The Gut Check: Mental Strength Through Physical Training

Willpower is an unbelievably powerful quality that can and should be trained through regular gut-checks.

Humanity delights in the idea of a challenge. We are fascinated by iconoclasts like Wim Hof who push the limits of what our bodies are capable. Something deep within us yearns to test our boundaries—to enter the challenge in pursuit of becoming something greater.

Humanity delights in the idea of a challenge. We are fascinated by iconoclasts like Wim Hof who push the limits of what our bodies are capable. Something deep within us yearns to test our boundaries—to enter the challenge in pursuit of becoming something greater.

That is why we all dream and scheme about the challenges we plan to take on—January’s newest 60-day extreme fitness program, daily cold showers, the RKC, or building up to conquer a triathlon. The planning is the fun part. Separated from the trial, our emotions are swept away by the glory of triumph and overcoming. We feel only the power, strength, and confidence that would be the end result, without a true accounting of the price that must be paid.

This is helpful for getting us where we need to be. We need the passion of our emotions and our deepest desires for growth to fuel us towards greater heights. Yet, emotion alone will be insufficient. As anyone who has been through these trials knows, emotion might get us there, but it is the first force to whisper “quit”—and before long it is yelling.

Emotion, Logic, and Self-Mastery

Emotions are often demonized as the great saboteur of our better angels. We’d all be toned, fit, wise, and endlessly patient if it weren’t for those pesky emotions, right? Wrong. Absent of emotion we would never strive valiantly.

We’d never have the desire to improve in the first place. We’d sit and scroll honoring the biological imperative to conserve energy. You see, emotion is irrational and extremely short-sighted, but it’s still usually in control. Our logical brain must funnel and harness our emotions so that we find ourselves in a position to rise to the occasion.

For more guidance on how to master the interplay between your logical and emotional mind to act as you’d like to act, I recommend my free e-book, The Essential Guide to Self-Mastery.

Logically, the gut check makes perfect sense. Enter temporary pain for far greater long-term health, confidence, physical vigor, and happiness. Consistently overcome temporary adversity in order to become who you want to be. It’s important to stoke those innermost desires to be more. All of us yearns for significance, competence, and greater capability.

As kids, we want to be superheroes and sports stars. We dream of valiant, ground-breaking performances. From our earliest years, we are striving to model our parents—the first superheroes in our lives. We need continual growth and we know it. That is why the prospect of a force of will—a rite of passage—is deeply attractive to our minds.

Say emotion and logic have fueled you to plan that gut check. Perhaps it is the daily micro-gut check like a cold shower or a grander gut-check like the 5-minute kettlebell snatch test, a Crossfit Fran, or a marathon. Regardless, emotion may have got you here, but it is entirely insufficient to see you through. Two factors will determine your success more than anything: progression and practice.

Progression and Practice

You can’t bite off too much to chew initially. Sure, mothers lift cars to save kids and other amazing headlines, but absent of a life or death scenario your capacity to gut yourself through a physical challenge is limited by your current level. Too much too quickly may lead you to quit. Emotions perceive only relativity.

If action is too drastic initially it will be mentally categorized along with burns, broken bones, and other stuff you never want to have happen again. Any future thoughts will be accompanied by terror. Many swimmers have been held back for years by such experiences.

The utility of the gut check is actually to slowly inoculate yourself to such fears so you can be in control of your actions. Thus, for some just showing up and doing a short, simple bodyweight routine each day is the ideal practice for their current level of willpower.

You want to start with some frequent, attainable yet challenging gut checks. When I was training for the RKC 5-minute kettlebell snatch test, I made every Saturday a test day. Week one I did as many snatches as possible in two minutes. Week two was two and a half minutes. Week three was three minutes, and I continued in this fashion until I got to five minutes.

Once I was doing five-minute snatch tests, the goal was to improve how fast I could do 100 snatches each week. I would never say it became easy and I never looked forward to this challenge, but by progressing I ensured that my body and mind were capable. Quitting in the middle of a test, therefore, was never an option.

There are experiences exempt from the progression rule. Anyone can take a cold shower. You just step in. Still, many people have to work up to this by chasing other disciplines first and time in the shower could be progressed.

We should also be wary of setting the bar too low for too long. While progressing intensity makes sense, it is easy to limit ourselves with low expectations particularly in the absence of social pressure. For example, I was stalled in the upper 140’s and lower 150’s for my five-minute kettlebell swings test for months. I’d conceded 155 was my limit. Then one day my wife jumped in and did 157 at the women’s test size. I now never put the bell down and always hit above 190.

The Tabata protocol is a perfect place to start progressing towards a gut check. A Tabata is eight rounds of 20 seconds on and 10 seconds off. You could pick a simple exercise like lunges, glute bridges, or bear walks, or make it more challenging as bear crawls, push-ups, or even front squats.

It all depends on your level, but the point is to do one or two a week so you build experience facing the strong emotions that accompany physical discomfort. Slowly, you build the habit of entering discomfort every time it is planned.

