When I train clients, I usually know very quickly if they will achieve or fail at their physical goals. The most important factor for success isn’t strength, motivation, or hard work—it’s discipline. Self-discipline is crucial to obtain both mental toughness and physical improvement. Without self-discipline, one can train hard but is likely to be inconsistent. Temptations to opt out of a workout or eat bad food will always be a challenge. We aren't born with great self-discipline skills; it is a conscious effort.

Self-discipline is the ability to do a task even when one does not want to do it. The “even when one does not want to do it” is the key. I could think of a million things I would rather do than hill sprints, especially when it’s raining. But I do them because it’s hill day. When I work overtime and am completely exhausted, the last thing I want to do is heavy squats. But I still train because I made a commitment to myself. There was nothing worse than my muscle up training. After about a month of trying to get my first bar muscle up and failing, I was ready to quit. However, I continued to persevere until I finally was able to do one muscle up.

Without self-discipline, I wouldn’t have done any of these workouts because I surely would have stayed home with a beer and zoned out in front of ESPN. But I did them because I'm very disciplined. Anybody can work out when he's well rested and inspired, but the real challenge is working out when you feel like a lazy ass.

When it comes to my eating habits, I’m just as strict. I have to be. I let myself go with years of junk food and poor food choices, but now I’ve gone to the other extreme. I eat as cleanly as possible, but I still have cravings for crap food. I have to fight these urges often by disciplining my mind. It isn't easy, but I can’t take any chances of a setback. My behaviors are extreme. for example, I bring salads to the movie theater or brown rice to my favorite Chinese restaurant. Oh, I forgot. I don’t go out to Chinese restaurants anymore because of the high sugar content.

My friends always ask me if feel like I’m missing out. They think I’m miserable and fanatical. Miserable, no. Fanatical, yes. I like to call myself extremely focused. I don’t feel deprived because I cook my own food. I still eat pizza, Chinese food, and other foods that one may consider unhealthy. It’s just that now I learn how to make it healthier. My alternative cooking lifestyle didn’t come overnight. Through researching recipes and trial and error, I discovered I still can eat my favorite foods. No doubt, this change took a lot of discipline on my part.

I feel much better now as a result of my rebelling against the masses. To me, most people are weak and cave into the need for immediate gratification. I have taught myself to do the opposite—to learn how to delay gratification. This is the driving force behind the development of self-discipline. Delayed gratification requires one to embrace pain and sometimes give up what is enjoyable. The rewards may take a while, but the payoff of self-discipline is huge.

Self-discipline is needed if you want to body build, lose weight, or just enhance your athletic skills. But, most importantly, self-discipline is crucial in your pursuit of mental toughness. At times, your journey for mental toughness will be unpleasant and miserable. To help you overcome the upcoming challenges, these tips will help strengthen your self-discipline. It won’t be easy, but it will be worthwhile.

Tip #1: Your goals must be specific.

When I was doing bodybuilding training, my goal was to get big. I got big all over my body, especially in my gut. The problem with this goal was that it was too vague. You need goals that are specific and clear. Goals with targeted numbers like an amount of weight loss or a faster 5K time are best. Numbers on a scale, shirt size, or time on the clock are concrete.

The more specific your goals are, the easier they are for you to visualize. If your goal is to lose weight, really see yourself losing that 20 pounds with a new leaner and more muscular body. If your goal is an athletic achievement like running a six-minute mile, mentally rehearse seeing yourself finishing a sub 6-minute mile before each run.

Visualization is a powerful tool for your development of self-discipline. However, the problem I have with all the self-help gurus who advocate visualization technique is it's way too passive and send some over the top into fantasy land. Visualization isn't a means on its own. If so, you're just wishing. Wishing is the common practice of the masses. It's characteristic of those who are weak and too timid to take any risks. Those who are successful use visualization to elicit a behavior.

The images you have in your mind of you reaching your goals should provoke you into taking action. Whatever images you have, they must be strong enough to motivate you to do a workout when you don’t feel up to par to doing it. When you feel like having a large order of fries with your meal, the image of you hitting your goal should immediately confront you. The image should deter you from eating the bad meal. If the images do not propel you to change your behavior, you must create stronger and more meaningful images to motivate you.

Again, self-discipline is all about doing what you don’t want to do. It is the beginning of learning how to activate your will. This pretty much sums it all up—you train when you don’t feel like it and you don’t eat the junk food when you crave it.

Your pursuit of self-discipline needs to be proactive. Back up your talk with actions. Get aggressive and relentless as you pursue your goals. Write your goals down. Seeing them on paper will hold you accountable for your actions. Too many people rely on others to help them get things done. Learn to depend on yourself.

Olympic gold medalist and my favorite tough guy Dan Gable used to write his goals on index cards. He carried them with him so that he could review them throughout the day. George St. Pierre wrote down his goal and looked at it as soon as he got up. Before his fight with Josh Koscheck, his goal was I will destroy Koscheck. With the ass whipping he gave Koscheck, I would say he accomplished his goal.

As you make gains toward your goals, you will feel inner strength and confidence with your self-control. The junk food that was once so difficult to resist will later be viewed with disgust. When you feel too tired to train, you will know what buttons to push to fire yourself up.

Self-discipline is all about empowering yourself. When you can truly visualize yourself with a stronger body and mind, you're ready.

Tip #2: You must learn to make sacrifices.

When it comes to making sacrifices, two athletes come to mind—Arnold and Ronnie Lott. When I was young, I was mesmerized with Arnold in Pumping Iron. He was so locked in on his goal of winning the Mr. Olympia that he even skipped the funeral of his father. I still find this chilling. Ronnie Lott got part of his finger amputated so that he wouldn't miss any football games.

