Fear and Courage in the Gym


By Keith Wassung

I turned 41 today and just finished up a great training session. I felt a certain amount of fear during this workout, but that is nothing new as I have felt the presence of fear in most of my workouts over the 27 years of lifting. Not the pee your pants shaking in your boots type of fear, but rather than little voice that does everything possible to prevent your success. One of the first workouts I ever did was a squat for 65lbs for 6-7 reps-it was hard, heavy and I was scared before and during the set. A little over ten years later I was squatting 600lbs for the same number of reps and it was still just as hard, just as heavy and I was still just as scared. Boys are told at an early age to not be a fraidy cat and that fear is to be avoided like the plague. I believe that one of the keys to progress and success is not the avoidance of fear, but rather confronting and defeating it. The immortal John Wayne said that “Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.”

Show me a person who had never felt fear in the gym and I will show you a person who is either a maniac (and there are a few of those in the iron game) or a person who is very average and in all likelihood will stay that way. I have had workouts where I felt no fear at all. They were training sessions where I had decided that it would be best to just do some ?maintenance work? or not push too hard for any variety of reasons. On those days, fear did not make its presence known because I had already made the decision to fail in advance of the workout.

I have an uncle, who is a nice fellow, but very pessimistic. He tends to disguise his pessimism in the form of being wise and caring. If someone in our family tells him that they are considering going into the hardware store business, he will lovingly reply that the hardware business is a tough business and that he had had several friends lose everything they had trying the same thing. If someone says they are going to Miami for a vacation, he will say that Miami is a nice place, but it had the highest tourist murder rate in the country. He never comes right out and tells someone that they will fail, but he sure likes to suggest and imply it. Fear is the exact same way. It makes hints and suggestions and always tries to encourage you to take the easy path. Fear has a tendency to go after you in areas in which you are most vulnerable. It finds and exposes your areas of weakness.

The following are some methods to help you “saddle up”

Just show up. Make a determined decision that you will show up for your workout no matter what the circumstances. Have a plan and have a back-up plan. Your boss assigns you a last minute project and you have to work late and by the time you leave work the gym is closed. Decide in advance what you would do. Is there another gym in town that is open later, do you have a friend with a home gym? I strongly encourage everyone to have some type of equipment at their home, even if they have a gym membership. It does not have to be anything fancy-a pair of adjustable dumbbells stashed in the closet will do.

You arrive home late and you only have ten minutes to train-its amazing what you can do in ten minutes if you have made a decision to show up no matter what the circumstances. Pick your most productive compound move and do as many reps as you can in ten minutes in a rest-pause fashion. Some of the most incredible training sessions I have ever had have been these short, last minute, impromptu type workouts.

Start your day our right. I have found that I can tell what kind of day I am going to have by what happens in the first thirty minutes that I am awake. If I wake up and discover that we are out of coffee, or I can?t find my wallet, keys etc then all of a sudden I am in a mad scramble and then I skip breakfast and get something ?on the way? to work and the whole day sort of follows that same pattern including the training session. Take five minutes before going to bed and ensure you have everything ready to go for the next day. Pack your gym bag, get the coffee pot prepared (if you drink coffee) Make sure you have whatever food items you will need for the next day. I even lay out all of my supplements on the vanity in the bathroom so that I won’t forget to take them.

Take the time to properly warm-up. I will be honest, I hate warming up. It seems like such a waste of time and energy. The real reason that most guys hate warming up is that it exposes our pathetic level of conditioning. Though I have taken measures to correct this, there was a time when a simple ten minute warm-up almost left me winded, and then you start worrying that it will affect your lifts for that day. Ten minutes of warming up will just about equal ten hours of rehabilitation for an injured muscle. Years ago, I had to have some repairs made on my truck, so I was without a vehicle for a couple of days. I had a ride to work, but no way to get to the gym, which was about 8 miles from my house. My neighbor loaned me his bicycle and I decided to ride it to the gym. As I was riding along, I knew that this particularly day was a heavy squat day and that I would probably have to go light or cancel it altogether knowing that after a long bike ride, there was no way that I could handle heavy squats. I arrived at the gym and began my workout. The squats had never felt so smooth and I had an incredible workout. I have found that the best warm-up is to do something that elevates your overall body temperature and then doing a couple of singles with the weights to get your body primed for the big sets.

When doing any set that involves multiple repetitions, focus on doing just one rep at a time. If you are going to do 8 reps, then think of your set as 8x1, rather than 1x8. When you are on rep number two and you are thinking about reps 6-8, this drains you of the necessary mental energy and allows fear to win. Focusing on one rep at a time also will allow you to use near perfect form.

There are certain things that you would not do if I offered you a million dollars, but you would not hesitate to do the same thing for free for someone you love. Dedicate an especially tough set or series of repetitions to someone you love or someone you care about and then do it. You will be amazed at the extra power it will give you. When performing a 20 rep set of squats, the last couple of reps are hard and painful, but at least you know it’s almost over and that can help you finish the set. The tough reps are from about 11-17 as they are just as painful, but you know that you still have a long way to go. I often dedicate these types of reps to people in my family, friends and often our brave soldiers that are defending our country.

Reward yourself. When you reach certain milestone goals in your lifting then celebrate by rewarding yourself with a new piece of equipment or a special dinner, etc. My family knows that if Dad has a really good Saturday workout, then it’s dinner at the Outback Steakhouse that night. They often come out to my garage gym and cheer me on-ok, they are really cheering for a steak, but I pretend it’s for me. Sales organizations frequently have inventive contest for their sales people because they are highly effective. Use little things like this in your training for bigger gains.

One last quote from John Wayne-I am not sure what it will mean to you, but it hits me a certain way.

“Life is tough, but its even tougher when you’re stupid” John Wayne

Keith Wassung

Thank you for that, Keith.

Great post.
It tells that you really walked your walk by the way you talk.
You have a great dedication and looks like entire family is supportive. Good combination. I look forward to posts/article from people like you.
Man you are inspiring.

I feel the same fear when I am benching alone for a max, but then feel really good after doing it.

Why is this guy not a regular contributor? give him a blog or something !

Damn Keith! another stellar article - keep 'em coming. I really enjoy your writing.

Thanks for sharing your training wisdom with the board. I’m sure I’m not the only one who appreciates it.


That’s a fantastic read. I turned 46 on Saturday, and went to the gym with some unrealistic expectations of how I wanted to “celebrate” by accomplishing some PRs. Not good, partially because I gave in to fear–fear of pain, fear of failure. But I had a long talk with myself about perspective and aging and fear (!), and yesterday set a new PR on ass-to-grass squats. Your essay is absolutely right on about psyching yourself through the workout and doing it right, no matter the circumstances.
Thanks for sharing it.

I second the amazingness of this article. Good tips, and I could actually feel some of those sets you were talking about… makes me want to go get scared under a really heavy bar.


Yet another superb article. Thanks Keith.

[quote]OARSMAN wrote:
Why is this guy not a regular contributor? give him a blog or something !

Damn Keith! another stellar article - keep 'em coming. I really enjoy your writing


Thanks a lot, I really got something out of that. Now, I’m gonna go bust some ass!

Man, you hit the nail on the head. I feel a sense of dread before an intense workout.