This is the point. The gut check is a vital life practice. We improve through practice. Willpower is an unbelievably powerful quality. It can and should be trained like any muscle and skill. In fact, I don’t know anything more important to train. Of all the benefits of exercise, this is the most important: to consistently confront adversity and grow from that process.

When Your Mind Turns on You

“Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”

Vince Lombardi

Regardless of how impressive your planning and progression, there is no escaping one reality of the gut check: it is going to suck. Progression will help you build up to that suck, but it’s important to know going in. No level of experience softens the pain.

However, by analyzing the stages of this suck and learning a bit more about how your emotions work, you can be far better able to thrive despite your pain. Below, I’ll detail what you can expect to encounter, followed by a mental approach that you can practice to become stronger in the face of pain.

The Stages of the Gut Check

  1. Planning: We tend to delight in the prospect of planning where we are focused only on who we are becoming. It’s as if our craving for growth knows it must bring exaggerated enthusiasm in order to reach the treachery that is to follow. Somehow we imagine ourselves like a Clydesdale, executing with inhuman stamina and grace. This stage, unfortunately, only occurs once. For repeated gut checks it is replaced by a longer, more intense second phase.
  2. Dread: The realization of the pain that is to come. The first time you do a gut check this is likely short and mild, buffered by sweet naivety. For repeat customers, this dread can become obsessive in the minutes leading up to the challenge. Through time and exposure, however, dread recedes.
  3. Beginning: You start the challenge. Immediately upon submersion into my challenge, I am usually flooded with thoughts:

“Steady and smooth just like this.”

“Control your breath.”

“Wedgie. Dang it! I knew I shouldn’t have worn these shorts.”

“My grip feels a little weak today.”

“I slept well. Thought I’d be fresher.”

“Maybe if I breathe with my mouth open it will feel better.”

“There is phlegm in my throat. I need to cough”

“Damn, I’m not even a quarter of the way there.”

“Oh crap. What did I get myself into?”

  1. Survival Mode: It now officially sucks. As the philosopher, Mike Tyson observed, “Everyone has a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth.” At this point, self-talk can get even more rapid and extreme as the mind desperately looks for distractions and tricks to make things better. Every ounce of wimp within you will surface, trying to replace your resolve with a docile victimized passivity. You may even strongly consider quitting. There are intermittent bursts of encouragement when you realize you are close to finishing, but these are quickly clouded by the intensity of the experience.
  2. It Ends: You catch your breath, often too dramatically.

“Observation and perception are two different things. The observing eye is stronger. The perceiving eye is weaker.”

Miyamoto Musashi

While these are typical responses, there are many breakthroughs that come over time. By frequently revisiting gut checks and practicing a meditative approach, we can learn to change our mental dialogue. Meditation teaches you to be present letting your judgments and ruminations about bad and good go as you observe the moment.

You learn to take each moment as it is and let go of the need to fight pain away. I always think of meditation as a state of non-dialogue. Thoughts will come and go, but rather than entertain them I remain in the moment. Rather than trying to distract from the moment, you lean into experience.

The goal in all performance is what is referred to in Zen as Mushin, or mind without mind. Mushin is flow—complete immersion with the moment. There is no wishing or wanting for the future. Objectives are internalized to such a degree that the conscious mind is completely lost as the unconscious navigates the practiced details and adapts as necessary.

The default response is to fight the pain away. The objective is to lean into the pain and embrace it. This is not done with self-talk but practice. Jump into a cold shower and release the mind. Swing a bell to exhaustion and watch the fatigue build. Most of our pain is in the future.

You certainly notice sensations in the present, but they don’t become painful or deeply unsettling without the mental conjecture about what is left to come. At a certain point, you realize the experience isn’t getting more painful. It is similar to hunger. Pain doesn’t just continue to grow at a steady rate, it plateaus. You just have to endure, moment by moment.

Endure the Discomfort

This all sounds great, but it is much easier said than done. I’ve been a pretty consistent meditator for five years and I’m only marginally better at applying these principles. In part, that is because I’ve only recently realized the obvious connection between meditation practice and physical adversity.

Mindfulness is hard to apply in the middle of intense emotion. The mind clings to thoughts like life rafts. I’ve noticed when I let them go and try to remain present in the middle of a gut check, I start to notice the markers of anxiety—itchiness in the back of my neck and an odd tingling on my head. These subside, however, and I grow stronger from the presence. Of course, I slip back and forth from presence to mental dialogue, often without realizing, but overall there has been great progress.

One fine gut-check, while in the middle of my 5-minute swings test it finally occurred to me that I was completely fine. I had stayed far more present this morning. Rather than constantly ruminating about where I was in the process—about how much more was left and how uncomfortable it was already—I was just swinging.

Then a funny thought hit me. This really isn’t so bad. I started to notice how easy I was breathing—far easier than normal when I’d created anxiety with speculation. I let that easy breath anchor me home and somehow seemed to gain strength as I went along. This new mental plane has not become the norm, but I am working in that direction.