How To Push Through When You Don’t Want To
Perseverance is what separates the warriors from the everyman. We have all experienced getting halfway through a workout and feeling like your lungs are about to explode, your arms are like concrete and you’re convinced your legs are minutes from falling off.
It’s whether we give in to this, or push through it, that matters. Can you do it? Absolutely! Do you think people get their first pull-up by quitting as soon as it hurts? Or do athletes get to where they are by giving up? No. They persevere, and you absolutely have the ability to do the same.
So how do you push through that moment and pump out one more round or one more rep? If you’re thinking mind over matter, you’re half right, but it’s more like mind over mind. Our mind will always fail us before our body does - especially when it comes to working out.
The trick is learning to override your brain, with your brain. Confused? Let’s break it down.
Your mind will always quit first
Our brain controls everything in the human body. From our heartbeat to our personality, to which hand we write with, to how much pain we can withstand.
So when your legs are burning after 50 air squats, it’s not your muscles screaming out, it’s your brain. Here’s how it works:
Pain is all in your head
Pain is 100 percent mental. When your quads are on fire, the pain you feel is not actually a physical reaction of your muscle yelling out; it’s your brain.
The nerves in your muscle fibres register the ‘stress’ and send a message to the brain to say ‘we’ve got something going on here’. The brain then sends out the signal that ‘something feels threatening, we should probably stop’.
During a workout, pain and fatigue is the body’s defence mechanism to prevent it from enduring anything that could be harmful. In reality, your muscles haven’t reached their limit and you can more than likely manage one more rep or one more round. Think of it like the fuel light in your car. Your tank isn’t empty, but it could be getting close.
Now let’s be clear - when I am talking about pain in this instance, I am talking muscle stress or fatigue - not musculoskeletal pain. You should absolutely consult a health professional if you’re feeling anything abnormal.
How to override your mind
In order to get the most out of your workouts, you want to be able to push the body (just) outside your comfort zone (without causing an injury). So if it’s your brain telling you to stop, but your body actually has a reserve of energy before it really needs to rest, then pushing past that initial urge to quit and doing one more rep, or one more round, is the key to achieving the best results.
Here’s a few things to help you persevere during a tough workout, when your mind’s telling you to quit.
Take the emotion out of it
Is one more rep going to kill you? No? Then it’s probably not that bad, so do it. If you have to repeat this in your head over and over (I do all the time and it works, trust me), then repeat away.
Getting real with yourself and resetting your mind to focus on the reality, without the emotion, is necessary to push you through.
You have to want it
Remember why you’re doing this. Is it better to be a healthier and better parent to your kids? Or to be the best version of yourself? Surely that’s enough to warrant one more rep.
If you don’t want it, you won’t give it your all, and pushing past that mental barrier will be near impossible.
Smile like you mean it
It feels wrong and sometimes makes you look like a crazy person, but slapping a big smile across your face when you’d rather be crying during a workout is actually really helpful in getting you out of the pain cave.
Studies have shown by smiling, we’re attaching a positive emotion to the moment, tricking our brain into thinking we’re having a good time when we’re really not! Neat, huh?
Know your triggers
As you push yourself, take note of the warning signs your mind is about to tempt you with; telling you to give up. Maybe you start considering skipping a rep, or your technique gets sloppy.
As soon as you feel yourself edging into this phase, go through the above points and reset before you fall into a trap.
Be strategic from the get-go
If you’re staring at a big rep scheme with some intimidating numbers, it’s possible to psych yourself out before you even start.
Instead of starting your workout with a huge number or goal in mind, break it down into less-scary parts. For example, if you’re doing 100 push-ups, think of it as 10 sets of 10, or 20 sets of five.
Writing this as a tally on a whiteboard can also help you mentally get through the load because you can physically see your workload decrease as you go, giving your brain instant reward.
What about longer-term perseverance?
We’ve talked about a few ways to help you through a tough workout, but if the challenge for you is persevering with a healthy exercise regime in general, there are things you can do to improve this, too.
Willpower only lasts so long
Willpower has limits so be aware if you’re solely using this to get you to the gym each morning, it could soon run out. Exercising willpower burns energy and as those energy stocks deplete, the harder it becomes to not give in. Therefore willpower is only helpful short-term.
What will help you go back day after day is making your training a positive experience? When we want to do something, we don’t need willpower to fuel us. So focus on the positive aspects of hitting the gym - make it fun, celebrate your wins and take note of that ‘high’ you feel post-workout and pretty soon it will be easy to get up and go.
Ramp up the dopamine production
When training becomes a positive, rewarding experience, our brains produce dopamine - the reward hormone. Higher levels of dopamine have been linked to higher levels of perseverance.
So again, celebrate the wins, make working out exciting with interesting and challenging workouts like those in my FIERCE program.
When you enjoy training, you can turn ‘I have to do this even though I don’t want to’ mindset into ‘I want to do this’.
Habits are our brain’s way of being lazy; once something is automated, it doesn’t have to use energy to think about it. If heading to the gym at 6am every morning is a habit, requiring minimal brain effort, then you’re not going to have a chance to talk yourself out of it because you won’t even have to talk yourself into it - you’ll just do it!
Habits are formed through repetition and reward (which is where dopamine production can help), so get yourself into an enjoyable training schedule and stick to it long enough that it feels weird not to.
Don’t condition yourself to quit
Whether it’s sticking to a training schedule, or getting through those gritty parts of a workout, perseverance is what sets winners apart from the rest. It takes discipline and hard work, but it’s going to get you where you want to be.
If every time you start to get tired you stop, or choose to ‘go tomorrow instead’, you’re conditioning your brain to expect this behaviour and it will become your default.
So grit your teeth, swallow a dose of discipline and get out there, warriors!
* Results from FIERCE may vary. Strict adherence to the program is required for best results.