The Dark Side Of Motivation


Dark Side

I can still see her sitting there on one of my plyo boxes.  For what ever reason, she wanted to watch me train. 

I guess it was one of those fun things to do in the initial stages of courtship – watch the object of your affection do what they do best.  I blazed through my workout schedule with rare intensity.  I was definitely showing off.

But I trained even harder after she suddenly broke it off.  I would kill all of the lights in my gym, crank the most aggressive music I could find, and then picture her sitting on that damned plyo box.   My pain was purified in the gym.  Then again, perhaps it was just magnified.

The Dark Side Of Motivation

Having goals that focus on practical health concerns are all well and good.  Yes, maintaining a healthy diet and exercise regimen will help reduce your chances of getting a host of ailments from diabetes to cancer.  But does that fact stir a force inside that is barely controllable and makes you want to bludgeon an old tire with a sledgehammer until your hands cramp, your lungs burn, your body quakes, and you can’t see straight?

Wanting to look good for a beach vacation or fit into that little black dress can be motivating.  But does it bring out the primal beast that longs for an exertion level that is normally reserved for killing your next meal or saving yourself from being the easy diet plans?

In my experience it does not.  In my experience, it is the real Darth Vader dark side shit like anger, frustration, jealousy, envy, and pain that fuels training intensity of other-worldly levels.  And sometimes, like when you are stuck at a plateau, that extra intensity is the difference between progress and stagnation.

It is not without some trepidation that I suggest this.  I acknowledge that there can be negative mental and emotional results from relying on the dark side of motivation.  And I know that many will disagree with my recommendation of this tactic.

And on that note my recommendation comes with this disclaimer: choose wisely here at gymjunkies.  If you turn every session into an exercise of emotional turmoil you will rot your soul and eventually devoid all enjoyment from your training.  But if you strategically use the fuel of negative emotion as the occasional burst to obliterate your comfort zone, you may find training results that you previously believed were not possible.

What are your thoughts on fueling your workouts with negative emotion? 

What do you think about to bring maximum intensity to your workouts? 

Let me know in the comments below.

The Dark Side Of Motivation
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The Dark Side Of Motivation
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  1. “Come to the dark side Luke, but just for a minute.” I like it. As a taoist, i understand that i must know both sides before claiming the whole. Being stuck in the negative is an illness but denying it is only self-deception. Your advice, as always is point on.

  2. I’ve been there before, driving myself in the gym or using the negative emotions to physically throw myself back into me and concentrate on what I needed in order to get over it. It did work in curing the emotional and mental pain, and physically felt good, but over a lengthy period of time it would be destructive. The key is knowing when you have cured yourself, and when it is time to back off.

  3. I agree thoroughly. I had a horrendous relationship end 5 years ago, and from time to time I can still harness the hatred I had from those moments in to my routines. Don’t let me give the wrong impression… I’ve been in a happy, wonderful relationship ever since, but if you can tap in to that dark spot, and relive the feeling for just a moment – I can do that extra 3 reps with a ferocity of a starved lion.

    I think it kicks in the most when I’m struggling through a set that I know I should be conquering. I get a little frustrated with myself, and all of the sudden I tap in to that dark spot and it changes my workout.

    Thanks for sharing. It reminded me how useful this strategy is.

    • Thanks Dan. I think many of us have experienced that “3 rep” phenomenon that you mentioned. And that’s exactly what I’m talking about – that intensity that is otherwise not present absent reaching into the darkness for a bit.

  4. I think using bad emotions to fuel your gym workout is a bad idea.

    Every movement you make, your brain is trying to link in an emotion. I don’t want to have bad emotions linked to my training.

    Your state (how you feel) is more important than your skills (what you are doing, practicing). My buddy Frankie calls this “state before skills’

    Rock on
    Mike T Nelson PhD(c)

    • Thanks, Mike. Always a pleasure to have you comment at GymJunkies. I’ve been considering the link between our thoughts and our bodies quite often lately. I suppose I should also consider the physiological implications of emotion. Your point of “state before skills” makes a lot of sense.

  5. For me, it involves what the emotion is. If you’re just deliberately finding something to get angry about, then yes, it will likely link bad emotions to training. However, if the emotion is somehow already linked to training, and training itself functions as a kind of catharsis for it, then it can be effective. If someone, for example, is teased about appearance (too skinny, overweight, whatever) and the training is the way to fix it, then thinking in your head, “these people want me to fail, I’m going to prove them wrong,” can work like a baptism by fire, and rather than keeping an old wound open, it helps to close it.
    I think it’s just a case of buyer beware.

    • Great point Brandon! Especially if the physical training will have direct implication on improving the nature of the pain – like being overweight – using that emotional fuel can help push the intensity.

  6. Hey Vic

    Love your honesty as usual.

    I would never have articulated thoughts on the matter, neither to myself or anyone else, but, you are soooo right! Especially recently, with the loss of my mum, I find myself getting real angry and busting a gut on those last reps. I don’t think I intentionally use my anger as fuel, I just think it happens naturally.

    Not every time I train, I might add! But it definitely happens.

    Perhaps I will have to think about the ex more often to get in a few more burpees! Ha! He may as well be useful for something….;)

    I dont think its a bad thing if it happens naturally. Better to take your aggression/frustration/stress out on a push up, than keep it in and go hit someone or make yourself ill.