I hope none of you out there think I’m advocating extreme discipline. Arnold’s example is borderline self-indulgent while Lott’s is the ultimate warrior sacrifice. However, I do believe one has to learn to pay a price to achieve his goals.

Making sacrifices is giving up something so you can reach your goals. The core of self-discipline is dealing with the temptations that surround you. There will always be more desirable things to do than training. Your discipline will face challenges every day. See them as a daily test of your will. If we are striving for a better body composition, you can't tolerate making bad food choices. A little indulgence can lead to major slip ups. I’m not suggesting we should live a boring life of eating just sprouts, but we have to stop lying to ourselves when we tell ourselves it's OK to have junk and processed foods. It only takes a few undisciplined meals to send you down a spiral. When you avoid bad food choices or drinking binges, don’t feel like you're missing out. Instead, see it as a gain, a gain you have made with your inner strength built upon each victory you made as you distance yourself more from those who are weak.

It all comes down to how much you want to achieve your goals. If your desire is great, you will work your ass off. Having a strong work ethic is the code of brotherhood for those who live to excel. You must buy into the concept that hard work will pay off. If not, a sense of doubt will creep in on those days where you don’t feel like training. When you start to second guess yourself about the hard work you put in, it’s over. You are done. A chronic pattern of procrastination develops following a fat gut.

Your sense of belief in hard work must be absolute. Let it define your character. Having talent is overrated. I’ve seen those with amazing natural abilities go to waste because things were too easy for them at first and they never learned how to embrace hard work.

I’ll take having a chip on my shoulder anytime over talent. Feeling disrespected is a strong motivator for those who have gone overboard with their work habits. Nobody worked out harder or was more disciplined than Jerry Rice. By constantly being undervalued by others, pushing himself to perfection became an obsession for Rice. Drew Bres is another example of how one can shut up his doubters. The questions about his size, arm strength, and shoulder injury all motivated Bres to discipline himself to become the most conditioned NFL athlete. He just refused to let any of his teammates out work him.

We all have people in our lives who we badly want to prove wrong. If you don’t because you sadly have forgiven them, mental toughness training isn't for you. You are better suited for “yoga for seniors.”

This training is about proving yourself day in and day out. It’s about making people eat their words. Your desire must be so strong that you will do what is necessary to have the last laugh. If any obstacle is blocking you of achieving your goal, it must be extinguished. If anybody stands in your way of you reaching your objective, you must hold this person in contempt.

You must have a “take no prisoners” mindset and discard those in your life who try to hold you back. The journey to having a disciplined mind is very isolated. Most likely you will get little support or understanding from those around you. Counter attack the occasional solidarity by finding joy in the training. Learn to love hard work. Passion and a strong work ethic are an unbeatable combination. If you possess both, you are on the way to reaching the next level.

Tip #3: You must work on your weaknesses.

We all know what we suck at. It doesn’t take much thought process. We pretty much avoid doing what we aren't good at. For years, I had a decent chest and arms. When I went to the gym, I mostly did a lot of benching and curling. I rarely trained my back or legs. And when I did, it was some lat machine pull-downs and a couple sets of leg extensions. The wimpy stuff.

Training your strength is the typical training protocol of the masses. It's easy and very enjoyable. However, eventually you will stop making any gains. The worst part is when we fail to challenge ourselves. We don’t attain new knowledge or lean anything about our character. When one stops learning, that is never a good thing. A stale mind will lead to mental and physical regressions.

If you want to reach the next level, you must force yourself to work on your weaknesses. For most of us, our flaws will be our bad eating habits. It doesn’t matter how hard you train. If you eat crappy food, your body transformation will be very difficult. So stop fooling yourself and thinking that occasional cheat meal isn’t affecting your gut. It is—big time.

Training your physical flaws is the sign of one who is very disciplined and someone who is very serious about training. Before winning the Mr. Olympia contest, a young Arnold was huge, but he knew his small calves would prevent him from winning a serious title. He was so determined to get his calves up to par with the rest of his body that he made training calves his number one priority. Before each workout, he would do some kind of calf workout.

The pain of working on your weakness isn't necessarily the workout itself but, in most cases, the anticipation of it. For me, I dreaded doing tire sprints so much that on the day of the workout, I was drained mentally before even doing the sprints. The workout would be in the back of my mind the whole day as I constantly looked for excuses and tried to make up fake injuries to get out of it. The tire sprint workout was always brutal, but the wait was a hundred times worse. Pure agony.

The sheer difficulty of working through your weakness will strengthen your self-discipline skills. However, once you're set on planning your weakness training, you must get it done. Skipping the challenging workouts will cause irreversible damage to your development of mental toughness. Any progress you made will be halted and you'll take two steps backward. Instead of getting tougher, the opposite will happen—you will become weaker. The damages of backing down will translate to your personal life as well. You will become a coward of confrontation instead of being the aggressor when your back is against the wall. The choice is simple: you either fight or quit and wait your turn to be trampled on. The wait won’t be long either. Once you learn to be a target, people will line up to stomp on you.

You must always refuse the urge to give up. Quitting becomes an acceptable pattern full of logical but lame rationalizations. Once you get into the passive mode, it is very difficult to get out of it. So once you make the commitment to dissolve your weakness, there isn't any turning back. The ultimate goal is to turn your weakness into your strength. I know this is hard to believe for those of you who hate to run, but you just might love it. It may be far-fetched for those who can’t stand training legs, but after a couple months of squatting, you just might love the results you see. When you learn to convert your weakness into your strength, there won't be anything holding you back.

Final thoughts

As you progress in your development of self-discipline, you will no longer view your life as full of weaknesses. You will see them as adversities that you must overcome. It will be a challenge to overcome, but with hard work and strong visualization, you know damn well there isn't anything that will get in your way of accomplishing your obstacles. Now go to work.