Everything — including your workouts — starts in your mind. "It's where ideas develop, motivations are processed, and where instructions to take action are issued," says Michael Wittig, ISSA-certified personal trainer. No matter your goal, working out mindfully helps you build physical strength and facilitates a more powerful mind-body connection.
If you feel like your progress in the gym has stalled or your workouts have gone on auto-pilot, learning how to practice mindfulness techniques while you exercise just might be the bridge between you and your goals, helping refocus your mind and allowing you to get the most out of every movement. "Putting deep thought into every action can make a tremendous impact on your performance in the gym and the results you get," Wittig says.
What does that look like? While the specifics vary depending on whether you're going hard in the weight room or pounding the pavement, the basics are the same: sharpening your attention and focusing your awareness on what your body is doing during your workout.
That means you're not distracted by watching TV or losing yourself contemplating your post-workout to-do list; you're being intentional with each rep and every step. If you're looking to be more mindful in your workouts, Wittig suggests starting with one of these three options.
1. Mindful Weight-Lifting Workout for Your Chest
If these exercise descriptions seem long, it's because they're intended to force you to slow down and examine each and every part of the exercise. Don't rush through them because you already know how to do them; focus on how your body moves through the range of motion.
Move 1: Incline Dumbbell Press
- Sit on a weight-lifting bench set at an incline with a barbell loaded on the rack. Before you grab the bar, ask yourself if the seat is adjusted correctly and if you're balanced and comfortable.
- Place your feet firmly on the floor pressing your heels down knowing the floor is equally pressing back. Realize there's power and stability just by consciously driving your heels into the floor.
- Place your hands on the bar shoulder width apart. Are your hands evenly spaced? Do you have a nice grip and is your wrist straight?
- Now pinch your shoulder blades together giving you a strong foundation to push. Retracting your shoulder blades also helps pull your shoulders back to a safer position.
- Lift the barbell up off the rack. Quickly mentally run through everything again: heels pressing into the ground, arms are evenly spaced, wrists are straight and shoulder blades are pinched.
- Before you start that very first rep, contract your pectoral muscles (think: squeezing inward on the barbell with both hands).
- Slowly lower the bar with control. Breathe in and allow air to fill your lungs as you lower the bar. As the barbell descends know you are stretching your pectorals muscles, along with others including the triceps and deltoids.
- Feel the weight pressing down on you as your muscles are pressing back to keep the decent controlled. How low you bring the barbell depends on your shoulder mobility. Some can gently touch the upper chest while others need to go only to a safe 90 degree angle with the arms before pressing upward.
- Add a brief pause at the bottom of this lift.
- Driving through your heels and using your retracted shoulder blades as stability, forcefully breathe out and press the weight back up with power.
- Once the weight is back up to starting position, this process repeats itself. Your chest muscles should already be contracted at the top of each rep, so don't let them rest or disengage until you complete your final rep.
Move 2: Flat Dumbbell Fly
- Get into position by lying down on a flat bench holding two dumbbells above your chest. Before you start, run through a quick mental checklist: Are your feet firmly on the floor pressing down? Is your body balanced on the bench? Do you have a comfortable and firm grip on each dumbbell?
- Your goal is to get maximizes your muscle engagements for each rep. This process starts by contracting your chest at the very beginning. Your arms should have a slight bend in them that remains near constant throughout the movement. Some refer to this as "hugging a barrel."
- Slowly lower the weights out to your sides. Imagine the pectoral muscles stretching as the dumbbells go lower and wider. Breathe in with fresh air as you lower the weights.
- Once you've reached maximum depth and your pectorals are fully stretched, lift the weights back up along the same path while breathing out forcefully. The dumbbells travel should finish right back into a fully contracted and lifted chest.
- Don't allow the dumbbells to hit together, as that takes tension off your chest muscles. Instead, squeeze the dumbbells inward toward each other without them ever coming in contact.
Move 3: Seated Machine Fly
- Part of working out mindfully is being aware of your surroundings and the machines you're using. First, make sure the seat is at the correct height for your body. When your hands are on the fly handles they should not be higher than your shoulders, but rather shoulder height or just slightly lower.
