I know we have all seen it, a lifter in a meet or heavy training day pacing around, hootin’ and hollerin’, getting slapped around like a hippie at a honky tonk, and then head-butting the bar like he is “the Swayze” in Roadhouse. This may work for a select few, but for the majority of lifters all this does is distract you from the task at hand and waste valuable energy that could be better used pushing or pulling a bar.

It has become commonplace to see scenes like this, and I think it has spread like wildfire, because lifters see somebody else do it and figure that’s what you gotta do to lift big weights. The fact is that optimal arousal levels are different for everybody and depend on personality traits, proficiency of technique and complexity of task.

The Optimal Arousal Curve

There is something in sports psychology called the Optimal Arousal Curve, and no, it has nothing to do with sex.


Factors Affecting Arousal

Depending on your sport, the arousal level is going to be skewed to the right (more arousal needed) or to the left (less arousal needed.) If you are an Olympic lifter and are getting ready to perform a Clean and Jerk (a very technical movement) your optimal arousal is going to be much lower than if you are trying to deadlift a big PR (far less technical.)

In addition to this, another factor that affects your optimal arousal level is your technical proficiency in the task. A novice lifter cannot get as aroused as a seasoned veteran and still hope to have success. As we get more and more reps doing a lift with good technique it becomes ingrained in our motor pattern. There comes a point where we can stop “thinking” when we lift, our body just knows what to do. Once this point is reached, the optimal arousal curve can be moved further to the right.

Another factor that affects our optimal arousal level is our individual personality. Some people need to externalize their arousal by yelling, pacing, etc., while some athletes (mainly introverts) get the same results by internalizing their anger. One is not right or wrong, it just depends on the individuals personality traits.

2004 Olympic Shotput Champion Adam Nelson, has a long routine where he takes off his shirt, runs up to the ring screaming and is visually very aroused. This obviously works for him. In contrast, the 1992 Olympic Shotput Champion Mike Stulce, calmly sauntered up to the ring in Barcelona, threw a PR and won the gold medal, and calmly walked back out of the ring. By his body language you would have never known he just became an Olympic Champion. This is just one example of how optimal arousal levels differ between athletes.

What Does it All Mean?

So what’s the take away from all this? The main point I would like to convey is that you should come up with your own pre-lift ritual. Figure out what works for you individually, not what works for the other people in the gym. Don’t copy someone else because they are strong, do what works best for you and your skill level and personality. If you are someone who internalizes your arousal and you try to force yourself to pace and scream, you are just wasting your energy.