Sometimes a thing seems obvious, until you realize it isn’t. That’s what happened to me recently when I was watching the BBC’s Ultimate Hell Week, a (fantastic) show based around the premise of sending 29 people in various states of preparedness to spend two weeks training with different special forces from around the world. Just to be clear: I am not here to tell you that I would have done well at Ultimate Hell Week, and I have a huge amount of respect for the people who made it to the final episode and especially the top three. But in episode two, someone said something like:
‘I’m probably the weakest person here. But I’m going to show them that it’s all about willpower.’
Okay: possibly, if you think about that for under three seconds, it sounds fine, even laudable. Yeah! It’s not about strength at all! It’s about grit, and determination, and all those other things that special forces talk about! Show them, buddy! Show them all!
But here’s the problem with this: everyone has willpower. It’s not just a secret weapon reserved for the weak. The question is, how much do you want to rely on yours?
Sometimes a thing seems obvious, but I’m going to say this anyway: if you have to start relying on willpower after 5 pressups, you are probably going to come up short against the guy who can do 50 before his arms start to hurt. If you’re chugging through your willpower reserves to maintain a nine-minute mile pace, you’re going to fade before a guy who can do eights all day. If you need willpower to get through a 10km run, you’re going to run out of it a hell of a lot faster than the guy who calls that a recovery day. Willpower, it’s fairly well-established, is a finite resource: you run through it just like (and possibly in tandem with) your glycogen reserves. You want to hold off using it for emergencies. And if you’re weak and slow, that isn’t an option. Yes, special forces are going to push everyone as far as they can, at some point in their training: but if you’re redlining six hours in, while everyone else is still in third gear, you’re in trouble.
But I’ll go you one further.
Willpower, most recent studies suggest, is a lot like a muscle. It improves when you work on it, by doing hard, uncomfortable tasks that you’d really rather not do. Yes, there are people who seem blessed with a lot, just like some people grow up with a preternaturally high VO2 max – everyone’s met that one untrained guy who’ll walk in off the street and bury himself to beat you in a physical contest he has no earthly business winning – but in general, people who train hard will have more willpower than people who don’t. Doing some hard work makes more hard work manageable. And if you’re the kind of guy who’ll show up to an SAS show without being able to do 100 pressups, how much willpower have you really got, anyway?
So here’s my suggestion: next time you’re planning on tackling something physical, act as if you’ll have no willpower to fall back on. Push your work capacity up as far as you can: with long recovery runs or hundreds of pressups a day, or bodyweight squats or burpees or whatever the hell else you’re going to have to do. You’ll hit the redline later, or you might not hit it at all.
HOMEWORK: Pick an amount of pressups that’s about a third of your strict one-set max, and do it every minute, on the minute, for 20 minutes. Do it again next week, and add a rep. Never let yourself be terrible at pressups again.