By Eddie Avakoff
Sure, muscles look great. And isn't it nice to be the one at the squat rack with more weight on the bar than anyone else? Well, as great as those tangible feats are, there are also some not-so-tangible qualities that many strive to achieve in the gym. And the one I'd like to talk about today is mental toughness.
Mental toughness is something that's difficult to directly test. Of course, there are endurance events like a triathlon or the famous World's Toughest Mudder, but I think strength sports such as bodybuilding, powerlifting, Olympic lifting, strongman, et cetera all require mental toughness of their own unique caliber.
Mental toughness shows itself in many different styles: A powerlifter needs to psych himself out into knowing he's going to lift that PR, just as a young lady needs it to grind her way though 75 miles of a 24-hour mud obstacle race. And it’s no different than a bodybuilder having the fortitude to walk onstage in front of thousands of critical eyes and flex his muscles for others to judge—talk about mental toughness!
In order to build mental toughness, one must first embody the following characteristics:
The thought of doing something over and over again does not scare you. Even in the result of failure, you try to improve and test yourself again. Get knocked down? You get back up and fight!
You are ambitious. Mediocrity is not an option—in fact, it scares you. You hold a constant desire to improve until you are the best. Drive best shows itself when you achieve a hard-earned goal. Instead of complacency, you raise the bar and begin to work for a bigger and greater goal.
When there's a task at hand, everything else is blocked out. Distractions don't exist to someone extremely focused. You simply plow right through the distractions because you are on a one-way trip to success. It's easy to maintain a high level of focus when you're passionate about what you're doing. Love what you do and love the process it takes to get you to your goal. In that, you will find all the focus you need.
QUITTING IS NEVER AN OPTION
This is perhaps the most important aspect of mental toughness. Be ambitious with your goals. Approach everything with a "shoot for the stars, you might at least hit the clouds" mentality. However, never allow quitting to determine your fate. And never allow the fear of failure stop you from doing something—because that's basically quitting before you even start.
During many of my ultra-endurance events, like the World's Toughest Mudder, I remember wanting to quit (as many do) throughout the race. The pain, cold (at three a.m.), fatigue, hunger, cramping, et cetera was all too much. But even more painful as a mentally tough person would be looking at myself in the mirror the next day after I quit. I simply couldn't. Drag me off the course when I collapse, I will never quit. I'd remind myself, "Even if you die during this race, at least you'll go out doing something you love." Morbid, I know, but powerful self-speech.
Today, however, as I've completed well over a hundred endurance and ultra-endurance events, I have a whole different outlook during my races: I feel privileged to be out there competing and doing what I love. I spend my races feeling privileged and humbly thankful for the abilities to do what I'm doing. And this leads to…
It’s ironic to consider a happy-go-lucky persona as an integral component of mental toughness, but it sure is. The power of positive thinking can allow the human body to achieve some really astounding things—from feats of strength to swimming the English Channel to even stopping the growth of cancer. And when you're 20 hours deep into a 24-hour race, the power of the mind saying "yes, I can" goes an incredibly long way. It's said that the human body is capable of 20 times more than the mind thinks it can. Therefore, someone with a weak mind will yield a far less physical result than someone with a strong mind. Strong mind, strong body.
Have you ever seen a fight where the underdog battles their heart out and wins the fight he/she has no business winning? That's a prime example of sheer will. (Check out the UFC fight between Cheick Kongo and Pat Barry.) Have you ever watched someone in awe, asking, "How did he do that?!" The answer is sheer will.
This isn't something you can train. It's something that grows within you, especially during adversity. You either want it or you don't. And it’s all about how bad do you want it.
These characteristics make up integral parts of someone's mental toughness. And without some of these traits, you leave holes in your armor and run the risk of failure. For example, someone with great positive thinking but no focus will inevitably struggle. The key is to build these traits up within yourself through consistent training, hard work, and a solid undeviated game plan.
I put together a few workouts that I've used to build mental toughness in the gym:
- A) Farmer’s walk: one mile
Men carry 95 pounds in each arm, and women carry 60 pounds in each arm. Say good-bye to your forearms and shoulders.
- B) On a track, repeat for an hour
- Lunge: 400 meters
- Bear crawl: 400 meters
- Sprint: 800 meters
- C) (This one's insane, but I swear, I did it on the one-year anniversary of Metroflex LBC):
Weigh yourself. Whatever you weigh, set that weight on a barbell inside a squat rack. Complete 1,000 back squats at that weight. It takes about six to seven hours.