It’s almost go time… maybe it’s a 1 rep max attempt, or maybe you’re about to tackle the next Open WOD. You’ve got your favorite pump up song blasting in your headphones, you’re waiting for your pre-workout to kick in, and you’re thinking of everything that pisses you off and stamping your feet so you can get amped up for your performance. Sound familiar?

Getting amped up, or spiking your adrenaline prior to a performance is known as “training on the nerve.” It can be effective, because as we all know, adrenaline can help us do incredible things. However, it is counterproductive for several reasons. First of all, you develop a dependency on your trigger. What do you do if you aren’t able to listen to your pump-up song? What if you forgot to take your pre-workout? What if no matter what you do, you can’t get pissed off enough to crank through some serious weight? What do you do then? In most cases, you’re SOL1. The best way to overcome this is to not become dependent in the first place. More on the alternative later.

Second, if you rely on adrenaline to lift, you are likely getting angry too. If you’re going for a 1 rep max squat, maybe this will be helpful. In most cases, it causes us to lose form. This is particularly problematic in technical movements like the Olympic lifts or skilled movements like double unders. Ever try to do double unders when angry? It’s a vicious cycle – the more you miss, the angrier you get, and the angrier you get, the more you miss. When it comes to performance, pure anger is not your friend. Charles Xavier said it better than I can: “True focus lies somewhere between rage and serenity.”

In other words, we want you to learn to focus, and to be aggressive, rather than angry. Here’s some more sage wisdom, from a real person this time:
“Aggression is NOT anger. Merriam-Webster defines aggression as ‘a forceful action or procedure … especially when intended to dominate or master.’ It’s all about imposing your will on the barbell – manifesting your commitment, focus and confidence in a movement. When you learn to divorce aggression from anger or any other emotion, you can maximize its utility and productivity by channeling it precisely and eliminating any complications or burden of emotion” – Greg Everett

Third, the effectiveness of external triggers degrades over time. If you rely on pre-workout (mine is COFFEE!!!), in most cases the stimulant is caffeine. It is a sad (but true) fact that we develop a tolerance to caffeine over time. Your reaction to your favorite pump-up song will also be blunted the more you listen to it, and soon you’ll need a new song. If you think back on past grievances to get pissed off, well, the hurt and anger pass with time. Take it from someone who can hold grudges with the best of them.

Finally, an external stimulus will only help you for so long after you use it. What happens if you have accessory work to do after your big lift? Or, what if the effect wears off after the first round of the workout? When your adrenaline spike ends, you will not only be physically drained, your central nervous system will be fried as well. This is called an adrenaline dump2. It’s not fun.

To avoid training on the nerve, create a routine that is not dependent on an external trigger. It could be a sequence of movements, the way you approach the bar, a particular warm-up, etc. As long as it involves you DOING something, rather than FEELING something, problem solved.

To conclude, training on the nerve works very well, until it doesn’t. It causes us to lose form, develop dependencies, and experience adrenaline dumps. It also becomes less effective over time. Learn to develop a routine instead, and you’ll have much more effective training sessions in the long run Besides, Josh Everett said it best, “If you need music to workout, you need a new hobby.”

1. Shit out of luck. I’m limiting curses to footnotes today.
2. Appropriate name, because you feel like shit!