Increase your focus and performance in the gym

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Dr. Lenny Wiersma is a Professor of Sports Psychology at California State University, Fullerton, where he has taught since 2001. He has researched and worked with a variety of extreme sport athletes, including big-wave surfers, ultra-marathon runners and cyclists, channel swimmers, and even UFC fighters.

He’s here today with some advice that will help you be more present in the gym and perform better.

Read, enjoy and share,



I don’t know you at all, but I know there’s one thing that you can do right now to see an immediate improvement in your training. It has nothing to do with diet. It has nothing to do with rest, or even technique.

To maximize your results, start with mindset.

The most important change you can make to your training is to change your primary focus from quantity to quality. You must shift from thinking that doing more is better, to thinking that doing better is better. You have to shift away from the feeling of having to get through a workout, to excitedly doing a workout. Your ability to do that depends on where your mind is at when you first walk into the gym, and where it goes once you are inside.

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I am a sport psychology consultant who works with a wide array of athletes from college sports to big wave surfers, even professional fighters. All of these athletes are balancing an awful lot on their schedule and, in addition to school, family, or work stressors, most also have sponsorship demands or scholarship pressures to add to the mix.

The most important thing I help them do is to establish a mindset – Whatever they are doing at THE moment, they need to be thinking about that. They can’t be thinking about all of the other stuff they have on their plate and all of the other things that they have to do. They have to Be Here Now.

I’ll give you two examples.

First, I’ve been working with a young swimmer from one of the top competitive programs in the country. This is also an academically challenging school. Swim season runs from September to March, which cuts right through two-quarters of his final exams. That’s tough.

When finals approach, I remind him that when he’s in class, he needs to be 100% in class. He can’t be thinking about the meet against his rival school this weekend, or the workout he’ll be going to that afternoon. He has to keep his mind in the classroom if there’s any hope of performing well.

The opposite if of course true. When he’s in the pool, he can’t be thinking at all about class or the exam he will be taking tomorrow. He has to keep his mind 100% in that pool, on the training goal, on each stroke. This simple process allows him to perform better any one moment, while also alleviating the stress he would otherwise feel.


Like I said, I’ve been working with UFC athletes recently with mental preparation before the fight. What stood out immediately as a very unique challenge is that MMA fighters have so many disciplines to practice and master. There is always some anxiety about how to balance training time so that everything important gets done.

In this regard, it’s even more important for an MMA fighter to prioritize training time and keep their focus on what they are doing in the moment. There’s no room for worrying about all of the other aspects they are not working on at that time. It sounds very simple, but in practice, this process is an incredible challenge for both the athletes and their coaches.

To “Be Here Now” means to put your mind where it needs to be, exactly when it needs to be there. To be in this moment, focused on this task, right here. This simple phrase has a great impact on the quality of your performance today and every day. But it’s something that you need to decide you will do, because if you are not aware of where your focus is at, you can bet it’s someplace it shouldn’t be.

As an aspiring athlete you’ve got a lot going on in your life. You are doing your best to balance work, training, school, family and a social life. There’s the nagging soreness and skipped lunches as you rush around from one commitment to the next. That’s not to mention that fight with your girlfriend, which was the last thing you needed to be dealing with, right?

All of that is on your mind when you pull up to the gym. Are you going to take all of that with you when you step inside?

When you get into the gym there are all kinds of distractions. You are watching others and you are worried that others are watching you. Crappy music might be playing. Some jackass is doing something incredibly stupid next to you. Maybe the air conditioning is not working, or nonexistent. All of this will compete for your attention and focus.

Are you going to allow it?

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Give this a try.

The next time you go to the gym to train, create a mental checklist of all the things that are on your mind when you pull up in your car. Then say to yourself, “These things are still going to be there when I’m done training,” and then leave them in the car. Keep your mind in the gym.

Don’t just get through the workout, commit fully to the workout! You owe it to yourself. Do this every day for just a week and you will find that you’ll have better, more consistent workouts. You’ll also find that your training time is even more valuable, because it will also give you a welcomed break from all of the mental baggage that you carry around during the day. If you want to perform better right now, start there.

Do what matters most, right now.


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24 Responses to “Increase your focus and performance in the gym”

  1. Pat

    Great article. Not only applicable to the gym but to life in general. A great reminder to focus on one thing at a time given how hectic life can be. Thanks for the article guys.

  2. Max King

    It sounds like a good article but I don’t get it. When I train I go in a Zone automatically , where I don’t have space for other thoughts to break in. That’s why I love to train and compete because you forget about everything else. It’s like meditation. And it’s the same for everybody I know that love to train. We are always focused, sometimes training it’s harder sometimes it’s easier. But when we workout WE WORK OUT!
    If somebody need some motivation he would be better off with a trainer.

    • Chris

      Max, this isn’t true for everyone. I’m not sure of your age and what not, but if you added in a stressful full-time job, multiple kids, maybe multiple sports, whatever, things can start to get intense. If you’re 18, 19….22, it’s a nice time. Enjoy yourself. However, if you’re in your late 20’s, 30’s, 40’s…things will compete for your attention in intense ways.

