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The Psychology of Strength: Incorporating Mental Toughness Training
For almost 30 years, I’ve been a member of Gold’s Gym in Venice as well as the old World Gym owned by Joe Gold. In that time, I’ve seen massively huge people come and go at both places. When I first joined those gyms in the 1980s, I saw guys and gals in their bulking up stages who were bigger than you can ever imagine. I’m not talking about the pros like Tom Platz, Lou Ferrigno, or even Arnold (people that I would see regularly). No, it was the amateurs that I was most impressed with. Some of these guys came out of nowhere and were up to a hundred pounds bigger than the pros. They would make your jaw drop if you saw these exaggerated masses of muscles.
I thought for sure that some of these no-name colossal monsters would be the next world champion bodybuilders. However, to my surprise, only a couple of them ever won anything significant. Some of the hard luck amateurs continued to beef up and train at the gym, but after losing a contest, the majority of them withered away and then disappeared. I would frequently hear stories about how some of these big monsters would shrink back to normal size when they got off the drugs, becoming fat and out of shape and then vanishing from the face of the earth.
Lou Ferrigno staring in awe at Tom Platz’s amazing quadriceps development
I’m not just picking on bodybuilders either. Living for 30 years in Los Angeles, the home of broken dreams, I’ve seen weekend warriors, models, and actors who were great looking and in shape slowly fall apart from constant disappointment and rejection. Some survived and continued to pursue their dreams, but others never recovered from the cruel pain and adversity associated with the pursuit of stardom.
Unfortunately, for those who cannot handle life’s hardships, a long and horrible road to self-destruction can be all too common. It doesn’t matter how big or beautiful you are; if you are mentally weak, you will always be vulnerable to mental collapse. Personally, I refuse to ever be that weak again. Through hard work, discipline, and dedication I have successfully changed my mindset and strengthened my mental and emotional resilience.
An Interesting Journey
I love training and building up my physique. For twenty years, I was extremely dedicated in my goal to get as massive as possible. I was never a bodybuilder…I just trained like one. However, I always felt like something was missing. I could never pinpoint what I was lacking with my lifting, but it definitely seemed as if there was a certain emptiness to it.
Then, about eight years ago, I stumbled upon a book written by Coach John Davies and experienced a deep connection to the “renegade training” philosophy that he created. His system was about more than just lifting or building muscles. The heart of renegade training was about becoming mentally tough, a whole cerebral philosophy built on seeking out challenges and overcoming adversity.
It was then that I finally found what was missing in my twenty years of training: the mental aspect. Coach Davies’ philosophy had a strong impact on me and made me question how and why I was training. I was always physically building muscle and mass, but I had never thought about the psychological aspect of my workouts. I knew my training made me physically more attractive, but other than looking good, I didn’t see how my workouts made me mentally stronger. Training was supposed to make you feel more confident, but being self-assured wasn’t always my strong point. At different stages in my life, I was mentally weak and would give into fear. In other parts of my life, however, I could be a fighter with a very strong sense of will who would stubbornly refuse to quit.
In other words, I was inconsistent in activating my will and desire. I didn’t realize at the time that mental toughness was a skill that one can learn and develop. I soon became obsessed with the work of other mental toughness teachers, such as football coach Vince Lombardi, “Miracle On Ice” coach Herb Brooks, and wrestling great Dan Gable. What I learned was that perserverance can be learned through grueling and challenging work. Mental toughness training is not for everyone, but it should be because it is woefully needed in everyday life, inside and outside of the gym. Without mental toughness you are always vulnerable to breakdown, now matter how big you are or how good you look.
Approaching the age of 40, I was overweight and had developed hypertension, but I now had a new goal for my training: to become mentally stronger than ever. In my quest, I started reading about the effectiveness of Crossfit and reluctantly started to incorporate those classes into my workouts at least once a week.
Legendary coach and motivator Vince Lombardi
Most of the Crossfit workouts were heavily cardio-oriented, so I struggled mightily. In all my years of bulking up, I had never done any cardio. The only aerobic exercise I got was reading the sports page while pedaling very slowly on the bike machine. For me at that time, the workouts always seemed like a competitive race and, except for when that pregnant lady was in my class, I was always the last one to finish. Yet I also found that there was something new and exciting about this weekly training adventure.
