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How to build grit in the gym

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Joel Snape is a decade-long lifter who’s competed in strongman, endurance sport and MMA. He also writes at livehard.co.uk

What single quality, above all others, is most predictive of you doing well in lifting and life? It’s not IQ: as Malcolm Gladwell notes in Outliers, once you hit the ‘smart enough’ point on the bell-curve – 120 or so, which describes a decent chunk of the population – more isn’t really a predictor of any extra success. Genetics? Definitely in certain fields, though it only becomes overwhelmingly important at the highest levels of international sport – and almost anyone can improve on what they’ve got. ‘Talent’? It’s not even really a properly-defined term, and almost every study and expert agrees that hard work is equally important.

You already know the answer from the headline, of course: what seems to be the best predictor of success is what American scientist/psychologist/researcher and MacArthur “genius” grant winner Angela Duckworth calls ‘Grit’, or the perseverance and passion to keep going in pursuit of long-term goals. Duckworth’s given a ‘grit’ survey (typical ‘statement’ – “Setbacks don’t discourage me,” to everyone from West Point academy graduates to schoolkids, and, in every case, participants who have higher grit do better at whatever tasks they set themselves.

You probably already know this too, of course: sticking with things is the best way to get better at them. But the interesting part is that Duckworth, among others, has noted that it’s possible to build grit by deliberately doing difficult things. Duckworth, her husband and children each choose at least one ‘hard thing’ to be practising at any given time – anything from piano or writing to tennis or swimming – and focus on deliberately trying to improve it. And the gym, with its clear-cut structure for improvement, is one of the best places to do the same: if you tackle it properly. But how? Here’s how.

Do hard things in the gym
This probably won’t be a problem, depending on your programming: any solid lifting programme will have moments that take a gut-check to get through, whether that means a brutal technical drop-set or a nasty fat-loss circuit. It can be tougher, though, if you’re on a strength-based plan: long rests and low reps can take a mental toll, but depending on what percentage of your max you’re lifting, they’re not as tough as a body comp plan. If that’s the sort of plan you’re on, an easy fix can be to add a short, nasty finisher to your sessions: say, a 500m row, which won’t detract too much from the qualities you’re focusing on elsewhere. Once a week is probably enough to keep you on track.

Don’t cut workouts short
There’s a passage in Jon Hotten’s classic bodybuilding book Muscle where he talks about Dorian Yates’ approach to his workouts: “He’d begin to question himself: ‘Do I feel strong today?’ ‘Am I gonna do forced reps?’ ‘Am I a little tired?’…he’d stretch and warm up. This was the last point at which he might pull the plug. Once he gave himself the green light, it was on…all of the pre-set targets were hit, and he walked away.’ Every time you quit on a workout, you’re ‘teaching’ yourself that quitting is an option: and, on the flipside, every time you gut it out you teach yourself to stick to your plans. Even if you’ve picked something stupid to do – unless there’s a serious risk of injury – get it done. At the very least, you’ll learn not to overcommit to stupid workouts.
 
Commit to your training plans
Whatever she or her teenagers/husband pick for their ‘hard thing’, Duckworth has one clear rule: you can quit at a natural stopping point (the end of term, after a test, hitting a certain milestone) but not after a bad day. If you’re a veteran programme-hopper – you already know whether this is you or not – commit to tackling a plan for a reasonable amount of time (this might be the full 16-week cycle for the Juggernaut method, or anywhere from three to twelve months on 5/3/1) and don’t drop off it to try something else until it’s over. It’s the same with nutritional plans: if you’re going to commit to something, finish it. At the very least, you’ll learn to be more careful about what you commit to.

What you do in life has echoes in the gym, and vice versa. And by building grit in one place, you’ll be able to draw on it when it counts. Go do something unpleasant today.

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