Train Your Brain: Achieving Your Fitness Goals Starts in Your Head

Think exercising is a mindless activity? Think again. Unless you've got the discipline and the mindset, you're only doing half the work. Let ex-marine and fitness enthusiast Jeff Barnett lay down the law on getting the right attitude for achieving your fitness goals.

Jeff Barnett is a fitness enthusiast from Huntsville, Alabama. For the past ten years he has pursued strength and health in numerous ways including serving as a Marine Corps officer. He posts his daily workouts on his website, CrossFit Impulse.

In part one of this two-part series on fitness I will explore the mental aspects of seeking physical fitness. No matter how trite it may sound, mental attitude is a large part of achieving fitness goals. While genetics is the most obvious constraint to your physical abilities, your attitude determines almost everything else. In order to accomplish your fitness goals you will need to not only understand, but actually believe four key concepts.

Know Why You Train

If you set out to work on your car for the sake of working on your car then you'll rarely accomplish anything. You need a purpose, like changing the oil or replacing a belt. While everyone that exercises thinks he knows the reason, I challenge you to be honest with yourself. Here are some possible reasons to exercise:

  • Develop upper body strength.
  • Lose weight.
  • Develop cardiovascular endurance.
  • Look more attractive.
  • Be seen exercising.
  • Be overall physically fit.

I'm not judging the content or usefulness of each reason, but they are all, indeed reasons to exercise. Your reason also may not be a simple four-word sentence. That's OK–mine's not. The point is that you need to know the real reason. If you don't find the true reason for your training then your training will be without purpose, or at best designed for a purpose that you don't really seek. You can also go further and quantify your reason into measurable goals (e.g. perform 20 dead hang pullups). While measurable goals are indeedinset very useful, and I advocate using them, the most important thing to know about your workout is why you're there.

You Determine Your Results

You are in control. You determine how often you train, the intensity at which you train, and exactly how you train. Your success is a direct result of your efforts, and any lack of success is a direct result of your lack of effort. There is no middle ground: You are responsible. Working late doesn't prevent you from training. Your lack of motivation after working late prevents you from training.

However, you decide your priorities, and of course, there are always exceptional circumstances, and I'm not going to tell you to place fitness above any of your other priorities. I am telling you that when you let life's curveballs give you a mental excuse for not achieving your fitness goals you are simply admitting that you're not willing to work hard enough to achieve those goals.

There are plenty of fitness goals that I'm not willing to work hard enough to achieve: running a 5 minute mile, bench pressing 300 pounds, completing a marathon. However, if you never seem to find the time or effort to train then admit to yourself that you are not willing to make the necessary sacrifices to meet your fitness goals. Don't let yourself believe anything else

You are Capable of Achieving Any Fitness Goal

OK…almost any goal. At about 6 feet tall and 173 pounds I won't be winning the World's Strongest Man Competition. However, I can achieve any fitness goal that is realistic for my size. I am only limited by my desire to work towards that goal. The important concept is that you have to shove aside any ideas that you can't achieve what you desire.

It's not just psycho-motivational bullshit. It's truth. Would you like to drop XX pounds? It can be done. Would you like your body to look a certain way? It can be done. The question that has an uncertain answer is this one: Are you willing to do the work necessary to achieve your goal? Of course, some people are limited by health conditions beyond their control. However, this line of reasoning carries a lot more weight with me when it's presented as, “I've come this far in achieving my goal, but I can't seem to break this barrier because of _______.” Most often I see it presented as, “I have _______ so I am not able to _______. There's no reason for me to try.”

Legitimate reasons abound for why some people cannot exercise at the levels they would like, however, the vast majority of us are only limited by our will. Start with training and find your excuses. Don't start with excuses as a way to avoid training. If you commit to the necessary work and apply your efforts correctly then success is the only possible result.

Stay Fit

Training for Improvement is Not Easy

Training is difficult by design. If your training is not challenging you mentally and physically then you should question whether it is truly worthwhile. It's supposed to hurt. You're supposed to walk a little funny from time to time. You're supposed to kneel on the floor in exhaustion from time to time. You're supposed to perform tasks that you're not familiar with or good at. If you're in your comfort zone then you're not improving. You may be sustaining, but you're not improving. There's a difference. Know whether you are training to keep what you've got or build what you don't.

