T Nation

Mental Strength

Hey Jim, I wanted your advice on gaining mental strength. I have a problem when I got balls to the wall on a training program for 2-3 weeks and then burn out mentally. Same thing goes for when I run, I’m about .5 miles in and the monkeys in my head start to chatter and I burn out. I know the simple answer is to just keep going (which I do finish most the time) but I was wondering if Strength training relates to mental toughness. I want this to transfer to my everyday life because I think too much and can never enjoy myself. Thanks for any tips.

I’m not Jim, but if you don’t mind; what does your diet look like? 5/3/1 is a very intense and taxing program (if you run it correctly as described in Jim books). It will tax your CNS intensively, hence your diet must meet the requirements. I used to be fully exhausted both physically and mentally when I was running 5/3/1 while on deficit. Since I’ve modified my diet to include more complex carbs and took care of pre/post workout nutrition everything changed, no more exhaustion, DOMS almost vanished and brain is not burning.


That’s kind of the only answer. The only advice I can give you is not to go balls to the wall all the time. Work hard, not to death.

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Hey legend,
again, not Jim but just chiming in my two cents. For me, Strength training has definitely carried over into my life. The principles of 531 are pretty applicable to everyday life and pretty much all situations. The concept of ‘starting too light’ is basically just not biting off more than you can chew, make whatever the task is manageable and keep moving forward. I found that applying myself with dedication and commitment in the gym made me more accountable while I’m studying…widowmaker squats suck, as do writing 15 page reports, but you just learn to get them done. You’re not always going to set PR’s in the gym or life every day and that’s fine. What matters the most is showing up consistently and working towards being a better person.
Sorry to harp on, just what I feel I’ve gotten out of the program

you got this

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Perhaps it’s a generation thing, but I find that what I went through in life actually carried over to weight training and not the other way around.

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@dt79 I don’t know what generation you’re from but I agree. I learned pretty quickly after hitting 18 (I’m 31) that you have to do what needs doing. It won’t always be pleasant or easy and sometimes it’ll be plain hard but no-one cares. You do it, or bad shit happens. Training is easy. You choose to be there FFS.


We’re probably from the same generation. I’m just a few years older than you lol(36).

Exactly. In life, there is real shit at stake with actual consequences and people generally don’t play fair. You either adapt or die. You learn from your fuck ups. You get stronger. You figure out a way to get shit done no matter what. Or become one of those guys blaming everyone else for their problems and lamenting how unfair the world is.

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And like Jim says, you develop a solid set of PRINCIPLES over the years. When shit you don’t expect gets thrown at you, you don’t fold. You rely on these to get you through it.

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I can totally agree with you guys. Life is hard, training is not ( or at least not in the same degree). Parenthood, work, social relations etc. feels often much more demanding than training. Going to the gym gives me my own personal space and peace where I can just focus on lifting. The pushing myself physically actually reliefs/relaxes me.

To the OP. Of course you should push yourself and learn to be comfortable when feeling uncomfortable. Biggest problem may be that you train hard ALL THE TIME. Not every workout should leave you grippled. Learn to train hard, but smart (this is build in at the program and if you read Jims texts he talks a lot about this).


A agree, I swear without lifting and pushing my physical limits in the gym I would go crazy.

My advice is to slow down and take a deep breath. While it sounds great to go “balls to the wall” in training, you have to be careful. Long term success is more dependent on consistency of effort over a long period of time than it is the intensity of a single workout.

I want to thank you for your post as I have been thinking a lot lately about mental toughness. Strength training does not come easy to me. I’m your classic ectomorph. Endurance training comes much more easily to me than strength training. In fact, my background is distance running. I spent many years racing marathons. As I got older (currently 56), I saw the need to add strength training to my routine. Advancing age was taking away what little strength I had!

One thing that I really appreciate about Jim’s approach is that he does not disparage folks like me who will never put up big lifting numbers. I am tough, however, and disciplined, so I have gotten stronger. Maybe not as strong as most here, but strong for me. I’m proud of the hard work I’ve put in and for having the courage to embrace an image of myself that was counter to my past. By that I mean having the ability to see skinny old me become strong. That definitely wasn’t part of my self-image for the vast majority of my life.

