Home Blog CP Internship Blog: Can Circuit Training Develop Mental Toughness? – Part 1

CP Internship Blog: Can Circuit Training Develop Mental Toughness? – Part 1

Written on April 5, 2010 at 9:20 am, by Eric Cressey

This guest blog comes from current Cressey Performance intern, Sam Leahey.


A qualification needs to be made first. This debate often times confuses people because they don’t take the time to qualify what exactly they’re discussing. The overriding issue here is on the use of exercise or conditioning circuits in training to develop “mental toughness” and/or “work capacity.” Both capacities are actually pretty different scientifically and practically, but too often get thrown into the same conversation. When we talk about using exercise or conditioning “circuits” in the weight room, most coaches rationale for using them is rooted in one of three things:

1)    To build “mental toughness” in the athletes

2)    To build “work capacity” in the athletes

3)    To build both.

I want to be clear here that this article will focus solely on thoughts regarding the first rationale and not the others. This if for clarity’s sake, brevity, and quality of analysis. In future blogs, I hope to delve into the other two reasons why coaches/trainers program conditioning circuits and whether or not it has value and/or a desired training effect.

Before you continue reading, I’d pose the title of this article to you again and ask that you take a moment to think about your answer – can YOU develop mental toughness of YOUR athletes using circuit training in your programs?

What is “Mental Toughness”?

The first thing we need to establish is what “mental toughness” really is.  Defining the term alone could be another endless debate, so let’s keep things neutral and use good ol’ dictionary.com as our trusted resource:

Type in the term “mental toughness” and the search comes up empty.

Hmm, this has implications. It seems that the term “mental toughness” as a whole is abstract and inherently debatable because there is no established definition in the dictionary. Disagree with me? If so, then I’d point you to the example of the term “Mc Job”, which is a term referring to a service industry job that is unstimulating, pays low wages, and offers few benefits. At one point “Mc Job” was an abstract concept just like the term “mental toughness” currently is. It wasn’t until enough people settled on its terms that it went from being abstract to a concrete reality which is definable and published in the dictionary itself, see:

Mc Job

– 2 dictionary results

Mc – Job [muh k-job]


an unstimulating, low-wage job with few benefits, esp. in a service industry.

So, in the same sense, I think the term “mental toughness” will take much longer (if ever) to reach a state of clear and accepted definition. Continuing on, though, what we can establish here is that the words “mental” and “toughness” are separately definable:


m?n tl/ Show Spelled[men-tl]


1. of or pertaining to the mind: mental powers; mental suffering.

2. of, pertaining to, or affected by a disorder of the mind: a mental patient; mental illness.

3. providing care for persons with disordered minds, emotions, etc.: a mental hospital.

4. performed by or existing in the mind: mental arithmetic; a mental note.

5. pertaining to intellectuals or intellectual activity.

6. Informal. slightly daft; out of one’s mind; crazy: He’s mental.


7. Informal. a person with a psychological disorder: a fascist group made up largely of mentals.


Spelled [tuhf],adjective,-er, -est, adverb, noun, verb


1. strong and durable; not easily broken or cut.

2. not brittle or tender.

3. difficult to masticate, as food: a tough steak.

4. of viscous consistency, as liquid or semiliquid matter: tough molasses.

5. capable of great endurance; sturdy; hardy: tough troops.

6. not easily influenced, as a person; unyielding; stubborn: a tough man to work for.

7. hardened; incorrigible: a tough criminal.

8. difficult to perform, accomplish, or deal with; hard, trying, or troublesome: a tough problem.

9. hard to bear or endure (often used ironically): tough luck.

10. vigorous; severe; violent: a tough struggle.

11. vicious; rough; rowdyish: a tough character; a tough neighborhood.

12. practical, realistic, and lacking in sentimentality; tough-minded.

13. Slang. remarkably excellent; first-rate; great.


14. in a tough manner.


15. a ruffian; rowdy.

Combining the first two definitions we could say that “mental toughness” via dictionary.com is a strong, durable, non-tender mind capacity or functioning. So now we have a theoretical foundation from which we can work – and we again arrive at the initial debate: can this “mental toughness” be developed by strength and conditioning coaches using forms of circuit training with their athletes?

Acute vs. Chronic

Here are some classic examples that coaches and trainers (both good and bad) who subscribe to the theory “you can develop mental toughness through circuit training” use in practice. . .

