How To Build Mental Toughness In The Gym


Mental Toughness

There’s a door at the back of my gym.  It’s one of those doors with the big red whammy bars on it that you’re only supposed to push in case of an emergency.  When I moved in to the space we took the alarm off of the door so you can hit it at any time without alerting the fire department.  It’s now called the puke door.

Yes, I’ve pushed clients to the point of throwing up.  We also have a tradition of chalk-lining the outline of a client’s body off when they collapse to the poured concrete floor with their heart jack hammering away and the room spinning.

There have been days when the floor of my gym looks like a mass murder crime scene.  Yet when I grab the stick of chalk, people are elated not insulted.

The elation stems from knowing they pushed themselves to a place where they didn’t know they could go.  They crossed the line to the point where they no longer care. . .they don’t care about what I think and they don’t care about the stack of paperwork on their desk.  They only care about doing what ever they have to do to survive the day’s training.  And that is an experience of focus that few have prior to being “chalk lined”.

In today’s soft world of computer keyboards and luxury cars with heaters in the seats to keep your ass warm, we’ve lost the unpredictability of meeting our most basic survival needs.  Gone are the days where missing the kill means missing the meal.  Gone are the times of true struggle.  In modern western society, suffering is dead.

Oh sure, people suffer. There is unemployment, and homelessness, and other societal ills.  But if you are sitting in front of a computer screen to read this rant, then I’ll bet your basic needs are being met.  Your body, mind, and soul craves the exertion that was previously necessary for survival.  And since we aren’t going to find it stalking our next meal or fending off a predator we must create suffering artificially in the gym.

Suffering is enduring pain or distress.  And there is no growth without pain. Suffering provides reference points to compare future challenges that life will bring.  Coming out on the other side of suffering is the backbone of confidence.  Suffering provides the opportunity to exercise the will.

A strong will grows from identifying a goal, suffering the cost to achieve that goal, and then reaping the reward.  The ability to endure suffering is often called mental toughness.

How can you know your limits if you never spend any time with them?

Here are a few ways to build mental toughness in the gym.  Suffer well.

As Fast As You Can

  • Hit a stop watch and do a drill as fast as you can.  Repeat the drill in a few weeks and try to beat your time.  Two of my favorites are Power Clean and Push Press for 30 reps and Burpees for 100 reps.

As Many Rounds As Possible

  • Designate two to four exercises and set the clock for 10, 15, or even 20 minutes and see how many times you can make it through the exercise cycle in the designated time.  Try back squats with your bodyweight on the bar to Push Press with 75% of your bodyweight on the bar, five times each.  Another good one is 5 pull ups, 10 push ups, 15 air squats.

Grind It Out

  • An especially long training session.  Plan this one way in advance.  An old Army favorite is the ruck march: load a back pack with 25 – 50 lbs and walk 10, 15, or even 20 miles.  Or try 50 reps of the deadlift at 80% of your one rep max.

What are some drills you have used to build mental toughness in the gym?  Let me know in the comments below!

– Vic

P.S. – If you like the hard training and underground stuff like sandbags, tires and ropes, you MUST check out Strength Manual

How To Build Mental Toughness In The Gym
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How To Build Mental Toughness In The Gym
How Do You Earn Mental Toughness In The Gym? 
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  1. The 300 workout, enough said. What makes it grueling is trying to beat your previous time. Good luck with that one.

  2. I’m having a mental issue with going to do my cardio right now! But then I just look at my thighs and think they need to go! It’s a matter of will power….

    Puking? Chalk lines? 100 burpees? Has anyone ever accused you of being a sadist Victor? lol

    I feel ill after 10 burpees! No seriously, I do!!

    Jeez! That’s all a bit TOO hardcore for me…:s

    Tusc 😉

  3. @ Saddiq: I’ve seen a few different versions of the 300 workout (Gym Jones, Craig Ballantyne), but they’re all brutal! Good choice for building mental toughness.

    @ Tusc: Ummm, guilty as charged. Yes, I’ve been called a sadist. But usually only by people who have NOT trained with me. Those who work with me know that I watch them with a careful eye and the puking is a rare occurrence that usually comes in one of two situations. . . 1) The client keeps pushing after I tell them to back off in an effort to show me how tough they are, or 2) I keep pushing an especially cocky first time client to show them how tough they aren’t. It’s unfortunately the only way some guys will listen.

  4. lol@Vic, I love your puke reasons, they make sense! Men are …. well….. men! 😉

    I would never try and continue if you told me to stop, because I probably reached that point 10 minutes before you did! Neither would I feel the need to prove my toughness; I know I’m totally lame, but not as lame as I was 6 months ago! 😉

    Do you ever get to train women?

    Tusc 🙂

  5. Some great tips here Vic. Sometimes it’s really hard to generate intensity after a long day at work and I’m sure these will help. One thing I like is pyramid sets. They really help to mix your workout up and also generate intensity relatively quickly.

  6. hey vic, cool article and cool site
    i have a question, at the moment i’m training using low(ish) reps usually max 6, and i’m finding that doing i feel like i’m not sweating enough and not expending enough energy and i’m not sweating enough, even though i know i’m doing functional tough exercises, i.e deadlifts, pull ups, hang cleans, presses…
    so if you have idea’s about how i can amp the intensity and sweat my ass off all the while still building strength

  7. @ Tom Parker: No doubt, a day in the office can be draining. That’s why a brutal workout feels so good!

    @ ahm: Working in the low rep range with heavy weight on the big lifts is a strength training protocol. I’ll guess that you are also taking lots of rest between sets (you should be). When I perform this type of workout, I personally do not sweat much either. If you want to sweat your ass off, you have to switch modes – at the sacrifice of true strength training. Try keeping the strength workouts 2 or 3 sessions per week and reserving one day for all out balls to the wall heart pumping sweat inducing circuit training!

  8. Hi Vic, I liked this post a lot! I actually just had some of my own personal bests with KB swings the other day (344 swings to be exact) from my usual 250. I also tried to push myself for HITT. I mean I’m still at 9 mph for my fastest but it’s still faster than usual for me. I guess I’ve never pushed myself to the point that I want to puke but does getting dizzy count?…lol.

  9. got me thinking! I push my clients almost to the point of puking sometimes but not always myself…at least not in a while. Thinking I might have to change that.

  10. 5 pull ups, 10 push ups, 15 air squats – this one is a puke workout from hell LOL

    used to do it outside my apartment at the local playground.


  11. Good article, it’s great to see a PT who is prepared to push his clients. Too many PTs won’t do it for fear of putting people off, but they’ll never know what they could have achieved.

    Just a note about puking though (and I know it was meant slightly tongue in cheek) but the puking point varies from person to person and some people will never do it no matter how hard they work. They will feel very nauseous, yes, but won’t necessarily throw up, so be careful not to penalise people for not puking. It doesn’t mean they didn’t work their guts out!

  12. @ Anna, Angie, and Gubernatrix: Let me get this puking thing straight. . . Gubernatrix said it best in that the whole puking thing was meant a little tongue in cheek. Have I actually pushed clients until they puke? Yes, but very rarely. Puking is not the goal; pushing someone out of their comfort zone is the goal.


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