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Default The Psychology of Strength: Incorporating Mental Toughness Training
by BendtheBar 06-17-2011, 08:37 AM

The Psychology of Strength: Incorporating Mental Toughness Training

The Psychology of Strength: Incorporating Mental Toughness Training

I love training and building up my physique. For twenty years, I was extremely consistent. My goal was to get as massive as possible. I was never a bodybuilder—I just trained like one. However, I always felt something was missing. I could never pinpoint what I was lacking with my lifting, but I definitely felt there was a certain emptiness to it.

About eight years ago, I stumbled upon a book written by coach John Davies. I felt a strong connection to the “renegade training” philosophy he created. His system was more than just lifting or building muscles. The heart of renegade training was about being mentally tough. It was a whole cerebral system about seeking challenges and overcoming adversity. It was about honor.

I finally knew what was missing in my twenty years of training—the mental aspect. Coach Davies really had a strong impact on me and made me question how and why I was training. I was always building muscles and mass, but I never thought of the psychological aspect. I knew my training was making me physically more attractive, but besides looking good, I didn’t see how my training 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 would say I was mentally weak and gave into fear. At other points of my life, I could be a fighter with a very strong sense of will who would stubbornly refuse to quit. I was inconsistent with activating my will and desire. I never realized that perseverance was a skill one can learn. I soon became obsessed with other mental toughness teachers like Lombardi, “miracle on ice coach” Herb Brooks, and wrestling great Dan Gable.

Through grueling work, perseverance can be taught. Mental toughness training isn’t for everyone, but it should be. It is needed. Without mental toughness, one is always vulnerable for a breakdown no matter how big you are or how good you look.

An interesting pattern

I’ve been a member of Gold’s Gym in Venice for almost 30 years and the old World Gym that Joe Gold used to own. In that time, I’ve seen massively huge people over the years come and go at both places. When I first joined those gyms in the 1980s, I saw guys and gals in their bulking up stage bigger than you can ever imagine. I’m not talking about the pros like Tom Platz, Ferrigno, and even Arnold that I would see regularly. 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.

Most of the time, I thought for sure some of these no-name colossal monsters would be the next world champion bodybuilders. However, to my surprise, just a couple of them ever won anything significant. Some of the hard luck amateurs continued to beef it up and train at the gym, but after losing a contest, the majority of them withered away and then disappeared. You would constantly hear stories about how some of these big monsters would shrink back to their normal size when they got off the drugs, become fat and out of shape, and then vanish from the face of the earth.

I’m not picking on bodybuilders either. Living 30 years in Los Angles, the home of broken dreams, I’ve seen weekend warriors, models, and actors who were in shape and great looking fall apart from the constant disappointment and rejection. Some survive and continue pursing their dreams, but others never recover from the cruel pain of adversity associated with the pursuit of stardom. For those who can’t handle the hardship, unfortunately a long and horrible road of self-destruction can be the norm. So it doesn’t matter how beautiful or big you are. If you’re mentally weak, you will always be vulnerable to a mental collapse. I refuse to ever be that weak again. Through hard work, discipline, and dedication, I have changed my mind set.

New goals

As I approached turning 40, I was overweight and had developed hypertension. I now had a new goal for my training—to be mentally stronger than ever. I started reading about how effective Crossfit was and reluctantly started to incorporate classes once a week. In all my years of bulking up, I never did any cardio. The only aerobics I did was reading the sports page while pedaling very slowly on the bike machine.

Most of the Crossfit workouts were heavily cardio oriented, so I struggled. Boy, did I struggle. The workouts always seemed like a competitive race, and except one time when that pregnant lady was in my class, I was always the last one to finish. Yet, there was something new and exciting about this weekly training adventure.

Most people develop their mental toughness through playing a sport. However, I wasn’t a very good athlete growing up and never played many. With Crossfit, I was experiencing real physical competition for the first time and I loved it. Humiliated by past failures on the playground and now reliving the shame in these Crossfit classes, I defiantly took a stance. I was tired of getting my ass kicked.

I pushed myself harder than I ever thought my body could take. As physically fatigued as I was during the workout, my mind was not tired. It was stimulated. I pushed my body to be aggressive and relentless in the 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, I was learning how to activate my will. I was making the 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.

Nobody was more shocked than I was at my sudden athleticism in my early 40s. I felt a sense of confidence after the workouts that I never had before. Unfortunately, it was short lived and my strut didn’t transfer over when I was at a singles bar.

I give Crossfit all the credit for getting me in the best shape of my life by pushing me to a level that I just didn’t realize existed. Through all the suffering, I started to see how vital the mental aspect of training was for me. Everybody else was stronger, faster, and more athletic than I was, but I felt now I had the advantage. I knew I was mentally stronger than everyone else in the class.

The main job of Crossfit is to get you in bad ass shape. It did its job and beyond for me. However, like my bodybuilding workouts, I needed something more than just a physical challenge.