Many people develop mental toughness by playing a sport, but I wasn’t a very good athlete growing up and had never played much. With Crossfit, however, I experienced real physical competition for the first time and found that I loved it. Haunted by past failures on the playground and reliving the shame in Crossfit classes, I defiantly took a stand: I was tired of getting my ass kicked.
I pushed myself harder that I ever thought my body could take. As physically fatigued as I was during the workout, my mind was not tired; instead, it was stimulated. I pushed my body, striving to be aggressive and relentless in my workouts. I had no idea what the hell I was doing or where I was getting this new level of determination and strength. In retrospect, what I was learning was how to activate my will. I was making the physical connection with my thoughts and letting my mind lead my body. I started to crush my times and finish not only first, but way ahead of everyone else. No one was more shocked than I was at my sudden burst of athleticism in my early 40s. I felt a sense of confidence after the workouts that I never had before (unfortunately, my strut didn’t transfer to the singles bars).
I give Crossfit all the credit for getting me into the best shape of my life by pushing me to a level that I never knew existed. Through all of the suffering, I began to see how vital the mental aspect of training was for me. Everybody else was stronger, faster, and more athletic than I was, but now I felt that I had an advantage…I knew I was mentally stronger than everyone else in the class.
The Greatest Strength of All
The stated goal of Crossfit is to get you in badass shape; it did that job for me and more. However, as with my bodybuilding workouts, I needed something more than just a physical challenge. In my quest for more stimuli to feed my awakened mental hunger, I started to create my own workouts with the priority of first challenging my mind. I didn’t invent a new system. In fact, I went back and did traditional full-body strength workouts and said good-bye to the isolation work that had dominated my first twenty years of training. I continued to do to Crossfit (and also Krav Maga) and kept pushing myself to do things that I hated and sucked at, like running and climbing rope.
Over the past three years, my goal in the gym has been to get physically stronger, but more important, I have also gotten stronger in my personal life. I believe that having the confidence that you can overcome any adversity is the greatest strength of all.
Problems of Teaching Mental Toughness
As a result of my personal growth, I have searched obsessively for more ways to address the mental game. I read as many articles and books as possible, and one deficiency I observed is that most of the literature out there on this topic is aimed at a professional athletes. However, my main criticism of just about all the mental toughness training I’ve seen is the emphasis on lame positive affirmations. Telling yourself that you’re a fighting machine over and over again is just a waste of time and gives you a false sense of security. You can say these positive affirmations until you are blue in the face, but once you have to throw down in an octagon, it’s more than likely you will get your teeth kicked in.
Other techniques in the strange world of mental toughness training include self-hypnosis, subliminal training tapes, and for thousands of dollars, you can also try brain wave-altering machines. I’m not making this stuff up; professional athletes will pay mega dollars to try to improve their mental game.
The harsh reality is that there is no easy way and no shortcuts: mental toughness is not for sale. The only way to get mentally tougher is to earn it through sweat equity in the gym and in the school of hard knocks (a.k.a., “life”). Everyone wants to be mentally strong, but very few are prepared to pay the price for it. The second half of this bad news is that you often have to go through some pretty awful shit to earn it too: it won’t be fun and it’s going to hurt. I wish there were an easier path to toughening up your mind, but only through suffering can one truly learn character issues that cannot be taught any other way. To put it in perspective, as scores of philosophers have observed from ancient times, the wisdom gained is well worth it the pain.
CrossFit gets you in shape!
Tips to Help You Incorporate Mental Toughness Training
The good news in all of this reality check is that you don’t have to give up your current bodybuilding workouts. Adding mental aspects to your training can be very easy, and training your mind and body should go hand in hand. The number one factor that will determine whether you will become psychologically stronger is your determination. For me, I didn’t want it — I needed it. If you understand this statement, then you have what it takes.
Tip #1: You Must Believe That Perseverance is a Skill
As with any skill, perseverance can be practiced, honed and strengthened. Think of perseverance as a muscle: the more you work it, the stronger it will get, and if you don’t use it, it will shrivel up. If this all sounds too elusive, think of perseverance as your will. Your will is the transfer of your desire into behavior and it is powerful. A strong will can lead you to accomplish extraordinary things or can get you out of a terrible situation. Through constant testing and practice, you can gain a better connection with your will.