Here’s what this has to do with mental toughness. As 2016 rolled around, the principles taught by Jim were finally beginning to sink in and I was able to see a path forward that would allow me to become a better me. In fact, on New Year’s Day, I told my family that this would be the year of Being Awesome. Sounds corny, but when the words came out of my mouth they gave me a feeling of power over my destiny. I know. Corny.

Then on January 30 of this year I had a major heart attack. All my plans were immediately derailed. I’m very lucky to be alive. So, here I am 3 months post heart attack and I’m just returning to lifting. I have been doing aerobic exercise and am trying to build up to a 3 mile run. If I was weak before, you should see me now! My lifts are at about 50% of what they were before. That’s tough to take mentally. Immediately post attack, I felt stupid for even having lifting equipment in my house.

What I’ve learned from training for distance running and, most recently, 5/3/1, is that the important thing is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I don’t know where my new lifting will eventually take me, but I do know that I will be stronger than if I didn’t lift.

Like I said, slow down and take a breath. Figure out your goals. What kind of person do you want to be? It would be great if the path from here to there could be linear, but it won’t be. There will be obstacles. Job, relationships, health. You name it. Circumstances will change, but who you are inside can stand strong. That is mental toughness to me. Some days it might be having the toughness to gut out a run or a set of lifts. Other days it might be having the toughness to take a step backwards and reset.

I hope some of what I shared is relevant. I too have been a victim of thinking too much. Not enjoying the present because I focused on what I felt still needed to be done. Another corny line, but it’s true … the journey is more important than the destination. Learn to enjoy the ride.


Give yourself opportunities to succeed. Set short-term goals that are challenging but attainable.

Athletes mentally burn out due to some combination of overuse, boredom, and/or lack of relative success.

Psyching yourself out 1/2 a mile into a run could be your brain saying, "Why are you even running? Who do you think you are? You can’t finish this run. You’re never going to be fast anyway. Let’s go do something better with our time. Go eat some pizza…

If you quit at x distance, strive to run x + 1. Eventually that will be x + whatever the hell you want it to be.

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Compete. You will find your drive.

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“Mental” Strength is built the same way as physical strength - through repetition of work/challenges. Strength training transfers to “mental toughness” as mental toughness transfers to strength training.

The thought that there is physical/mental strength is kind of archaic - there is “strength” - just the same way people talk about “upper” and “lower” body - segmented ideas may make sense but they are limiting and ignorant.

The greatest mental strength I think one can have is simply living how you want, never adhering to made-up standards/ideas and forging your own path. Can strength training help? Sure but it all works together.

You have “chatter” in your head. Unless its a specific medical/emotional condition, I can assure you that you need to turn off the bullshit entering it: namely never watch any TV or use a computer for anything but work (stay off internet). You are living in a world that is constantly throwing ideas/images/opinions and none of them are really valid. Its all just a big fucking mess.

99% of people will think this is stupid or call me “paranoid” or whatever. I’m not paranoid of anything but I refuse to do anything on internet that doesn’t directly involve me/work. We don’t watch any commercials/news or read any social media (unless it’s work related).

The difference is immense. The world is fucking awesome and just doing so has opened up new, real relationships. Or you can choose to live in a virtual world of fear, pretend and be persuaded by people who have ZERO interest in your well-being. Read real, classic books. Learn a language. Learn an art. Train hard. Have real people in your life. Save most of your money (read my article some time on how to have total power in your life which is very simple to do) and you’ll have true freedom. And that, to me, is real mental strength. You can’t be an idiot or weak to have freedom.


This here.

And this:

The difference is immense. The world is fucking awesome and just doing so has opened up new, real relationships. Or you can choose to live in a virtual world of fear, pretend and be persuaded by people who have ZERO interest in your well-being. Read real, classic books. Learn a language. Learn an art. Train hard. Have real people in your life. Save most of your money (read my article some time on how to have total power in your life which is very simple to do) and you’ll have true freedom. And that, to me, is real mental strength. You can’t be an idiot or weak to have freedom.

