Flex to Boost Your Willpower

Wanna skip that workout? Wanna eat that ice cream? Here’s how to increase willpower instantly, according to science.

To Win, Do Stuff. And Don’t Do Other Stuff

When it comes right down to it, building muscle, losing fat, and achieving just about any goal is simple: there are some things you must do… and there are some things you shouldn’t do.

We make these “do it” and “don’t do it” decisions hundreds of times every day. They add up. And all of them involve willpower, whether it’s doing the tough exercise you really don’t want to do, or resisting the junky food you really want to eat. Even getting your ass to bed at a decent hour takes self-control.

Whether or not you succeed in your long-term goal is basically a game of willpower math: make more good decisions than bad decisions to equal the outcome you’re after.

All of these big and small daily choices are preceded by a brief expression of willpower. And researchers have found a way to instantly (yes, really) boost willpower during that crucial time of decision making – just flex your muscles.

The Study

Researchers put study participants through a variety of “self-control dilemmas.” These involved everything from seeing how long they could withstand pain (submerging their hands in icy water for time), to drinking a healthy but nasty-tasting beverage, to making food choices.

In a nutshell, participants who tightened their muscles displayed more self-control and willpower. Funny thing is, it didn’t seem to matter which muscles were flexed or clenched.

The authors of the study concluded:

“The mind and the body are so closely tied together, merely clenching muscles can also activate willpower. Simply engaging in these bodily actions, which often result from an exertion of willpower, can serve as a non-conscious source to recruit willpower, facilitate self-control, and improve consumer wellbeing.”

The Only Caveat

The muscle tightening must occur right in the moment. Flexing your biceps before going to The Cheesecake Factory isn’t going to help you resist the 1520-calorie Oreo Dream Extreme Cheesecake.

Nope, you’ll need to flex at the table, at the moment you feel tempted. I’d suggest a discrete calf flex since some silly people might think you’re strange if you hit a most muscular in the main dining room.

How to Use This Info

This willpower boost may help you out with either avoidance or adherence situations:

  • Clench if you’re about to blow your diet and need a shot of self-control.
  • Flex if you’re tempted to skip out on a scheduled workout or a tough exercise you’re dreading. (I’m looking at you, cardio day.)
  • Avoid gains-killing jail time by squeezing your glutes when that one asshole in your gym is doing crunches on the only available bench.

You get the idea.




  1. Iris W. Hung and Aparna A. Labroo. From Firm Muscles to Firm Willpower: Understanding the Role of Embodied Cognition in Self-Regulation. Journal of Consumer Research, 2010.