Updated: Apr 13, 2020
The New Year is a perfect time to re-connect with your workout & to set goals.
Everything — including your workouts — starts in your mind. It's where ideas develop, motivations are processed, and where instructions to take action are issued. No matter your goal, working out mindfully helps you build physical strength and facilitates a more powerful mind-body connection.
Slowing your workout down and focusing on your form has benefits for your muscles and your mind. 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.
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, start with one of these three options.
1. Mindful Boxing Workout
Warm-up: 5 minutes of cardio and dynamic stretches
5 sets of 10 incline barbell press
4 sets of 10 flat dumbbell flyes
4 sets of 12 seated machine flyes
Cooldown: 5 minutes of static stretching
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: Jab Cross Jab
Stagger feet in boxers stance - comfortable step back with dominate leg. depress shoulder blades and rotate palms toward each other in ready stance. Think “home phone, cell phone” in each hand. create a fist without force until arm extends in your punch. Keep elbows docked into sides to protect rib cage. To initiate your jab, extend front arm as you rotate palm to parallel with floor as your shift 30 percent of weight into front foot, contact should be made with front 2 knuckles keeping elbow slightly bent at contact. Exhale during contact. The contraction back is just as important - return on same line. As front arm is returning, keeping abs engaged, begin to pivot rear stance foot by lifting heel as you incorporate hips, lats shoulder through the extension of back arm - your cross (coming across the body). Weight shifts to front foot as you keep chest over hips. As arm contracts back, once again extend the jab. Work for smoothness of transitions. Do not add power or speed until form is on point.
Mindful Weight Lifting for Chest - 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.
Mindful Machine Based: 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.
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.
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.
But practicing these mindfulness techniques isn't just for the elite, it's for anyone who wants to maximize their efforts and experience a sense of calm during and after exercising.
So, What Are Mindful Workouts?
Mindfulness is best described in four words: a state of awareness. When applied to exercise, that means being fully present in any workout you're doing. No zoning out during Zumba, no autopilot on the elliptical. Every rep and every step matters.
"Bringing more awareness to your workout essentially means, rather than going through the motions you are becoming more present and aware of your movements and the way your body feels in a nonjudgmental way," says Corey Phelps, personal trainer and nutrition expert who teaches her clients mindful exercising.
"Showing up and going through the motions may get you some degree of a result, but showing up, connecting and maintaining a state of awareness will no doubt yield better, faster and more meaningful results," she says. And those results aren't just aesthetic, but a host of internal and external benefits that go beyond the gym.
The Benefits of Mindful Workouts
By practicing mindfulness in your workout, you become a more centered, aware and focused person carrying around less stress, Phelps says. "Visualization helps prepare you to perform at your peak and to tackle big goals."
In fact, a December 2014 study published in Motivation and Emotion found that those with narrowed their focus to the finish line walked faster and with more ease than those who looked around while walking.
What's more, located deep inside your brain is a network of neurons called the reticular activating system (RAS), and its primary function is to help your brain decide what information is relevant. A visualization practice tells your RAS that the things you're seeing in your mind's eye are important.
"In today's uber-connected world, we've become flooded with tons of information throughout the day (social media, email, texts, etc.), often causing our RAS to be overburdened," Phelps says. By flexing your RAS muscles via visualization before a workout, you take can maximize your efforts and results.
Mindfulness can also help you enjoy your workout more, according to September 2016 study published in the Journal of Health Psychology. And if your goal is weight loss, an August 2016 study from the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that women who practiced mindfulness were more active and experienced a greater decrease in their BMI than those who didn't.
Additionally, when you're not thinking about what you're going to make for dinner or who you need to email, you hone in on your form, making each exercise as effective as possible and reducing your changes of getting hurt. You may also find yourself slowing your strength-training workouts down, which increases your time under tension and helps your muscles grow stronger.