I’m pulling out or pulling in~whatever you want to call it. 5 years ago lost my job, and what I thought was all meaning of life. Needless to say spent time looking for the answers at the bottom of a bottle; became depressed and came real close to losing my wife and kids. Lost my Dad to Cancer, spent 3 months helping Mom battle the disease and things, mainly my thoughts and therefore my moods, continued to spin and spiral. About a year or maybe more ago, I just woke up and shut it all off. Changed my lifestyle to what JW mentions above. Only thing I would add; be positive with yourself and realistic in all aspects. Yeah you may F something up, or feel like crap, not have the best effort on a specific day but remember; You got off your a$$ and tried; that in and of itself is a victory. You are working hard at something. Dont get negative~ we get enough of that shit force fed to us. READ READ READ…anything, everything…

@Jim_Wendler- link to said article on 'total power in your life '? Would love to read. Google searched didn’t give me a hit. Always down with self improvement reads.

Here’s the relevant part of the article. It’s titled “How to be in Control”. It covers work ethic/money, attitude, strength/health, learning/education.

Work Ethic and Money

It takes no talent to work hard. And “work hard” doesn’t mean you put in 14
hours/day and work your hands until they bleed. Working hard means two things:
show up on time and do your job. And the
hard truth is that most of us will have a lot of jobs we don’t like. And that’s
why you keep working, keep learning and have ambition to improve. Louis CK had
a great line one time were he referenced a young person complaining about his
job. He remarked the reason why the young person had the shitty job is because
the older people, who have worked for years, don’t want to do it anymore. So
they give it to the young person. So while I would love to preach that everyone should love their job/career, it’s not reality. At best, I would hope people don’t hate their job and use the money they make (and the time away from the job) to do the things they love.

There has been a lot of information lately that admonishes hard work, saying that it’s not enough anymore. That people aren’t rewarded for their hard work. And there is no denying that the average American can no longer afford the American Dream. To that I say: the American dream is dead and I’m not sure it really even existed in the first place. I preach to my oldest son that the “new” American dream consists of two things: not being in debt and having freedom. Two things that are the reality in today’s world. This
means living well within your means, understanding that you don’t need ½ of the shit that is being thrown at you and you are not defined by your possessions. Freedom means being able to do the things you enjoy and not being controlled by someone
else’s standards of ideas of being happy.

Now if you have the money and can afford it, buy whatever you want. I don’t care and it is your money; you should have the right to keep and spend YOUR money. No one should have the right to your money but YOU. But if you don’t have the money or are being coerced into buying something that isn’t essential you are setting yourself up for a lifestyle that will drain you, literally and metaphorically. If we are going to be really Spartan about life, the essentials, at least most of them are: a clean place to live, heat, running water, clean clothes and food. Now of course, we’d all like other shit because the illusion of “standard of living” has gone up quite a bit. Dr. Ken wrote something awhile ago about being poor. About how he grew up poor and what he grew up with is NOT the same poor as today.

And no, I’m not saying there aren’t poor people but there is this odd illusion that everyone has the right to every POSSESSION that people have. You don’t need them and what’s even better is this: if you have a good job, and stay away from most of this useless shit, you will be saving more money and have that freedom that so few people have. It’s a great way to live; it allows you to breathe easy. It allows for shit to happen and you be “ok” financially. In essence you are lowering
your standard of living but only by the illusion of what is the standard. I’m not a conspiracy theorist but I do recognize a lot of people, a lot of friends, who struggle financially and it is a burden on them. On their lives, families and their health. It’s a tough time for many and if you can’t make more money, it’s time to change your outlook on what popular media is feeding you and what you really need to be happy. And if a new phone makes you happy or a TV or whatever – you need to take a step back and realize that you are wrong. There is no opinion to be had on this one.


This might have been the best advice I’ve received in quite some time. If you have any tips on breaking out of the matrix I live in I would value them. Thank you Jim.

hanymamdouh, When you were running 5/3/1 on a deficit and being exhausted, were you losing weight too?

I remember reading this a while back. It had such a huge impact on my life. It helped me to realize that the path that I’m on in life is a good one.

I didn’t have the best role models growing up, but it’s people like Jim Wendler that help young men like myself to live their lives with honor and pride. Over the past few years, I have really taken control of my life, and have been making it better every day. For this, I owe Jim and other like-minded individuals in the strength industry a huge thank you. You’ve made a huge difference in my life. I’m eternally grateful to be able to learn from people like Jim.

I only hope that more people can learn to use Jim’s advice in other aspects of their lives besides lifting weights. There is so much more to his words than many realize.

Thank you, Jim. I really appreciate everything you do for all of us that listen.