Updated: Sep 15, 2018
The mind is one of the greatest mysteries. It has the capability to make the entire body move in complete harmony, remember song lyrics from decades ago, network with other brains to solve complex problems, and design the most efficient hardware (the body) for its daily activities. While these are only a few of the insurmountable tasks that the brain performs, they are clear indications of its true power.
David Goggins is an extreme endurance athlete, former Navy SEAL, and previous title holder for the world record for pull ups in 24 hours. He famously said, “Most people quit at 40%.” Yeah you read that right, 40%. Why would anyone give less than a half ass effort when training for a goal? After many years of working with clients, I have to say that I agree with this statement 100%. In my experience 40% is where the suck sets in. 40% is when the body says play time is over, this feels like work and I don’t like it. 40% is where the body is losing efficiency and overload is creeping in. The muscles start to burn, the heart begins to pick up the pace, and the lungs expand more than usual. This is where the true training begins. This is where athletes find out what they are made of. This is where the grit begins to come out.
Grit is the single best training tool on the planet. No matter what goal, sport, or competition; grit can achieve it all. The problem: Grit cannot be bought or even taught. Some are born with it, some develop it, and some never find it at all. Unfortunately, the vast majority of individuals fall into the latter category; they never know that feeling of accomplishment knowing that they could not do anymore until they had to. Grit is the will to push beyond boundaries. Sounds simple right? Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, just one more rep. It is that simple; until they hit the wall. That wall begins around 45%, in highly trained athletes that wall can be pushed back as far as 90%, when their body says its had enough and it wants to take a break. This is when the body checks out and the training becomes mental. This is my favorite part.
So, if you cannot teach grit, how can someone develop it? They develop it through training at an intensity that makes them completely uncomfortable. An intensity that they think they cannot physically maintain; that feeling like death is right around the corner. For newer clients, I use circuits to walk them up to the line and let them choose what weights they want to grind out. Once we have a baseline established, I choose the weights. I encourage them to go heavier, but lighter is not an option. “But what if they can’t do it?” Then they will know what it feels like to fail. Failure is a great tool for both learning and motivating. Often, success is achieved by failing forward. I cannot begin to count the reps I have failed throughout the years. From ditching a barbell off my back to jumping out from under a kettlebell, I have failed in some spectacular ways. If you have never failed a rep, then you have never pushed yourself. I guarantee that “failed” rep did more for me than the first couple reps combined.
*Example of a grit training session: Usually halfway through the second round of a decent circuit (first round is just to warm-up and get familiar with the exercises) the body decides it doesn’t want to continue and the grunting starts. Now the training begins. End of the second round the weights hit the ground a little harder than the first round. The rest break is filled with labored breathing and light movement. The third round is a combination of grunts of colorful language mixed with forced exhalation. End of the third: the weights are dumped to the floor, grips are stretched and shaken out, negotiations are had to no avail, and silent preparation is made to survive the last round. As the last round starts, the weight feels heavier than before and that fire inside gets hotter. Halfway through the breath feels like exhaust forcing out incoherent vowels. The final rep is completed, and the euphoria sets in; its finally over. At this point, the athlete is akin to a feral animal until the heart rate slows and the sympathetic nervous system cools down and allows the human side to return. Keep in mind, this is a perfect example. Results may vary.
The same can be accomplished through resistance training as well, but the grit effect can only be reached with a seasoned lifter. A beginner cannot muster the will or neuromuscular connection to force the final reps. (for more on this check out True Strength Comes from Within Part 1: Real Core Power) This can be done with isolation exercises, but it works much faster in compound movements and should be performed during every set of a resistance exercise. A true set of ten reps should be performed with a weight that the athlete cannot do eleven times. Every set should push the athlete hard enough to require a rest break before starting another set. Again, sounds simple, but this is often overlooked. Out of a set of ten, the last five should be difficult and the last two should barely be completed.
When broken down it is easy to see where the quote, “weight training is (insert whatever high percentage here) mental and (insert whatever low percentage here) physical” comes from. The truth: it takes both. The mind and body must work together to accomplish anything. If the strength of a chain is measured by the weakest link, I want every link to be unbreakable. When training my athletes, I push both to the limit and make them hang out for a while. Rest and do it again I do not care if they fail or must take an extra break. I prefer either to them finishing the set without trouble. In the words of the great White Goodman (Founder of Globo Gym), “I like to break a mental sweat too.”