There are many wonderful things about the sport of natural bodybuilding. The commitment to regular strength training and aerobic conditioning helps keep us healthy and physically fit while most of the culture struggles with weight issues and deconditioning. The sport entails a high level dedication to strong nutritional habits which contributes further to our wellness. I also believe that the discipline and dedication required in this sport can help increase resilience for coping with more difficult times in our lives.
However, there is another side to the sport that has the potential to be harmful rather than beneficial. It is the side where bodybuilding can lead an athlete to becoming anxious, neurotic, self-absorbed, overly-driven, perfectionistic and possibly obsessive. These tendencies are most likely to manifest during contest preparation and can result in the sport becoming an unpleasant and destructive experience for the athlete and those around him or her. There are a couple of primary reasons why the sport carries such behavioral, cognitive and emotional risks.
First, the time ratio between show preparation and the show performance is greatly disproportionate. Many competitors are now in the “show prep stage” for 6 months or more. In fact, there are competitors who now have a show identified 2 years in advance and begin preparing for that show through both the “bulking” stage, followed by the diet stage during that 2 year period. Compare that amount of time with the amount of time that a bodybuilder is typically on stage at the show. After 6 months of preparation you may be on stage “performing” for a total of only 20 minutes, give or take a few minutes, including pre-judging, individual routine and a quick pose-down.
This is one of the most disproportionate “contest preparation to contest performance” ratios that exist in all of sports. Perhaps the most extreme example of such a lopsided ratio is the case of Olympic sprinters who train for 4 years for an event that will last less than 10 seconds. Body building is not that extreme, but it is not far away. When such a disproportionate ratio exists it gives the athlete a lot of time to think. Thinking can quickly turn into worry and obsession.
Second, the sport of bodybuilding takes a significant amount of discipline and drive and the sport tends to attract people who have these predispositions. Once a person with these pre-existing tendencies begins to participate in a sport that rewards and reinforces these tendencies it is not uncommon for these predispositions to become more harmful than healthy. These tendencies when well-balanced can help enhance one’s life experience. When the tendencies become unbalanced they can lead to misery.
So let me start by addressing the issue of having a ton of time to think about an upcoming event. At a very basic level, when we say that we are “thinking,” what we are really doing is talking to ourselves. Possibly, we may even be talking to another as we “think out loud” together. There are other types of thinking, but this is the primary type of thinking in which we engage. Therefore, if we are “talking to our self” that means that thinking is a language based activity.
The ability to think by “talking to our self” using verbal language is a unique human ability. There are other species of animals that do possess language. In fact, some species have rather sophisticated languages. However, it is only humans that are able to use language to engage in the symbolic and abstract reasoning that creates the double edged sword we call “imagination.” These great cognitive tools have enabled humans to build civilization and effectively dominate much of the planet. However, the ability to think at this level of abstraction can also easily lead to discontentment and misery.
How does this happen? Given that thinking evolved as a way to solve problems, the verbal mind must first have a problem to solve. If there are no apparent problems, our minds will find and create a problem and then begin attempting to solve it. As effective as our mind can be at solving problems, it is even better at creating problems, even when problems do not really exist. That is what the verbal mind does; it judges something as being negative, thereby making a problem. The verbal mind then proceeds to find solutions to the problem it just created. When you get right down to it, the verbal mind uses information from the past to figure out how to make the future better because it finds the present to be lacking or somehow unacceptable. I suggest you read that last sentence a few times.
So what is wrong with thinking? Well, there is nothing wrong with thinking if held in balance and within perspective. Thinking is one of the greatest gifts we have and I do not suggest that we stop using this gift. However, it does have the potential to dominate your attention and make you absolutely miserable. Just as human cells multiplying and dividing is a normal and necessary part of life, too much of it is highly destructive and a disease that we call cancer. Balance is the key in both scenarios. We need some of it, but more is definitely not better.