The greatest strength of all

There was nothing out there that fed my mental hunger, so I started to create my own workouts with the priority to challenge my mind first. I didn’t come up with a new system. In fact, I went back in time and did traditional full body strength workouts and said goodbye to the isolation work that dominated my first twenty years of training. I continued to do Crossfit and Krav Maga and kept on doing things that I hated and sucked at like running and climbing rope.

Over the past three years, my emphasis in the gym was to get physically stronger. But more importantly, I have been stronger in my personal life. Knowing you can get over any adversity is the greatest strength of all.

Problems of teaching mental toughness

I started to become very obsessed with addressing the mental game. I read as many articles and books as possible. The problem is most of the literature out there is for professional athletes.

But the biggest problem with just about all the mental toughness training I’ve seen is the emphasis on lame positive affirmations. Telling yourself you’re a fighting machine over and over again is just a waste of time and creates a false sense of security. You can say these positive affirmations until you’re 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 are self-hypnoses and subliminal tapes, and for thousands of dollars, you can try altering brain wave machines. I’m not making this stuff up. Professional athletes will pay mega dollars to improve their mental game.

The problem is there isn’t any easy way or short cut to teaching toughness. Mental toughness is not for sale. The only way to get mentally tougher is by earning it.

The second half of this bad news is that you pretty much 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 was an easier method to toughing up your mind, but only through suffering can one truly learn character issues that can’t be taught any other way. But it’s well worth it.

This doesn’t mean you have to give up your current bodybuilding or conditioning workouts. Adding the mental aspects to you training can be very easy. Training your mind and body should go hand in hand. Everyone wants to be mentally tougher but not everyone wants to pay the price for it. The number one factor that will determine if you will become psychologically stronger is your determination. For me, I didn’t want it. I needed it. If you understand this statement, you have what it takes.

Tips to help you incorporate mental toughness

Tip #1: You must believe perseverance is a skill. Like any skills, perseverance can be honed in, practiced, and strengthened. Think of perseverance like a muscle. The more you work it, the stronger it will get. 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 imposing of your desire into behavior. The more determined your will is, the less likely you will give up. One of the best ways to practice activating your will is when you work out. Get your will involved in your workout as much as possible. For example, if you’re doing bicep curls and are struggling with the last reps, instead of feeling “the pump” of your muscles, engage your will. See how many more reps you get by mentally willing yourself to do more. It’s a slight distinction to what you already do. However, you want to give more credit to your will for doing the hard stuff than your body parts.

Your will is your power. A strong will can lead you to extraordinary things or get you out of a terrible situation. Through constant testing and practice, you can have a better connection with your will.

Tip #2: There is a direct relationship with your mental toughness training in the gym and with your personal life. Too many people separate their training from what they do in the gym and how they live. They categorize their strength to only what they can do in the gym. They are very strong with the bench press but are pushovers in their relationships. They 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 want to see the connection with 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 the blind date that your co-worker has set you up with. Your confidence should rise across the board and not only after you bench press. And vice versa—how you handle getting over an awful ordeal in your life should make the animal in you come out the next time you have to do a brutal workout.

There should be no separation between the activation of your will and the situation. Your will is blind and indifferent to the circumstances that you will face. It does not discriminate between how much mental strength you must draw on for you to set a personal record with the bench press and what you must do to get out of life-threatening situations.

Your will responds by doing the same thing for either situation. It will overcome the challenge with aggressive and relentless actions. This aggression does not mean you must be high strung or frantic. On the contrary, you must be methodical and focus with complete determination. You are on a mission with only one goal—to get out of the mess you’re in.

You want your will to be available and ready to be called upon immediately—anywhere and at all times. You want to train your will not to distinguish who your opponent is. Its only concern is to whip out the enemy with fierce tenacity. This is the aggressive mind frame you need when you walk on to the playing field and when you walk out to face the unpredictable cruelest of these games—life.

Tip 3: You must learn to do what is uncomfortable for you. To develop the psychological edge, you must have extreme discipline to give up the comfort zone that you train and live in. Delaying immediate satisfaction is the ultimate sacrifice that all warriors must choose.

Think of it this way—a young baby’s world is about the instant gratification that it seeks. All addicts failed at delaying gratification. Overeating is a sign for those needing instant pleasure. The feeble mind is all about the immature joys of the now without any regard for the long term. To develop mental hardness, you must learn to do what the weak general population has failed to do. You must delay the temptation of immediate gratification for the rewards of the long haul. To separate yourself from the norm, you must put yourself in an uncomfortable state. And you must do this often. Very often. And I’m not talking about watching the whole first season of “Golden Girls” with your mother in-law either.

Going to the gym is one the best ways to practice being in a physical state of misery. Challenge your tolerance to mental anguish by once a week doing a high intensity anaerobic workout. The best thing about high intensity anaerobic workouts is that each set should last less than two minutes. They also give your testosterone hormones a boost, so you’ll 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 and avoided by today’s contemporary pansy gym rats. However, it they want something hip to kick their ass, Crossfit is the newest trend.

