You May Be Strong . . . But Are You Tough?

The human mind can only handle so much fear and anxiety before it sends us into a state of panic. This phenomenon is known as “threat sensitivity,” and if you’re lucky enough to have high levels, the experience is downright terrifying. If not, your adrenaline-fueled survival instincts may be stronger than those with low threat sensitivity.

The “art of manliness” is a website that provides articles and videos on how to be the best man you can be. The site covers topics like fitness, self-improvement, masculinity, and more.

We’ve chosen to reprint a vintage essay each Sunday to assist our younger readers discover some of the greatest, evergreen jewels from the past, with our archives currently totaling over 3,500 items. This piece was first published in October of 2013.

Note from the editor: This is a guest post by Khaled Allen.

I was thin, weak, and prone to disease as a child (much like a certain former president). I used to believe I was bound to be pitiful until my father brought me kayaking. I learnt to be strong, scrappy, and indestructible amid the mucky, hot, and badly maintained routes and portages of the Boundary Waters in Minnesota’s north woods. I reveled in lugging the largest load I could through long, uphill portages, coaxing my toothpick legs to take one step, then another, until the blue expanse of the next lake peeked through the trees. All I had was a determination to push myself farther than everyone else, to rush headfirst into the most difficult terrain, and to disregard the cold, rain, heat, mosquitoes, and my own personal agony.

Mental toughness is in the forefront because to the popularity of high-intensity fitness regimens, military-inspired training, and severe adventure events. A hardcore athlete’s gold standard is how much agony they can take. But what about pure, unadulterated toughness? What does it mean to be both physically and psychologically tough? Is being powerful enough, or is there anything more to it?

Weak But Strong

I’ll never forget the day I walked into a CrossFit class without any shoes on and started for a warm-up jog. One of the other men present, who was incredibly powerful and musclebound, was taken aback and inquired whether it hurt or if I was afraid of the shattered glass. I said that over the years, I’d toughened up my feet and it didn’t affect me at all. In an emergency, the few seconds it would take me to put on shoes may be the difference between life and death. If my feet were too delicate to withstand the tarmac, it didn’t matter how quickly I could run.

I see large men with loads of muscles grimace as soon as their shoes come off or insist on wearing gloves whenever they do weights all the time. They are very powerful in their chosen field, yet their comfort zone is severely limited. Their performance plummets as soon as they are pushed out of it.

Toughness is defined as the ability to withstand adversity.

Men, in particular, often conflate toughness with strength, assuming that being strong equates to being tough, while the two are not synonymous. “Some individuals with extraordinary bodily strength may lack tenacity and may disintegrate when situations get too hard,” explains Erwan Le Corre, creator of MovNat. On the other side, even if they don’t have a lot of muscle mass, some individuals may be very tough, capable of handling demanding, challenging conditions or settings.”


Toughness is defined as the capacity to function successfully in any situation. That may mean doing well while you’re ill or wounded, but it could also mean doing well when your training equipment consists of trees and rocks rather than pull-up bars and barbells. According to Le Corre, “toughness” is “the strength, or aptitude, to bear harsh situations.”

To be able to do so, you must be mentally and physically robust. You won’t be able to avoid freezing in frigid conditions with only mental toughness; but, if you combine mental training with cold tolerance conditioning, for example, you’ll fare considerably better.

Toughness is a skill that may be learned.

The idea that you’re either born tough or you’re not is a fiction. Toughness, both mental and physical, can and should be learned and nurtured in the same way that any other talent can. Certain mental strategies may help you develop an unbreakable will, patience, and the capacity to remain cheerful and focused regardless of how awful things seem. You may also teach your body to resist pain and tolerate situations that might typically cause harm by using particular training approaches.

Mental Fortitude

Mental toughness is defined by how you handle stress. Do you start to panic and lose control, or do you focus on how you’ll get through the problem?

“World-class endurance racers react to the stress of a race with a drop in brain-wave activity that’s akin to meditation,” Rachel Cosgrove, co-owner of Results Fitness and a frequent writer to Men’s Fitness, said in an essay on mental toughness. The typical person’s brain-wave activity increases to the point of panic in response to race stress.”

Similarly, the ability to keep calm under pressure and resist the fight-or-flight reaction that most of us have when we’re being fired at is the most important criterion in whether or not a candidate for the Navy SEALs passes training. Developing strategies to prevent the negative effects of stress allows us to remain in control of our bodies and sustain the high levels of performance required to succeed in any scenario. That’s mental toughness in action.

Willpower is another term for mental tenacity. You resolve to keep going when everyone else has decided they are too exhausted. When an athlete decides that they don’t care about their exhaustion and tries to push harder despite it, this is known as the second wind in sports. When a football team is down two touchdowns yet continues to play as though determined to win against all odds, that’s an example of willpower at work. They may still lose, but with this strategy, they have a far better chance of making a comeback.