    • Lenny

      Hey Max– Sounds like you already do a good job staying focused and really enjoy your training. Everybody is different and some people have more on their plate than others, so a quick reminder to be aware of one’s thoughts while in the gym is sometimes needed. And high-level athletes are trying to juggle an awful lot and it is easy for their minds to slip if they are not aware of it happening. It sounds very simple but even the best of us get distracted some time.

  3. Joseph

    Great article!
    I like Max use to be able to do that… However, I’m now 24 going on 25. I have a 4 year old and a 2 year old. I’m a junior at BYU-I along with my wife. We both work 20-40 hours a week. And I’m trying to start my own online training busines.
    It’s darn near impossible for me to go in the gym and be focused anymore. Even a year and a half ago, or 5 years ago when I was playing football it was easier for me to be focused than it is now. So for me this article is on point.
    Thanks so much guys! Love the info, love Barbell shrugged! Keep at it!

    • Lenny

      Thanks for the comments, Joseph. I’m not a physiologist, but from my perspective, even 30 focused minutes in the gym is better than a distracted 60 minutes. Keep at it– while I can’t say it gets easier, I can say that it gets worse if you neglect this side of your life. Best of luck!

  4. Ed

    Awesome! loved this article. really reinforced being present in the moment. Cant be surfing or spearfishing thinking about other stuff in my life!

    • Max King

      Thanks for all the responses
      I understand your point : stress is crawling on you to the point you can’t breath , you don’t know if you will pay your bills, you don’t know if your business is going to fail, your relationship is a battlefield and you have a baby on your shoulder.

      That’s why training is so important. if you can’t run from your problems it’s better to stand still and in the process liting some heavy barbell. Training is where you leave all this caos Out. I don’t know how other stuff can bother you when you are perfoming your 1RM . or you are in the middle of Linda.If you listen to your body and feel your body under a really heavy HIIT there is a moment where the credit card negative numbers will disappear. I look for that all the time. And if a negative thought come to my mind I Press it out.I mean if something really bad happen to you of course i won’t concentrate( i don’t even no why are you in the gym instead of resolve your problem) but everyday of living has no space when I train.
      I’m sorry if I’m offending somebody but if you can’t concentrate when you are training is because you are not training hard enough to beat your thoughts

      • Chris

        Your not offending anyone. I just think that, in a few years, you’re going to understand exactly what we’re talking about in this article. Perhaps your 30 year old self will remember and come back here to comment. Enjoy the ride, it’s part of the fun.

        • Max King

          Chris I’m 39 and I live in a Broken Down Economy,SPAIN, where people earn 1000 $ a month , 25% un-employment rate and i’m an expat. So things are pretty hard but train it will be always Fun . It has to be!
          Anyway I love your blog and especially your Channel thanks!

          • Chris

            Thanks, Max.

            What do you do there? Possible to maybe test waters elsewhere? Just curious. Thanks for the note, dude. Chris

          • Kevin

            I think the article was great, in my opinion it is important to remind yourself to focus on one task at a time whenever you can. Taking the time to make the list, or using some other method can really help you to focus. Like you Chris I live in Spain, I coach at a box in Barcelona, Crossfit Poblenou. People here are having a hard time, however if they bring their problems with them into the gym and into their training, it will neither help them solve their problems or improve their training.

  5. Tony C

    Glad its not just me that struggles with focus (34, 3 kids, director of a company and struggling crossfitter/weightlifter). I do enjoy reading comments from people who appear to be machines of laser-like intensity in the gym. Try doing that when you smell of puke from an ill kid and have had 3 hours sleep!

  6. Shannon

    GREAT article. Thank you for writing and posting. I enjoyed it and this helps me to work harder on my mental game; my weakest link!

  7. Adam Trainor

    Increasing your focus can also relate to your fitness goals. If you are not meeting your goals in the time scale you had planned then you will need to increase your focus and if you wanted to lose a certain amount of pounds you will need to increase your performance. I can agree with you when you say “You must shift from thinking that doing more is better, to thinking that doing better is better.” People think that doing more exercising – cardio/weights in the gym is better but to me I don’t think it is. Just doing better with the whole workout is what you need. There is many distractions in the gym, I know I get distracted sometimes when working out I will glance over at what others are doing and I will loose focus. Also music in the gym has an impact on your workout, songs that are upbeat will get you hyped up for the workout.

  8. Morgan Cabral

    Great post focus is so important!! I definitely feel much more accomplished after being really “there” during my workout, instead of my mind racing towards what I’m gonna have for dinner haha. Plus then it almost feels like meditation! I’ve tried a lot of things to help me stay focused, but I recently started this supplement called Brain Boost and it’s totally helped my attention and focus! I would genuinely recommed it to anyone who is not stellar at focusing and wants to improve! O heres the link too

  9. Kevin J. Michels

    Lenny…you are extremely correct. I have found that intense focused training with weights and cardio is far more successful and produces results faster then long workouts. When you focus on your workout…every muscle fiber is being stressed to the max capacity resulting in amazing and over the top results. You become more fatigue because of the stress and workload that exhausts your body and mind. The same goes for cardio. It is better to do 15 1 min sprints and in between 1 min walks to stress the fat cells and shock the body at an intensity that immediately shreds the fat!!! More is not better, quality equals results!!!

    Kevin Michels, RN, BSN, CCRN, TNCC


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