What to Do When the Barbell Won’t Budge

Lisbeth Barbell, Mindset

woman with muscles in tank top

It should have been like any other heavy deadlift.

I should have picked up the barbell and put it down. Three times in a row. A new 3RM. Done.

But it didn’t happen that way. I moved the bar an inch off the ground and then, inexplicably, I put it down.

Oh no. Not again. My old friend was back.

I was mind-fucked.

You would think after years of mind-fucking myself in gyms across America that I would see the warning signs – the hesitation in my breath, the creeping fear at the back of my mind (“What if …” “Remember that time when …”), the sidelong glance at the barbell.

You would think I would know when to veer off the Highway to Mindfuckery, but no no no I don’t stop and assess my head.

I stay on the road and hit the gas through the warm-up, through the lower weights, all the way to the working sets, hoping that my mind is a self-correcting mechanism that will fix itself. I’m stupid and stubborn that way. Maybe you’re a bit like me this way.

It’s been a year of injuries for me.

I walk into chairs and break toes. I walk across a room and sciatic nerve pain runs down my left leg like some weird electric shock therapy controlled by an ex-girlfriend with a voodoo doll and a grudge. My PT, chiro, and massage therapist put me back together regularly. My training partner (a PT, also) keeps an eye on me in the gym like a mom with a toddler, saving me from making small mistakes with big bruising consequences.

And this was my first attempt at really heavy triples since my recovery from the latest bout of “Hey, Lis, your body isn’t that young anymore.”

The bar moved at 250. Moved for one rep at 265. But 280 for three? A micro-lift and a stop.

What to do?

What’s the next step when you know your body is ready but your mind is not?

I was lucky. My training partner looked at me with her big eyes and gigantic heart and then talked me slowly and calmly off the edge again, telling me the same things in order that I knew but had forgotten:

  • Take ten pounds off the bar
  • Sit down
  • Rest 3-5 minutes
  • Go again.

These are the words we all would tell ourselves if we could talk cooly and rationally, but when your head is swirling swirling swirling and your brain is suddenly wrapped in mounds and mounds of scratchy cotton and you’re not even totally sure how to breathe, you simply forget what to do next, like a toddler who suddenly can’t work her crazy, whacky legs.

It’s not a panic attack. Not even close. It’s just a barbell mindfuck.

And there is no doctor who will diagnose it. No pill that can cure it. You simply have to work through it.

Because if you don’t work through it, if you don’t lift something heavy on that barbell today, you know how the ghost will follow you home — the Ghost of Unfinished Lifts — the one that taps at your shoulder, the one who wakes you up at night, the one who sits by you like the most unwelcome friend, sapping your mental energy, draining your self-confidence, feeding the voice that you don’t want fed. The one you wish would leave, but the only way to get rid of her is to scare her away with a lift. Any lift.

So, you take ten pounds off the bar, you rest three minutes, you go again.

If you’re lucky, you make the lift. If not, you rinse and repeat. And rinse and repeat. And, even, rinse and repeat again. Ugh.

The barbell will wait for you. It’s not going anywhere by itself.

That is the path out of Mindfuckery, the trail that winds high out of the valley, that gets you back on the road to achievement.

So, if you find yourself where I did on a hot sunny breathtakingly beautiful California day (in a tiny gym near a Costco where people are walking out with light beer, surfboards and muffins as big as their heads) take ten pounds off that bar and go again.

Squash your ego (it was too big anyhow), and keep going until you get at least one lift.

Just one. But get that one. It probably won’t be pretty, but it will be worth it.

I got 265 x 3 that day, surrounded by big men in beards yelling for me, because they’ve been there, too. See, we all visit the village of Mindfuckery. The important part is not to rent a room or sign a lease there.

Lisbeth Barbell, Mindset

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