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Another Look At Aggression, Technique, And Strength

I will bite you

Every Sunday I’m revisiting a post from the past in light of new events. Today we’re talking about aggression, anger, technique, and moving heavy stuff.

Aggression, Technique, and Strength was about trying to pinpoint a definition of aggression, and situations when it would be appropriate to get aggressive in order to make something happen. The weight room comes up often, for instance.

My stance back then was generally, if it takes my focus away from what I’m about to do, then I’d rather try to stay calm. I’ve made more progress this year in my training than any other years combined, and a lot of it has had to do with being calm. Sending the focus inward, not outward, if that makes any sense.

Our brains are really smart, even if you don’t think you’re overly intelligent. They remember how to do things, how we feel when we do things, and they file that information away in some complicated super-database for easy access. The next time we try to repeat a task, those earlier mental components and results are still in there, informing the new attempt.

Here’s what I’ve learned about getting psyched up for something: I used to hop around like a jumping bean before trying a big deadlift. The results were great for a while, and then I had a day when I was sad, upset, and had other things on my mind. But I was feeling very strong. I’d had enough to eat, I’d slept well–in other word, it was a great day, physically speaking, to try something big.

But emotionally, I wasn’t up to feeling aggressive and psyched up. I tried a modest lift and couldn’t get it. I had programmed myself to think that I couldn’t perform a heavy deadlift without my antsy, agitated prep work, which mainly comprised yelling and stomping.

I’ve gotten away from that now, based on two things I’ve heard from friends and coaches. Adam Glass recently said, “I try to make every lift look the same.” This doesn’t mean that you should try to make a squat look more like a bicep curl. Only that all of your squats should look the same to me, the outside observer. They use the same form, and they use the same temperament.

I’m not knocking anyone’s psyche-up routine, whether it’s the hat they turn around in the gym or the coffee they drink before heading off to work. But for me, those routines became variables that I was letting control my training sessions, not that I was controlling. They had become part of my technique.

Technique is everything to the lifter. Once my technique depended on my ability to recreate a certain emotional state every time I trained, progress was dead until I felt better.

Dan John said that seeking “elegance and mastery” are the keys to success in strength training and life. I believe that.

And that, my friends, is the rambling, non-dogmatic semi-advice of a man who stayed up too late and is about to go take a nap before my head hits the keyboard.


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Photo credit: opalandtheidiot

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  • Rachel December 6, 2009, 12:12 pm

    It’s true mastering technique gives us better focus. With technique we can channel our anger and make it productive. It’s a core principle of my karate training that technique comes first before everything else. We spent a whole lesson yesterday working on how to produce more energy through technique.

    • Josh Hanagarne December 6, 2009, 12:28 pm

      Rachel, what sorts of techniques? Anything you can point me to or dumb down? I know next to nothing about martial arts beyond the movies, and I’m more and more fascinated by the mental aspects I’m reading about.

      • Rachel December 8, 2009, 3:52 pm

        Most of it is about body positioning. We spend a lot of time refining our stances.

        State of mind plays a big part too, we can use our emotions but we have to be in control of them.

        Our lesson on Saturday involved a demonstration using tennis ball being thrown as hard as possible at the floor in two different ways. Using technique instead of just movement the ball went twice as high.

        The same goes for anger (or other emotions) if you can hold it in and release at the right moment, say at the end of a punch it is much more powerful focussed. This is why we yell at the end to release everything in one go.

  • Adam T Glass December 6, 2009, 1:13 pm

    Anger serves no purpose. Most emotion spent in the weight room is wasted effort. There must be no investment pass or fail for any given repetition, and infact no investment for any given lift. Simply chase BETTER and you will be your best.

    • Josh Hanagarne December 6, 2009, 1:53 pm

      Ok. Glad to know I’m right and a genius!

  • Henri December 6, 2009, 1:58 pm

    I agree with you Josh. Man I hate starting every comment with that, ha. Anyway, I don’t necessarily think anger is bad, (deep mode: on), it’s just an emotion that can be channeled into energy. When I lift weights and I am by no means a heavy lifter, I have one of those scrawny body types, but when I lift I usually am very calm and it works for me! It’s cool to hear that you’re into it too. I’ve always secretly thought “wtf” when someone starts jumping and screaming before lifting 😉

    • Josh Hanagarne December 6, 2009, 2:03 pm

      Yeah, it’s pretty silly. And don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll say something stupid sooner or later and you’ll be able to say, “Now I disagree with that and you are an idiot.”

      • Henri December 6, 2009, 2:08 pm

        We shall see my friend, we shall see…

  • Heather December 6, 2009, 3:09 pm

    Josh, maybe this is a personal observation about me and how I lift, but bouncing off what Henri just pointed out: when I want to lift heavy, I have to be calm, so I can concentrate. I try as often as possible to do that whole mind-muscle connection thing (part of that comes from years of dance class, too, and having to pay attention to and keep straight a myriad of routines and steps). I have also found that if I am calm enough to concentrate, I can lift heavier and not be in near as much pain. If I’m ticked off or aggravated, I’ll lift, but it’s mostly to keep from smacking someone or hurting myself. I have also found that if I am feeling particularly aggressive, a good, head-clearing run or whooping, jumping-like-an-idiot aerobics/hip-hop dance session to a tape/dvd works wonders. But that’s just me, I reckon. Great post, man!

  • Srinivas Rao December 6, 2009, 7:22 pm


    It’s funny because I think as a surfer I could relate to rituals. But what’s funny is I actually don’t have any pre-surfing rituals that determine how I will surf that day. If I’m in the wrong state of mind, I usually completely forget it when I paddle out. If I get pounded by the wave it’s because I’m thinking about something else.

  • Rob McMurren December 6, 2009, 7:28 pm

    some of my best training sessions have involved me lying on the floor reading between sets or playing with my kids.

  • Mighty Kat December 6, 2009, 8:48 pm

    I so relate to this, Josh. Well stated, as usual. I made the transition this year as well, thanks to the coach who turned me onto the book Peak Performance. It’s an oldie (1970s) but goodie, with detailed exercises in mastering zen in athletics. Isn’t it great to know we don’t have to be all revved up to perform at our best?

  • Beth L. Gainer December 7, 2009, 8:25 am

    Thank you so much for this motivational blog, Josh. I’m about to join a YMCA with a pool, weights, and an indoor track so I can walk during the winter without falling and being publicly humiliated.

    I’ve been trying to get in better shape since my extensive surgery three years ago, and my doctor thinks physical therapy will help make me stronger, so I can go back to a normal level of exercise.

    BTW, I hate PT; they boss you around and hurt you.

    • Josh Hanagarne December 7, 2009, 12:58 pm

      Some PTs are worth $100/hr. Some are not worth one cent per year.

  • Mike T Nelson December 7, 2009, 7:25 pm

    Good stuff Josh!

    As you know, every action we take our busy little brains are either 1) predicting or 2) associating. If we are pissed off every time we lift, we are associating this with movement. Not the best idea.

    As you talk about above, don’t confuse anger/aggression with focus (or sub one for the other).

    Rock on!
    Mike T Nelson PhD(c)