voluntary hardship

The Voluntary Hardship Series

Join our exploration of the difficult, the challenging, the tough done willingly: voluntary hardship. We love strength training, and strength training is hard. One of the biggest aspects of strength training is subjecting yourself to hard things repeatedly and overcoming them.

Ep 1: Mindset Matters – Voluntary Hardship Reexamined

Life comes with difficulties, no matter what we do. Hardship comes voluntarily or involuntarily, but for any hardship our mindset before, during, and after matters: how we approach and process challenging events matter. 

Hardship–voluntary or involuntary–can refine us and improve our relationships, or it can beat us down and weaken social ties. Our relationship with the event–which we define with our mindset–helps determine the benefit to us.

Why are you taking on the hardship? What are your thoughts about the hardship? If it’s involuntary, what’s your story about the difficulty?

Think of military units or families who are subjected to hardships: deaths, challenging missions, divorce, tragedy. We know that not all military units or families come out better on the other end. Our stories about these events matter. 

If we consider the event a challenge, it should be a self-challenge about seeing how we can push ourselves, not about being better than others or being perceived as good. 

In line with this, Matt even argues that past hardships can benefit more today if you reprocess them and develop healthier stories about them. 

This ultimately comes down to your values and priorities. Having awkward conversations can prevent huge amounts of mental bandwidth going towards resentments and anger toward others, so it’s probably better to have the awkward conversations.

Niki shares her experience with cleaning out her house and ridding herself of unnecessary items. Ultimately, this came down to not holding onto things she doesn’t value and don’t improve her life. She added that if you don’t see the objects in your desired life that you’re pursuing, you probably should get rid of them.

Ep 2: Voluntary Hardship

This is a throwback to the early days of the podcast. Matt and Scott discuss the concept of voluntary hardship: what is it and how does it refine us?

Life will undoubtedly present difficulties. This is involuntary hardship. Choosing to go through something difficult, however, seems to provide benefits. 

Essentially, this is delayed gratification: do something hard now to delay the benefit to a future you. Working, working out, saving & investing money, growing food: these all require work now for future benefits. 

Think about what provides you value and what does not? If you’re doing things that deprive you of value, reduce or eliminate these activities. 

One useful framework is using the concepts of urgent & important to create 4 categories of activities. Important activities provide value. Urgent things need to be completed soon.

  • Not urgent, not important: provide no value–>reduce or eliminate
  • Urgent, not important: these tend to take up lots of our time–>reduce the time these take up
  • Not urgent, important: the hardest category to protect; find ways to spend more time doing these
  • Urgent & important: worthy of your time, but don’t ignore the important things that are not urgent

As you can see, the important things that are not urgent are the hardest to get done. There is little to no pressure.

Work seems to be something people have to do. It provides a creative outlet and helps prevent us from spending too much time with unimportant, nonurgent tasks (vices). 

You can also appreciate the beauty and good of human work. A well-cooked steak, good cheese, a beautiful painting or building. These required the dedication of the craftsman in pursuit of excellent, the everyday work on these skills. The fruits are sweet, though they require much work to come to fruition.

Much modern work can be unsatisfactory. Some time spent on simple, hard things can be refining. Squatting, splitting wood, growing food: simple, hard, effective. 

Voluntary hardship goes against the grain. You have to pursue the important, nonurgent things because you value them and have the discipline to continue this work. 

Finally, this isn’t simply work for work’s sake or white knuckling discipline, though a bit of that may be necessary. It’s about looking toward the future and cultivating a life spent doing more things that provide value, not pleasure in the here and now. 

Ep 3: Confidence Matters-Strength Training’s Greatest Benefit

One of strength training’s biggest benefits is CONFIDENCE. As people grow stronger, overcome difficult things, and build a more capable body, they tend to carry themselves differently and bring confidence to other areas of their lives.

Increased capability lends itself to more confidence. You know your body and do more and meet physical challenges better than it did before. You know that you can do difficult things, repeatedly, and gain confidence from that. Finally, as you train you begin to build a capable, muscular body. All these contribute to confidence. 

Some may criticize this idea, as ultimately squatting and deadlifting aren’t THAT hard compared to the myriad challenges humans can face. Maybe this is true–modern lives come with comforts and conveniences–but we can add difficulty with strength training, better ourselves, and prepare ourselves for unexpected, involuntary hardship. 

Gyms are notorious for tearing down confidence, not building it up, so as a lifter look for supportive gyms and coaches. If you’re a coach, you have to know not only that you’re not a drill sergeant but also that technique cues & programming aren’t enough. To have to support your client. 

Ep 4: Motivation over Discipline

It is popular these days to laud discipline and the ability to endure suffering. The problem with this is that it ignores people’s values and preferences. Some people can bear more hardships, but others are drawn to certain types of hardships. Some people–gasp–like running, and many lifters do not. 

Matt, for example, enjoys waking up early and getting things done. He’s done this since he was young. It’s not a challenge for him. Staying up late, however, to complete tasks is difficult. The path to productivity for Matt is to acknowledge this and exploit it and continue to wake up and get after it. 

