Sean Hyson

Fitness Distilled

July/August 2015

Stop Quitting On Yourself

posted on October 14, 2012
written by sean hyson

There may not be anything you can do to guarantee that you have a great workout every time, but there are several things that can prevent you from having a shitty one.

Aside from the obvious progress-stallers like lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and stress, most of us have a tendency to give in mentally when something doesn’t go our way in the gym.

Maybe you warm up to your work set and it suddenly felt a lot heavier than you thought it was going to. Maybe you missed the lift. Or you couldn’t get all the reps you had planned for. Something in your lower back gives out, or your energy level tanks. It’s real easy to quit on yourself.

Even if we don’t leave the gym right away, most of us lose interest then and there and give up on the rest of the workout, ensuring that we don’t get anything out of it. Yeah, we go through the motions and finish our sets, but we know we’re just wasting time. It’s like watching your favorite team fall way behind early in the game and going home before it’s over.

George Foreman lost every round of his fight against Michael Moorer... until he knocked him out and became the oldest man to win the heavyweight

You could be missing out on a great comeback.

Here are some strategies I’ve learned to build mental toughness and come back from a workout that started all wrong.

TRAIN WITH SOMEONE. Not necessarily a buddy. In fact, for the most part, I think the best training partners are people you have somewhat of a rivalry with or otherwise don’t always enjoy. If he or she is bigger, stronger, or crazier than you are, that’s even better.

When the chips are down, you need someone to get in your head, if not in your face, and make you get a hold of yourself and keep training hard. The sight of this person having a great workout or succeeding where you’ve failed should be motivation to make all your reps, get that PR, or not punk out on your last round of intervals. If he or she can coach you or provide words of encouragement, that’s great too, but make sure the person CARES about what you’re doing.

REHEARSE IT IN YOUR HEAD. No matter what the workout, think about what the hardest part of it will be beforehand. Visualize what the room looks like, where you’ll be, how the equipment will feel, what form points you need to remember, etc. This is one of those tips I rolled my eyes at for years because I thought it was hocus pocus. Try it once and you’ll see it’s not. The most successful people in any aspect of life have visions. They see things before they happen, and as a result, they DO happen.

Automobile magnate Lee Iacocca said that “the first step to getting something done is writing something down.” I don’t know what Iacocca could bench, but his point is understood. This goes hand in hand with the visualization exercise above—writing down the poundage you’re going to lift or the time you’re going to run for prior to the workout makes it seem more real. It fixes the idea in your head. Even if things start out ugly, you can still refer back to what you’ve written and use it to right your ship. Not writing it down is like not having a goal at all. You’ll settle for anything once you’re in the gym, and that usually means settling for less than what you really want.

DO A HEAVY WARM-UP SET. On the technical side, there are things you can do to help your body cooperate. Instead of getting psyched out by a lift, you can psych out your body’s own overprotective instincts to hit the numbers you want.

When you’re warming up to a heavy lift, make your last warm-up set 10–30 pounds heavier than what you want to use on your first work set. This works on an unconscious level, showing you that you can in fact lift even heavier than you’re trying to—the work set will feel light by comparison. But it also works very powerfully on a neural level. Your central nervous system will recruit more muscle fibers for that last warm-up set and keep them activated for your work set. It’s like converting your first main set into a lighter back-off set. It always feel easier to go “light” after going really heavy.

Obviously, you can’t do this if you’re going for a max single, double, or triple—although you could take out a heavier weight and just hold it so you get the feel, as in walking out a 400-pound squat, standing for a few seconds, and then walking it back in, unloading the bar to 380, and going for it. That can be beneficial. But on sets of five to 10 or so, the heavy warm-up set strategy is priceless.

BREATHE THROUGH IT. Your breathing controls your ability to manage stress, your capacity for aerobic and anaerobic exercise, and even your stability and leverage on lifts. When you’re getting tired in the middle of a high-rep set or some kind of cardio, controlling your breathing can make all the difference. You may need to breathe deeper or more or less often—your body will tell you—but lack of consistent air flow will crush your performance faster than anything. Oxygen fuels all exercise (yes, even anaerobic exercise), and it supports your structure just like your skeleton does. For example, blow all the air out of your belly and then see how much you can deadlift.

Bodybuilder Tom Platz’s pain threshold was unmatched.


In general, every rep should begin with a big breath of air. And there’s nothing wrong with a set of squats becoming “breathing squats”. Pause between reps for two or three breaths, increasing as needed as the set goes on. You’ll find that the more air you get, the more your confidence to finish what you’re doing increases.

USE TOOLS. It’s hard-core vogue these days to train without a belt, straps, wraps, chalk, or tacky because that’s what “old-school bad asses” do. The truth is, for most of us, this is going to be very limiting. The right gear not only provides physical assistance but also a mental edge. If you feel safer or supported, you will feel more comfortable training harder/going heavier. Tools like this become a problem when they’re used every workout or on every set. You have to know what heavy weight feels like without them, but your heaviest weight should be lifted with them. It’s a lot more hard-core to lock out 500 pounds with a belt and knee wraps than to go raw and get owned (and maybe injured) by it.

USE CAFFEINE. I’m sure you’ve tried your fair share of pre-workout supplements. They all have caffeine, and that’s probably the most important ingredient. I went through my phase of being “totally natural” and never trained with so much as a cup of coffee in me. And I usually trained in the morning. (What the hell was I thinking??)

Having gone both routes, I can tell you that caffeine makes a difference, and a good one at that. If there’s one place it’s ok to be a little jittery and have your heart racing, it’s the gym. So if caffeine amps you up, use it before workouts.

I just had a long conversation with Ben Bruno on this subject. Ben trains at Mike Boyle’s facility near Boston, and he’s worked with scores of high school, college, and pro athletes already in a relatively young career. He’s a smart trainer, but more importantly, he’s super passionate about what he does. Ben lives to challenge himself, and if you check out his Youtube page, you’ll see some ridiculous feats of fitness. His mental toughness and threshold for pain are quickly making him an Internet sensation.

Next time, I’ll share with you some of the methods he uses to hold it together for stunts like 35-rep sets of squats with 225, and 61 reps of trap-bar deadlifts with 275. (Yeah, Ben is nuts.)

Ben in action.


  1. Gravatar

    14 Oct, 2012

    Brad Catura

    Years ago in martial arts class, we were taught to mediate and use pre-visulization to see ourselves performing and overcoming the challenges that lay ahead of us that day. It works - try it!

  2. Gravatar

    24 Oct, 2012

    Ian Mackay

    Absolutely awesome article mate. Pure gold from start to finish. No BS, just helpful advice that I can use straight away.

  3. Gravatar

    24 Oct, 2012

    Sean Hyson

    Wow, thanks, Ian.

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