The simplest of Google searches can result in a plethora of motivational quotes about discipline, dedication, and mental toughness. “It’s mind over matter – if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter” and other such platitudes. But bodybuilding is a physical pursuit. Is mental toughness really that important?
Bodybuilding is already a fairly misunderstood endeavor by most of the public. “Why do you build all that muscle if you all you do is pose?” “Why do you wear such small trunks?” “Why do you want to get so big?” The quips are endless.
However, the most understood aspect of bodybuilding is that it’s purely physical. Yes, you’re going to the gym and lifting weights and doing cardio and blah blah blah. But what most people don’t take into account is the mental toughness it takes to:
Most people could do this sort of thing for a day or two. They might even be able to hold it down for a week. But it takes a “next level” of mental toughness to sustain it every single day for months on end.
You know that hitting the gym and just “going through the motions” isn’t going to get you gains. Really being tuned into your body and focusing on that mind-muscle connection is going to lead to better stimulation and more muscle growth. This idea is best captured in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s now famous quote:
“The last three or four reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion. That’s what most people lack, having the guts to go on and just say they’ll go through the pain no matter what happens.”
While many think there are ways to “hack” your way to more mental toughness, the simple and unglamorous answer is that you just have to decide you want something badly enough. This is more or less what’s behind the “40% rule” used and made popular by the US Marines and Navy SEALS.
Essentially what the “40% rule” says is that when you’re in the middle of a task or activity, and you think you’re about to hit your failure or breaking point, you have realize that you’re only about 40% done. Since you are, you “can” keep working. And when you decide that you’re able to keep working, you almost always can.
A 2008 study published in the European Journal of Neuroscience suggests that there is evidence to support this. Two groups of people were asked to lift weights – one given caffeine, and one given a placebo. The group given the placebo were able to able to lift more weight because they believed they now had more energy from the caffeine they thought they’d consumed. In reality, it was just a temporary boost to their mental toughness.
While the reality is that you do just have to decide you want something badly enough, there is a way you can actively set a new mental standard for yourself. You only perceive things as “easy” or “hard” based on past experiences. So when you do X and it’s less than Y, you perceive it to be “easy”. But when you do Z and it’s more than Y, you perceive it to be “hard”. But if you can change the representation of Y, how you view both X and Z change.
One way to change this up is to take a day and really just go overboard on something you normally do. For instance, say for cardio, you normally jog 3 miles. You know how you feel after you’re halfway done. You know how to push when you’re about to finish. And so on.
Well take a day and instead of doing 3 miles, do 5 or 6. You don’t have to worry about keeping up a great pace or even jogging the whole thing. Stop and walk if you have to, but try to keep it minimal. Even if you’re barely jogging, just mentally will yourself through 5 or 6 miles instead of your normal 3.
What will happen is the next time you go to jog 3 miles, it will now seem way easier than it ever has. This is because before, 3 miles was your upper limit. Now you know what it feels like to have jogged 5 or 6 miles, so you’ve set a new standard for yourself as far as what’s “hard”.
If you can boost your mental toughness, you’re only going to bolster your workout gains. You’ll be able to train longer, harder, and be more focused. You’ll be able to stick to your regimen better and have a better mind-muscle connection. If nothing else, when you set a new mental standard for yourself, what was once “hard” may now seem “easy”, positioning yourself to achieve that much more.