“The reason most people never reach their goals is that they don’t define them, or ever seriously consider them as believable or achievable. Winners can tell you where they are going, what they plan to do along the way, and who will be sharing the adventure with them.” – Denis Waitley
Success with fitness begins with your psychology, not your tactics.
As human beings, we often confuse activity with achievement and thus begin our fitness journeys diving headfirst by selecting a routine, joining a gym, and trying to learn the proper techniques.
Going that route usually ends in burnout or years of spinning your wheels.
If you want to master your fitness, you should start by taking a step back and analyzing the psychology behind your decision to get fit.
Those who take time to pinpoint their “why” have a much easier time with executing the “how.”
In this article, we’ll break down psychological tools you can use to stay motivated, disciplined, and balanced as you pursue your fitness goals.
1. Find Your Trigger
The decision to get serious about fitness is usually triggered by something:
- A New Year’s resolution to finally lose weight
- Your favorite pants that fit too tight
- A funny jab at your beer gut that hits too close to home
When I started my fitness journey, my motivation was to get healthy… or so I thought.
Turns out, I wasn’t flipping the right switch.
I began ticking off the stereotypical reasons people want to get fit until I found my trigger:
I simply wanted to look good!
Turns out I was driven by vanity. Getting healthy and being stronger were nice side effects, but my deepest desire was to get shredded with six-pack abs.
A superficial reason, no doubt. But realizing and owning up to this was a turning point for me, and if you’re honest with yourself, it can be a turning point for you, too.
A trigger clears the way for you to set a goal that satisfies your true desire.
2. Clearly Define Your Goal
We’ve covered the importance of setting concrete goals in this space before. Now that you have your trigger (i.e. looking damn good), you must define what that looks like.
Instead of aiming for better health, set specific goals like these:
- I want to achieve single-digit body fat.
- I want to increase my max lifts by 25%.
- I want to rock a six-pack at the beach this summer.
Once I embraced wanting to look good, my goal was to get a six-pack.
No matter the obstacles, I’d conquer them to achieve the look I wanted. Using the next strategy strengthened my resolve during those really challenging times.
3. Visualize Your Success
Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is one of my fitness heroes, said his bodybuilding success started with a vision he had of being crowned Mr. Olympia.
Every time he faced challenges or lacked motivation, Schwarzenegger would go back to that mental image and it would power him through the day.
Michael Phelps used the same strategy every night before bed when he’d play the “videotape” of himself swimming the perfect race and winning the gold medal.
The videotape was so ingrained in his mind that at the Olympics, Phelps’ body simply followed along with the moves he’d seen a thousand times before.
Both athletes used the power of visualization to achieve their goals. Without implementing this tactic, I don’t think either of them would’ve reached the pinnacle of their sports.
This explains why I think people who jump into fitness should do so with a clear goal in mind.
It’s not enough to just say you want a six-pack.
Find a photo of the body you want, cut the head off, and stick it somewhere prominent. Take for example this photo I pasted in my food log nearly 10 years ago. I put it there to ensure I’d see it every single day.
4. Make an Emotional Investment
Visualization fosters a strong emotional investment in your goal.
As Schwarzenegger explains, once you’re emotionally invested in reaching your goal, your mind actually changes how it approaches day-to-day challenges.
Instead of stumbling blocks, you’ll see opportunities to achieve your goal.
Aggravation becomes determination with each step forward you take.
I skipped the mental side of fitness starting out and jumped straight into tactics, which caused me to spin my wheels for five years.
It wasn’t until I fell in love with the climb that I embraced the process completely.
Without that emotional investment, I never would’ve hacked fitness.
5. Automate Your Life with Habits
S.J. Scott’s book Habit Stacking tells us 40% of the actions we perform each day aren’t actually decisions, but habits.
If you want to stick with fitness long-term, you should seek to make it a habit.
The key to instilling fitness as a new habit is to practice it repeatedly.
From there, your brain, which is efficient and always looking to save effort, will turn that new routine into a habit if it’s practiced frequently enough.
You brush your teeth without thinking because you’ve done it thousands of times.
That’s the beauty of habits—they remove decision making from the process.
If you’re struggling with working out consistently or resisting bad foods, you just need to practice these good behaviors long enough to get your brain over the “habit hump.”
One habit I instilled in 2003 was working out first thing in the morning.
I’m not a morning person, but I got up early often enough that my brain created a new habit. Now, when I don’t work out in the mornings, it feels like I didn’t brush my teeth.
6. Practice Daily Discipline
You can’t succeed with fitness long-term if you’re not disciplined.
On days when I’m really struggling, this quote gets me back on track:
“Never give up what you want the most for what you want today.” – Neal Maxwell
There are definitely days I want an extra hour of sleep, a slice of pizza, or drinks after work.
On those days, I remind myself that I want six-pack abs more than any of those temporary indulgences and the setbacks that come with them.
Temporary satisfaction is not worth the setbacks caused by indulgence.
Discipline is difficult to wrangle at first. Luckily, your brain has your back:
- You can train yourself to be more disciplined just like you train your muscles.
- Because discipline is also a habit, it gets easier the longer you practice it.
I know it’s tough, but your goal is worth the cost that discipline demands.
7. Celebrate Your Small Wins with Rewards
If you’re struggling with discipline, or despairing because your fitness goal seems so far away, help yourself out by setting up rewards along the way.
Little victories validate our efforts and refuel our motivation tank.
There are three types of rewards: physical, psychological, and emotional:
- A cheat item makes for a great physical reward. For me, that’s a Quest bar.
- Tracking your lifts provides a consistent psychological reward when you see the weekly progress of your lifts. You’ll feel a huge sense of accomplishment.
- Emotional rewards can come when you least expect them, like when a friend asks you, “Have you lost a lot of weight? You look amazing!”
You have to celebrate the minor victories in order to reach the finish line.
Remember, You’re Making a Lifestyle Change
If you take nothing else away from this article, let it be this:
A commitment to fitness requires a lifestyle change, not temporary adherence.
If the scope of a “lifestyle change” scares you, worry not. Your chances of making such a change are higher now that our lives are so intertwined with the internet.
When I started my fitness journey, there weren’t online support groups I could join or reddit boards filled with encouragement and knowledge I could reference.
We also face societal pressure now to post photos where we look good.
It’s shallow to think like that, but none of us want people to look at our photos and miss the cool stuff we’re doing because they’re staring at our love handles.
Honestly, if you follow the steps we’ve outlined in this article, you won’t have to worry about external motivation or needing online support.
Your mindset will shift to the point where you can’t imagine your life without fitness.