So let me relate this back to bodybuilding during contest preparation. As previously mentioned, the preparation phase dwarfs the amount of time you spend in actual competition. This provides an abundance of time to think (and worry) about an upcoming competition. The predisposition to be very driven, disciplined and meticulous in planning only makes excessive thinking more likely. Thinking can expand and quickly turn into worry or obsession. It may not take long before you are feeling anxious, upset or otherwise miserable worrying about what you will look like on competition day.
The sequence goes something like this:
- You have the thought, “I am not lean enough.” This is the initial judgment that the present is unacceptable or somehow lacking. The mind then imagines how the future could be superior to the present.
- You then have thoughts regarding how past events got you here – “I have been eating too many calories, too many carbohydrates, too many fats, not enough cardio” etc.
- You then have more thoughts on what you will do next to obtain that imagined future when things are acceptable or not lacking – “I must start cutting carbohydrates, doing HIIT” etc.
- Once you have settled upon an answer as to what adjustments you will make to obtain the imagined future you desire (looking great), you may experience a temporary relief from the anxiety. However, the mind and its judgments will not sit idle for long. It will quickly begin to doubt itself and/or cast further judgments regarding the present and the process starts all over again. This simple sequence can endlessly repeat during the time you are preparing for a competition.
- The worry and emotional toll this repeating process causes may lead you into looking further into the future when the competition is over. Often, as a much anticipated show is on the horizon the mounting anxiety stemming from thinking leads the mind to think of ways to rid itself of the anxiety.
The sequence goes something like this:
- You have the thought, “I am sick of all the worry and anxiety.” This is the initial judgment that the present is unacceptable.
- You then have thoughts regarding how past events got you here – “I have been thinking and worrying about this for so long and I am now sick of it.”
- You then have more thoughts on what you will do next to obtain the imagined future when things are acceptable – “I am just going to get through the rest of this and look forward to after the show when I can eat, stop thinking about this all the time and finally relax.”
- It is kind of tragic. Many athletes spend a ton of time thinking about an imagined future when they are on stage looking fantastic. However, as the competition gets closer and closer an athlete can become weary with thinking and anxiety and begin anticipating how great life will be after the show. Often times, athletes do not even relish and enjoy the day of the competition. Instead, they are busy thinking about how tired they have become of the process and dream about how much better life will be tomorrow when the competition is behind them.
The Remedy – Spend Time Just Sitting
So there is a dilemma here. On the one hand, thinking can help us plan and obtain a physical condition superior to anything that we have achieved in the past. On the other hand, thinking can get out of hand and lead to worry, anxiety and misery as the joy of the sport slowly drains away. So how can we effectively manage this double edged sword?
The answer is practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is a meditative practice that has gained considerable popularity within our culture during the past 10-20 years and that popularity continues to grow today. The popularity has largely been spurred by strong scientific literature supporting its utility in managing stress. Mindfulness has been defined as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, to the present moment and without judgment,” (Kabat-Zinn). This is different than our typical way of being on three fronts.
First, in our typical way of being we are somewhat attentive and aware of what is happening around us. However, this is different than paying attention on purpose. For example, as you read this article you may be vaguely aware of sounds around you, which is different than intentionally listening to sounds on purpose. Another example would be the difference between drinking wine and tasting wine on purpose. Paying attention on purpose leads to a deeper and richer experience.
Second, in our typical way of being we are usually thinking about something that has happened in the past (either recent or remote) or we are thinking about something that might happen in the future. The verbal mind has little use for the present. In fact, it nearly continuously avoids the present by imagining the past or the future.
Last, in our usual way of being we judge nearly all of the time. If the verbal mind does happen to contact the present moment it will nearly instantly judge it as being good, bad or the mind will be indifferent to it. Eliminating judgment is nearly impossible. However, the intent is not to eliminate the reflexive act of judging, but rather to become less attached to our judgments and to refrain from judging our judgments.
So mindfulness is not complicated. In fact, it is rather simple; however, it is not at all easy. Paying attention on purpose to experiences happening in the present moment, without becoming distracted by thoughts and without becoming attached to judgments is actually rather difficult.
