“It was the best meet of my life.” -Jo Aita
Setting a personal best and winning the Gold medal is a remarkable feat. Jo Aita, age 46 and weighing 58 kg, set the Masters World Records and Masters Games Records in Snatch, Clean & Jerk and Total Olympic weight lifting at the World Masters Games in Auckland, New Zealand, April 26th, 2017. She lifted 71 kg in the Snatch and 86 kg in the Clean and Jerk Olympic lifts in the 45-49-year-old age group (see video in figure 1). What makes this more remarkable is that her combined lifts were 3 kilograms more than her life-time best in previous competition. She refuted the conventional wisdom that weight lifters peak in their mid to late twenties. There is hope for improvement as aging may not mean we have to decline.
Figure 1. Video of Jo Aita successful lift at the World Masters Games in Auckland, NZ., April 26, 2017.
There are many factors–and many more which we do not know–which contribute to this achievement such as genetics, diligent training and superb coaching at the Max’ Gym in Oakland as a member of Team Juggernauts. In the last three years, Jo Aita also incorporated biofeedback and visualization training to help optimize her performance. This report summarizes how breathing and electromyography feedback combined with imagery may have contributed to achieving her personal best. As Jo Aita stated, “I recommend this to everyone and hope that you can work with athletes in my gym.”
Components of the 30 sessions of biofeedback, internal language and visualization training program
The training was started in September 2014 to reduce anxiety and improve performance. The components embedded in the training are listed sequentially; however, training did not occur sequentially. They were dynamically interwoven throughout the many sessions and augmented with homework practices, as well as storytelling of other people achieving success using similar approaches. The major components included:
1. Mastering effortless slow diaphragmatic breathing in which the abdomen expanded during inhalations and constricted during exhalation. The respiration feedback and training was recorded with BioGraph Infinity respiration sensors and recorded from the abdomen and upper chest. Her homework included monitoring situations where she held her breath and then anticipate breath holding by continuing to breathe. She also practiced slower breathing with heart rate variability feedback from a Stress Eraser. Practicing these allowed her to become centered and regenerate more quickly. As she stated, “It helped me during the day when I am anxious to calm down.” Throughout the training, the focus was to use breathing to rapidly regenerate after exertion especially after training.
2. Learning to relax her shoulder muscles with electromyography (EMG) feedback to regenerate and learn awareness of minimal trapezius muscle tension. She could use this awareness to identify her emotional reactivity (Peper, Booiman, Lin, & Shaffer, 2014). Often emotional reactivity increases muscle tension. She learned to relax here muscles quickly after muscle contractions to allow regeneration
3. Experiencing how cognition affect performance. This was initially demonstrated by arm resistance test. In this experiential practice, she extended her arm and attempted to resist the downward pressure applied to her wrist while she recalled either a hopeless, helpless, powerless or defeated memory or an empowered positive memory (for detailed description see, Gorter and Peper, pp 186-188, 2011). When she recalled the powerless memory she was significantly weaker than when she recalled the empowering memory. This experience demonstrated to her the power of her thoughts.
4. Rewriting failure into success. Each time she missed the lift, she would think, “I should not have done that,” or “I was doubtful or nervous during competition,” she shifted her focus to:
- Accepting what happened by acknowledging she did the best she could have done under the circumstances.
- Exploring how she could have done it differently and imagine herself doing it in the new optimum way.
- Using the trigger of the beginning thought of failure or defeat to evoke the new empowering memory thus interrupting the chained behavior.
The underlying concept was that what we mentally rehearse is what we may become and that our thoughts affect performance which she previously experienced by the arm resistance test. If you keep thinking about a defeat you are training the physiological pattern of defeat. This practice of transforming self-defeating thoughts into empowering thoughts can be applied to all phases of one’s life and was continued throughout the training sessions. The focus was to acknowledge and realize that whatever you did, it was the only thing you could have done because you did not yet have the skills to do it differently. She would then create a new strategy of mental rehearsal that lead to a positive outcome (for detailed description of this practice see Peper, Harvey, Lin, & Duvvuri, 2014).
5. Identifying whether imagery rehearsal is somatically connected. It is our bias that imagery rehearsal is useful if the body responds in a similar pattern when the person images the task as it would during an actual activity (Hall, 2001; Peper et al, 2015). The concurrent physiological activity would indicate that the person is experientially involved in the task and not just observing as a witness/second party.
Her performance is weightlifting and this would involve major muscle activity. Surface EMG was recorded from muscles that would be activated during the actual performance of the task to identify if they would be activated during mental rehearsal. The muscle activity during mental rehearsal is usually at a much smaller amplitude than that occurred during actual physical performance; however, should follow a similar timing sequence. In our experience there are three responses:
- Muscle activity in the appropriate muscles that are in the same timing as in and actual performance. This implies that mental rehearsal is actually training the motor pattern and facilitate performance. Thus continue practicing with mental rehearsal.