So, how can mental toughness be developed?

Discomforts of a Minor Nature

Accepting little discomforts on a daily basis is one of the finest methods to build mental resilience. Take only cold showers or go without food on occasion. Dr. Roy Baumeister outlines the training program of renowned endurance athlete David Blaine in his book Willpower. Blaine will start making up tiny uncomfortable routines for himself before undertaking his exploits, which have included being encased in ice for over 63 hours, dangling over the Thames in a transparent plastic cage for 44 days, and holding his breath for 17 minutes on live television. These are generally little things, such as touching every overhanging tree limb on his way to work, but they train his mind to exert additional effort even when he doesn’t feel like it, to exercise willpower, and to do things even when it is unpleasant or difficult.


Sticking to an uncomfortable diet, living without a vehicle, or shaving with a straight razor are all examples of this.

There’s a lot to be said about straightforward discomfort acclimation. When you’re just starting out, the nicks and bruises you receive from training in the outdoors might be quite distracting, but if you keep going out, you’ll ultimately learn that they’re nothing more than helpful feedback on placement and technique.

Consider the positive.

The majority of us have an internal monologue in our thoughts that tells our own tale. Our perception of oneself and environmental cues influence how this sounds. If you’ve always done well in school, you may think of yourself as “clever,” but not necessarily “strong” or “charming.”

The problem is that most of these definitions are made up on the spot. Anyone who studies hard enough in school can succeed academically, and anyone who trains hard enough in sports can succeed athletically. That internal tale typically determines whether or not we are ready and able to push ourselves hard enough to succeed.

As a result, the easy remedy is to accept only positive self-talk. This is a popular strategy used by the wealthy, and it’s covered in books like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, and Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Have a justification

Knowing why you can’t fail is one of the most effective motivators in training and life. Jack Yee, who has been featured on T-Nation and Mark’s Daily Apple for his writing on mental toughness, recalls his time at the famous Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach, where he saw not only old school greats like Tom Platz, Lou Ferrigno, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but also a large number of promising amateurs, many of whom had more impressive physiques. They didn’t survive long, though: after one loss in a tournament, they’d quit up. One failure was enough to shattered their self-assurance.

Reminding yourself why you’re out there in the first place is the remedy. When I was running and felt discouraged, one of the tricks I used was to believe that my girlfriend was being kidnapped and that if I didn’t get to her in time, they would murder her. This worked for me since my incentive for exercising was to help others I cared about. I would always run faster, no matter how tired I was. 

Summary of Mental Toughness Training

  • Allow (or desire) little annoyances and discomforts in your daily life. Learn to put up with them.
  • Instead of embracing your internal monologue for what it is, begin to evaluate it. Listen carefully to what you’re saying and consider whether it’s a belief you want to adopt.
  • When you’re fatigued and thinking about skipping your exercise, remind yourself why you’re doing it. Calculate the value of the inconvenience vs the value of the why, and then go out there.

Toughness of the body

Physical toughness receives much less attention than mental toughness, owing to the fact that it is entwined with strength and training. However, being physically tough is not the same as being strong, swift, or powerful. Physical toughness is defined as the capacity to withstand adversity while continuing to operate, to recover rapidly, to adapt to challenging terrain and situations, and to maintain a positive attitude in the face of adversity.


MovNat, Le Corre’s training approach, stresses the need of establishing a tough body through exercising in circumstances that are inhospitable to the student. A major aspect of MovNat’s approach is training outside, in severe (or just non-climate-controlled) circumstances. “[It] is the capacity of the body to tolerate adversity, such as food or sleep deprivation, severe weather conditions such as cold, heat, rain, snow, or humidity, and challenging terrains (steep, rocky, slippery, radiating heat, thick vegetation, etc.),” Le Corre states of physical toughness.

Physical toughness refers to the modifications your body undergoes in order to become more robust. Because your threshold has effectively raised, this has the effect of emptying your willpower, allowing you to mentally push yourself more.

Skin that is thicker

Thick skin is a basic illustration of physical toughness that is often used as a euphemism for toughness in general. Men who work out hard at the gym seldom have calluses other than those around the base of their fingers, which are caused by the bar squeezing their hold. Men who workout with abrasive things such as stones or logs, or in nature, develop thick skin on their fingers and hands. The same may be said for the feet. This shift is accompanied by a change in the sensitivity of the pain receptors in those locations. What used to be a painful massage becomes a relaxing massage as you become used to walking barefoot.

The greatest approach to acquire this very genuine sort of physical toughness is to expose yourself to the elements. Train barefoot, using just the most basic clothes and using harsh instruments. Start with shorter periods and forgiving surfaces to avoid damage, then gradually increase the time and the environment’s harshness. You’ll learn to distinguish between discomfort and genuine pain. You’ll also learn how to be gentle with rock and dirt, but you’ll also get tougher.