This doesn’t mean that discipline doesn’t matter or won’t be necessary, but we need to examine our feelings for habits we’ve failed to create or end. If we begin to pursue a hobby and can’t seem to make time for it, despite having the time, maybe this doesn’t align with our values or preferences. We either need to find the good, the enjoyment, the creativity–that thing that draws us in–or we need to potentially look for alternatives. 

Similarly, external motivation is a poor way to change behavior. While incentives matter, think about trying to change someone’s opinion or getting someone else to lift or eat healthy or join you in something you enjoy. The other person has to come to the activity on their own terms, or they won’t do it or will have resentment toward you. 

So, know your values & preferences. Look for the good in the things that take up your time. If you can’t seem to find it, it might be time to try to change your activities. 

Ep 5: Don’t Fear the Barbell-Managing Your Mind Under the Bar

Matt & Scott discuss fear of the lifts, especially heavy, PR attempts.

Different people have different fears of different lifts based on history (repeated failure or past injury) and simply how they feel about the lift. Lots of people, for example, are afraid of heavy squats. There’s something about a heavy bar on your back and that you’re folded over in the bottom and–even with properly set safety pins–there’s just no graceful way to fail a squat.

Scott & Matt even share their unusual fears of what might happen when they squat.

Having habits & rituals can help. This way, the lead up to the PR attempt is the same as all the sets that led up to this attempt. 

You can also practice “failing” a rep so that you know that the pins will take the bar and how that feels. Test your safety pins for the bench press as well.

Injury history matters as well. Matt has torn both pecs on the bench press, so when the weight gets heavier for him, that fear is present on rep 1 and the later, grindier reps. 

There is also more irrational fear, which tends to come from misunderstanding just how low risk strength training is (even with bad form). For example, many people fear hurting their back on a heavy squat or deadlift. 

At the end of the day, we can mitigate fear, have rituals, and have safety equipment properly set up, but we have to simply get it done. We have to have a bias for action. The fear won’t disappear. 

Ep 6: Are You Working Hard Enough?

If you’re failing early in LP, you have to ask yourself: are you working hard enough? Some symptoms of not working hard enough might be not uploading your failed sets to your coach & failing reps early in LP (like the first 6 weeks). This often occurs with people who think a lot in their work. No though will help you move from the bottom of a squat to the top of a squat besides a simple cue. 

As an example, consider the Bulgarian Method, a program of lifting where lifters train 6 days a week with heavy weights. We don’t recommend this, but the point is that you’re not working that hard in the weight room and though there are people out there who coaches will need to rein in, but you’re likely not one of those people. 

LP, especially, is simply not enough stress to overtrain you and the risk of injury is incredibly low. Not only does strength training have low risk, but you’re in the steep part of the adaptivity curve and you’re not moving heavy weights compared to your biological limit. 

Many of these people have done hard things in other areas of their lives. They might be professionals like lawyers, doctors, or engineers who solve complicated problems as part of their job, but in the case of heavy weights you need to turn your brain off a bit. 

If you’re a coach, you might see that they failed a rep and then didn’t send you the video. Or they failed the rep and then backed off. They often might have an idea or solution about what happened too.

When it comes to shutting off your brain and just thinking about the cue, the lifts have different flavors. Bench press & squat are similar in that they start in the top and a failed rep can be awkward. Press starts from the bottom, but people often use something to get the bar going on heavy reps. The deadlift, though, is just going to take some time to get off the floor on a heavy rep. 

So, are you working hard enough?

Bonus: Style & The Appearance of Power with Tanner Guzy

Men’s style coach Tanner Guzy joins the show to share some tips for improving your style and making sure you are highlighting the physical gains you’ve worked so hard to make in the gym.

Tanner offers an online style course for men as well as one-on-one coaching (he even helped Matt frame his baby blues). You can also take a free quiz on his site to determine your style archetype.


Also be sure to pick up Tanner’s book on the intersection of style, power, and masculinity, The Appearance of Power: How Masculinity Is Expressed Through Aesthetics.


Any time you mention style around a group of men, there’s an inevitable mixture of bemusement, eye rolling, and genuine interest. Many guys proclaim (or perhaps complain) that they dress “for comfort.” They just want to be comfortable, they say, and aesthetic concerns are subordinate, even anathema. Tanner argues that style and comfort are in fact closely related, and men often mistakenly believe that you cannot have both.

The foundational principle of style, he says, is context. Understand who you are, what you do, and where you do it. Your geography, culture, profession, body type, and personality all affect your individual style choices. While Daniel Craig may look dashing in a bespoke dinner jacket at the Casino Royale Montenegro, an IT professional from the American midwest would look ridiculous in the same. Where a mid-level corporate worker could elevate his style with a sport jacket or better fitting slacks, a freelance programmer would perhaps fit in better with a nice pair of chinos and chukka boots. Context matters, so the more you understand where you fit into your own society and culture, and what’s realistic for your climate, the better your style choices will be.

When coaching men, Tanner also takes personality into account. He divides style into three broad archetypes: rugged, refined, and rakish. Each describes the intersection between personality, cultural values, and profession. The refined man exudes effortless confidence with fine but subtle clothing choices, whereas the rakish man proudly displays his rebellious spirit with bold, fashionable clothing styles. Each can dress well, to be taken seriously, and in a way that enhances his individuality.





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