5 Workouts That Challenge the Mind

Everyone who’s ever taken on a fitness program has at least one really terrible workout that they wouldn’t repeat if their life depended on it. Originally this post was going to be my Top 10 list of those workouts – the ones that leave you barely conscious and completely broken.

A quick Facebook chat with someone, however, made me rethink the list. These workouts are terrible, yes, but they aren’t special because of that. They’re special because there’s something beyond the physical exertion that sets them apart. Perhaps it’s some kind of epiphany partway through, or the real gut check needed to finish. Either way, I’ve decided that this isn’t going to be about the ten worst workouts I’ve ever done.

Instead, this is a list of 5 workouts that hit the mind as hard as the body, if not more so. Most of them you will need to train for: without a strong base of strength and power endurance, and solid technique, these will become physically impossible to complete. All of them, however, will demand more from you than an average weights session, Zumba class, or a 10-kilometer run.

Other than the psychological factor, one thing these workouts have in common is simplicity. Nothing has more than three exercises, albeit for multiple rounds or considerable distances. Complexity is the enemy of physical challenges: the obstacle here has to be the effort required, not the presence of mind.



5) “The Triathlon”: 50x Burpees + 5km Ride + 500m Row for time

I previously described this as a “power endurance fuckfest” based on the Gym Jones workout of the same name. Lacking a SkiErg and fan bike, I improvised. A fairly fit person can burn through the 50 burpees in a couple of minutes. The bike part will take maybe 8 minutes if you go hard all the way, and the row will be over in less than 2.

For someone who hates cardiorespiratory work – partially due to his relatively weak, asthmatic lungs – this is a real bitch to struggle through. I finished in less than 10 minutes, barely able to breathe by the time I dropped onto the rower. You’ll be tempted to rest during the transitions, and that’s where your time is put at risk. Do you take the hit in exchange for a breather, or do you sigh and keep going?

4) 4 sets of Push-ups to failure

This is something I had trainees tack onto their workouts as a finisher called ‘Burnout’. The exercise itself depended on the trainee’s goals: the girl whose goal was 5 pull-ups did TRX or band-assisted pull-ups, while the one who wanted to be able to do full push-ups did them on lower and lower surfaces. That being said, I prefer push-ups because there’s no way to completely unload the weight without total form failure, which makes for a better mental battle. Planks are also a good choice, although nowhere near as terrible.

This is a test of what Mark Twight calls “Can’t or Won’t”. For most people, going to failure means going until you feel tired and decide to save yourself. Some, however, understand that failure means you shouldn’t be able to do a single additional rep, however sloppy it may be, without some rest. I took a sick kind of pride in proving just how little people understood that by tricking trainees into one, then two, then three reps past the point when they claimed to be hitting failure.

Here’s the simple key: if you really went all the way in your first set, you will not be able to hit that number again any time soon, and certainly not within the allotted 2 minutes of rest. Think you can drive yourself that hard? Hit the floor and find out.

3) 2000m Row for time

On the surface, there’s nothing special about a timed 2000m row. In fact, it’s a pretty standard challenge in plenty of so-called functional gyms, with a time of 7:30 considered respectable.

What makes this one different is that it’s too long to go all out, but too short to justify careful pacing. The first 500 meters feel easy, and your target time will seem within your reach. The last 500 meters are perhaps easier to throw yourself at: it’s easy to put all your energy into the final seconds. It’s the middle kilometer that puts you in a bad place. That’s where your lungs give up, your arms start shaking, and your legs seem too heavy to keep kicking. If you’re still able to keep your eyes open – and that’s not a given – you’ll watch in dismay as your target time slips away second by second.

It’s especially difficult to maintain a high level of effort when despite your best efforts, you realize your goal has slipped out of your deadening fingers.

The real test of the 2000m Row isn’t whether you hit the final time, but what you do when you hit that point of despair. You can give up right then and there – or you can pull harder.

2) 100x Back Squats @ body weight

This is from the Mass Gain Phase of Gym Jones’s Man of Steel training program. There is obviously a considerable strength endurance requirement to supporting your own bodyweight in iron on your back for however long this takes, but the duration makes for an intense cardiorespiratory effort as well.

The hard part about this is the penalty: every time the bar leaves your shoulders before finishing the 100, you need to hit a 250m row (In the original version, you did 20 burpee pull-ups, but hard rowing scares me far more) as fast as possible before picking it back up. Take a breather if you want, but keep that bar on your back unless you want to make it far worse.

The trick to administering this workout is making the penalty more terrifying than pushing through the 100 reps. Every time you start considering reracking the weight, the fear of having to do the penalty will shove you back on track.

That being said, I had to pay the penalty several times. Either the 250m row wasn’t as scary as I thought, or I just needed to prepare myself more. When I administered this test to my trainees, no one had to pay more than two penalty rounds. I think I got it right with them.

There is a similar workout scheduled a week after this one, only using front squats instead of back squats. That version also removes the penalty, probably because the increased complexity of front squats increases the probability of failure without the trainee necessarily giving up.

1) 20s Thrusters, 10s Rest, 15 rounds using 35kg / ~77lbs

This absolute nightmare is from the Leaning Phase of Gym Jones’s Man of Steel training program. You need some solid shoulders and powerful lungs to keep going. As if it wasn’t terrible enough, there’s a stipulation that during the 10-second rest periods, the bar has to stay on your shoulders – no real rest here. 35kg doesn’t seem like that much weight for a strong guy, and 7.5 minutes – the total time of the circuit – isn’t that long.

Combined, though, the two make for an absolute hell.

The first few rounds, I averaged 7-8 reps. By the fifth, I was struggling to hit 5. The last few rounds were barely triples. Once the timer beeped on the final interval, I dropped the barbell and promptly collapsed to the floor, where I lay for about an hour trying to recover.

This workout needs a serious gut check to finish. The rest periods feel useless – the weight of the bar keeps your chest from fully expanding and bringing in much needed oxygen.

Like #2, it also feels like those periods in life when there’s so much weighing on you that you don’t really have time to cool off. It’s a struggle to finish each and every rep, let alone stay true to the “rest”. Once it’s over, you need a nice long nap just to feel vaguely human again.

But there’s the glorious after-effect that many of the Man of Steel workouts produced: once you know how hard you can push, you will have discovered your strength and find the future much easier to take on.




Workout – Strength Endurance

30x each 4-way Jumping Jacks

Push Press Interval

1 block each @ 2×15, then 2x20lbs / 2min between blocks

Do 5x Pull-up after each block

2x 30s Push Press / 30s Overhead Hold

Round Interval

Complete 1 round every 3min for 15min (i.e. 5 rounds)

5x Close-grip Chin-up + 5x Handstand Push-up

4x Close-grip Pull-up + 6x HSPU

5x Close-grip Chin-up + 4x HSPU

4x Close-grip Pull-up + 4x HSPU

8x Close-grip Chin-up + 10x HSPU


10 rounds / 90s-2min rest

5x Close-grip Chin-up

5x DB Press @ 2x45lbs

Final Work

5×10 One-arm Press @ 16kg / 30-45s rest

5min Stretching


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  1. Push, Be Pushed | Within and Without the Gym - May 16, 2016

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