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How a little mental lifting could help you be more confident at the gym

I’m doing bicep curls in a group classroom at my gym. In the wall-to-ceiling mirror in front of me, I spy on other fitness aficionados. Beside me, a guy with nicely sculpted arms whips out an impressive set of push-ups, and I criticize my own inability to do a single decent rep unless I’m on my knees. When I turn my gaze onto myself, I scrutinize my appearance, wondering why I chose such a baggy t-shirt. When I’m trapped in a net of negative thinking, my workouts aren’t as rewarding as they could be.

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If you’re like me, the gym holds a plethora of possibilities for self-judgment: ways to set unrealistic expectations or compare yourself to others. A recent study from Macquarie University found when people were exposed to individuals with very thin or muscular physiques, it changed their perception of what a normal body looked like and led to a higher rate of dissatisfaction with their own bodies. While I’m certainly guilty of all sorts of negative comparisons during my workouts, I’ve also found the gym to be a great place to practice techniques that help me rise above my inner critic. Two techniques I practice are listening to my body and considering my motivation.

Listen to your body

Instead of fixating on how your body looks, focus on how it feels. To make this change, Jessamyn Stanley, yoga instructor and author of “Every Body Yoga,” suggests avoiding mirrors at the gym whenever possible. “If you can look without judgment, a mirror can be helpful—it’s a point of focus and is helpful for balance,” Stanley says. “But if you have a tendency toward obsession, I would try and avoid them altogether.” Instead, pay attention to the muscles contracting and expanding and the heart rate rising and falling. Work to make your breathing more consistent, which has the added benefit of relieving stress. Listening to your body can also help prevent injuries. According to Mary Nadelen, MA, ATC, “One of the best ways to prevent injury is to listen to the warning signs your body gives you. By ignoring little aches and pains in joints and muscles, a more serious injury could develop.”

Examine your expectations

Practice listening to your body without judging it. Those aches and pains? Just notice them. Becoming aware of the way your muscles and bones are all working together to help you run or lunge can be awe-inspiring regardless of how “good” of an athlete you are. Examining your judgments might leave you wondering how you established your expectations in the first place. “I've noticed that we often perceive we ‘should’ do lots of things,” says Katy Bowman, biomechanist and author of “Move Your DNA.” “Most information we have regarding what we're supposed to do is external advice—from experts, research, etc. Thus we’re conditioned to not pay attention to our own body.” Greg Everett, head coach for Catalyst Athletics, a USA Weightlifting National Championship team and author of “Olympic Weightlifting” encourages his athletes to focus on their own goals instead of worrying about what their competitors are doing. Focusing on others “serves as a distraction and a source of frustration if these athletes are perceived as being more successful than you are, which is exactly how you will always perceive them at the times you’re most inclined to look—when your own training is suffering. You have control over one athlete, and any scrap of time, energy, or focus you give to any other is a chain around your ankle.”

Set better goals

After considering my expectations, I’ve found I still really want to do a great set of push-ups. Everett suggests seeing workout obstacles as “motivation rather than as fodder for self-flagellation.” He encourages his athletes to re-frame mistakes as goals for which there can be a strategy and a system to visualize meeting those goals. Setting small goals toward achieving my push-up dream feels a lot better than beating myself up over not being able to do one. Learning to work with and appreciate my workout setbacks is useful even after I leave the gym. Stanley agrees; she knows that any time she practices yoga, she will “mess something up” and believes that’s an important part. “When I see how I can find a place of calm and stay in the present moment and resist the need to be the best—when I see that on the mat, I can carry that into the other parts of my life.”

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