There’s a crucial piece of exercise equipment that doesn’t cost a thing, and it can help you perform your best every time you enter the gym. It’s called your brain. Use these seven simple mental tricks from scientists and fitness pros to push through your next workout.
1. Think about your best fitness memory.
Sometimes just getting to the gym can be difficult, but remembering positive sweat sessions you had in the past may ensure you go more often, says a University of New Hampshire study. College students who were asked to recall good fitness memories actually performed moreworkouts the following week than those asked to think about bad exercise experiences.
Why? “They likely associated their personal identity with the positive memory, making them feel more excited about their accomplishments, rather than focusing on their failures,” says study author Mathew Biondolillo.
The next time you’re torn between working out or sleeping in, remember the last time you kicked butt—and get yours out of bed.
2. Imagine every set is a cinch.
“I like to convince myself that every set I do is the easiest,” says Mark Hofman, StrongFirst kettlebell instructor and creator of the 4-Week Summer Shred.
For example, you have three sets of a heavy-loaded squat: “The first set is the easiest because I’m fresh. The second set is the easiest because I’m warmed up. And the third set is the easiest because I’m done right after it,” says Hofman.
3. Fudge the numbers.
Re-think the time you spend in the gym. Saying, “I have 10 minutes left in my workout”—not “I’ve been doing this for 20 minutes”—can help push you a little harder, according to a study from the University of Chicago. Feeling like you have less left to do than you’ve already accomplished will keep you motivated to see your workout through to the end, instead of bailing before your last set.
4. Talk to yourself.
Self-doubt can be a powerful saboteur. So change the dialogue. “Positive self-talk reinforces your confidence and boosts your energy so you won’t quit when you feel tired or challenged,” says Nick Galli, an assistant professor of sports psychology at California State University at Northridge.
Science agrees: A recent meta-analysis by Greek researchers found that positive affirmations can boost performance. Instead of thinking of how tired you feel, repeat phrases like “I feel good” or “I’ve got this” as you lift weights or run.
5. Let the F-bombs fly.
When a workout starts to hurt, start swearing, British researchers advise. College students who repeated the expletive of their choice were able to tolerate sticking their hands in ice-cold water for longer than those who uttered a non-curse word.
Researchers aren’t sure why spewing profanity can help you stay tough. But they believe cursing helps trigger your natural fight-or-flight response, which releases a flood of performance-enhancing and pain-numbing hormones to help you cope with discomfort.
6. Focus on just one move first.
Sometimes you get to the gym and instantly feel like walking right back out. If so, ditch your doozy of a workout plan, hit one major movement that day, and head home, says Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., cofounder of Cressy Performance in Hudson, Massachusetts.
“Compromise with yourself,” Gentilcore says. “It’s okay you didn’t do what you came to do, but don’t leave without doing anything at all.” Warm up, work in some quality reps of a big lift like the deadlift, squat, or bench press, and then call it a day. “You never know. Sometimes you start to feel motivated once you get moving—you might just go ahead and crush your whole workout anyway,” he says.
7. Pick an opponent in the gym.
See that guy on the next treadmill over? Pretend you’re racing him. A healthy competition can push you to work extra hard, finds research from New York University. “If a person feels a strong rivalry toward someone else, it’s apt to push them to try harder—even if the other person isn’t participating in the rivalry,” says lead study author Gavin Kilduff, Ph.D.