Insane in the Membrane: Brain Train

Use a recalibrated Mindset to improve performance and physique

I have been a formal meditator since 1972.  I got into the “mind game” even earlier, seeking ways to boost sport performance by recalibrating my mental state. My strength mentors spoke at length and in depth about brain train and the power of psyche, concentration, intensity, adherence, willpower and other mental traits that, when tamed and harnessed, improved athletic performance.

Psyche refers to an altered mental state a lifter or athlete will purposefully put themselves into right before an all-out effort. I have been around dozens of national and world champions over the last fifty years, I have seen all types and kinds of psyche up close, from a coach’s perspective, from mild to wild, from the quiet, barely noticeable psyche of Hugh Cassidy or Lamar Gant, to the highly demonstrative psyche of Kirk Karwoski or Willie Bell. Be it demonstrative or introspective, psyche needs to be real, not faux.

My mentors developed highly personalized and unique psyche-up procedures. Because they were intelligent and subtle, these champions understood that every lifter had to find their own psyche procedure. Psyche can’t be imitated or mimicked, psyche is not acting, psyche must arise from within and be an honest expression of true inner fire. Fake psyche is ineffectual and obvious to an old pro. The initial goal for brain train rookies was (and is) to develop two types of generalized psyche….

  • Instantaneous psyche: berserker mindset used immediately before an all-out athletic effort
  • Sustained psyche: low-level wattage output keeps the athlete adhering to the process

Initially, willpower powers the process. Willpower is a finite mental propellent and before it runs out the athlete needs to find another mental propellant. The transformative key is to obtain results before willpower runs out.  Results are defined as tangible increases in strength and/or real and measurable improvements in physique. When real results appear, enthusiasm comes online and takes over from willpower. Enthusiasm now powers the process.

It all begins within the mind of the athlete. The athlete forms a mental picture of themselves radically improved, dramatically better. These mental visualizations of what the athlete can be births willpower. When our mental imagery is strong, a tipping point is reached: mental thought, yearning for improvement and transformation, creates a strong, burning desire for change – a mental yearning so strong that pure thought births concrete action.

  • Desire begets willpower             strength of Will turns thought into action
  • Willpower powers the process             willpower has a 7 to 21-day shelf-life
  • Results need appear before willpower fades total commitment is required
  • Results beget enthusiasm             solar power comes online; results replenish
  • Enthusiasm begets momentum             quality workouts create sustained progress
  • Momentum begets adherence             continual results make adherence easy
  • Adherence begets progress             melding physiological with psychological

When we are enthused, training becomes exciting, we look forward to the next session; when enthused precision and disciplined nutrition becomes effortless. Enthusiasm is a frictionless form of propulsion in that new results replenish depleted enthusiasm. Sustained enthusiasm is a product of sustained results; sustained results beget momentum. It all dovetails together.

Psychological recalibration is a necessary precursor to physiological improvement. No one casually or absentmindedly improves (physiologically) to any dramatic degree. Psychological recalibration improves the quality of each individual workout. A quality workout is achieved when all the predetermined goals of the workout are attained. The sophisticated strength athlete always has specific goals going into a workout. This is what differentiates “working out” from training. The key to radically transforming the human body is to string together, like pearls on a strand, an extended series of quality workouts.

Without a sophisticated nutritional approach, one coordinated with the training, results will be subpar. Only by coordinating a sophisticated training regimen with an equally sophisticated nutritional regimen do we realize optimal results, i.e. dramatically improved performance and a radically transformed physique.

An athlete can be strong as a proverbial ox, possess excellent cardio conditioning - yet still carry a tremendous amount of body fat. The NFL is loaded with strong, fit, FAT athletes, men that can bench press 450-pounds, sprint a sub-5 second 40-yard dash, run up and down a football field hitting and bashing all day long, all the while weighing 325-pounds and possessing a 30% bodyfat percentile: these strong, fit athletes are clinically obese. A sophisticated approach to nutrition is not optional.

Nuts & Bolts: psyche-up like a Russian Olympic weightlifter

The most fundamental form of brain train is to get psyched up before the top set(s) of the core exercises of a progressive resistance workout. An improved top-set psyche improves the training session; by recalibrating the mind, the overall quality of the training session is improved. As a teen, I was initially influenced by John McCallum’s articles on the powers of applied concentration and psyche. His was the first mind method I ever read and tried.

He instructed his male readers to go fetch the bathroom scale and hold it in their lap. Without psyching, he had the reader squeeze the scale as hard as they could. Note the number. He then repeated the drill, only this time he verbally coached the reader along with a series of (written) cues leading up to McCallum “yelling” at the reader “…now squeeeeeze!!!! I squeezed 37-pounds harder and (at age 14) became a lifelong believer in the power and athletic applicability of psyching.