One of my favorite Crossfit workouts is called Fran. I like the simplicity of this workout because it combined two compound movements into one metabolic session. You load 95 pounds on a barbell and superset barbell squats with an overhead press with pull-ups—three sets of 21, 15, and 9 reps in the quickest time possible. This means that 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 do Fran correctly, you should want to puke. If not, you didn’t crank up the intensity enough so you better have a good vomit the next time. If you want to test your perception of being a bad ass, Fran is a good place to start.

Another simple but brutal anaerobic workout is the Litvonvi workout. Created by Dan John after the methods of a Russian hammer thrower, I highly suggest the Litvonvi for those who fear cardio work will make them lose muscle. You might go into cardiac arrest from this workout, but you won’t burn muscle because it will increase testosterone and HGH production. Like Fran, with the Litvonvi you’ll gain muscle and mental toughness points if you finish the workout.

Basically, you do six reps of heavy front squats followed by a 400-meter run or 100-yard dash. Three sets and that’s it. Sounds easy but this workout is extremely vicious. My reaction the first time I did the Litvinov workout was “God, help me.” It was by far the hardest workout I’ve ever done.

Having a strong will is crucial for you to get through these gruesome workouts. If you have no connection with your will, you will drown. The fatigue that your body will feel will be excruciating. Just remember, just because your body is fatigued doesn’t mean you mind has to be tired. Will your body to be aggressive and relentless in the face of exhaustion. Learning to be mentally energetic when your body is weak is a sign of an indomitable will.

Now if this all sounds too intimidating, six sets of hill sprints is a fine substitute. As long as the anaerobic workout can cause mayhem and havoc on you mentally, it has done its job. The good news is that the suffering that you go through isn’t all that bad. Physically, you should feel spent, but emotionally finishing the gruesome workouts should be fulfilling. You should feel a great sense of accomplishment after you make it through the workouts. Mentally toughness training is accumulative. Each victory builds upon each other.

Mental conditioning in the gym is only half of the process. Like how you need to overcome discomfort in your physical tests, you also have to confront the emotional stress in your personal life, too. Make a list of things you have been avoiding or problems that you have a difficult time getting over. We avoid confronting these issues because of they 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 a needed quality to develop mental strength. By facing fear, you learn courage. Being fearless is a misconceived trait. As admirable as being fearless can be, it isn’t realistic nor does it provide any benefit to being a mentally tough beast. Being threatened by fear is the catalyst for you to strike! Confronting fear with brave actions is how you get tough.

Fear is an emotional response. At times, fear is irrational and blown out of perspective. It is not easy getting over any shattering experiences, but with guts and determination, you can get over any painful ordeal. Life is full of disappointments and letdowns. When we don’t get what we want, the consolation is that we gain experience. This doesn’t seem like a worthwhile prize, but see how the adversity can enlighten you. If may not be obvious, but look hard at any opportunity for personal growth. Take in the life lesson and move on.

So despite being in the gym or your personal situation, a tough mental standoff in either circumstance will affect both aspects of your life. Your goal is to be mentally invincible regardless of where you are.

Tip #4: You are your worst enemy. As you begin the journey to empower your mind, you will be constantly tested. Your worse enemy will not be your competition. Unfortunately, you will be low balled the most by yourself.

Your body will attempt to look for an escape route for what it sees as unnecessary pain it has to go through. For me, the actual physical pain wasn’t the most daunting part of the training. The anticipation of it was the hardest part. Hours before the workout, I would be mentally drained.

To relieve myself of this self-imposed psychological torture, my mind would began to procrastinate and look for excuses not to do the workout. I would always come up with logic reasons or lies on why I should ditch the workout. It is a mental chess game between you and yourself. It is your job to decipher the truth and lies. What is true is that mental toughness training isn’t easy and that’s the way it must be. You are preparing yourself for the worse case scenario. The pain you are feeling is nothing like the cruelties that life offers us. Feel shitty now so you can be stronger tomorrow. This is the sick logic of those who are in the mentally tough club.

You will hear many negative thought patterns often during your trial of cerebral improvement. Learn to change the negative thought pattern into positive self-talk. So 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 sets will be easy for me.”

Learn to change the negativism to something reachable and specific with a possible solution. So 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, 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. This is what this training is all about.

Your journey to mental toughness

In conclusion, we all work hard at the gym so we can build the best bodies and become as physically strong as possible. Being mentally tougher can help sustain all the work you put in to improve your body and strength. More importantly, being mentally tough can help improve your quality of life. It is a very challenging adventure but a worthwhile one. Good luck with your journey.

Destroy That Which Destroys You

"Let bravery be thy choice, but not bravado."

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Old 06-17-2011, 08:56 AM   #2
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great article Steve

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Old 06-17-2011, 11:39 PM   #3
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This article is undoubtedly an excellent piece from TMuscle. I started reading it on their site, and finished it here. Exactly what I needed right now!
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