This is exactly what happens to your brain when you lift heavy weights

This is exactly what happens to your brain when you lift heavy weights

Ever wondered about the psychological effects of weight lifting? Here are five ways your brain will change when you start lifting heavy weights…

You’ve probably heard of a ‘runner’s high’, but there’s a whole different high that comes with weight lifting. If you’ve ever lifted heavy weights, you’ve probably experienced this during and after lifting. But what actually happens to our brain when we lift weights and why?

Lifting weights, particularly heavy weights, often requires as much mental training as it does physical. Overcoming doubts and limiting beliefs is a crucial part of being able to lift heavier at the gym, so the brain plays a huge part in weight lifting.

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Dr Josephine Perry, a chartered psychologist specialising in sports psychology, explains that weight lifting can have a very positive effect on our mental health: “With something like weight lifting where every step is quantified, every lift is measured, we get to see the progress and improvements we crave in order to feel fully alive.”

Here, she explains exactly what happens to our brains when we lift heavy weights.

Overcoming stress

Lifting a weight that you were previously unable to lift is a process of overcoming a challenge. According to Dr Perry, this can help us to feel a sense of personal achievement.

“We feel stress when we have a stressor in front of us, like lifting something very heavy. We don’t believe we have the capacity or capability to handle it,” she explains. “Stress feels like a threat to our brain and so the brain releases adrenaline and cortisol (the stress chemical) to circulate around our body so it can prepare to fight, flight or freeze.”

This is why you might feel adrenaline during or after lifting heavy weights, which can be helpful as it triggers psychological responses which improve your performance. However, too much adrenaline can stifle you, which means you may be unable to achieve the lift.

Learning motivation

There aren’t that many scenarios in life where we have to push ourselves but lifting heavy weights is one of them. This has a positive impact on the brain in a few ways and one of those ways is that it teaches us to become more motivated.

“To gain maximum motivation we usually need three pillars in place: a sense of belonging (so feeling part of our gym or part of the lifting crowd), lifting because you want to (so not because you have to for health, or because someone else wanted you to go with them) and being good at it (we all love things more when we are good at them),” Dr Perry explains.

Setting goals

For our brain to be able to engage in weight lifting, we need a clear goal. This can train your brain to become better at setting and achieving goals in other areas of life. Dr Perry explains: “When we are clear why we are pushing ourselves into discomfort it is easier to do it. What will lifting more give you; a sense of achievement, the strength to do another sport you love, a feeling of power?” 

Gaining confidence

Lifting heavy weights requires confidence. In fact, self-confidence is a key part of convincing your brain that you’re able to lift a heavy weight.

You therefore need to train your brain to be more confident if this is something you struggle with. Dr Perry suggests keeping a training diary and logging all the lifts and efforts you put in which will give you something to look back over and see how far you have come, reminding you that you can achieve much more than you originally expected. 

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The post-lifting buzz

If you’ve ever walked away from a weight lifting session feeling particularly excited or happy, there’s a psychological reason for that. It’s all down to a chemical our brain creates called dopamine.

“When we anticipate a reward like achieving a lift that is heavier than we have achieved before, a chemical called dopamine is released in our brain,” Dr Perry explains. “It makes us feel really good and we get mini-surges of pleasure each time we achieve something new. The more achievements we have, the more often we get our dopamine shot. It can boost our mood and delay the feelings of fatigue.”

Dopamine, along with those post-exercise endorphins, is why the ‘weight lifting high’ can feel so intense sometimes.

Looking to start lifting weights? Check out the Strong Women Training Club training guides here.

Images: Getty

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