One of the best ways to practice activating your will is by working out. The more determined your will, the less likely it is that you will give up. Get it involved in your workouts as much as possible. For example, if you’re doing bicep curls and struggling with the last reps, instead of feeling “the pump” of your muscles, focus on engaging your will. See how many more reps you can get by mentally willing yourself to do more. It’s a slight distinction from what you already do; however, you should give more credit to your will for doing the hard stuff than to your body parts.
Tip #2: There is a Direct Relationship Between Your Mental Toughness Training in the Gym and Your Personal Life
Too many people separate how they train or what they do in the gym from how they live. They categorize “strength” as only what they can physically do in the gym. They may be very strong in the bench press, but are pushovers in their relationships and professional lives. They may have huge arms, but are mentally fragile. They don’t see the connection with how physical strength training can improve mental power.
With mental fitness training, you should strive to nuture the connection between what you do in the gym and how you live your life. The strength you feel at the gym should carry over to your inner strength when you have a job interview or a blind date. Your confidence should rise across the board and not only after you bench press.
The reverse is true as well – how you handle getting through an awful ordeal in your personal life should bring out the animal in you the next time you have to do a brutal workout. The goal is to have no separation between the activation of your will and whatever situation you face. Your will is blind and indifferent to the circumstances at hand. It does not discriminate between how much mental strength you must draw on to set a bench press PR and what you must do to get out of a life-threatening situation.
Your will responds by doing the same thing for either situation – it will overcome the challenge with aggression and relentless action. This aggression does not mean that you must become high-strung, violent, or frantic. On the contrary, you must be centered, methodical, and able to focus with complete determination. You are on a mission with only one goal – to get out of the mess that you are in.
You need your will to be available and ready to be called upon immediately, anywhere, at any time. You need to train your will not to care who your opponent is, but only how to whip that opponent with fierce tenacity. This is the aggressive mindset you need when you walk onto the playing field and when you walk out to face the unpredictable and cruelest of these games — life.
Tip #3: You Must Learn To Do What Is Uncomfortable For You
To develop a psychological edge, you must develop extreme discipline in order to leave the comfort zone that you train and live in. Delaying immediate satisfaction is the ultimate sacrifice that all warriors must choose. The feeble mind is all about the immature joys of the now and has no regard for the long term. To develop mental hardness, you must learn to do what the weak general population has not. You must deny the temptation of immediate gratification in favor of the rewards of the long haul. To separate yourself from the pack, you must put yourself into an uncomfortable state, and you must do this often, very often.
Going to the gym is one of the best ways to practice. Challenge your tolerance to physical and mental anguish by doing a high intensity anaerobic workout once a week. The best part about high intensity anaerobic workouts is that each set should last less than two minutes. These workouts also give your testosterone levels a boost, so you’ll also build muscle. The down side of high intensity workouts is that you literally learn what it feels like to almost die.
Twenty-rep squats, extended drops sets, and breathing squats are all classic old-school, brutal, anaerobic workouts that many of today’s lazy gym rats avoid. However, if they want something more hip to kick their asses, Crossfit is the newest trend. One of my favorite Crossfit workouts is called Fran. I like the simplicity of this workout because it combines two compound movements into one metabolic session. You load 95 pounds on a barbell and superset barbell squat to an overhead press with pull-ups, completing three sets of 21-, 15-, and 9-rep schemes in the quickest time possible, which means if you want to be an elite bad ass, you won’t have much time to rest. You can get big and ripped by doing this workout, if you survive the extreme breathlessness. If you want to test your perception of being a bad ass, Fran is good place to start.
Champion powerlifter David Hoff knows how to get intense!
Another simple but brutal anaerobic workout is the Litvonvi workout, created by Dan John based on the methods of a Russian hammer thrower. I highly suggest the Litvonvi for those who fear that cardio work will make them lose muscle. Like Fran, with the Litvonvi, you can gain muscle, increase testosterone and HGH production, and earn mental toughness points if you finish. In this workout, you do six reps of heavy front squats followed by a 400-meter run or 100-yard dash. Three sets and that’s it! It sounds easy, but this workout is extremely vicious. My reaction to the first time I did the Litvinov workout was, “God, help me.” It was by far the hardest workout I’ve ever done.
