10 Ways to Build Mental Toughness

Mental toughness is a key characteristic of long lived people and of anyone that seeks to make his or her own way in the world. While you could join the Navy SEALS to build mental toughness and see if you have what it takes, here are 10 things I have personally found that build mental toughness that will keep you out of harm’s way.

1. Hot and Cold showers.

When you are taking your morning shower alternate between hot and cold, allowing for the coldest water your house produces to hit you for 30 seconds before switching again to hot. I live in Florida and this really builds toughness in the winter time when the water gets colder, but I recently came back from a trip in Michigan where it really helped to have the icy cold water at 6:00 a.m. be the first test of my mettle for the day. After that other challenges seem a little easier since you already put yourself through some “pain.”

Cold Showers

2. Fasting.

The first time I heard about fasting my initial thought was “how is depleting your recovery by not getting any food to rebuild good for you again?” I then read about mental training and how fasting is a great way to train your willpower because you will want to eat while you are consciously refraining from doing so. Try fasting for a 24 hour period once a month (or a week if this appeals to you). The easiest and most practical way to do it is to stop eating after lunch on one day and then resume eating on lunch the next day. You will learn to appreciate food, recognize your food choices, and build confidence to handle any challenge that come your way. Also for those of us in the military, it is a great experience to put yourself through to train the body to perform without food, just in case we have to evade in a “behind enemy lines” scenario.

3. For a mental toughness workout ask yourself, “What is the one thing I would most detest to do right now?” and DO that!

I was on military leave in Puerto Rico enjoying some time with family and friends and I was scheduling my work out. Without a gym or any of my equipment and while thinking of mental toughness I asked myself this question. The answer was obvious and came within a split second, “Tuck Jump Burpees and Mountain Climbers!” It is amazing how the answer to this question is at the tip of everyone’s consciousness. So I made the most detestable workout I could think of: Tuck Jump Burpee ladders followed by Squat ladders as my “recovery” and then finishing with Mountain Climber ladders. I did it and the mental conditioning I got from it was greater than the conditioning I received from it (and a conditioning ass kicking I duly received!) Once a month put yourself through this process.

4. Start a discipline and KEEP IT.

If you are like me you are constantly reading about great ideas, workout programs, cool exercises, mental training, etc. Every now and then you will see some of this material come with a requirement that you do it for three months or something like that to see results. This happened with a particular breathing exercise I came upon. I made it a point to do it every morning for three months just like the instructions indicated. Keeping my word to myself provided greater benefits than the breathing exercise itself. A GREAT three month program for you to build your mental toughness is Extreme Military Fitness, try it!

5. 1,000 swing workout.

If you have heard of Bud Jeffries 1,000 swing workout and have not tried it I urge to give it an honest go. It took me about 8 weeks to accomplish this feat. I started at 300 swings and added 100 swings each week. I clearly remember one day I took my kettlebell to the office at Naval Station Mayport and while everyone was at lunch I took my kettlebell to a woodland area and did 700 swings. When I came back to work everyone was bitching and moaning and I was elated, I had just swung a kettlebell for 700 times, a new PR! Of course when I reached the mythical 1,000 swings I realized that something a whole lot greater than 1,000 swings had been accomplished. I had set a goal and reached it!

6. Isometrics.

Adding isometrics to the end of your workout is a great test of your willpower and mental toughness. What I have been doing is picking a couple of exercises, like wall sit and pullup hold, and starting at 30 seconds to one minute. Then every workout I add five seconds. Yes, the first two weeks are OK, but then it becomes a REAL test! Holding the pullup in the top position for one minute is toughest part of ANY workout!

Eric Guttmann Isometrics

Bud Jeffries showing Eric a combination Isometric exercise.

7. Do 50 reps of the deadlift in a row with your bodyweight on the bar.

This is another one of those 3-4 month goals. When I first heard of this from Steve Maxwell, he actually said try “to do 50 deadlifts in as few sets as possible with your weight on the bar.” I said to myself, “well, the fewest number of sets is ONE, so that means I have to get to the point where I do 50 reps in ONE set.” This actually took me four months to achieve. I started at 10 sets of five reps and built up from there, improving every week. Actually the toughest workout was the first time I did 25 deadlifts in a row because that was the workout that unlocked something in my body. Try it!

8. Self-Discipline of Happiness.

This is quite an interesting idea. Enroll in the 24/7 self-discipline of happiness. I recently incorporated this type of mental toughness training and while I was giving a seminar in Michigan I called my wife in Florida during the break. She informed me that she was recently in a car accident and while she was fine the new car I just bought for her had a cracked bumper and that now we had to start the whole process of getting it fixed. Of course my first reaction was “WHAT!?!” and then I heard a little voice in my head go, “Dude, you said you were going to enroll in the self-discipline of happiness, so now you have to own up to it.” I realized this was true and relaxed as I told my wife that the car would get fixed and that I would be home shortly. Yes, to commit to this self-discipline 24/7 is probably the HARDEST thing on this list!


9. Shatter a previous PR.

That’s right, get it in your head that you are going to SHATTER a previous PR and develop a training program to accomplish this goal. The first time I squatted 405lbs I was ELATED and completely engulfed in achieving that goal. Again, that was a process that took months for me. Whatever sport, discipline, activity or workouts you do, there is a PR you can DECIDE to shatter right NOW and get to work on it immediately.

10. Attend a hard training course. There is something magical that happens at a good and physically demanding course. I found that the Elite Combat Fitness instructor course and the Commando Krav Maga instructor course are great tools for developing mental toughness and awesome self-defense skills. Of course attending Bud Jeffries’ and Logan Christopher’s Super Human Training in January 4-6, 2013 in Tallahasee, FL is a GREAT way to build your mental toughness and perhaps shatter a PR as well!

2 comments on “10 Ways to Build Mental Toughness”

  1. Bruce Stevens Reply

    Im not really an avid body builder or strong man competitor however Im still gunning for an Overhead Press @ BW. Today I tried to combine Ethan Reeves Density with percentages from 5/3/1 using singles, doubles & triples as rep scheme. Today I weighed myself and came in at 183lbs. Below is Mondays workout. Any advice on attaining an Overhead Press @ BW

    Clean & Press @ 171lbs

    Clean & Press @ 166lbs

    Clean & Press @ 161lbs

    ^Clean & Press singles^

    Clean & Press @ 146lbs

    full ROM Slow Dips @ 100lbs

    full ROM Slow Dips @ 75lbs

    Push Ups @ 60lbs

    Front Squats @ 180lbs

    • Eric Reply


      I would recommend the following:

      1. Make a DECISION that you will Overhead Press your bodyweight and that you will stick to this decision regardless of the time it takes you to achieve it. For some mysterious reason, when you are prepared to go for the long haul progress seems to come faster and you are also mentally prepared to do the work to get you there.
      2. If I am reading your workout correctly the Clean & Press is your Overhead Press and you have already achieved a 171 lbs press and you weigh 183 lbs so you have 12 lbs to go to achieve your goal. Test your 1RM every week and take 1-2 days off before you do so. See if you can accomplish this withing the next 8 weeks. You will probably reach it sooner with the right dedication and training plan, which seems you already have in place.
      3. I would also highly recommend attending the Super Human Training Workshop, just look at the lineup of people attending… its amazing! I consider myself extremely lucky to be in the company of such world class lifters and to learn from them.


      Hope this helps!

      All my best,
      Eric Guttmann

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