    Brilliant post, thanks!

    Tusc 🙂

  7. Excellent post. And dont worry, not many have it in them to train with pure intensity and anger every time they go to battle.

    Most people are just fine snuggling up to a huge bowl of ice cream…or worse yet, a lifetime prescription of depression pills.

    They can keep the pills, I will use my tire.


    • Great point Mike. It is a rare person who could sustain the negative emotion fueled training for long. Truth be told, once I get one nasty session out of me, it takes some time for it to creep back in. Thanks!

  8. I might sound like Yoda, but I really think you shouldn’t take anger into the gym.

    I’m wary of anger. I’m wary of angry people. I try to minimize the emotion in my own life and avoid contact as much as possible with those who can’t control it in theirs.

    Why reinforce/practice anger in the gym?

    A person may think he’s strong if he can lift 600lbs+ off the ground, but if he hasn’t got the strength to control his own anger and hostility, he still has weaknesses he needs to work on.

    I wanna be able to lift 600lbs+ off the ground so I’ll practice that. AND I want to be able to control/minimize (not unleash/maximize) my anger and hostility, so I’ll practice that too.

    • Oh man, Kira. . . I think you hit the nail on the head. It really is the higher road to take the lessons we learn through our physical training and transfer it to all areas of our lives.

      I stand humbled – no sarcasm intended. Thank you.

  9. You’re right, Vic. I also agree with tuscanystore, Brandon, andrew davis and Nikolai.

    I remember I had issues and frustration at my workplace with a coworker, and other times with my boss. I did push myself a lot at the gym when I was particularly angry with a situation at work.

    Maybe you have to be cautious when using that kind of energy, as you and others said. If you feel energetic enough while being in a good mood, then don’t use the dark side, I guess LOL

    • Yes, caution is good – dare I say necessary – if you are going to tap into the dark side. And oh, how the workplace can be a place to find some dark side fuel!

  10. I definitely agree with you. I truly don’t know what I would have done when my husband of 20 years walked out on me and my three kids if I didn’t have the Crossfit gym to escape to for hours every morning. Kettlebells first, then the WoD…sometimes two. It kept me sane, so I could be strong for my kids. And those were definitely the most intense, most draining, most mentally and physically exhausting training sessions of my life. I would love to have that intensity without having a major life crisis to fuel it! But at the same time, I so exhausted myself at the gym, that I barely had energy to get through the rest of the day. The numbness was welcome at the time…but not a good way to stay for an extended period. So yes…channeling that negative energy into something productive is good…much better than stewing in it. But I definitely wouldn’t advocate staying in that dark place for long!

  11. I (like many) have some of the laziest, cry baby, and fat ass co-workers around. I work on an Angus Ranch, and for those who don’t know, it is very labor intensive job. I can’t afford to loose this job so I don’t even say anything to them. But on the luck days when I get to work out (3 days a week) I get to mentally beat the crap out of them. For me my work outs are crazy intense and I surprise myself all the time, I love it. Now and again I just do the work outs, but I can never get out of them what I get when I’m venting my frustration and anger.

  12. Great post.

    They say motivation can be divided into two types: “towards” motivation and “away from” motivation.

    You can see “towards” motivation when someone has an important date and they really want a to look their best. It can be very poweful if the rewards are great.

    You can see true “away from” motivation watching people running out of a burning building.

    Seems clear to me which brings more intensity.

    • Oh, I like the burning building comparison. And it’s that kind of “fight or flight” intensity that I’m talking about. It’s tough for me to generate that when all I consider are the positives.

  13. i fuel most of my workouts with this dark side i remember one of your videos which states at the end of it “because she broke my heart” really impressed with that video man
    however i agree about that emotional stress it can add. i tryed changeing my tatic to getting a big group of friends going to the park and just doing some crazy shit, be alot less depressed haha !

  14. Interesting…however I think looking back in anger is living in the past, and in a bad way. I personally feel that trying to better your personal best in the gym is the way to go with regards to motivation. Also, fear (fight or flight) is much more of a power booster than anger. Its what really kept us alive back in the caveman days.

    All the best Vic.

    • Thanks, Steven. No doubt, striving for those PR’s is great motivation. But what about when you plateau? That’s when I’m saying the negative can give you the boost you need. And not to get too philosophical here, but can you really have anger without fear? I think they are pretty close in a baseline way and will elicit a similar physiological response.

      • Thanks for replying – LOL, the FEAR of hitting a plateau will kick in and help! Seriously though, in answer to your question, I think you can have anger without fear, but yes they are pretty closely linked. Take care fella.

  15. Hi Vic,

    I think the idea of using negative emotions to fuel your workout is a great idea but only if it works for you and you can let it go after your workout.

    Because let’s face it, nobody can be happy all the time, and instead of bottling it up using your gym time as an outlet is a great concept. Whenever I’m angry or depressed giving it all I can in the gym for an hour can be just the thing I need, and after a shower I walk out of the gym with a refreshed state of mind and no longer angry.

    However, purposfully setting yourself up to be angry before going to the gym is something that I would consider dangerous, especially if one goes to the gym often. If you need that anger just for training then you might need to question your whole approach to why you are working out.

    Keep up the great work!


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