be an acceptable goal to have. If you want to train just to stay healthy and afford yourself the opportunity to eat some bad food at the weekends, then more power to you. If you’re happy then you’re happy and you shouldn’t be made to feel like you should be striving for change just because you want to lift weights. Some of my favourite trainees are the ones who love to train because of the pleasure they derive from the act of training itself, because those people are always willing to try new things, learn new techniques, and push themselves without fear of how it affects the long term grand plans.

If your goal is little more tangible in nature (i.e. ‘I want to drop a dress size’), then you need to give yourself a time-frame in which to achieve it, as this will dictate how much effort you need to be putting in. Working out for the hell of it and training towards a time-sensitive goal will be dramatically different. One allows you to just go work out whenever you feel like it, whereas the other will require you to grind out a few sessions when you don’t feel so enthused by the thought of it.

shutterstock_297318935 (1) Shutterstock / Shutterstock / /

Once you figure out what the goal is, then you need to figure out how much work is involved in getting there. As an example, someone who is a solid couple of stone overweight won’t have too much trouble shifting the first few pounds of fat from their frame as the human body doesn’t want to carry around too much excess weight. This would be them going from overweight to healthy.

If their goal revolves around having a six pack though, they must be aware that not all progress will be linear and easy, that they will be required to use a little cunning, savvy and guile towards the end to go from healthy to shredded.

If you’re not aware that this will happen, then you may be badly equipped to achieve the targets you set for yourself and as a result, fall short of your goals. Therefore you can see it will always be of great benefit to have your work cut out for you.

By spending a little time pondering these questions you will come to realise whether the goal you had in mind is for you or whether you are better suited adjusting your expectations a little.

What if you have three kids at home, a 40-hour work week, and want to achieve a six pack? Is it possible? Yes, definitely, but will it be enjoyable trying to juggle all of those stressors? Certainly not! And why do you want that six pack? Do you need it or would it just be a nice achievement? If you would genuinely enjoy trying to achieve that goal than by all means go for it, it’s a heck of an achievement and if it gives you satisfaction then why not.

However to some people this may seem like torture, if this sounds like you then this may be a case of having an unsuitable goal. In this case a simple adjustment is in order. Instead of going for six pack or bust, why not approach training with the mindset that you want to work hard, eat clean, be healthy, and get your body fat as low as possible while remaining a good parent and a valuable employee to your business? Problem solved — you don’t have to be miserable in the gym on the days fasted cardio seems less appealing than pulling teeth, everybody wins.

If you make that necessary adjustment, you will probably find yourself with a clear idea of what you want, and you can start training. After you’ve spent some time training towards your goals you may ask yourself our next big question:
2. Am I doing the right thing?

shutterstock_164304971 (2) Shutterstock / Jasminko Ibrakovic Shutterstock / Jasminko Ibrakovic / Jasminko Ibrakovic

It’s so easy to get caught up doing the wrong thing in the gym, mostly because there are about a million different opinions coming at you from every person you talk to and everything you read. Literally every person you consult about training philosophies and methodologies will tell you something slightly different.

The most confusing part about all of this is that everything you could try will work — for someone, not necessarily for you. So if you go ask the biggest dude in your gym how he got that big and his answer is deadlifting three times per week and eating still-beating cows hearts he could very well be telling the truth (he could also be gassed to the gills and unwilling to admit it), but that doesn’t say you should do the same. You could wind up with a sore back and e-coli to show for following his sage advice.

So when you ask yourself if you’re doing the right thing, you have one main thing to ponder; ‘Have I progressed towards my goal?’ If not when was the last time you seen progress?

The next thing you need to consider is where you get your information — are the practices you’re employing backed up by scientific or anecdotal evidence? And either way how many people have helped compile this evidence? Are they anything like you?

What’s the point in following a programme designed by an elite bodybuilder for other elite bodybuilders if you presently find yourself above 20% bodyfat, or alternatively do you really need to do supplemental cardio if you work outdoors all day building houses and your goal is to get bigger?

Finally, ask yourself what alternatives you have and how many of them you have tried. If your progress stalls and you know you have an alternative method to reach your goals that is seemingly perfect for someone in your circumstances then why not explore it? What do you have to lose if you’re not progressing anyways? If you marry yourself to your programme you have to be prepared for the good and the bad, the bad in this case being a loss of momentum.

If you analyse what you are doing and convince yourself that you are in fact doing the right thing it could be time to ask yourself our next big question:
3. Could I do things better?

So you have your goals sussed, for arguments sake you want to get stronger. You know you need to deadlift, squat, push and pull. You have an epic program laid out, but you notice that week after week the numbers don’t go up, or the numbers go up in almost direct correlation with how much pain you feel on a daily basis. What’s the story here? Well maybe your form sucks on everything that you do. Maybe you have an underlying alignment/stability/mobility issue that contraindicates the majority of your programming. Either way you need to ask yourself what you could be doing better.

The best programme in the world is only as good as how well it is being executed by the trainee who does it. With that in mind, it pays to do everything you can to get the most from your time and efforts in your training.

One way I often see people taking it a little easy is on the nutrition front. Truth be told it’s actually not hard to eat well 99% of the time. You follow a really simple formula of only buying nutrient dense foods, and then learning interesting dishes to cook with them. Occasionally you can throw in a bit of filth (sugar, sweet sugar) to keep yourself sane.

shutterstock_160379219 (1) Shutterstock / Sebastian Duda Shutterstock / Sebastian Duda / Sebastian Duda


However there needs to be a little effort at times; i.e. if your housemate or significant other asks if you want to get a pizza/tub of ice cream/pint etc, it’s ok to say no, or to go to the effort of planning it into your nutrition for the day.

No one wants you to be that weirdo who brings their own food to a party, but if you can eat a little bit more ‘clean’ in the run-up to your night out you can easily justify a bit of a ‘cheat’. The trouble here is often that the effort of planning this often seems to be a little much for some people. Make no mistake, if your goal is to be shredded and awesome then you may be forced to do a little planning ahead with your meals, or God forbid a little bit of prior prep in order to ensure you have a healthy meal available when you need it.

Another variable in your efforts could be your efforts themselves, i.e. the intensity of the work you’re putting in. Sometimes doing things better can just come down to doing more of it, or doing it with something that’s a little heavier. It’s 2017 and everyone wants a sexy program that not only addresses their prehab & rehab needs, but aligns their posture and grows their d**k by 6 inches (or gives girls a bigger cup size), but the fact is that for most people linear progression is probably the most valid thing they could attempt, i.e. just starting very light and putting a little bit more weight on the bar every week while maintaining excellent form.

I hate prescribing more cardio to people who are already doing an hour a day every day, but for someone who wants to lose weight and takes the car wherever they go, an easy window of adaptation can just be switching to walking a little more often.

And finally, it pays to remember that despite all of the arguments you hear about over-training and giving your body time to rest, you are still better off training 3-4 days per week rather than 1-2.

To wrap things up

While I said there were only three questions in this blog, I hope by reading it you come out with many more. If you decide to change anything off the back of reading this please share your progress with me in the comments section below, on the subject of comments, I am always available to answer any questions you may have after reading this.

Dean Merton is a Dublin-based strength coach and personal trainer. For more information you can follow him on Facebook and Instagram, or you can send him a direct message here.

You can also see some of his previous articles here.

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