Willpower is the ability to control your own impulses. It will help you stay true to your goals, do your daily work, or take your training to the next level!
Without willpower, you would become the plaything of your own impulses and blindly follow every temptation.
In these examples, one recognizes willpower:
How easy is it to get out of bed in the morning?
How easily do you get your butt off the couch to go to the gym?
Can you resist a delicious piece of cake, even though you want to eat a healthy diet?
Willpower is the deciding factor to control these things. Whenever you break your beliefs, goals, and intentions, you show weak willpower.
If you want to run 10 km and break off after 8 km, then you resign.
If you save yourself the last, often decisive set, in strength training, then you show weak willpower.
Surely we all know these situations in which we did not go all the way to the end. But do not worry, willpower is like a muscle we can train it … but how?
What is Willpower?
Our biggest tool, but also our biggest challenge, is our brain. Here is the tiger is in us – the willpower.
Bechera et al. (2006), willpower is based on two complex cognitive processes that interact with each other:
“… an impulsive, amygdala-dependent, neural system for signaling the pain or pleasure of the immediate prospects of an option.”
The amygdala processes signals that interpret the pain or joy of the immediate situation in which we are in the here and now.
2. Prefrontal cortex
“… a reflective, prefrontal-dependent, neural system for signaling the pain or pleasure of the future prospects of an option.”
In the prefrontal cortex lie the neural systems that interpret the pain or pleasure of future situations – so it is anticipatory.
The final decision is made when both processes are related.
If the immediate perspective is unpleasant, but the future seems more pleasant, then the positive signal of the future prospects forms the basis for enduring the inconvenience of the immediate prospects.
Simply put, if we have high chances of success, then we are ready to endure unpleasant things – a typical reward effect.
Willpower manifests itself when we become active outside of our comfort zone.
The neural networks underlying such processes are changeable – in both directions: in favor of a weak, but also of a strong will. In the neurosciences, such changes can be measured. MRI scans have shown how training, meditation or competition changes our prefrontal cortex.
If you want to strengthen your will, then you should work on both processes: things that rob you of your will and things that strengthen your will. The most important methods can be found in the next section.
5 Methods to Improve Willpower
Method # 1: Meditation makes your anxiety center shrink
Meditation is a millennia-old technique that is practiced in many cultures. You can use this method if you want to defeat your fears and increase your willpower.
MRI scans have shown that practicing meditation for eight weeks causes our amygdala to become smaller. The region that assesses anxiety and pain as described above and helps shape our response to stress. The amygdala is also the center of our “fight-or-flight” mode – the former usually standing for high willpower.
Method # 2: Train the willpower, like a muscle
You know this principle: If you train a muscle several times, demand it and increase its intensity, it grows. The increase of the willpower works the same way. Roy Baumeister, the author of the book “The Power of Discipline: How We Can Train Our Will”, works precisely with this metaphor.
Consider any demanding situation as training your willpower, and the challenge can be quite small: resist the snooze button, refuse sweets, or even squat down! Every time you show discipline, you strengthen your willpower muscle, the prefrontal cortex, or in Baumeister’s words:
“These little things build character, that is, strengthen the willpower muscle for more important challenges”.
Method # 3: Borderline Experiences
In addition to these small impulses, occasional marginal experiences are important milestones for strengthening your will. It can be an intense experience when you have to throw up the effort – but you will learn from it.
Occasionally you should try your limits:
Sprint as fast and as far as you can – if you think you can not do it anymore, sprint faster!
Do as many squats as possible – and then more!
For such borderline experiences, try high-intensity interval training such as e.g. Tabata training or training programs such as German Volume Training or Super Squats by R.J. Stossen.
Granted, especially with these programs, I have not had such borderline experiences often – but at least it shows me that I give everything. Meanwhile, I use them specifically to make such borderline experiences.
Strength training requires a lot of discipline because you have to get out of your comfort zone if you want to achieve something. Whenever you do just that one repetition, you not only train your muscles but also pave the way for a hard-hitting psyche.
You have respect and a little scared of the next leg unit because, for example, Squats are on the plan? Very well! That’s exactly the right reason why you should do it – learn to tackle the challenges of life head-on!
Method # 4: Use mental techniques like NLP or visualizations
Every competitive athlete will sooner or later use mental techniques to achieve peak performance. You want to finally press 100, 125 or 150 kg on the bench? Then prepare mentally for it.
NLP, the so-called Neuro-linguistic Programming, is a technique that helps you to break your internal limits.
Do you always succeed in resistance training on plateaus? With NLP you can work on the thought patterns that prevent you from reaching the next level. In certain situations, you learn to achieve the specific emotional states that you need.
If you’re scared of the 100kg in bench press, that’s often just a mental blockage. With NLP you can master these hurdles.
But some people fail long before their beliefs: they feel physical training as another annoying and unpleasant commitment, while others see training as enrichment and compensation. Behind the latter are beliefs and NLP patterns that we have unconsciously acquired.
Another very effective technique is visualization. On the one hand, this technique is one of the most effective methods for increasing muscle strength because more motor fibers can be recruited (muscle-mind connection).
In this case, visualization means that you first focus fully on the movement and imagine all the muscles and joints involved.
On the other hand, visualization is also possible in another form – namely in the form of videos, images, and quotes. These usually result in an immediate reaction. Surely you have already looked at Youtube motivational fitness videos – the units of The Rock in the gym or Rich Froning at the Crossfit Games are among the most clicked motivational videos.
But what is behind the visualizations? Through the prefrontal cortex, we evaluate the future outcome that follows from our present action. The images, videos, and quotes can increase your willpower by showing you a condition that you absolutely want to achieve.
Method # 5: Willpower is Biochemistry
A strong psyche is of course also determined by a good vitamin and mineral balance. Vitamins and minerals are important building blocks for our hormones.
Zinc, for example, has a strong influence on the formation of our sex hormones – so a zinc deficiency can reduce our testosterone by at least 50 %! In short: no testosterone – no willpower!
So if you have a motivational problem for a long time, then you should first check your blood work. A good supply of vitamins and minerals is the basis for our willpower.
What reduces willpower?
In the next step, I would like to briefly outline which factors can rob you of your willpower.
Factor # 1: Beware with TV and Social Media
Television and social media get you into action by actionism. You are bombarded with pre-digested and often one-sided information that borders more on outside determination than on one’s own willpower. Follow on Facebook only a few pages that are really useful and question contributions that are very one-sided.
Factor # 2: Poor regeneration
The likelihood that we feel motivated is dictated by our sleep and regeneration. Overtraining and too much alcohol can also lead to lethargy in training.
Factor # 3: Decision Fatigue
Our willpower is also reflected in the ability to make decisions again. Investigations show that willpower is a limited resource. Such a condition is called “decision fatigue”.
You may have had this feeling during shopping when you did not know what options you should decide on. But the same can happen during training if you wander haphazardly from device to device and at some point, you can not even decide between pull-ups in the upper or lower grip.
The solution is quite simple: Make plans and routines and take the burden of the decision already before (write a shopping list – create training plans).
“Where there is a will there is a way!” Between you and your goals are often only your thoughts and your inner attitude. I find it reassuring to know that our will is trainable. I think it can be a pleasure to challenge yourself every day and keep moving out of your comfort zone.
Last but be told that you do not have to overdo it. Willpower should not mean that you end up in mental self-mutilation and only go the painful way. Consider the training of the willpower as a tool to a stronger psyche.