6 Reasons Meditation Builds Muscle

Trainer and Crossfit Athlete, Billy Cedar, lifting at Crossfit Treetown.

It may not seem like lifting weights and sitting in silence have much in common, but you might be surprised how much physical activity and mindfulness go hand in hand.

Meditation brings you into the present moment by allowing you to focus on your breath and let go of thoughts. Similarly, finding your one-rep-max deadlift brings you into the present moment by keeping you focused on the task at hand.

A tough workout will test your emotional, mental, and physical capacity by forcing you to push through discomfort and “the burn” to focus on the end goal: completing the workout. The practice of meditation is similarly rooted in equanimity, mental calmness and evenness of temper, especially in difficult situations (when thoughts creep into your brain or your nose starts to itch).

Not only is meditation closely related to physical activity—especially high intensity workouts—it is also proven to make you a stronger athlete in more ways than one. By meditating, you will not only build muscle between the ears; you’ll also have more efficient and effective workouts, with faster muscle recovery.

1.  Thicker Brains Fend Off Pain

Scientists have discovered that people who meditate may have more control over negative sensations (pain) and thoughts (anxiety). Practicing meditation triggers growth in the anterior cingulate, the central region of the brain in charge of pain regulation. According to a study performed at the University of Montreal, there is a strong correlation between the thickness of this brain region and sensitivity to pain.

Another study done at the University of Pittsburgh proved that the prefrontal cortex (associated with focus, concentration, and decision-making) grows larger through meditation practice, while the amygdala (responsible for fear and the fight-or-flight response) shrinks.

The next time you face off against a grueling, stomach-churning workout, you can thank your morning meditation sesh for weakening your fear response and helping you fight off the pain.

2.  A Weak Mind Trumps a Strong Body

Have you ever crushed a workout and still left the gym feeling defeated and low? Why does this happen? Maybe you had a fight with your partner, a rough day at work, or your new Lulu spandex were giving you a wedgie.

We often let negative thoughts sneak into our minds during workouts, which deplete our focus and motivation. It’s hard not to get distracted from the task at hand with all of this mental chatter. Luckily, meditation helps us reign in these annoying, inhibiting thoughts and let go of them.

The next time you feel low at the gym, observe your thoughts as you’ve been taught through meditation. Then, laugh at them and tell them to take a hike. You’ve got barbells to move and 400-meter sprints to run.

3.  Think Less to Lift More

Olympic weightlifting coach Nick Horton explains that there are two types of brain networks, the task-positive network and the default mode network. When you are faced with a task that requires deep concentration, such as learning a movement for the first time, your brain uses the task-positive network.

On the other hand, once you’ve learned how to properly execute a lift or movement, your brain resorts to the default mode to perform the task. Unfortunately, the default network has a tendency to become hyperactive, leading to loss of concentration.

Have you ever experienced a mental block while lifting a weight or performing a yoga pose? This is a result of that hyperactivity; thoughts, anxieties, and fears tend to arise when your default network becomes hyperactive.

Meditation is the best way to reduce excessive activity in your default network. Through daily practice, you can learn to calm your brain and focus your attention on what’s relevant: the present moment. This focus makes it easier to avoid and overcome debilitating thoughts, fears, and anxieties during the most demanding moments of your workout.

4.  Faster Muscle Recovery

Meditation allows you to deeply relax your mind and body. After a high intensity workout, your muscles and nervous system are screaming for love and attention. Studies demonstrate that people who meditate prior to an exposed stressor not only recover faster, but also show a decrease in anxiety. The positive effects of meditation can even carry over into later days, when you’re not practicing.

5.  Catch More Zs

Quieting the thoughts buzzing around my brain is a challenge, especially after a long day at the office followed by an explosive crossfit workout. I face plant into my pillow for some much needed shut-eye, and then—BAM! Every to-do list, missed phone call, and funny snapchat from the day barrels into my mind. The more I crave sleep, the harder it is to actually fall asleep.

Studies suggest that meditation can improve your quality and quantity of sleep by decreasing stress and increasing moment-to-moment awareness. In this way, meditation directly prevents  the negative side-effects of insomnia, including high blood pressure, slow reaction times, and over-eating. Additionally, research from Berkeley indicates that sleep deprivation will make you less inclined to choose healthy, high protein meals and more likely to select high sugar, calorie-dense foods.

6.  Embrace the Moment

“My goal is to flip our vision about the way we all live: I don’t want to get through my workout, day, life… I want to get into it.”    -Bethany Lyons

If this quote doesn’t perfectly articulate the idea of living in the present moment, then I’m at a loss for words. However, it can be difficult to live in the present when you’re powering through your last set of pull-ups. Most people want to escape their pain, not embrace it.

While I’m not opposed to easing the pain with a rockin’ jam sesh, I find it even more valuable to pause for a moment, witness the sensations throughout my body, and become aware of my goals. One method of achieving this is to adopt a mantra.

This doesn’t have to be a cheesy line you find on your Dove chocolate wrapper, but rather a simple reminder of your intentions. Visualize what you want your workout to look like, then accept the challenge that lies before you. When the going gets tough, repeat your mantra.

Still Not Convinced?

If I still haven’t convinced you that mindfulness and meditation is right for you, be sure to check out my upcoming post about how mindfulness makes you smarter. For now, try meditating for a few minutes before or after your workout, and witness your enthusiasm and gains skyrocket!