- Muscle activity in the appropriate muscles are not generally in the same timing sequence as the actual performance. This may mean that the person was performing too slow or was skipping sequences in the mental rehearsal and mental training may not be useful. The person needs to master and exhibit the same muscle pattern during mental rehearsal as during actual performance of the task.
- No muscle activity or inappropriate muscle activity during the during the mental rehearsal. This implies that during mental rehearsal there is no motor pattern training and the approach would not be useful unless the person learned to activate appropriate motor activity. It is possible that some people who have experienced past traumas may have coped by shutting off feelings and sensations in their bodies.
When Jo Aita initially practiced mental rehearsal while being monitored with surface EMG recorded with Myoscan Pro sensors (filter set narrow 100-200Hz) from the right and left upper trapezius muscles, there was no corresponding muscle activity as shown in Figure 2. Although she imaged, she did not feel/experience the lifting. The training focused upon reconnecting imagery and body experience.
Figure 2. Left and right upper trapezius EMG showed no increase in activity while Jo Aita mentally imaged performing her lift.
6. Integrating imagery and body experience with EMG. After identifying that imagery did not elicit concurrent muscle activity, the training focused on developing the imagery muscle connection. The training consisted of:
- Monitoring EMG activity from her right and left quadriceps and right and left upper trapezius muscle and have her simulate her actually lifting in practice and competition by going through the complete sequence which included standing and waiting till her name was called, caulking her hands, performing a ritual activity to be ready to lift the weights, lifting the weights, and releasing them. The pattern is shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Simulating the actual Snatch and Jerk lift (Clean is lifting the weights to the chest and punching Jerk is pushing the weigh upward is labelled).
- Practicing imagery by going through the same procedure and purposely slightly activating the movements which were necessary to lift the weight. As she stated, “I learned to do mental rehearsal in a more structured way and visualized the total sequence from chalking up to doing all six lifts”. This was monitored by the EMG to see that there occurred EMG activation of the muscles. This was repeated numerous times till, the activation occurred in imagery as shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4. EMG activity during mental rehearsal.
She then reported that imagery was a real experience.
7. Training mental rehearsal and imagery for peak performance (Cumming, Hall, & Shambrook, 2004). The major components of the mental rehearsal focused upon performing perfectly, visualizing lifting more weight easily than actually lifted in the gym, performing in the gym as she would during competing, practicing performing when interruptions occurred, and punching the weight through the ceiling.
- Performing perfectly. During the day she would mentally rehearse practicing lifting perfectly. In addition, as part of her readiness routine she would image performing the lift perfectly.
- Practicing recovery and being centered when interruptions would occur. For example, she was asked to role play competition and waiting for the judge to give the signal to start, I delayed giving her the signal to begin and told her the weights had to be adjusted because they had miss-loaded the bar. This way there would be no novelty during actual competition. This concept of coping with the unexpected was illustrated by Michael Phelps swimming the 200-meter butterfly in 2012 Being Olympics when his googles filled up with water when he dove in. Michael still won his 10th gold medal even though he swam part of the race blind (Fanning, E., June 25, 2012). He could do this because numerous time in the past, his coach had purposely trained Michael to swim with leaking googles
- Imagining lifting 10 kg more while competing. The concept of feeling/imagining yourself performing more that you can do at this moment creates the possibility for improvement since the limits of imagination may limit the experience/performance. As she reported, “This was incredibly helpful last year in competition when I needed to lift more than I had done before to qualify for the American Open, so I had mentally done it so often, then I just did it and made the qualifying lift.”
- Feeling your arms extending way up into the ceiling. Extending beyond your mental boundary of the test allows more power because the body tends to stop at the boundary. For example, when running 100 meters you want to see the finish line at least ten meters beyond the actual finish line this way you continue to run at maximum speed through the finish. If you focus on the actual finish line, you often slow down before reaching it. I told her how we used this concept with young male gymnasts to be able to do the iron cross for the first time by thinking of their arms being an iron beam and extending through the rings into the wall. In the case of lifting, you want to feel yourself punching the weight through the ceiling instead of just driving it upward. This portion of the lift when punching up into the ceiling is call the Jerk. This concept was experientially demonstrated by the following Aikido exercise of the iron arm.
Two people pair up and face each other. One stretches his arm straight out and rests the wrist and back of the palm on the shoulder of his partner. The partner put both hands on the elbow and then then pulls down trying to bend the elbow while his partner is try resist the downward force and try not to bend it as shown in Figure 5.