So Here Are Some Instructions On How To Practice Mindfulness Meditation
- First, find a time and a place free of distractions; such as no cell phones, no television, or other people who may want to talk to you. Simply sit down with a straight and strong back, either on a chair or more traditionally on a meditation pillow (zafu and zabuton). You may rest your hands upon your knees or thighs or cup them in your lap. Leave your eyes open and fixate them in a downward gaze towards the floor about 3 feet in front of you.
- You are now in a seated meditation posture and ready to pay attention to the current moment. Allow the awareness of your breath to serve as your anchor into the current moment. Simply notice and feel each in-breath and each out-breath. There is no particular way that you should breathe. Rather, simply notice the breathing that is happening right now.
This alone is far more difficult than you might guess. You may only be paying attention to your breath for a few seconds before you become lost in a thought. Whenever you notice that you have become lost in your thoughts simply note that you have become distracted by thought and then very gently place your attention back upon your breath. You may notice that you have become lost in thought right away or it may take a few moments before you realize what has happened. Either way, simply redirect your attention back to your breath each and every time you find yourself distracted by your own thinking.
- This redirection will occur thousands upon thousands of times as you continue to practice meditation. Becoming distracted by thoughts is not a mistake or even a sign that you are somehow “bad” at meditation. Instead, paying attention to the breath, becoming lost or distracted by thoughts, and then redirecting your attention back to the breath is the process of mindfulness meditation.
- As you continue to attend to your breath you may also be peripherally aware of other experiences. Some of these experiences will originate from outside of your body including sounds, scents and the sensation of air upon your skin. Other experiences will originate from inside of your body including physical sensations, emotions and thoughts. Simply notice these experiences as you continue to place the center of your attention upon your breath. For more detailed instructions on how to practice this type of medication you may want to read the following article: http://zmm.mro.org/teachings/meditation-instructions/.
I suggest that you spend time each day engaging in this exercise. I also suggest that you do the exercise regardless of how busy you are or how motivated you feel. The verbal mind will produce a myriad of reasons why you should not do the exercise on any particular day. Thank your mind for having such a thought and then simply sit and do the exercise anyway.
The amount of time that you spend doing this exercise is up to you. I think that a minimum amount of time would be 10 minutes each day. However, you may want to extend this to 30 minutes and even possibly 45-60 minutes a day. As with physical exercise, the quality of the exercise may be more important than the duration of the exercise, although the duration remains an important factor as well. Also similar to physical exercise, practicing consistently over months and years is what is most important.
So What is the Point of this Exercise?
I realize that establishing a regular meditation practice may seem like a strange idea to some. However, before completely dismissing the idea, realize that one of the greatest bodybuilder’s of all time (and one my personal favorites), Frank Zane, has been practicing this type of meditation for many, many years. Also, more contemporary athletes ranging from Kobe Bryant to Michael Jordan to Derek Jeter have all reported that they have established a mindfulness meditation practice. The “Zen Master” Phil Jackson has also done a lot to bring mindfulness meditation into contemporary sport. Here is a clip of him discussing his introduction of mindfulness to the Bulls and the Lakers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aqz7R-QalqY
Additionally, a lot could be written about the physiological benefits of a regular meditation practice including improved immune function, better hormonal balance and greater recovery from exercise. An entire article could be written regarding the physiological benefits of meditation for the natural bodybuilder. However, to use meditation in this manner is to make it yet another “means to an end” and I think that this misses the deeper meaning of meditation.
The deeper purpose of meditation is to allow a moment in life to be an end in and of itself. Virtually everything that we do in life is a means to an end. It is refreshing, and even liberating, to allow moments and moments within activities to carry value independent of their end goal.
Even an activity as simple as “just sitting there” can be liberating. You have trained hard and you have eaten well. Now, you can simply sit in the current moment and allow things to be exactly as they are right now. Simply pay attention to the current moment with an open heart and allow the bodybuilding process to unfold. Even sit back and be amazed at what an incredible process it is. In essence, “get out of your own way” for a moment and allow nature to be nature. There is nothing you need to do right now. There is nothing that you should do right now.