- Second, adjust the fly handles. There's typically a wheel with pin holes at the top of the machine. You want the handles positioned so you can get a full chest stretch, but where you can also get safely in and out of position. Your awareness of any gym equipment you use will translate to how well you perform on it and the results you receive.
- Sit down and get into position. Place your feet firmly on the floor pressing down. Sit up straight in the chair with your back pressed against the seat. Keep your head straight throughout the entire movement. Elongate your neck then tuck your chin back slightly.
- Start with the handles directly out in front of your chest. Don't hit your hands together and allow force to be taken off the pectorals. Imagine a small invisible box placed between your hands. Squeeze inward on that box and attempt to crush it without allowing your hands to come completely together. This mental picture will help you contract your chest on every rep.
- Slowly lower the weight, allowing your arms to go out to the sides. Breathe in while this eccentric part of the lift is happening. Feel the pectoral muscles stretching.
- Once the muscles are fully stretched, breathe out forcefully and bring your hands back together without the hands colliding. Imagine the chest muscles flexing and stretching throughout the entire movement until the final rep is completed.
2. Mindful HIIT Cardio Workout
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) centers around short periods of all-out effort. These intervals can be as short as 10 seconds or up to 60 seconds or more. In the workout below, you'll follow a Tabata outline, meaning each interval is only 20 seconds long.
Since the intervals are relatively short, you should view each one as an opportunity to fully engage and work to your full potential. Let that thought manifest in your mind as the timer clicks down to go time.
Do: each exercise for 20 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds. Do 8 total rounds total.
- High knees
- Jumping jacks
Before you start, cut out all distractions and focus on your upcoming workout. Concentrate on taking deep breathes in and out. Visualize yourself lifting your knees high and being light on your toes. Start the countdown 3, 2, 1.
Move 1: High Knees
- Stand tall as you lift one knee up to your chest, then quickly switch legs.
- Focus on minimizing the time the balls of your feet are on the ground and feel your knees cutting through the air as they lift high.
- Move your arms back and forth to help generate speed.
- Your full focus should be breathing, staying light on your feet and being quick.
- If you feel yourself slowing down, pick the pace back up. The effort and discomfort will only last for 20 seconds.
- These rest periods will go by extremely quickly, so focus first on breathing, then relax and shake it out as you prepare your mind for the next movement.
Move 2: Jumping Jacks
- Stand with your legs together and arms at your sides.
- Jump your feet out as you lift your arms overhead. Stay light on the balls of your feet throughout the exercise. Imagine your legs an arm cutting through the air as all your limbs move out away from your body.
- Feel the muscles in your legs, hamstrings and glutes activating as you jump your legs out and back in all while being light as a feather on your feet.
- Concentrate on your deltoid muscles lifting your arms up over your head and back down. Work to do as many reps as possible in your 20-second window.
Read more: The Ultimate Body-Weight HIIT Cardio Workout
3. Mindful Running Workout
It's easy to zone out on a run, especially if you're on the treadmill. Instead, set a timer to go off every 90 seconds so you can stay engaged as you run. Below, Wittig outlines things to consider to help you have a more mindful workout, but they can apply to any part of your run. The great thing here is that you can apply this to any length or style of running workout.
First 90 Seconds
First, bring your attention to your breath. Notice the way it feels as it enters your nose, fills your lungs and how your body feels as you exhale out. Notice your rhythm and cadence.
Second 90 Seconds
Notice the way your feet strike the ground and how your body feels. Notice the sensations and which muscles are working the most. Notice the rhythm of your feet and the cadence of your stride. Notice your thoughts.
Third 90 Seconds
Bring your attention to your core: Are you activating your abs, obliques and lower back? Are you running with good posture or are you slumped forward?
Repeat as necessary until you finish your workout, ending by slowing your pace down more and more, until you come to a stop. Notice your breathing and thoughts; any negativity should be set aside as you refocus on your form and breathing.
Make sure you take time to indulge in your post-workout high, too! Check in with your body to see how you feel. If you've completed your workout mindfully, you may be feeling calm yet pumped with determination. That's one of the benefits of this kind of workout.