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How to Build Self Discipline for Fitness and Life

All exercise and fitness goals require self-discipline and a willingness to delay instant gratification in order to generate larger, more meaningful future payouts. Unfortunately, these skills are rarely taken for granted. In fact, they are in direct opposition to your natural inclinations.

We are literally wired to be thin fat. Once you start exercising hard and eating better, building muscle, and shedding stored fat, your metabolic system will believe you are starving – even if you are not, to put it bluntly. Their homeostatic feedback mechanisms recognize an impending disaster and rely on DEFCON 5 to extend your life. Two particularly powerful mechanisms are:

  • Your unconscious levels of activity ̵
    1; from walking and talking to fidgeting and blinking – are reduced. If you walk up and down normally, just stand. If you were standing normally, now would you be seated. If you normally sit, now lie down. Conclusion: Every physical activity requires more motivation.
  • Your stomach increases ghrelin production to increase your appetite.

When you ponder these harsh realities, you begin to understand why so few ever get noticeably muscular and lean. Not only are your family and friends not on board, your own body is fighting you every step of the way!

Take a break with dumbbells at the gym.

Now for the good news, there is a simple (mind you, not easy) three-step strategy that will help streamline the process and build lasting, transformative self-discipline. Find out how to do it.

Step 1: stack the deck in your favor

A lot of people want to start the fitness conversation with a conversation about self-discipline, but it’s definitely not a first step for me. Instead, I would first like to try to create an environment in which a lot of self-discipline has a better chance of success. This begins with facing what I call the “twin enemies” of self-discipline: stress and fatigue.

Why start here Stress and fatigue work synergistically to affect your ability to work hard and to delay instant gratification. Hence, anything you can do to reduce them – and / or increase your resilience to them – should be considered a high priority. Let’s address them one by one.


I learned the effects of stress (and the power to reduce it) by chance a few years ago. I was facing financial pressures and it put a strain on my exercise and diet in addition to my overall quality of life.

One day, out of nowhere, I received a completely unexpected (and large) payment from a company I used to work for. That night and the following weeks it was like a fog. And I’ve had some of my best workouts ever.

So the lesson is … find some unexpected money? No not at all. It’s easy to see that when your life gets completely out of hand without exercise, it is draining your energy and eating away at your determination.

Remember, exercise is a stressor. For this reason, I and many other trainers find that serious, intensive work is most effective against the background of a well-functioning life. When you have smoldering lifestyle problems, they deserve the same amount of attention and commitment as your diet or the size of your arms. These things are all part of the same project.

Rest on a barbell.

Does that mean you shouldn’t exercise at all if your life gets out of hand? Fortunately no. One great thing about simple full-body strength training like my Total-Body Strong BodyFit program is that it’s sustainable in terms of intensity and volume, and doesn’t put a dramatic strain on the rest of your life.

This means that in both good times and difficult times, you can hit the clock and exercise three times a week, knowing that it will help you move forward.


Fatigue is one of those tricky problems that comes from a number of sources including high levels of stress. But a nice thing is that it can almost always – often dramatically – be improved by improving your sleeping and resting practices.

What is known as “sleep hygiene” has been a hot topic for some time and there is no shortage of information on the subject. And while you can find a number of conflicting ideas on certain aspects, most experts agree on the following:

  • Before bed, do a “mind dump” by making a to-do list for the next day. As bestselling author David Allen likes to remind readers, “Your brain is there to have ideas, not to store them.”
  • Establish a consistent sleep schedule and stick to it. Literally. As with any other major event, plan your sleep and organize the day’s events to make that schedule easier. If your sleep schedule is 11-7, instead of “sleeping” on the weekend or staying up later on a particular night just because you don’t really feel tired, stick with those hours each day.
  • Limit stimulating experiences as bedtime approaches, including work tasks, use of televisions, computers and cell phones, caffeine intake, stressful conversations, etc. This will help you transition into your sleep schedule.
  • Respect your bedroom! Keep electronics away and keep them dark, cool, clean, and comfortable. Consider a weighted blanket or a water-cooled mattress.
  • Experiment with small methods to improve the quality of your sleep, not just the quantity. Many people sleep better when they hear white noise. Others thrive on earplugs. Everyone is different, so stay open to new developments and don’t be afraid to experiment.
  • Many tall men suffer (often unknowingly) from sleep apnea. Do a bit of research and ask your doctor to prescribe a sleep study if you suspect you may have this problem.

Step 2: optimize your fitness environment

Even if your self-discipline is well developed, you will struggle mightily as the world fights your efforts every step of the way. And I’m not talking about the Big W world, but your personal place in it. Proactively begin to reduce or eliminate all causes of environmental friction, including:

  • Long ways to the gym. Find a closer facility if possible, or stay open to any opportunity to develop your home gym.
  • People who either don’t support activities, or worse, defy your training goals. The word “hater” may be a bit intense, but “fitness cynics” definitely abound. Do your best to make those around you aware of how important your goals are to you and how they can be a better source of support. If this fails, then you should limit your exposure to those who you know will conflict with your efforts.
  • Eating that doesn’t support your goals. Keep your kitchen full of productive foods you like and free of items that are difficult to resist. Also, make sure your kitchen is well organized and stocked with the basics: condiments, healthy cooking oils, and all the essential accessories that will optimize the achievement of your nutritional goals. These vary from person to person, but good quality Tupperware, a blender, and a pressure cooker all come to mind.

There are innumerable examples of this strategy. So, train yourself to notice the friction in the environment and take the necessary steps to remove the annoying stressor as you identify sources of it.

Step 3: create daily challenges and small victories

OK, now it’s time to talk about discipline. Regardless of how people tend to brag about it – to talk about it – discipline is not a genetic trait. It is actually a habit that you can and should develop and strengthen like any other.

Why should you focus on building it instead of just “trusting” the discipline you have? Because if steps 1, 2, and 3 fail, you still have one final barrier between you and the failure.

Dumbbell shared squat with foot on bench.

Developing this skill is not “easy” (which should be intuitively obvious), but relatively easy – it is simply a matter of proactively and systematically exposing yourself to gradually more difficult personal challenges.

Do something uncomfortable or uncomfortable today (not tomorrow) just for its own sake. It doesn’t have to be a lot. You may find yourself denying yourself a night of pointless TV viewing, taking a cold shower, exercising instead of skipping one, preparing dinner instead of buying it, having an overdue conversation – the list goes on. Notice how difficult it was after you did it. Probably not as much as you feared.

But even if it were, there is a sense of pride that inevitably comes after you’ve made the choice and done it. Even if you haven’t beaten your challenge, you’ve got a small victory over your lesser nature.

Use that inner pride as fuel tomorrow as you repeat this process over and over … over and over. Just like with your quads and pecs, self-discipline can be strengthened. Just as a 135 pound squat is hard one day but a warm up a year later, things that you find difficult today to do soon become painless and routine.

Do it today!

The process I have described is reliably effective and practically child’s play. Following the three steps outlined above will change your life for the better as you choose the path of discipline. And if my Total-Body Strong program helps you build up, all the better.

Procrastination is the enemy of self-discipline. So initiate this change TODAY, even if you are starting very small. If you need any additional help, I’ll be monitoring the comments section. Please post your questions, challenges, and victories below!

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