In this article, we break down how the Iron Master, Arthur Saxon mentally approaches a heavy lift, specifically in this case the bent press. From what he has written about we not only know tips on physical technique, but his thoughts leading up to and during the lift.
If you think this is any less important than technical information, you’re sorely mistaken.
“I have often been asked what it feels like to press 350 pounds with one hand, and perhaps to my readers the different sensations experienced will be interesting. In the first place, immediately I start to press the weight away from the shoulder I become perfectly oblivious to everything except the weight that I am lifting. The spectators are obliterated from my mind by the effort of intense concentration which is necessary to enable me to press the weight.”
Intense concentration is probably the most significant key phrase here. Some other phrases that illustrate this are “perfectly oblivious” and “obliterated from my mind.” These are not simply words, but powerfully allude to how complete this concentration is.
And Saxon is by no means an outlier in this. I’ve heard many top strongmen say similar things where they see nothing but the lift, hear nothing at all, as they’re focused inwards into themselves and the weight, and nothing else.
I recall when I was teaching at a seminar along with Bud Jeffries how he told in powerlifting competitions under the squat bar everything would go black, he didn’t hear the crowd at all, only the signal from the ref that he had reached the proper depth.
“I immediately engage myself in a terrific struggle in which the weight and I are competitors, and only one can win, either the weight must be lifted or else I fail. This concentration is, of course, one of the secrets of success in lifting, as I have explained in another part of my book. It enables me to bring forward the last ounce of pushing power, and for the time being to exert strength beyond that normally possessed.”
This paragraph speaks of the frame of mind that Saxon thinks about a heavy lift with. The key phrases “terrific struggle.” It speaks of his competitive nature and that there are only two possibilities, win or lose. As described elsewhere in his book, Saxon liked to compete. It was a meta program of his. Thus, in thinking about it this way he could “bring forward the last ounce of pushing power,” he could summon more energy and strength, than if he wasn’t competing.
If you too are competitive thinking about a heavy lift as you competing against the weight, should also allow you to be stronger. If you are not competitive, it will not help you. This is why you must “know thyself” to perform well in weight lifting or anything else.
“I mention here that to think of failure is to fail, and I always tell myself all the time that I am certain to succeed, even though I am attempting a weight more than I have hitherto lifted.”
Here we get a glimpse into Saxon’s internal dialog. To think of failure is to fail. That is emphasized in his own writing, not something I added. Thinking can come in multiple forms. It could be a mental movie you failing. Or it can be words along the lines of “I might fail.” Either way, these are not helpful. Instead, Saxon tells himself “I am certain to succeed.” Now, I doubt that’s an exact phrase that ran through his mind. I’m sure he used different words, perhaps thinking even in his native tongue of German. But this does clue us in that he said something like this before every record lift, and what sort of internal state he brought to the lift. A state not just of success, but certainty of success.
Chances are he did it with other non-record lifts too. Furthermore, he states that he “always” does this. This may not only be programming his mind and body but acting as a mental anchor to prepare for it.
“Eventually, my arm is straight, and before coming to an upright position I engage in another tussle with the enormous bar bell, in which I have to exert all my will power to hold together the flagging powers of tired muscles, which have been strained by the tremendous pressure which 350 pounds brings on to them in the effort of pressing aloft. By supreme effort of the will I fix the bell in a good position and then stand upright.”
In this section, Saxon mentions the will and will power two times. Some other words for this might be mental toughness. Notice, that it only comes into play towards the end of the lift. (If you’ve never done a heavy bent press, it can be one of the longest exercises taking double digits of seconds to perform.) Previously he thinks of competition and being certain he will win. Notice that “will” is not spoken of before this time. To finish strong, he must use “supreme effort of the will.” For Saxon this may be the proper place of using this trait, to carry through to the end.
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Also check out this fantastic article featuring a similar mental breakdown from The Mighty Atom.