Now if this all sounds too intimidating, six sets of hill sprints is a fine substitute. As long as the anaerobic workout can wreak havoc on you mentally and physically, it has done its job. The good news is that the effect that you’ll feel isn’t all bad. Physically, you should feel spent, but finishing the gruesome workouts should be emotionally fulfilling. You should feel a great sense of accomplishment after reaching the finish, and mental toughness training is accumulative in that each victory builds upon the others.
A strong will is crucial to getting you through these challenging workouts. If you have no connection with your will, you will falter and fail. The fatigue that your body will feel will be excruciating, but remember, just because your body is fatigued does not mean that your mind is tired. Use your mind to will your body to be aggressive and relentless in the face of exhaustion. Learning to be mentally energetic even when your body is weak is a sign of an indomitable will.
Tip #4: Your Own Worst Enemy
As you begin the journey to empower your mind, you will be constantly tested. Your worst enemy will not be your competition; unfortunately, you will be most often be low-balled by your very own self. Your body will look for an escape route for what seems like the unnecessary pain it has to go through. For me, the actual physical pain wasn’t the most daunting part of the training, but the anticipation of it. Hours before the workout, I would be mentally drained from dreading what was to come.
To relieve myself of this self-imposed psychological torture, my mind would begin to procrastinate and look for excuses. I would always come up with logical reasons or rationalizations as to why I should ditch the workout. This process represents a mental chess game between you and yourself, and it is your job to distinguish between truth and lies. What IS true is that mental toughness training is not easy. You are preparing yourself for the worst-case scenario, and the pain you are feeling in the gym is nothing like the cruelties that life offers us. Feel shitty now so you can be stronger tomorrow; this is the stark logic of those in the mentally tough club.
You will need to learn how to identify and defuse many negative thought patterns during your trial of cerebral improvement. Challenge yourself to change the negative thought patterns into positive self-talk. Instead of saying, “I’ve got three more sets to go. I can’t do this,” say “I’m getting mentally stronger. I did five sets so three more will be easy for me.” Learn to reformulate the negativism to something reachable, specific, and with a possible solution. Instead of saying something cynical like “I’ll never find a job again,” change it to something positive like “If I spend two hours on monster.com, I know I should fill out at least five job applications.” Mental toughness is all about your thought process. Your thoughts can make you do what most would consider unconceivable, and this is what this training is all about.
Mental conditioning and discipline in the gym is only half of the process. Just as you need to face down discomfort in your physical tests, you also have to confront emotional stress and fear in your personal life. Make a list of things you have been avoiding or problems that you have a difficult time dealing with. We avoid confronting these issues because of the pain they cause us. However, the more we deny these negative issues, the more they have the potential to destroy us. We sit back and wish they go away, but they don’t. We become passive due to the fear that we overwhelmingly feel. Fear is an emotional response, sometimes irrational and often blown out of proportion, and life is full of disappointments and letdowns. It’s not easy to get over any shattering experience, but with guts and determination, you can get over any painful ordeal. When we don’t get what we want, the consolation is that we gain experience. This doesn’t seem like a worthwhile prize, but the adversity can enlighten you. It may not be obvious, but take a hard look at any negative experience as an opportunity for personal growth. Take in the life lesson and move on.
Facing your fear is a necessary quality to developing mental strength. By facing fear, you will learn courage. Absence of fear is a misconception; fearlessness is not realistic nor does it provide any benefit to becoming a mentally tough beast. Being threatened by fear is the catalyst for you to change, and confronting fear with brave actions is how you get tough. In summary, whether in the gym or in your personal situation, a tough mental stance will pay off in both places. Your goal is to be mentally invincible regardless of where you are.
Your Journey to Mental Toughness
In conclusion, you work hard in the gym to build a better body and become as physically strong as possible. Becoming mentally tough as well can help to sustain all of the work you put into improving your body and your strength, but more importantly, being mentally tough can improve your quality of life as a whole. It is a very challenging adventure but a worthwhile one. Good luck with your journey.