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Cognitive Load and Weightlifting

By September 24, 2015Blog, Coach Journals

Almost every morning, I spend an hour in my garage. It’s not really a garage–it’s never seen a combustion engine–but it looks like one on the outside. Inside, there’s a pullup rig, a weightlifting platform and a wood stove. There’s no electricity because I want to hear the birds in my garden outside the window.

I don’t listen to music when I lift weights. But I DO usually listen to audiobooks or podcasts. I block out emails and text messages, listen and lift.

This week, I’m listening to the last chapters of an excellent audiobook (“Resilience,” by Eric Greitens) and building to a near-max clean and jerk AND a near-max snatch several times. I’m not great at technical lifts, so I need maximal concentration to do them well.

Today I reached my cognitive limit. After thinking several times, “I’ve gotta remember that!” while listening to Greitens, and telling myself to “think more about my hips” during the snatch, my mind was full. I started snatching badly. I began to make mistakes I haven’t made in months: early arm pull, knees drifting in on the catch. Amateur stuff that I thought I’d overcome.

But when the brain is full, your body falls back to its level of unconscious competence. When weightlifting technique isn’t yet automatic at high levels, you’ll simply perform at a low level. You fail at the margins of your experience. And when your brain is full, that margin widens.

Lifting technique and learning new material contribute to cognitive load. But so does stress. So does a clock. So does a grocery list, schedule and everything else you’re trying to remember. You can’t fit it all in.

In my case, it was easy to turn off the audiobook and regroup. But stress doesn’t have an “off” switch. When you’ve had a crazy day, lower your workout expectations. Scale down the weights and work hard at your minimum level of competency.

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