Mental Toughness Required

mental toughness

By Zach Columbia BS, NASM

As coaches, it’s something that frustrates us to no end. We ask our clients to do a plank for 60 seconds. Their form is perfect. The spine is neutral not arching or rounding, the belly button is pulled in and their chest is over their elbows. Then it happens, the clock strikes 55 seconds and our client collapses to the floor. Somehow, they find a way to cover up the sheer agony that caused them to collapse 5 seconds early as they immediately look up at us. Really, I wonder as I look down at them; your form was perfect, but it was physically impossible for you to hold that plank for 5 more seconds? Your body didn’t give up, your mind did.

I can remember when the Discovery Channel came out with a series on Navy Seal Basic Training. I was completely blown away by the physical, and more importantly the mental feats of strength candidates were accomplishing. In one episode, Navy Seal hopefuls had already spent hours running, and swimming, and were performing PT, which included hundreds of repetitions of plyometric body weight exercises. During a pushup drill, one of the men collapsed from push up position and was lying on the ground trying to push himself up, but couldn’t. The instructor was instantly in his face screaming at him to push himself off the ground. It was obvious that the man had nothing left in the tank, but with encouragement from the instructor, he somehow found a way to perform five more pushups before collapsing again. The instructor looked at him and said, “See, you’re stronger than you thought.”

Now I realize that Navy Seals are a little bit different than the average training client; but the lesson to be learned here is that the human body is typically stronger than the mind gives it credit for. We’ve all heard the saying, “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.” Changing your body requires challenging your body and that challenge doesn’t truly begin until your mind says stop.

What causes most people to give up on a plank or stop performing repetitions of pushups is the burning sensation. During these types of short, intense exercises, the body cannot provide enough energy to the muscles through oxygen alone. Instead, energy is provided through a process called glycolysis, where lactate is released in order to breakdown glucose for immediate energy. That burning feeling is the result of lactate, also known as lactic acid, which increases the acidity of the muscle cells. While the buildup of lactic acid leads to muscular fatigue, your muscles can continue functioning long past the initial burning. Undoubtedly, your mind will tell you stop as soon as those muscles start burning, but pushing yourself past this point develops muscular endurance and helps you achieve the physical change you’re looking for.

With that being said, the question still remains – How do I push myself and break the threshold? In my experience, developing mental toughness comes through physical exercise and great coaching. Coaches have seen it a thousand times, we instruct you to do a chest press, then instead of the 20 pound dumbbells you’ve been using, we hand you 30s and you look at us like we had crazy pills for breakfast. Much to your surprise, you bust out 10 reps no problem. Not only did you increase your physical strength; but you just developed mental toughness without realizing it.

It’s truly a phenomenon. As you continue to grow stronger you eradicate that voice in your head telling you, “I can’t.” When you eliminate “Can’t” from your mental vocabulary, nothing can stand in the way of your success. Then all the sudden, you’re ignoring the voice in your head telling you to eat that cupcake and before you know it, you’re crushing goals and doing things you never thought possible.

The best place to start in developing mental toughness is with a great coach who will design a great program for you; one that pushes you beyond what you thought your limitations were. Then, as a general rule of thumb, when your brain tells you to quit or says I can’t, pump out 3 more reps, or hold that plank for 10 more seconds. You’ll be amazed at how strong your body is and what it can accomplish when your mind gets out of the way.

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