Mental Strength

People go to the gym for many different reasons; medical, social, habitual. Some will see it as a place to perform their favourite exercises, to catch up with friends while doing something good or simply to burn off last night’s pudding.  Whatever the reason you have, going will always be better than not going.  However, how many of you have ever thought about going to the gym as a way to improve your willpower and mental strength?  This month, I will put a new spin on why going to the gym can improve your life and why you should start ‘brain training’.

Hard Work

Hard work is exactly that, HARD! It does not have to be complicated or deeply scientific to be difficult to complete but it will always require one thing… willpower.  You will often hear the term ‘willpower’ in relation to giving up smoking or sticking to a restrictive diet, but willpower is also involved in how you train at the gym.

Within their first few weeks of training, I have heard many new clients say “that’s heavy” or “I’m not sure I can lift that” and yet within a minute later not only have they lifted it, but completed numerous repetitions of the exercise.  I like the client to then realise that just moments ago they believed they could not achieve a task yet with a little additional willpower, the mission was accomplished. Each of these achievements, if you allow it, will build your willpower and your mental strength.


I certainly would not wish real suffering upon anyone and by real suffering I mean such things as famine or painful illness.  In relation to the gym, suffering means a pretty brutal workout. One which might leave you feeling sick or very sore for days to come but these can be a great teacher and builder of mental strength.  You know deep down that you are not actually going to die (although you may have felt like it on occasion) but if you can just push through those last few reps, seconds or minutes you will have achieved something you really thought you could not.

The issue is that the brain is actually very quick to forget the physical pain of performing the task so remembering what you have achieved is vital to building mental strength. If we just remembered the physical pain and not the success, we would not try it again.

‘I’ve done it before, I can do it again’.  Once you start to harness that mentality in the gym you can start to use it elsewhere in your daily life.  You can start applying it to your nutrition, to create good habits or terminate bad ones.  Realising that writing the report for work is not actually that stressful because you have done many in the past and you are still alive!

Suffering provides the opportunity to exercise willpower and to develop grit.  A strong will grows from suffering successfully and being rewarded for it.  Does a great physique, 10k time or maximal lift come from willpower and grit or does willpower come from the constant chipping away at those goals?  There is no right or wrong answer as willpower and action feed from one another.

That Little Extra

Next time you are at the gym and your last few reps feel tough, try a few extra or go for a full speed additional minute on the rower even though you feel completely exhausted.  Tiny little tests of willpower lead to some serious mental adaptations.

I will leave you with the words of former Olympian Emil Zatopek “When a person trains once, nothing happens. When a person forces himself to do a thing a hundred or a thousand times, then he certainly has developed in more ways than physical. Is it raining? That doesn't matter. Am I tired? That doesn't matter, either. Then willpower will be no problem."