In my last article, “From Wheelchair to Sinister: The Importance of Mental Strength,” I wrote about the power of mental strength. I am back today to discuss the mind once more, but this time the importance of mental focus and its place in the progression of our practice. As students of strength, we are all aware of the importance of training with quality. I am probably not teaching you this for the first time. Quality, precision, even high precision, are things we know well in my country, particularly in the Swiss watch industry. But in training, it isn’t easy to reach this kind of precision even when trying to stay mentally focused. Most often our emphasis on physical strength inhibits us from paying attention to what’s happening in the mind. In this article, I’m going to describe a simple way to increase focus and mental strength. Because when it comes to our practice, mental concentration is paramount.
Blindfold Training for Recovery
A while back, I had to see a physiotherapist for a shoulder injury. To avoid surgery, he gave me a series of daily exercises. They are basic, banded exercises, and don’t require much athletic knowledge to perform. In other words, they are simple enough for the average population. However, thanks to StrongFirst philosophy, I am no longer able to simply do, instead, I strive for perfection in my movements (according to my therapist this is a good thing). During the initial visits to my physiotherapist, I bombarded him with questions. Which muscles should I activate at each given movement? Should I release completely at the end of a repetition or keep slight tension? What sensation should I have in this or that sequence? What are the main muscles that need to be working? Where should I look? What should I do with my little toe, my little finger, or my ears? My questions brought a surprised look to his eyes and a certain disorientation. But he took the time to go over each exercise in detail, helping me not only complete the movements well, but also get the most benefit from them.
So (almost) every morning, I religiously did my exercises and the benefits quickly followed. Then one morning, I discovered something strange. I closed my eyes to better concentrate on activating the desired muscles and realized that something was working differently. It was as if I had entered inside the joint and become the muscle. I repeated this with all my banded exercises and, even without seeing myself, I knew my movements were more controlled and precisely executed. After spending some time performing the exercises with my eyes closed, I saw amazing improvement in the condition of my shoulder. I had not changed the exercises; I had only changed a tiny detail that resulted in greater mental focus.
Blindfold Training for Technique
I started to think that blindfold training might be beneficial to my kettlebell lifts as well. I began with the basic movement: the swing. I’ve been training exclusively with kettlebells for a few years now and have probably done thousands of swings. And yet—the simple act of executing ten swings with a blindfold immediately revealed new areas to improve. For example, as the sets progressed, I realized that my hinge became shallower, and I relied too much on my arms. There was no need to look in the mirror or film myself—I could feel it. When I was blindfolded, I was transported into my body, joints, and muscles. Small miracle? I don’t think so. Fabio Zonin, StrongFirst Certified Master Instructor, explained to me that orientation in space is dependent on three factors: sight, proprioception, and the inner ear. As with almost everything in life, if you take away one sense the others naturally increase. So, take away sight and the body relies more heavily on proprioception. This means that we are more attentive, focused, and in tune with our body and what we feel inside. This allows us to more easily identify areas to improve with each movement. This also reflects the findings of Soviet weightlifting authority Prof. Robert Roman, who pioneered the concept of lifting while blindfolded. He explained that because we rely heavily on our eyesight, we do not pay enough attention to the various sensations in our muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints. When blindfolded, the lifter is forced to listen to the body. It is important to note, that Roman insisted on wearing blindfolds, as opposed to closing one’s eyes.
I was too fascinated by this new approach to stop at the swing. And I found little ways to improve my technique with each movement. The get-up, for example, is an ideal movement to execute blindfolded. The importance of the gaze throughout this movement is well-known and is often reviewed at StrongFirst courses and certifications. Therefore, performing this complex movement without the sense of sight undoubtedly provides a lot of feedback. You certainly realize that it is possible to slow this movement down even more. Yes, trust me. You have no other choice than to slow down if you want to successfully complete a get-up in the dark.
Blindfold Training for Performance
This type of practice has not only allowed me to improve my technique in unexpected ways, but it quickly increased my performance in load and volume during conventional practice (eyes open). For example, one day I decided to do the well-known snatch test blindfolded. At the beginning of my StrongFirst journey, this test scared me. With practice, I learned to tame it and feel, let’s say “okay” with it. But doing it with a blindfold created a whole new dimension. I loved it. I was in communion with that kettlebell, almost in a meditative state. With no sense of time and resting by only listening to my body and breathing, I was pleasantly surprised to see 4:57 on the timer when I removed the blindfold. And I felt as fresh as a newborn baby. I have also passed the “Sinister” challenge blindfolded. I will save that story for another day, but for a while I was caught in what I like to call the “Simplister” (halfway between the “Simple” and the “Sinister” standard). The sticky point was the 24kg get-up blindfolded. That was a real adventure.
Blindfold Training for Coaching
I have also tried the blindfold training approach with some of my students. They willingly lent themselves to the game. The largest improvement was their arm-pull on the swing. Because they couldn’t see, there was no target height to aim for at the top of the swing. This allowed them to let hip power drive the height of the kettlebell, without finishing the movement with the help of the arms. It was as simple as that. More advanced students found that they were able to keep the kettlebell closer to the body and tame the arc more effectively on the snatch. One of my students told me that when she couldn’t see the kettlebell, she was less scared of it.
Recently, I was invited to assist at the SFL Certification in Darmstadt, Germany where I took the personal challenge to complete my StrongFirst Elite recertification blindfolded. Many curious students approached me afterward, asking me to explain why I had used a blindfold. After some explanation, I suggested they try it themselves. A few days later, several students messaged me that they had tried blindfold training and it felt (almost) like magic. Of course, it is not “magic,” but rather a new focus that gives our body the courage to attempt something it may normally be afraid of. I’ve always believed in the importance of the mind in strength training—and now I believe in it even more.
But don’t trust me with your eyes closed, trust yourself. Get your smallest kettlebells out of the closet, dust off your humility, and try it. Have fun experimenting with your favorite exercises and, from my experience, your movements will only get better. You could also choose a movement you like less and see whether experiencing it from a different perspective changes your opinion. Bottoms-up kettlebell drills are extremely entertaining to do blindfolded. If you want to try blindfold training with any movement, I ask you to be humble and start with a light weight. The goal is to progress, not to get injured. You will find that progression comes quickly, and you will be able to switch back to your usual weights in no time. Begin with simply closing your eyes before you try a blindfold, it will take time to become comfortable doing movements in the dark. Listen to your body’s inner messages, enter your muscles, and BE your movements.