Years ago I worked in a gym, and it was always interesting to see the post-holidays rush slowly whittle away as discouraged individuals decided that the sculpted body they envisioned in early January wasn’t going to happen — “this year.” There are many reasons why fitness goals go unrealized, but the inability to “flip the switch” is one of the more critical failures I’ve observed. When you’re tired and exhausted and you think you can’t do another repetition, are you able to find that “fight or flight” switch in the basement of your being and flip “fight”? If so, it won’t be long before you differentiate yourself from the rest of the crowd.

Try something along these lines the next time you work out. As you begin to feel the burn in your arms, legs, back or whatever other muscle group you’re working, wait until the point when you would normally end the set and then say to yourself: “I’m going to finish this set as if …”

  • “… My life depended it.”
  • “… The life of someone I love depended on it.”

You will be shocked by just how much you could lift when only moments before a little voice inside was saying “No more!” You will be amazed at how many repetitions you could knock out when only moments before a little voice inside said: “You’re done!”

“The weakness of flesh is to settle for less.” — Killswitch Engage

Indeed. As I told a friend of mine who plans on becoming a Navy SEAL within the next couple of years: Even the most prized swords had to become molten metal before they could be crafted into something legendary. While simply getting yourself into motion will often yield results if you haven’t been active in awhile, the biggest gains come when your body tells you there is no gas left in the tank, but your mind tells it to shut up and figure out a way to run on fumes.

“But Doug,” you say, “there are some pretty big guys in the gym, but I don’t really see them knocking out high reps.”

True. There are a lot of big guys who spend most of their time in the gym looking at themselves in the mirror. I’m quite familiar with them. But even in this case, a discerning eye will spot the truth.

I’ll let Ronnie Coleman explain:

“To build more strength, I have to concentrate on using more weight; more weight requires harder work; harder work takes me beyond the level of my previous workout, which pushes the muscle to further growth. In short, an increase in size results only from my commitment to increase my strength.

Hardness, on the other hand, is built by repetitions. Just as steel is hardened by intense heat, so a muscle is hardened by pressurizing it with blood. Higher reps mean a harder muscle. That’s the reason most of my reps are in the 12-15 range. A huge muscle is worthless if it isn’t ripped and steel-hard.” (Ronnie Coleman, Muscle and Fitness, Oct. 2013).

There are always big guys who could “sling s**t” in the gym. I think of them like catapults. They can throw up a lot of weight a couple of times, but their base strength is actually pretty weak. There are “big” guys, and then there are “strong” guys. There are guys who have muscles that look nice, and there are guys who have muscles that work well.

Are you a show horse or a work horse? One is not necessarily better than the other, but my personal opinion is that I’d rather be a work horse than a show horse.

Next time your muscles start to burn, just close your eyes, wander around in your inner darkness, find that switch and flick it to “fight.” You’ll be glad you did.

Related: CT Fletcher is correct: Over-training is a myth

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About the Author Douglas Ernst

I'm a former Army guy who believes success comes through hard work, honesty, optimism, and perseverance. I believe seeing yourself as a victim creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. I believe in God. I'm a USC Trojan with an MA in Political Science from American University.

7 comments

  1. Excellent encouragement! Digging deep when every muscle is screaming and you want to quit is exactly what makes our special forces “special”. Not everyone is cut out to be a SEAL, but anyone can achieve this level of determination with the right motivation. Taking the focus off the pain and putting the mind on a specific goal or reason for being there, will keep you in the game. Thank you for the reminder Douglas!

    1. Thanks for the read and comment, Diana. I agree — everyone has greatness in them, and having the right mindset will tease it out in our personal and professional lives.

      I’m not sure if you’re a runner, but here are a few more pieces I’ve written that might be of use to you as you pursue your training goals:

      “Why we run”

      “The Runner King”

    1. Glad to hear it, Arachnobat! What kind of workouts are you into? If you ever have any fitness-related questions, feel free to ask. If you ever want to bounce some ideas of me, just drop me a line here or on Twitter. Whatever your fitness goals are, if I can help you to attain them I will. Sometimes, even just a few words of encouragement are all someone needs.

    2. Strength training my mother and grandfather are very strong genetically so I try not to let it go to waste.

    3. Of course. I’m not certified — so keep that in mind — but I think I can give you general guidelines and pointers that are helpful. I’ve wanted to get certified for awhile since fitness has played such a huge role in my life since I was a kid.

      If you ever have a question and I can’t answer it for you, I’ll try and a.) find out or b.) point you to a video/article that moves you in the right direction.

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