6 Exercises for Improving Your Mental Toughness

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Let’s talk about mental toughness.

If the movies have taught us anything in the last decade it’s that on some level we all wish we were Navy SEALs.

Kidding (kind of), but if we could all learn how to build the physical and mental capacity these warriors have I’d guess we’d all be better off.

Think about it.

If you could forge a mental toughness that could overcome any obstacle, deal with any hardship, and come out of the other side intact and ready to keep taking the world by the balls then I’d guess you’d have a pretty positive outlook on life.

You’d probably have a boatload of confidence too.

Well, good news!

You don’t have to sign up for BUD/s to find out if you’ve got the mental toughness that makes these warriors some of the hardest and best in the world.

You can practice mental toughness every day and build an ability to deal with that asshole boss, overcome the loss of that big client, slug it out in the ring that is entrepreneurship, or get that last set done in the gym and finally crush your fitness goals.

Regardless of your goal, the 6 exercises below (3 mental & 3 physical) you’ll be well on your way to building the mental toughness to propel you to new heights in the gym, business, and life.

3 Mental Toughness Exercises

1. ) Take away your extrinsic motivators

Here are a couple of scenarios for you:

1.) You arrive at your nice, clean, air-conditioned gym in the morning before heading into work. You meet up with your training partner and talk about your game plan to crush your workout today. You throw in your headphones and crank up that perfect death metal workout mix.

2.) After a particularly long and shitty day at work, you head home, grab a sandbag, a pair of heavy kettlebells, and head outside to an empty park on a particularly hot day. You left your headphones at home, no music, no encouraging training partner, just you. You’re gonna have to suffer in silence.

In which of these two scenarios are you going to get a better workout?

I’d guess most of you would say scenario number 1, right? The environment is perfect, you’re well rested, your buddy is there to motivate you through those last few reps.

But here is the real question…

Would you ever choose to put yourself in scenario number 2?

Or would you choose comfort?

Every once in a while you need to put yourself in that dark place, without the benefit of all those external motivators, and slug it out with yourself.

You’d be surprised how fast those little voices pop up in your head and start nagging you…

“No one is watching, you can slow down…”

“Ugh, my knee hurts – It must be that old injury I can just stop…”

“just go home”

“One skipped workout is fine”

The voices win.

They get you to quit.

Removing the external distractions and getting comfortable with your weak thoughts can make a huge difference. Listen to them, laugh at them, and push on.

You’ll be better for it.

2.) Develop Good Habits

Wanna know a secret?

Mentally tough people are more consistent than you.

They understand that motivation may come and go and to truly be successful they need to consistently chip away at the things that matter most.

They see the obstacles in front of them and push on regardless.

And this is what separates the successful from the unsuccessful.

From the mentally weak from the mentally strong.

You need to create habits that help you achieve your goals and relentlessly stick to them, no matter how tempting it may be to go off course.

Great habits will help you overcome the enemies you’ll encounter on your Hero’s Journey without having to rely on your intrinsic motivation each day.

When you choose discomfort over comfort on a daily basis you build a habit of discipline that is hard to stop.

Get in the habit of charging ahead at the obstacles in front of you and attack them one at a time.

Step by step.

Good habits & disciplined action will help you build the mental fortitude you need for life.

3.) Learn to ignore the things that you cannot control

In Ryan Holliday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way he talks about the philosophy of Stoicism or the ability to endure pain or hardship without a display of feelings and without complaint.

The basic premise is: It’s not what happens to you, it is how you react that really matters.

You have complete and total control over how you react to any situation.

However, you need to exercise this practice as much as you need to squat (i.e. All the time!)

One of the best resources I’ve found for learning about and implementing a practice of Stoicism into your life can be found on Tim Ferriss’ blog (written by Ryan Holiday) in a post titled: Stoicism 101: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs

Once you internalize the lessons of the Stoics your whole outlook on the world will change.

4 Physical Toughness Exercises

Most of us live a pretty comfortable life.

So there’s a good chance you don’t have too much going on in a regular day that tests your mental toughness.

Which means you need to get out there and actively seek out those stressful situations so you can flex that mental muscle.

There are a number of ways you can “test” yourself, but the best way to train for mental toughness is in the gym, day after day.

Here are a few ways to can build mental strength in the gym.

Carry Heavy Shit

The Roman Legionnaires would routinely be required to carry around 13kg (~28lbs) of weapons, armor, and equipment over long marches (35+ miles per day) and into battle.

The modern-day airborne infantryman in Afghanistan may carry up to 58kg (~127lbs) in external load depending on the mission and travel hundreds of miles on their feet over the course of a deployment

You carry a gym bag, with a padded strap, occasionally, to your car…

Although we are no longer required to carry 20-100+ pounds of crap everywhere we go it doesn’t mean we can’t build our bodies and our minds by getting back to our roots as warriors.

Some workouts are long, some workouts are intense, and some workouts just plain suck the life out of you. Add these movements into your current routine and see just how fast your mind and body can adapt to the toll they take on you.

1.) Ruck

Men’s Health called it “A new fitness trend for 2015“, I call it “that thing we had to do all the time (in the military) that sucked really bad and seemed like just walking for extended periods of time carrying a heavy pack for no good reason at all.”

However, since those times I’ve matured to realize that one of the number one ways to build your mental toughness is to put a heavy pack on your back and just go walk for a few hours. Leave the headphones at home and get comfortable with your thoughts (hard to do if you’re crazy).

Now, since I know most of you will probably ignore this one I suggest you make it a bit more fun and sign up for a rucking event like a GORUCK challenge. If you’re going to suffer, you might as well suffer with a team of like-minded weirdos.