Figure 5. Testing the effect of imagery on resisting downward pull at the elbow with wrist facing palm up.
Then relax, and repeat the same exercise except the person imagines that his arm is like a metal bar extending from their shoulders out through his hand into the wall. Once the person is imaging this, then the partner again attempts to bend the arm.
In almost all cases, when the person imagines the arm extending like an iron bar into the wall, it is much stronger and much more difficult to bend. Jo integrated this felt imagery in her lifting during practice and she experienced increased strength while imagining/feeling the iron bar and reported that she had the “best Jerks in her life.”
Achieving a new world and personal record at age 46 in the master’s competition is a remarkable tribute to the athlete’s dedication and coaching. Although I (EP) may think I contributed, and hopefully what I taught was beneficial, in the end it is the athlete herself who has to perform in the competition–she is alone stands on the platform to lift the weights. When I (EP) asked whether the biofeedback visualization training was useful, Jo inequitably said, “Yes, and I would recommend this approach and training to everyone!” Watch the in-depth interview with Jo Aita in which she describes her experience of integrating imagery techniques and biofeedback to enhance performance on May 26, 2017.
What is interesting to ask is, how come a 46-year-old woman could lift 3 kg more than at any other time during her competitive career of Olympic lifting? It gives hope that loss of strength that commonly occurs as we age may be due less to aging than to learned disuse, injuries and lack of recovery. Most important factors are personal motivation and hope—you want to perform your best and know/believe that it is possible (Wilson and Peper, 2011). As Jo stated, “It helped for me to focus on doing my personal best.” I love Olympic lifting, I like taking care of my body, and I like feeling strong.” Finally, Jo is a recent athlete in her sport. She started lifting when she was 33 and competed one year later. She then took time out to give birth to her son and in a couple of months came back quickly and continued to become stronger. As she stated, “I always wanted to get stronger no matter what my age was.”
From a performance perspective it is interesting that she lifted more than ever before. Would it be possible that she is similar to many performers who achieve maximum performance after about 10 to 15 years of dedicated training? As she gets older, she improves her skills, increases efficiency of here muscles and neural connections. Is a possible that loss of performance as we age less due to aging than loss of motivation after years of practice, competition and achieving your goal. At that point life may offer other challenges and new opportunities.
* This blog was adapted and expanded from: Peper, E. & Aita, J. (2017). Winning the Gold in Weightlifting Using Biofeedback, Imagery and Cognitive Change. Biofeedback, 45(4), 77–82. DOI: 10.5298/1081-5937-45.4.01 https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/a-winning-the-gold-in-weightlifting-published.pdf
Cumming, J., Hall, C., & Shambrook, C. (2004). The influence of an imagery workshop on athletes’ use of imagery. Athletic insight, 6(1), 52-73.
Fanning, E. (June 25, 2012). 50 stunning Olympic Moments No 42: Michael Phelps goes big in Being. Downloaded May 30, 2017 from https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2012/jun/25/50-stunning-olympic-moments-michael-phelps
Gorter, R. & Peper, E. (2011). Fighting Cancer-A Non Toxic Approach to Treatment. Berkeley: North Atlantic.
Hall, C. (2001). Imagery in sport and exercise. In R. Singer, H. Hausenblas, & C. Janelle (Eds.), Handbook of Sport Psychology (pp. 529 – 549). New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Peper, E., Harvey, R., Lin, I-M, & Duvvuri, P. (2014). Increase productivity, decrease procrastination and increase energy. Biofeedback, 42(2), 82-87.
Peper, E., Booiman, A., Lin, I-M., & Shaffer, F. (2014). Making the Unaware Aware-Surface Electromyography to Unmask Tension and Teach Awareness. Biofeedback.42(1), 16-23.
 Correspondence: Erik Peper, Ph.D., Institute for Holistic Health Studies, Department of Health Education, San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94132. email: firstname.lastname@example.org; web: www.biofeedbackhealth.org; blog: www.peperperspective.com
 We thank Dr. Sue Wilson for her helpful and constructive feedback.
 We purposely use the word “may” because it is a case report and not a controlled study. Coaches, sport psychologist, or anyone who has had contact with an athlete who does extremely well usually claims that their suggestions were the magic ingredient; however, it could be synchronicity and not due to the actual skills taught. It may be due to unidentified factors or covert factors embedded in the coaching or teaching such as transforming hope and belief.
 Be aware that when people learn to reconnect with their body or learns slow diaphragmatic breathing and allow their lower abdomen to relax and expand, it is possible that past traumatic memories could be released. This release is a healthy process and we usually adapt an Autogenic Therapy/Training perspective by which the person accepts, allows discharge and continues with the task at hand.