Supple Joints are joints that are flexible.

The combination of mobility, flexibility, and durability is an often-overlooked kind of toughness. Hard exercise puts a lot of stress on the body, but it’s amplified when every action extends a muscle to its entire range of motion or pushes a joint to its maximum. Flexible joints can move farther without putting stress on their supporting systems, which reduces fatigue and wear and tear, leaving you hurt and wailing on the ground.

As a result, make mobility training a priority in your exercise program. It will not only spare you pain, but it will also enable you to take more punishment and complete more repetitions without feeling the repercussions, making you even more difficult to bring down.

Changes in Hormones and Adrenal Function

Another example of physical toughness is a little more difficult to see. It is made up of the metabolic and hormonal changes that occur as a result of intense exercise. These may take the form of improved energy management, allowing you to tire more slowly and recover faster, allowing you to return to work with shockingly little time to rest. You’re back in the ring, having already regained your breath and calmed down, when most others would be down for the count.


The easiest method to develop this kind of toughness is to minimize your recovery time between workouts or activities, even if it means sacrificing your performance. However, remember that there is a narrow line between promoting adaptation and overtraining, so allow your body time and resources to rebuild itself stronger than before. Eat healthily and in moderation, and get enough rest. These routines can help you build up a bank of resources to fall back on when rest isn’t so easy to come by. Apply an acute stress, such as intermittent fasting, to educate your body to adjust rapidly and be energy efficient, or workout with little sleep on occasion. However, if you’re well-rested and nourished, you’ll be able to manage more.

Nasal breathing is another intriguing method I’ve lately begun practicing to boost my cardiorespiratory endurance. Even during strenuous activities, I limit myself to inhaling just via my nostrils. As a consequence, oxygen is used more efficiently. Even when I switch to regular breathing for a certain exercise, I’ve observed that I don’t become out of breath nearly as soon as I did before using this approach.

Tolerance to the Environment

Environmental tolerance is a somewhat uncommon kind of physical toughness. Altitude acclimatization is the most well-known kind, in which athletes train at altitude and compete at sea level. Adaptation to low oxygen is often thought of as a technique to gain an edge in athletics, but it is also an example of physical endurance, or the capacity to tolerate a harsh situation.

Cold tolerance is another example. If you go without clothes and subject yourself to severe cold shocks on a regular basis, your body will actually enhance its capacity to create heat. It is feasible to workout with merely a t-shirt and shorts even in the cold. You’ll learn to tell the difference between a surface chill on your skin and a profound chill that might lead to hypothermia. The first provides information about your surroundings, while the second serves as a warning sign of impending danger.

I also exclusively take cold showers, which has enhanced my capacity to withstand a broader range of temperatures without feeling uncomfortable. Of course, both of them are unpleasant at first, but with practice, they grow less so, and you will see a noticeable increase in your overall toughness.

Summary of Physical Toughness Training

  • Allow yourself to be exposed to harsh surroundings without the customary protection, gradually increasing the intensity of exposure over time.
  • Learn mobility and self-maintenance exercises and incorporate them into your daily workout program.
  • Train with less downtime between sets or sessions while still taking good care of yourself.
  • Train outdoors in all weather conditions with as little protection as possible.


Outdoor training with minimum protection is my favorite technique to build sheer toughness, both physical and mental — what I call ruggedness. I frequently train in a wild environment with nothing on but a pair of shorts, climbing trees, hoisting and throwing rocks, scrambling up and over boulders, and running over gravel-covered trails, inspired by Erwan Le Corre and the MovNat method of training to approach exercise the same way I approached camping as a kid.


My body is challenged by the continuously altering terrain and things, but my patience and attention are also tested. It’s irritating when a little pebble becomes practically hard to move due to its form. It’s irritating when I’m attempting to race up a hill but keep sliding on soft sand. It’s aggravating when a thorny tree limb turns pull-ups into a twisted caricature of the immaculate exercise I do at the gym. Slight discomfort from scrapes or rough ground is a constant, and wearing little clothes makes the cold a problem, particularly if there is snow.

Everything has become more difficult, or should I say more convoluted. As a consequence, I’ve learned to cope with emotional and physical stress, as well as how to adapt to make things work even when the environment isn’t cooperating. It’s either I deal with it or I fail. It doesn’t matter if I can deadlift 3x my bodyweight on a bar while I’m out there; it doesn’t alter the fact that a rock is utterly off-balance and aggressively attempting to slide into my toes. That doesn’t alter the fact that I’m going to pick it up and carry it up the mountain.

That is the epitome of tenacity.

That is the epitome of tenacity.

Khaled Allen is a writer and explorer who is interested in unlocking human potential. He presently resides in Boulder, Colorado, where he enjoys hiking, teaching self-defense, and meditating.



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