The Mental Wall: How to Get More Out of Yourself During Workouts, By Todd Bumgardner

I wonder if you’ve had a similar experience to what I’m about to describe.

A few weeks ago, I pulled my truck into my usual parking spot at my gym and just sat there, letting the music play. I wasn’t ready to go in. I didn’t feel like training. 

Now, I didn’t have a good reason not to train. I didn’t have an injury. I wasn’t tired or lacking recovery. My head just wasn’t in it. It could have been a million distractions created by running three businesses. Maybe there’s no other excuse than I wanted more comfort at that time than I truly needed. Still, I sat there. I started scrolling Instagram and did so for a few minutes until I finally had enough of myself. I chucked my phone into the passenger seat, turned off my truck, and shut my eyes.

Do you want to be the guy that just does what he FEELS like doing? 

I asked myself that question as I sat there with my eyes closed. There’s no version of the future in which I want the guy that just does what he feels like doing running my life. With a deep breath, I pulled the key from the ignition, opened the truck door, and headed inside.

To finish that workout successfully, I had to pull out all of my mental tricks. It was sincerely one long head game with the workout happening in the background. But I got it done, and as I walked out of the gym door and toward my truck, I started writing this article in my head. 

We all need strategies for when the moxie is not upon us. Below I share mine to help you get through those days when you just want to sit in the truck.

I Only Get To…

Think about the last time you were locked in a hard set or training session. My guess is you had a thought like, “Okay, I only have to do five more,” or something similar. The problem with that kind of question, and the underlying logic, is that it removes you from the present and makes you think about a comfortable future. You think about removing the discomfort rather than actively leaning into it.

Instead, when things start to burn, or the clock is still ticking, or the weight feels especially heavy, I remind myself that I only GET to do five more. I only GET to do this for thirty more seconds, etc.

The reminder pulls me back into the present and helps me relish the opportunity that I’m currently realizing. It actually gives me the drive to work harder, rather than think about the few minutes in the future when I get to relax. That future will come no matter what. It’s better to kick some ass on the way toward getting there.

Count Backwards

This is a trick I learned from an old bodybuilder when I first started working out at the Juniata Valley YMCA when I was twelve years old. I was carrying around a bodybuilding magazine and doing the workout of the month. He saw me struggling through the sets to failure that the workout called for and walked over.

“How are you counting your reps?”

“Uh, I don’t know. I’m just counting them.”

“Are you counting up?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, well, try counting down instead. Put a number in your head that you want to hit that set and count backward from there. Then, if you hit that number and you still have gas in the tank, keep counting down by threes.”

I don’t know where he got the “threes” from, but it works. If you have a hard, open-ended set, pick a target number and count backward. You play a trick on your mind that you already “know” you’re going to be successful. 

The key is to not pick an obnoxious number that you know isn’t going to happen, or an easy number that you know isn’t challenging. You have to goldilocks it by picking a number that gives you some butterflies in your stomach, but still feels approachable. 

Make Boredom the Challenge

It’s often easier to engage with workouts that are physically demanding. You have no choice but to feel them. And the suck fest that they create drives you to rise to the challenge.

But not every workout is a sweat-drenched suck fest. Sometimes it’s showing up to do something monotonous, but not too demanding, that pays huge dividends for your fitness. (High-Intensity Continuous Training comes to mind.)

Photo: Mountain Tactical Institute

In these instances, it’s about making boredom the challenge. Rather than trying to intensify the workout unnecessarily, or glossing over the boring workouts to get to something more fun, “staying in the boredom” is sometimes the biggest challenge of all.

How does somebody do that? Well, you can go back to tactic number one and remind yourself that you “only get to…” But that only works for so long when things don’t feel intense. Another tactic is to focus intently on each rep by asking yourself, am I doing everything as well as I possibly can?

One more tactic, and my personal favorite, is resigning yourself to the fact that the next period of your life isn’t going to be supremely fun but it’s going to be supremely worth it. And then just doing what needs to be done.

Visualize the “Mountain”

One day during last August’s caribou hunt, my friend Steve and I tromped ten miles across the tundra of Alaska’s North Slope. Anyone that’s ever hiked the tundra knows that every mile is a miserable one. Feet wet and underfed, we finally took a caribou during the later hours of the day. Before the trigger was even pulled, I already felt like ten pounds of crap stuffed in a five-pound bag. Then we had to skin, quarter, and haul the bull back to camp. (Note: I’m not saying that tundra hiking is the physically toughest thing a hunter will do. I’m just painting a picture of the discomfort we all find ourselves in.)

The hike back wasn’t long, but with full packs, we were singing and shouting, jumping ditches, and dodging tussocks all the way. I remember the feeling of sweet misery when I stood in front of our tent and dropped my pack. Legs achy and back tired—it felt good.

Then there are the vivid memories of being a kid in Central Pennsylvania, dragging whitetails up and down ridges to get to my dad’s truck. Lungs burning and hands throbbing from gripping the drag rope, I got there. It felt good.

We all have our own “mountains.” Those memories of hunts past when, with our bodies taxed, we dropped our load and felt the relief rush over our body. But we also relish the misery that got us to the relief.

Sometimes it’s enough just to think of the mountain and remember that you’ll soon be there again.

Who Would You Like More?

On the day that I sat in my truck, scrolling Instagram and avoiding my training, breaking inertia really came down to answering one question:

Who would I like more?

Would I like the guy that decided, “Screw it, I don’t feel like doing this today, I’m just going to bag it.” Or would I like the guy that decided, “I don’t care if I don’t feel like training, I’m going to do what I have to do.”

The answer’s obvious. We like the guy that does what he needs to do. 

We have to remember that there’s a future version of ourselves that’s waiting to meet us. And the decisions we make—even the seemingly innocuous ones about training—contribute to who that person is and how well we will get along with them. Liking them, getting along with them, surely makes our lives better.

So, when you’re thinking about whether or not you’ll show up; when you’re apprehensive about your effort on that last set; when you want to say “screw it” and call it a day even though you know that you can do more without hurting yourself; ask yourself: which person would I like more?

Because, eventually, you’re going to meet them.

I hope these tricks I use to get more out of myself help you to do the same.

Bio

Todd Bumgardner, MS is an author, coach, and outdoorsman. He’s a performance coach for a Tier 1 tactical unit while also co-owning a gym (Beyond Strength Performance NOVA) and a mentorship program for coaches and trainers called Strength Faction. He splits his time between Northern Virginia and Central Pennsylvania, and when he’s not either of those places, he’s traveling to hunt or fish.

Posted by Nolan Osborne