Episode 285 – Using Fitness to Build Mental Toughness

Written by Jonathan

If you’ve been listening for a while we appreciate your continued support and if you’re new to the show, welcome and thanks for stopping by. When most people think about fitness they think of the specific exercises they need to do and they think about having the right equipment to get the most effective workout, but rarely do people take a step back to look at the mental components and the behaviours around fitness that not only help you get faster, stronger or more mobile, but also keep you consistent and motivated. That’s what this show’s all about, we hope you get some valuable information that is both useful and insightful, that will help you be the healthiest and most active version of yourself. Now, let’s get to it.

I recently returned from the Perform Better Summit in Providence Rhode Island. There were lots of great speakers there and I now have several new tools to put in my tool belt. My best guess is the next 3 or 4 Monday episodes I will devote an entire show to one or two main concepts that I think will be the most relevant for you, starting with this one about mental toughness presented by John Brookfield.

Now John Brookfield is not a formal researcher, he’s a practical applied strength coach and he himself has set numerous world records related to hand strength and muscle endurance.

He pulled a 24,000 pound truck one mile in an hour and 23 minutes without using pulling ropes
He performed 1200 kettlebell snatches in 1 hour using a 53 pound kettlebell
He bent 520 nails into a U-shape in 1 hour and 42 minutes

This is just a taste of his strength and muscle endurance world record accomplishments, he holds many more. I think it’s safe to say that he has a knack for doing things that require incredible feats of strength over long periods of time.

His talk that I attended was called the Lost Art of Muscle Control where he took us through a series of full body movements, which were mostly various forms of hand planking, bear or cheetah crawling and rope exercises. What’s interesting about this talk is that he didn’t show me any new movements at all, but there is one key component that you can apply to any of these moves, the Last is First mentality, in other words who ever goes the slowest without taking breaks wins.

Normally when we think about doing a single strength exercise for a long period of time, we think about doing it for something like one or maybe two minutes and that’s it, because after that length of time you’re no longer working on strength or power and if you’re trying to change how your body looks in the shortest amount of time then it makes the most sense to overload your muscles with increased load or increased weight instead of time. But what if every once in awhile you decided to overload with time instead, not 1 or 2 minutes but 5, 8, 15 minutes or more. Think about that for a second what would your workout look like if you decided to do the same exercise for 15 minutes in a row without breaks. Think about how that could help you increase the anaerobic threshold of the muscles in your body, for the sake of this show that means you’ll be able to handle the burning sensation in your muscles for longer periods of time. Think about how it will help you build your mental toughness to get through the exercise. Doing a single exercise for that long is not only incredibly physically demanding, but it can be monotonous and boring as well. This means you have to work your brain on a couple different levels, you have to build your willpower in the moment to try and ignore or deflect that burning sensation in your muscles, you have to play games in your mind to try and break it down into more manageable and smaller chunks, which is something we talk about a lot and you have to distract yourself enough that you almost forget what you’re doing, but at the same time stay focussed enough that you’re still doing the exercise properly and getting the most out of it.

During the talk he had us hold a hand plank position and then do these hand plank walking circles for 4 minutes where we rotated in that hand plank position for 2 minutes in one direction and then 2 more minutes in the other direction. I feel like I’m in pretty good shape but by the time we got to the end of the first two minutes I wanted to stop and probably would have if I was my own workout, but this was a conference and there were about 2 or 300 people in the room plus John was walking around correcting people. With all that external pressure I couldn’t give up, I tried reducing the tension in my muscles by trying to make myself relax which is not easy at the best of times, I focused on my form moving my arms and legs in sync and I focused on my breathing instead of my muscles, until it was all over. After the 4 minutes was up I collapsed to the ground, only to watch the next exercise get demoed and start the process over again.

As you listened to me describe that experience, were you thinking about times when you tried to exercise and stopped because the burning sensation was too much or you got too out of breath? Did you think about a time where you just had to give up because you felt like you couldn’t do it, but deep down you know you could have gone a little bit longer? I know I have and I thought about it multiple times over the course of that presentation.

Which lead me to this question, Am I really, truly, giving the full effort I could be during my exercise sessions?

Am I really, truly, giving the full effort I could be during my exercise sessions? and the short answer was and still is, NO.

Going forward this type of training is going to be a critical component of my training to supplement my current strength training, not for the muscle endurance, but to practice the mental endurance and toughness because I know that’s an area I need to work on.

If you’re interested in making this a part of your training I will put a link to some videos in the show notes to show you what you can do and how to implement it in your training program, but first here are some strategies that I use and you can use too, to give you a better chance of having a positive and successful experience adding this into your training.

1. Pick exercises you know you’re already capable of doing for a minute or so, for example a lot of people lack the shoulder mobility to do a crab walk for more than a few reps, if you can’t do a crab walk for a few seconds don’t try to do it for a minute, pick another exercise you’re already comfortable with that you can do properly. This sets you up for your first success, then when you get more comfortable with the crab walk or another exercise you feel you need to work on, then incorporate that exercise in for time as well.

2. Increase incrementally, maybe the first few times you do it you can add a minute or two onto your time, but after that just adding 10, 5 or only 3 seconds will be challenging enough, but it can help if you look at it like this, just adding 5 seconds a few times a week, is the same as adding a minute every month.

3. Set a goal time at the beginning – If you set a goal time before you start you have something to strive towards, which means if you feel like you need or want to give up, but you know you only have 30 more seconds to go you might be able to push yourself that little bit extra.

4. Use a timer with sound, instead of constantly looking at the clock, when you look at a timer and see you’re ‘only’ halfway there can be a lot harder to handle than if you have 5 more beeps on an incremental timer.

5. Choose a dynamic exercise like a crawl, crabwalk, kettlebell swing, farmers walk or something like that instead of a static exercise like a plank. Static exercises are boring enough, but if you do a movement exercise it gives you a lot more things to think about and helps you focus on using proper form and breathing as you go.

6. Try to relax your muscles – The more tired you get, the more you’re going to want to tighten your muscles which will just make you tire more quickly, but if you try to let that tension leave your body it will be easier for you to hold it longer.

7. Do it with someone else that is of about the same level as you – This will give you some competition and I think everyone does better with a little competition.

8. If your timer goes and you can still do more, then do more and going forward that new time becomes your new starting time until you can beat it.

I realize that list of strategies got a little out of control to help you do these endurance exercises, but they are all incredibly helpful and will ultimately make it easier for you to be successful, so even if you just pulled one or two out and then used trial and error to figure out your own strategies, I think that’s just as good. Also if you want a couple of demo’s of exercises then check out the show notes we will have some links to videos on our youtube channel so you can see what’s going on.

In terms of where this goes in your workout it can be before, after or it could be the actual workout. My recommendation would be to mix it up and do all of those things for the variety, just remember that the later you do it in the workout the harder it will be on that day and expect it to take some time, like a day or two and possibly more to recover, especially when you’re first starting out.



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