I read all the mid-to-late 60s Strength & Health articles written by Tommy Suggs and Bill Starr on how the top Olympic lifters of the day approached mindset. The mysterious Russians were obviously using some sort of formalized pre-lift brain train. The Soviets, East Germans, Poles, Czechs and Hungarian lifters were coming to the weightlifting platform before their attempts and standing motionless over the barbell, eyes shut, usually for a 15 to 30-seconds. The lifter would then open their eyes and tear into the barbell, setting yet another world record.

The question that every serious American Olympic weightlifter asked was – what were they doing? And why and how did this help their lifting? They were all using the same script, that was for sure. Decades later I interviewed (for Muscle & Fitness magazine) the man that wrote the script; a mysterious Hungarian fencing coach and yoga expert, the man that invented this highly formalized Iron Curtain psychological method. It was used by all the Soviet greats of the 60s, 70s and 80s. This brain train approach was designed for one purpose: to improve athletic performance.

Dr. Aladar Kogler’s method was considered so effective that “the Method” was declared a state secret. To over-simplify, Kogler taught Russian athletes how to use auto-suggestion to improve performance: be it lifting a barbell, running a sprint, throwing a discus or driving a bobsled, repeated auto-suggestion made you do whatever you do better.

Auto-suggestion is the creation of a mental movie in the head of the athlete. The mind movie is of the athlete successfully performing whatever the athletic task happens to be. It was shown that intense visualization improved technique and caused muscle core temperatures to rise, the later a predictable physical manifestation of an internal psychological state.

Kogler made his bones by getting results. Go to YouTube and pull up Olympic weightlifters, men like Vasyli Alexeev, Anatoli Piserenko or Yuri Zararavich. These incredible lifters used Kogler’s ‘trance-state’ as their pre-lift mindset. Watch as they stand over the barbell, running one final, highly detailed visualization of themselves successfully manhandling the barbell that sits at their feet.  With the world watching, they opened their eyes and attacked the barbell, setting yet another world record.

A Russian Olympic weightlifter would commence his pre-lift visualizations a few minutes before the attempt. The lifter would sit and chill, they would close their eyes and relax, getting into the zone. The lifter would run a mental movie, themselves successfully making the about-to-happen lift…over and over and over…the more detailed the internal movie, the more effective the visualization. With each successive internal viewing, the lifter makes the movie more detailed, more realistic, they feel it more.

Kogler taught that over time, and with continual repetition, the athlete improves the depth and quality of the auto-visualization.  The seasoned lifter sees his surroundings exactly as they are, as though looking through the lens of a camera placed 10 feet away. The lifter’s mental movie pictures the lifter standing over the barbell, then bending down to set his hands. He draws breath and launches the effort. He sees himself flawlessly executing the lift, with great ease and power and exactness. Over and over, in his mind, he flawlessly launches the weight, he manhandles it, using lighting speed and perfect technique.

The auto-visualization process had the extra added benefit of shutting out outside distractions. The combination of intense physical effort and the centering effect of repeated visualizations creates a meditative quality. When coming out of meditation, you are purposefully placid and mellow: coming out of a series of auto-visualizations, you are purposefully psyched and aggressive, a warrior ready to do battle – with a head full of visualized perfection.

I teach powerlifters and hardcore athletes Kogler’s auto-visualization technique. It is as simple as it sounds. Run short clips of yourself ripping into the top set(s) of an exercise. I would initially shoot for three visualizations before an all-out set. With each of the three mind movies, seek to improve the detail and realism. With each successive visualization try to ‘feel it’ more; allow the trance-state to take hold. I have my guys shut their eyes and listen to music while doing the visualizing: this cuts them off completely from the outside world, no distractions, no conversations. One vivid visualization is better than ten superficial, half ass visualizations.

Close your eyes, listen to the music, begin your first visualization. Make the mind movie unfold in real time, not accelerated time or slow motion. Pick each visualization up as your ready yourself to approach the barbell. Don’t waste visualizations and precious psyche on warm-up sets, psyche is finite; you have a certain amount heading into a session; be stingy, only use visualization and psyche on the top sets of each progressive resistance exercise.

Here is a subtle point: you can get over-psyched. Psyche Masters like Kirk Karwoski must be on guard to not get too deep into their auto-visualization psyche-trance: champions can visualize so realistically that the body believes that the body-shattering effort is happening and prematurely dump precious adrenaline, endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, etc. into the bloodstream. This is disastrous for the about-to-happen attempt. Psyche masters must be careful not to over-psyche.

The payoff comes when you hit psyche just right and after coming out of a triple visualization, a personal record poundage feels light. If any athlete goes to the time and trouble to use this fundamental brain train technique, performance will improve. The more often auto-visualization is used, the better the athlete becomes using this proven-effective tool. Keep in mind, it takes continual and repeatedly practice; daily, weekly, monthly practice to truly master and optimize this U.S.S.R., mental training tactic. This strategy, this brain train tactic was so highly thought of that it was declared a state secret. Now you know the secret. Do something with it.

About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.