How hyped should you get in the gym?

Joel Snape is a decade-long lifter who has competed in strongman, CrossFit and one kayak ultramarathon. He’s trying to shout less when he squats.

Just how hyped up do you get before a big lift? For me, the answer to this was traditionally somewhere between Darth-Maul-pacing-around-before-a-fight and full-blown Hulk-out: anything less, it seemed, just wasn’t trying hard enough. Also, it crept up on me: when I first started lifting seriously (at a nice, clean, mirrors-on-all-the-walls chain gym, thanks very much) even grunting didn’t seem like the done thing. But you know how it goes: a little forceful exhale here, a quick chalk-clap there, and suddenly, things have somehow escalated to where you’re stomping around before every big squat and then screaming your way out of the hole. Once you’ve got into that mindset, it’s hard to go back.

Over recent years, though, I’ve been having a rethink. Firstly, moving onto the Olympic lifts shifted things up a bit – that’s where the old Yerkes-Dodson law really kicks in. In case you aren’t familiar, this is the idea – developed by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson – that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. You can illustrate the relationship as a curve that’s roughly bell-shaped, with performance peaking at the top. The trick, of course, is that there are different curves for different sports, roughly equivalent to the amount of technical expertise involved. Doing a big deadlift or playing linebacker might have a similar curve – strength is a huge factor and the movements don’t need to be incredibly precise. Shooting sports or gymnastics have a curve that’s quite a bit to the left of the powerlifts: precision is key. Olympic lifts, of course, fall somewhere in the middle: technique is important, but so is strength. Pace around like a caged tiger before a max snatch, as you’ll know if you’ve done one, and you’ll probably miss it.

But there’s another factor to all this that makes even getting hyped for every big set of squats less desirable: just how long can you keep it up? Mel Siff, author of the seminal Supertraining, puts this well: “To me, the sign of a really excellent routine is one which places great demands on the athlete, yet produces progressive long-term improvement without soreness, injury or the athlete feeling fully depleted…not any fool can create a tough program that produces progress without unnecessary pain.” Dan John and Pavel Tsatsouline both make the point that, over the long term, learning to lift at ‘sort-of max’ levels with the minimum of yelling and chalk-eating will produce better recovery and improved results. Pavel suggests training in the 80 to 95% intensity zone most of the time, taking long rests (we’re talking five minutes or so), leaving a couple of reps in the tank on each lift and going for PRs when you feel strong rather than when it’s prescribed by your plan: ‘Lift heavy, not hard’ is the maxim. John has an entire programme built around the ‘Easy Strength’ concept, focusing on five big lifts (push, pull, explosive move, deadlift and ab wheel) done every workout. ‘Do each lift without any emotion or excitement,’ suggests John. ‘And strive for perfect technique.’ Anecdotally, it seems to work: by aiming for minimal arousal between lifts, I’ve started feeling better between workouts, and recovering faster.

This is all easier said than done, of course, if you’ve spent years wailing and gnashing your teeth before every set of curls. But there’s one last upside: when you finally need to pull out a big lift, at a competition or a seminar or in front of someone who’s impressed by that sort of thing, you’ll have a tonne left in the tank. The rest of the time, it’s okay to be quiet.