(Each exercise done for 1 minute each, circuit done 2-3 times)(*AMRAP – as many reps as possible)

“Death Circuit Saturdays”

–          Overhead MedBall Slam (AMRAP)

–          Tire Flips (20 yards)

–          Overhead Sledgehammer Tire Hits (AMRAP)

–          Pushups (AMRAP)

–          Farmer’s Walk (25yards down and back)

–          Rotational MedBall Throws (AMRAP)

–          Vertical Jump (AMRAP)

“Meat-Head Monday”

–          Barbell Bench Press (225lbs x AMRAP)

–          Barbell Back Squat (315lbs x AMRAP)

–          Pull-Up (BW x AMRAP)

–          Conventional Deadlift (315 x AMRAP)

–          Chest Supported T-Bar Row (70lbs x AMRAP)

“Functional Friday”

–          Single-Leg Box Squats (AMRAP)

–          1 Arm TRX Inverted Row (AMRAP)

–          Front Plank

–          Standing 1 Arm Cable Press (AMRAP)

–          Side Plank

–          Walking Lunges with Overhead DB Press (AMRAP)

–          1 Arm Chin-Up (AMRAP)

“Strong-Man Monday”

–          Farmers Walk (30yards down and back)

–          Seated Rope Pull (20yard rope connected to weighted sled – pull to you once)

–          Prowler Sled Pushes (30yards down and back)

–          Giant Log Lift (AMRAP in 2 minutes)

With this list of random circuits in mind, now let’s talk about how and when strength and conditioning coaches implement these circuits into their program(s). If you’ve been around collegiate strength and conditioning for any amount of time, you’ll know these circuits usually get placed at the end or beginning of a training week and sometimes at the end of a training cycle. In the private sector of the strength and conditioning profession (training facilities), there isn’t that much separation from that either. You’ll find these circuits being sprinkled in to the clients (athletes) programs. The biggest point to consider here is that whenever circuit training is used it’s almost never done continually, 100% of the time; it’s always used sparingly while the bulk of the training is more traditional.

Conclusion – The Carryover

Imagine if you yourself or an athlete you know did one of the above circuits. How would you feel? It’d be pretty tough wouldn’t it? If I told you that you were going to do it again next week, you would be mentally prepared for it, wouldn’t you? After doing it every Friday for two months, would you have mentally adapted to the stimulus and find it less of a mental struggle each time? Of course! However, what happens every other day of the week when you don’t have that stimulus present? Are you still as “mentally tough” throughout the week as you are on Friday when you are near puking your brains out and have a coach scream at you and blowing whistles? Even more relevant is the perspective of adding up those single exposure circuit days and compare them to all the days in the off-season and in-season you’re not doing a circuit. Which of the two sums has the most potential for developing ANYTHING for that matter?


Are we forgetting the fact that many collegiate teams implement these circuits to only end up with losing seasons? Meanwhile, on the other hand, you have teams doing the same death circuits and getting to the championship. Did one team not do enough “death circuits” and needed more exposures so they can reach post season play? Or, did the team who reached the championship lead a mentally tough lifestyle off the field/court/ice and not just get “psyched up” for a death circuit once a week or month?

True athletic team success is the result of all the little things added up throughout the week that culminate on game day, not just a mental victory once and while over some weight room circuit.

It’s performing every exercise in the weight room with perfect technique that fosters CHRONIC mental toughness in athletes. It’s not accepting lousy technique for the sake of putting more weight on the bar that makes the athlete mentally tough.

It’s showing up to train on time, every time, over the course of the entire macrocycle that gives us sustainable and reproducible mental toughness that carries over into team chemistry and cohesiveness.

It’s going through the full warm-up without skipping steps just so you can get on to lifting heavy weights quicker.

It’s only doing the prescribed number of reps and sets that’s your given and not letting an athlete do his/her own thing.

It’s not missing workouts or having athlete find excuses not to come in and train because it’s a “light day” or “regeneration day”.

It’s a culture, not a single event!

Living a mentally tough lifestyle is what produces long term athletic success. If you want your athletes to reach their full mental potential and, in turn, athletic potential, then find ways to change their LIFESTYLE instead of getting them “psyched up” for your weightroom circuit you worked so hard to design. Furthermore, the mental toughness lifestyle you cultivate in your weight room can carry over into the rest of their lives as well whereas some weekly circuit cannot.


If you develop a culture of mentally tough athletes in your weight room via the little things, their ability to reproduce that (which is the whole point, anyway) can certainly be carried over into the way they approach the sport skills practice and whatnot. If they’re showing up to the weight room on time, every time, how much more likely will they be to show up for practice on time, every time? If they’re habitually not cutting corners in the weight room and choosing to not take the easy way out, will they make the same decisions on the field/court/ice where they know it has more direct carry over to game day?

You can see that the evolution of leading a mentally tough lifestyle eventually can translate into habitual changes in personal character and discipline. I struggle to see how a weekly circuit or once a month event can have even a remotely similar effect. It is the responsibility of the coach to instill this aforementioned mentally tough lifestyle through cultivated weight room culture.