The “just sit there” exercise is a great formal meditation exercise. With time and practice however, you may find out that this is just one opportunity to be meditative during the day. You will probably find out that you can engage in many activities of daily living with this type of mindset. You may be able to brush your teeth in a meditative way. That is, instead of brushing your teeth while thinking about what you are going to do today or what you did yesterday, simply pay attention to the sensations and the process of brushing your teeth right now. Also, you may be able to make your bed or clean up your kitchen in a meditative way. Simply pay attention to your breath as you complete these basic activities. You can also pay attention to the sensations of your body moving and any emotions or thoughts that might occur while performing these activities. Open yourself to the intrinsic value of performing these very basic activities instead to viewing them as something you have to do or as a means to an end.
In time, you will find more and more activities in your life that you can perform mindfully. As opportunities to informally practice mindfulness begin to grow you will start living life more mindfully. Living becomes a meditative practice. In fact, you can carry this mindset to the gym. Each workout, each set and each rep can be done mindfully. The training is no longer a means to an end. The training is an end in itself.
Living life in a mindful way can be great liberation from worry, rumination and anxiety, all of which can easily manifest during contest preparation and spoil the joy of bodybuilding. Living mindfully can also help you to become more resilient to the difficult times of contest preparation. During prep you are likely to experience hunger, fatigue, listlessness and self-doubt. Through mindfulness none of these experiences are a problem. They are simply experiences happening right now and you can react to them with awareness, openness and acceptance. You can even embrace these experiences as an important and meaningful step in the journey without becoming entangled and embattled with the experiences, as difficult as they may be.
Where To Go From Here?
I am barely scratching the surface of mindfulness in this article and many others have written extensively regarding this practice. After all, it has been around for nearly 3,000 years. Modern writers and teachers range from the more traditional such as Thich Nhat Han and Pema Chodron to the more contemporary such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. and Jack Kornfield to the very contemporary such as Andy Puddicombe. If this article has piqued your interest in mindfulness, I suggest perusing these names, as well as other names you encounter, to learn about the practice more deeply.
There have been some strength athletes and fitness experts who have written about incorporating a mindfulness meditation practice with strength training; however, to my knowledge there has not been much written regarding how this practice could enhance the journey of the natural bodybuilder. For example, the modern philosopher and meditator, Ken Wilber, has been pushing weights for many years and Robb McNamara and Shawn Phillips have both written and spoken on the integration of strength training and mindfulness. Of course, I have already mentioned Frank Zane. However, I am not aware of much written specifically regarding the practice of mindfulness during the trials and tribulations of contest preparation. The same could be said of practicing mindfulness during the post-contest blues that many experience after the season is behind them and the striations begin to fade.
If you wish to benefit from practicing mindfulness during your next contest preparation, begin practicing now. If you are planning on competing during 2014, I highly recommend that you begin practicing sitting in silence immediately. If you are planning on competing during 2015, I highly recommend that you begin practicing sitting in silence immediately. If you are planning on competing during 2016, I highly recommend that you…alright, I think you get the picture.
Practice is best started when situations in your life are less challenging. During these less challenging times you can begin to build a mindset and way of being that will be of great value during more difficult times. When you delay the practice until times are very tough you are less likely to derive the benefits because your skills are not sharp enough for the situation. It is similar to the guy who has not worked-out for the past 5 years and decides he wants to look good during an upcoming cruise, so he starts exercising and “watching what he eats” one month prior; it is just not that helpful. What is helpful, and perhaps life changing, is practicing being here right now, right away.
If you have any questions or comments regarding this article, feel free to send me an email at the address below. I am thankful that I have been given the opportunity to share these thoughts at 3DMJ.
Brad Kuper, Ph.D.
Clinical Health Psychologist
Natural Bodybuilding Enthusiast