If you've chosen to build what you don't currently have then you must accept that it will come at a cost to your comfort. The amount of discomfort you're willing to bear is usually directly proportional to your success. Fortunately, improvement training can be fun, exciting, challenging, rewarding, and a host of other positive terms…but it will never be easy.

In the second part of this series I will explore what you had probably hoped I would address in the previous 800 words: an efficient and worthwhile method of achieving physical fitness. I don't claim to have the answer, but I do claim to have an answer, and I think it's a pretty good one. In ten years of voluntary physical training in various disciplines including anaerobic weight training with supplements, cardiovascular endurance training for running, high-protein/low-fat diets, and the varied requirements of the Marine Corps, I have never been more physically fit than I am right now. I hope you'll return next time to learn from my mistakes and join me in new successes.

Jeff Barnett is an entrepreneur, fitness enthusiast, and former Marine. He has an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and an MBA. When you don't find him wakeboarding, writing, or eating meat off the bone, he's at his startup, CrossFit Impulse.

  • chris

    great post. it’s really refreshing to get a no bullshit point of view about fitness. if you want results, you have to work for them, no exceptions. i look forward to more, jeff.

  • k883

    I’m so tired of hearing peoples excuses for not working out. They either want to be in shape or they don’t. Great ideas in this article.

  • greg

    really inspiring! i’m gonna get to it as soon as i can get myself off the couch! 😉 look forward to pt 2.

  • lawman

    100 per cent agree. Mental attitude is 70% of reaching your fitness goals. If you don’t have the discipline to keep going, your diet or your program will accomplish nothing.

  • Josef Brandenburg

    Amen. Bullshit is THE most fattening substance known to man, and most people are FULL of it when it comes to eating better and exercising.

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  • http://[email protected] Stillz

    Good stuff. The point about getting out of your comfort zone is really important for me to remember – I’m a good athlete, but unless I do stuff I’m not good at (like strength training and dexterity exercises), I’m going nowhere – I’m just keeping up with myself.

  • BJoans

    Really good post.

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  • Neuville

    Since your a fitness expert. I have a question about weight lifting. I lift four times a week. 2 days of arms two of legs. Do you have any suggest work outs? With legs I do squats front and or back, lunges, dead lifts and romanian dead lifts. With arms I do decline bench, bench, presses, curls, flys, rows. Mostly theree sets of I use free weights in my basement. Also, I am 57 and row for 30 minutes a day as a warm up. I also walk for an hour and swim a mile when I get a chance.. I am a little overveight, 5’8″ 200, but in fairly good shape. Any advice?

  • Jeff Barnett

    Neuville, sounds like you are somewhat on the right track. What you’re doing right:
    -Major muscle group lifts: deadlift, squats, rowing, and even bench press.
    Variety: rowing, swimming, lifting
    Frequency: four times a week is plenty to maintain a healthy physique

    I don’t know much else about your routine, but based on the three tenets of variety, intensity, and frequency, I can only guess that your intensity is not where it should be. What’s your heart rate during the most strenuous portion of your workout? For your size, and assuming you’re less than about 50, I’d say you need to hit at least 150 bpm. I generally stay around 170-175 bpm, sometimes up to 180-185 bpm. You can get plenty of exercise ideas from I wish you success, but wishing doesn’t matter, because it all depends on you. Let me know if you have any more questions. I am definitely not an expert, but I will help however I can.

  • Neuville

    Actually, I’m 57……I get the heart rate up to about 140 sometimes higher when I row and sometimes on dead lifts. I do 90 seconds between sets.

  • Charles Lloyd

    The mental always comes before the physical…good blog you got here
    .-= Charles Lloyd´s last blog ..Jul 15, 10 rules exercise =-.

  • bee

    Hey! I found your website again. I’ve been looking for it for a while, this time I’m going to bookmark it.

  • Jeff Ronson

    Couldn’t agree more. Mental attitude separates winners from losers and it is never more apparent than in the field of sport where similar physical prowess is trumped by a greater will to win, or mental attitude.

  • Fit Guy

    I love your blog. Very good post. I totally agree. For me to get fit is one of the hardess thing to do.

  • Tim

    Good post, but there is no such thing as an “ex-Marine”, once a Marine, always a Marine.