So the argument is essentially a fundamental disagreement, but I think the answer is quite clear. Even though the term “mental toughness” lacks a true definition, can we as coaches instill what most would agree on as “mental toughness” in our athletes via the weight room? The answer is “yes,” but it’s not through doing “death circuits.” Doing things habitually RIGHT breeds a lifestyle that makes you mentally tough. This chronic mental toughness cannot be accomplished with a sparingly used weight room circuit of exercises.

The Exception

I wrote this article/blog knowing full well that someone out there would come up with the question:

“What if I have my athletes do circuit training EVERY time we train then, for an entire off-season. This way we’re getting the “mental toughness” stimulus constantly. Would that work?”

In response, I would say there is only one man I know of on the entire planet who was inherently ingenious enough to implement circuit training EVERY SINGLE WORKOUT and still not have his athletes overtraining. This way, they were constantly pushing the mental envelope and eventually they went from being a good team to the winning the national championship of college hockey. The strength coach’s name is Michael Boyle.

Unless you have the ingenious capability of….

–          engineering circuit training day in and day out for an ENTIRE off-season,

–          having no one get injured doing so,

–           have most everyone on the team get stronger,

–          and most importantly find a way to have these mentally tough workouts carry over into the players habitual lifestyles,

….then I suggest you don’t even both trying. If you’ve read the book Outliers you’ll understand there’s only one Mike Boyle for a reason and you’re NOT him.


For the rest of us, I think it’s best to stick to the above rationale if we want develop true mental toughness in our athletes that will last a lifetime of athletic competition.

Sam Leahey, CSCS can be contacted at sam.leahey@gmail.com.

13 Responses to “CP Internship Blog: Can Circuit Training Develop Mental Toughness? – Part 1”

  1. DSL Says:

    I think you misunderstand a bit for which time exactly those anaerobic circuits are intendned, regarding mental toughness. It’s to teach the athlete to fight through lactic buildup (“muscle burning” etc) with minimal performance breakdown. It’s not about teaching him to follow longterm plans or live goals. Instead, it’s about the specific few seconds and/or minutes an anaerobic athlete has to show his ability to forget the muscluar(!) pain – as opposed to an endurance athlete with a continouus hour long event. It’s no surprise that this idea is more widespread in the fighter scene with minute long rounds than in say baseball player with a thow lasting 1 second.

  2. Sam Leahey Says:

    DSL – i hear exactly what you’re saying and totally understand the perspective you have my friend. I would wonder though even with an anaerobic athlete how much of that “mental toughness” used to push through the lactic acid buidup and prevent performance breakdown is actually carrying over to game day? The more i think about it i dont see how a gruling circuit done once a week outweighs the choices made the other 6 days a week. Before i go any further i’d HIGHLY recommened reading Art Hornes great blog post about this topic:


    I can rationalize the MMA example you gave because alot of times circuits used in MMA training is just MMA drills done over and over again and therefore having direct specific carryover. But say its not, say you get an MMA athlete doing one of these weightroom circuits and develops the mental toughness to push through lactic acid. He then goes out in the ring and gets kicked in the face, knocked out cold becuase he didnt listen to his coach earlier who said “watch for his right side high kick”. My point is these circuits dont make our athletes SMART or give them a DISCIPLINE that actually carries over. I think it just gives them the ability to say to themselves “hey, i just gotta do a few more reps and then i get a break before moving on the next exercise”, or “i only have 5 reps left and then im done for the day” or “all i have to do is 2 more exercises then i can go home”.

    I have to consider the team sport athlete and wonder again how much of it carries over.

    Take football for example. Say the S&C Coach has these anaerobic athletes do a circuit consisting of Farmers Walks, Squats, Reverse Sled Drags, Tire Flips, Pushups, and Slideboard Touches, the whole team does it. Does doing that circuit ensure that the Center will make the appropriate call when the Middle Linebackers are scrambling around trying to confuse his reads? Does it ensure that the receiver will call the oncoming blitz from the outside linebacker? In other words, does pushing through lactic acid buildup just for the sake of pushing through lactic acid build up make us smarter and more disciplined athletes or does it just teach us to mentally get through a weightroom circuit without it having carryover onto the field?

    Put more bluntly, i think any meathead or adrenaline junkie can push through lactic acid buildup and stil suck at sports. I played both D1 and D3 college football and in both cases the “circuit junkies” who loved fighting through lactic acid buildup were NOT, i repeat, NOT, the best performance in ACTUAL game play! In fact many times they were the worst because they were not smart athletes and they did not live the discipline/mentally tough LIFESTYLE that im trying to get across here.

