Of course you can teach ‘heart’

There are many fine things about old-school boxing gyms. The basics-first approach to instruction, the camaraderie, those little funnels some of them have duct-taped to the ring posts for you to spit down – it’s a fine environment for learning something about yourself. One thing I don’t like about old-school boxing gyms is the popular expression among the old-school trainers who often hang out there.

“You can’t teach heart.”

This is bullshit. Yes, it sounds clever. Yes, it sort of superficially makes sense – you can’t ‘teach’ someone to suck it up after a liver shot the way you can ‘teach’ them to throw a jab. And yes, it’s actually sort of appealing – if you aren’t the fastest or strongest or cleverest or trickiest guy, you might always be able to scrape by on the ‘heart’ that the other person doesn’t have.

But it’s bullshit.

Of course you can teach – or, more importantly, learn – heart. You learn it the same way as people learn Japanese, and improve it the same way as you improve your pull-up score. Some people will ‘naturally’ have more than others, but that’s just because of their parents, childhood influences, how many Jet Li films they watched as a teenager, and a thousand other environmental factors. I know this because I used to be quite soft, and now I am…slightly less soft.

You will not be surprised to hear that I think the best way to learn ‘heart’ is by training. Training is an easy, relatively risk-free way to put yourself in positions that demand heart, and build it – if you do it right. Here’s how I  think you get it done.

  • On-the-minutes

Done right, these are awful. The basic idea: you take a nice, non-ruinous full-body movement and set yourself the task of doing X number on-the-minute for X minutes. 10 (or 5) burpees on-the-minute, every minute, for 10 minutes, is a good example. You know whether you’ve done this or not – there are no excuses. If you’ve got the rep range right, the first two minutes will be fine, the next three will give you an inkling of what you’re in for, the next three will be pretty nasty and the last two will be sheer horror. Get through it, then do it again next week, with another rep.

  • Rowing

Better than running, because you won’t fall off the machine (well, it’s harder to do) and you can’t cheat it. Pick a time – 7:15 for the 2000m is a good standard – and try to hit it. Does that counter click over before the time runs out? Great. If not: you failed. This isn’t a bad thing: just do better next time.

  • Anything with friends

This only works with friends who can be trusted to push you. Haven’t got any friends like that? Find some. Do either of the above, but have someone there to push you through it. This also works with enemies.

You can teach heart. More importantly, you can learn it.

HOMEWORK: Do one of the above this week.



About the author


Editor and creator of Live Hard. Fighting enthusiast, steak lover and aficionado of all things self-improvement related.


  • Nice piece, as always mate.
    Oddly enough I’m doing “on the minutes” to try and build my kettlebell swings back up. I’m up to 18 each minute with a 24, with the “incentive” that once I’ve done 20 each minute I’m going to drop the reps and move up to a 32. Can’t wait. Ahem.

  • Although I’m 100% in agreement, I have to say this rhetoric doesn’t look as appealing at the bottom of a Rocky poster! Have you done much boxing Joel?

    • I’ve done a bit, Will. As the post implies, I used to train at a succession of fairly grim gyms as part of my MMA training – now I’m getting back into it with some friends of mine, but grappling will always be my main fighty love.

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