Oh and a couple of other benefit of rucking:

  • It’s great for fat loss – Low intensity cardio (i.e. walking) can make a big difference if you’re looking to lose weight.
  • It doesn’t require a bunch of fancy equipment – You can throw a bunch of bricks in a backpack or you can grab a quality ruck and ruck plate, both work.

2.) Farmer Carries

This one is simple, brutal, and effective.

Farmer carries will test your ability to push through mentally and it’ll also build rock solid core strength.

Pick up a pair of heavy dumbbells or kettlebells and go for a long walk (1/2-1 mile). If you want to rapidly build up your ability to handle “the suck” then this is a great way to do it.

The best part about this is the number of variations you can execute and still get a brutal workout, here are some variations:

a.) 2 x Heavy Dumbbells
b.) 1 x Heavy Dumbbell & 1 x Lighter Dumbbell
c.) Single Arm (a.k.a Suitcase carry)
d.) 2 x Heavy Sandbags (Don’t use handles and see how quick you destroy your grip!)

The combinations are nearly endless and they will build some serious strength and mental fortitude.

3.) Hanging

Got a pull-up, tree branch, or playground near you?

Then this one is pretty simple to accomplish.

Hop up, grab on, and just hang.

Simple. Not easy.

Hanging from a bar can have all kinds of benefits for your shoulders and grip but is also a pretty mentally taxing exercise, especially if you’re really pushing your limits.

Smart doctors, trainers, and even orthopedic surgeons agree that hanging from a bar and letting gravity do its thing can help you remodel your shoulders, scaps, and just about everything else while significantly improving your overhead pushing and pulling movements.

Here’s a quick way to get started:

  1. Find a pull-up bar (Rogue has some great home gym options!)
  2. Start a clock
  3. Hop up, grab on with an overhand pull-up grip
  4. Accumulate :60s of total hanging in as few sets as possible.

Too easy? Bump the time up, hang from one hand, or mix up your grip!

BONUS: The Hard Daily Routine

This one is pretty simple and incredibly effective. Pick a single, simple exercise, and perform it every day.

For example, in the past, I’ve:

  • Completed 200m of walking lunges every single day for 30 days
  • Ran 1-mile, every single day for two months
  • And knocked out 350 Kettlebell Swings per day for 30-days.

No matter what else I was training that day I added one of these “hard” things to my routine and did it every single day.

I’ve also started “The Hard Weekly Routine” )which is a thing I just made up) which basically means every Saturday morning I do the same long, hard, brutal, workout.

And I do it week after week until that long, hard, brutal workout becomes just another workout…

Recently I did Murph every week for 10-weeks.

I’m currently doing this every Saturday:

    For Time:

  • 25 GHD Sit-Up
  • 50 Back Squats
  • 100 Deadlifts
  • 150 KB Swings
  • 200 Double Unders
  • 150 Walking Lunge Steps
  • 100 Push Ups
  • 50 Pull Ups
  • 25 GHD Sit-Ups

There is something cathartic about knowing that no matter how busy you are or what you’ve got going on that day you have a hard routine that you cannot and will not miss. Commit to something like this and challenge yourself for 30 days and I bet you stop whining about that workout you still have to do after a hard/long day at work.

Like everything else, building mental toughness and increasing your overall mental fortitude requires practice.

So if you want o build an unbeatable mind, you need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

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12 thoughts on “6 Exercises for Improving Your Mental Toughness”

  1. I had the privilege and honor to accompany PJ on his last 200 meter lunge … my suck for 30 days as of September is 100 wallballs per day for the rest of the month.

    PJ Newton is a great coach and a great man – and I am going to follow every friggin’ piece of advice in this fine essay. All the best, PJ, and hope to see ya at the 2016 Games (you can cheer me on to a podium finish!)

    1. Such pain on that last day, especially after spending day 29 on an airplane heading up your way! Appreciate the kind words my friend! Can’t wait to see you on the podium in 2016!

  2. Love the article PJ. Nice combination of the practical Monday-morning takeaways and some of the thinking behind them. Particularly liked the reference to Holliday’s book; I read that this summer on the recommendation of one of the coaches at Cressey Sports Performance and really enjoyed it, but having it recalled helped solidify the takeaway.

  3. I have found your site as a reach for help. I heard a recent military person talk about the gate theory in the military training to deal with pain.

    I deal with severe pain from a disease called trigeminal nueralgia. It is severe pain in my head. I have had numerous brain surgeries and nothing has helped. I always deal with head pain. Meds is all they give me. I’ve been to pain management and psychology to help with therapies. There seems to be no help. However, I know there has to be a answer. How can I get out of my head when the pain is so severe. I’m told that’s not gonna happen. However I believe anything could help. Can you help me. Many regards and thank you for your service.

    1. Yikes, I’d love to help here but unfortunately, I’d have no idea how to. I’d guess a combination of pain management techniques (mindfulness, meditation, breathing, etc) could help but that all I can offer you to help…

  4. Another one to add would be wall-sits. I would say of all exercises the ultimate test on mental toughness would be the wall sit.

  5. Thank you so much for this! I have been trying to improve my memory. I have a really bad memory and I was hoping I could improve it by exercising my mind constantly. Making it stronger.

  6. Love the article, great content. I agree with a lot on this, especially with the point on removing extrinsic motivators, which to me is very reminiscent of David Goggins and his approach to developing mental toughness. For the point on developing good habits, there’s a great on habit building called the Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It’s a great read and that book got me started on being able to consistently follow a routine, even when my will power was waning. To add to the list, you could intentionally do things that are uncomfortable. I feel this falls in line with the first point, and some examples include exercising and taking cold showers, which are pretty standard. There are also some additional exercises you could do, such as the practice of goal-setting which helps with focusing on the present by clearly writing down your main objects.

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