Your body has some wonderful defense mechanisms built into it. Among these is the instinct of self preservation. It’s the reaction you get when you suddenly slow up when approaching a steep cliff with no guardrail, or when you run at full speed when being chased by a giant boulder. This instinct has kept humans alive for a long time and continues to prevent our untimely extinction. This instinct is a very primal force and for that reason, it is nearly impossible to ignore.
Lifting weights can trigger the self preservation response in people very easily. I normally see it when clients are doing squats or overhead presses. You can tell just by looking at their face. The eyes will get either really big as if they saw a giant spider on their arm, or they’ll squint as if looking into the sun. You may also notice a sudden shift in facial tension as their instinct kicks in and the brain sends the signal “What are you doing!? We’re going to get killed!” Right up to the point that their instinct takes over, their body is usually in good form. After that, it’s anything goes to keep the weight from falling on them, pinning them, or whatever dark fantasy was created in their mind.
With the squat, the idea of being stuck under a heavy weight, or having it crush you into an accordion with a pulse is enough to make many people stop way above parallel. In the overhead lift, the thought of the arms suddenly evaporating and the bar crashing down upon one’s head is the reason why so many weird contortions are often used when first learning how to do military or jerk press. These gruesome fates are 100% possible, but only at far higher weights than they will be using. Lacking a reference for what a 5 or 10 lb increase will feel like, their brain simply files it under “too heavy to be safe” and shuts down any attempt to accomplish the lift. Most non-athletes fail at lifts mentally a long time before they would have physically, although the results may often look similar.
Confidence in one’s capabilities is the only way to get past this psychological block. The only way to get that confidence is to do the actual lift. You cannot get squat confidence from leg pressing and you cannot get overhead press confidence from doing lateral raises. Only by doing the lift that causes the reaction is your brain going to understand that the signal to be scared is not necessary.
Someone who is not mentally convinced they can perform a jerk press may rack the weight perfectly on their shoulders, dip with aggression, but fail to deliver any useful upward drive. The weight then falls back down to the safeties and they assume it was too heavy. In another case, they may provide enough upward drive, but fear being able to lock out. They then arch their back in order to keep the weight well forward of their head (usually injuring their shoulders or low back). Maintaining visual contact with the weight is a type of defense mechanism, as in if they can see the bar, it won’t fall on them. Locked out above and slightly behind the head is terrifying for any normal person who has no idea that their body is more than capable of supporting that weight.
While squatting, people usually shallow their depth severely, fearing that going parallel or below will trap them under the bar. With safety bars and a trained spotter, this is not likely, especially with clients who are doing fairly “light” weights. But “light” in an absolute sense may be heavy in a relative sense to them. Once this “imagined perceived threshold” (I made that phrase up)is crossed, the self preservation reaction will manifest itself through a very shallow or torso dominant squat (oddly enough, these variations actually carry more risk of injury since the knees are in an unstable position and the low back is exposed to tensional stress it shouldn’t be handling). Occasionally, instabilities or imbalances will rear their heads during this time. Knees may move in, heels may lift and backs may round. Take the time to find out if these are actual deficiencies in the stabilizers or if it is part of a larger “holy crap! Do what you have to do to get this up!” response.
To combat this, I use very small increases in weight to slowly acclimate the lifter. If a person is squatting 65 lbs while singing songs, I know I can use a relatively large increase before they’ll start to indicate that the load is moderate or even heavy. If they are having to work hard with 65 lbs on the other hand, I may increase it only 7% or less in order to get them mentally used to a higher weight without approaching their physical limits. Since none of my clients are involved in powerlifting competitions, taking a relaxed approach to adding weight is a much better alternative than just slapping on extra pounds and yelling “DOOOOO ITTTTTT!” Once their brain recognizes that is has accomplished a lift at a weight they formerly thought was impossible, the self preservation instinct resets itself to a higher value. So instead of freaking out at 70 lbs, it may be 105 lbs where they start going shallow and worrying. Then its time to start the process of small increments over again.
Tips to help avoid the self preservation response:
1. Try using smaller plates. One big wheel and a 5 per side is 145lbs. Two quarters per side is also 145lbs. Chances are you won’t feel as apprehensive with the smaller 25lb weights since the mental image of the large 45lb plates will not dominate your psyche.
2. Deload the bar when you start getting stuck/losing form. Do volume sets at a lower weight to get the form to be automatic. After a few sessions of that practice (do not think of it as a workout), begin to add weight in small increments while only performing 1-2 reps each time you increase the load.
3. Have someone you trust add weight to the bar for you. This way you lose track of what exact weight you’re doing and rely on perceived exertion rather than deduced exertion.
4. Never sacrifice form. If you need to wiggle and bounce to finish every rep of a set of 5, it’s too heavy. After all, the most dangerous weight to be cavalier with is the weight you use for your working set. Again, it comes down to practicing the lift until it is automatic regardless of the weight.
Note: These techniques are geared to the general population, not athletes, although they may find them useful as well.