We can all agree that music is a powerful mood enhancer. Whenever I hear one of my favorite fast-paced jams, my body unconsciously moves and bobs to the rhythm. It gives me a rush of energy. And it can be a powerful performance enhancer in the moment, too. Recently, I coached an athlete to set a PR deadlifting 540 pounds while listening to heavy-metal noise.
So I get it. Training with music can improve your performance.
If you told me I could triple my body weight in the back squat, I'd be willing to have my earbuds surgically attached to me with the theme song to "Rocky" screeching at the highest decibel. But it won't do that.
So, knowing and seeing all those who successfully supplement themselves with the power of melody, I still refuse to listen to music while I train.
Being Overly Dependent Is Never a Good Thing
I used to always run with my iPhone. However, one time, before I got ready for my 5-mile run, I noticed my batteries were low and I couldn't groove on the track.
I had to run in silence. Without my usual music to distract me, I experienced an achiness that I had never noticed before. But the pain was nothing compared to the torment that was going on in my head. I just couldn't shut off the nonstop negativity that was draining me.
I quit after the first mile.
So the lesson I learned was to carry extra batteries, right? Exactly the opposite. I vowed to never, ever be dependent on anything to inspire me to train—whether it is a training partner, my lucky red bandana, or music.
I began to learn how to run without any external stimulus. As a surprising result, I became a faster runner and began to crush my former personal best.
Am I suggesting you all burn your cell phones? No, not at all. I'm a true believer in sticking to what gives you results.
The only thing I am suggesting is that you don't to want your music to be a mental crutch for you like it was for me. Phones die. Dogs chew wires and earbuds. If those inevitabilities can truly derail your training, you've got a problem that needs to be solved.
The solution is the power of your thoughts. And your use of music may be preventing you from tapping into this huge reserve of power that you never knew existed.
Step 1 Let the demons out
The hardest part of training is the battle that happens inside your mind. This is why music is such a powerful tool. It helps drown the doubt that inevitably tries to invade your mind and body. But it also makes your mind lazy.
While you entertain and distract yourself, the devil is still there—and you can only ignore him for so long. He's waiting to resurface and sabotage what you're trying to accomplish. If not in the gym, your mental weakness will catch up with you in your next job interview, during a major (or minor) life crisis, or when your boss is chewing you out over subpar performance. You can't run away from unresolved self-doubt. It needs to be dealt with, and during training is a great time to do it.
Step one: Let silence take over.
But I should warn you: When you turn off Pandora, an onslaught of negativity usually arrives shortly after. The key is to recognize that the rush of put-downs is not from your soul, but a composite monster of your past enemies—all the stuff you've been trying to shove down, distract yourself from, and pretend doesn't exist. It doesn't feel fun.
Step 2 Talk back to them
The way to deal with the demons is positive self-talk. It's a skill that sounds cheesy and weak the first time it comes out of your mouth, but as many successful people will attest, it becomes incredibly effective with practice. And it's simple: You counter-attack every negative taunt with positive, powerful statements.
Instead of letting a familiar voice tell you, "You can't do that," you must respond with a decisive and positive "I can, and I will." When a voice boils up that says, "You are weak," you counter with, "I'm strong as hell." What you say can be totally personal. It might be something that doesn't make sense to anyone else. Just say it, and mean it.
Looking for someplace to pull from? Revisit your past successes in the gym, when you overcame doubt and did something impressive. The way you overcame past obstacles can be an incredible tool to build positive momentum today.
Still, the first few times, it will feel like you're doing battle with yourself—a strange feeling for sure. Soon enough, your negative thoughts will feel like what they are: something external. Someone else. Your positive voice is you.
Don't avoid this battle. Engage it, because otherwise, you're already losing it.
Step 3 Get better at visualization
We all love imagining our success in the gym. It's something we naturally do with or without music in the background. For most gym rats, watching ourselves go through a triumphant goal lift in our imagination is just something that happens unconsciously (perhaps between texting).
By turning down the volume of our music, we are forced to think about the crucial details that will actually lead to nailing that goal. So instead of your letting your future PRs drift back and forth in your mind, you are going to use visualization systematically. I call this "visualization sequencing." The problem with many lifters is that they only see themselves hoisting or holding the weight. It's like watching only the end of a movie without the beginning and middle parts. As a result, the mental process is too incomplete and not specific enough to get you prepared to do something truly amazing.
To practice visualization sequencing, watch the whole process in your mind without leaving any gaps out. Make it bright and vivid—right in front of your eyes.
Let's use a deadlift as an example. Start with how you walk to the bar. Are you walking with confidence or just passively strolling in a defeated manner? What coaching cues are going through your mind? As you touch the bar and pull the slack out of, what does the weight feel like? What muscles are you activating?
If you wish, stand up and practice tightening specific muscle groups. Literally, take a deep, huge breath, as if you're on the platform. By now, you will feel a surge of energy and excitement starting to surface. Let your emotions brew, but don't let it come to complete fruition yet. Next, perform the lift in your mind with flawless execution.
Experience the rush of empowerment when you made the lift. Drop the weight down and repeat the process. Practice it regularly.
Learn what the elite already know
I'm a huge fan of the toughness of Navy SEALs. The whole philosophy behind SEAL training is to drive candidates to extreme exhaustion and muscle fatigue, so they can learn how to rely on their minds to push them through the adversity. When someone realizes that their thoughts—and only their thoughts—can get them through an ordeal, true empowerment begins.
In order to get to this superior mindset, Eminem isn't blasting in the background during BUD/S hell week. Nor is hip-hop blasting through helmets while the clock is running during NFL games to inspire the players. Both professional athletes and SEALs use the power of the mind to get shit done in the most dominating manner possible.
And so can you. Once you do, you'll lift heavier weights than ever, run faster, build the physique you crave, or regularly get your name at the top of your CrossFit whiteboard.
Now that would be music to my ears.