    Now, contrast everything i just said with this:

    Imagaine you take all these meathead adrenaline junkies who love going through gruleing weightroom circuits and love the mental challange of performing against lactic acid and you make every single one of them show up to train 5 mintues before every single lift for an entire off-season. Furthermore you make all these athletes start with, say, their right foot on the line during EVERY single drill you do in your speed/agility sessions. Not only that but say you make them all not move on to the next exercise in the workout until every single last athlete has completed that exercise so they move as a TEAM. Continuing on you make every single one of them do every exercise PERFECTLY before you allow them to increase the intensity/loading (this one really gets them fired up).

    Think about that and then again, compare and contrast the two senarios:

    1. Athletes trying to push through lactic acid build up and maintain performance ONCE A WEEK (acute), which is usally dominated by the meathead adrenaline junkies on the team.

    2. Athletes going through a 4 YEAR (chronic) collegiate program that cultivates mental toughness through discipline and LIFESTYLE.

    Which one of these two is going to be sustainable and carryover the most in the teams sports performance, which is the whole point anyway???

    I firmly believe any mental benifit gained from pushing through lactic acid build up is shallow at best compared to the potential carryover of instilling a culture of mentally tough disciplined athletes. THIS will carry over into their lifestyle which will carry over into the way they compete, once a week circuit training will not. One small step taken mentally during a grueling circuit is NOTHING compared to the many small steps taken everyday in a culture of discipline and mental toughness.

    Again, i highly recommend reading Art Horns blog posts and especially pay attention to the quotes from Mike Boyle:


    My favorite quote from the blog post:

    “So when the game is on the line, when you must get a defensive stop to seal a win, or when you have to stretch a ball screen all the way, was your success or failure due to your athlete’s mental toughness [(that supposedly they got from a weightroom curcuit)] or a lifestyle of “rinsing the cottage cheese”?

  3. Allen Says:

    Very interesting discussion. I think eating turd sandwiches on a fairly regular basis is definitely the way to get better at pushing through your limits, but is pushing harder always the right answer? Sometimes the best athletes are the ones who know when to relax, go 70%, and have some energy at the end. Big and dumb works in a lot of sports, smart and careful works in some others.

    If you can’t make death training work regularly I still think there is a lot to be gained from a single traumatic event, whether in life or the gym. Knowing that you’ve been through way worse even once, gives you confidence, which is probably the most important aspect of “mental toughness.”

  4. Sam Leahey Says:

    Allen – EXACTLY! You definatley understand the two sides my friend as evidenced by your two response paragraphs.

    However I am trying to advocate more so for what you said in your first paragraph. I think it outweights the benifits of the second paragraph by leaps and bounds.

    Thanks for posting man, hopefully other too will weigh in too.

  5. Nate Brookreson Says:


    Great post man. I would say a lot of the time my more “mentally weak” athletes are the ones clamoring for death circuits or heavy lifts because they want to do the things they like / are good at already. I tell these athletes that in order to be successful and HEALTHY, they need to work even harder at the stuff they don’t like / aren’t good at (mobility, core strength / stability, iso’s holds, etc.) and then they’ll see the best results and perform at the highest level. Those circuits are fun, but like you say, unless you are someone who can really progress consistently with circuit training and keep your athletes healthy, it’s best to stick to a well designed program that meets the needs of our athletes’ assessments.

  6. Sam Leahey Says:

    Well said Nate!

  7. Gary W. Pitts Says:


    Mental toughness is the key to success in business,the gym and in life.

    res ipsa loquitur.


  8. Luke Says:

    Three things (not that you asked for my opinion or anything):

    1) Good point and good post overall.
    2) Maybe get someone to edit next time. You have a few grammar/punctuation errors in there and it’s a bit long.
    3) Malcolm Gladwell suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucks. He very often has no idea what he’s talking about and if he sometimes hits the nail on the head, he just as often is completely wrong. If you want to read about the stuff he writes about (and a lot of it IS really interesting), find the names of the people he references, find their books, and read those.

  9. Dennis Adsit Says:


    Can someone clarify something for me? I thought Boyle’s circuits were more 10 exercises, 10 reps, you go/I go as opposed to high metcon-AMRAP-circuits. I am not implying that the Boyle circuits were not tough. But thought the intention was more strength-oriented and group-pressure oriented than leave em heaving oriented.

    would appreciate the help.


  10. Sam Leahey Says:

    Hey guys, sorry i just saw these comments now. In case you were waiting for it i addressed Dennis question on the StrengthCoach.com forum. Here’s the link:


  11. Sam Leahey Says:

    Luke – you couldn’t be more right. My english skills are horrible and im desperatley trying to fix that 🙂

  12. Sam Leahey Says:


    . . . my point exactly!

  13. Mike T Nelson Says:

    Training “mental toughness” in the gym on a routine basis is a horrible idea.

    The only thing it “may” be good for is “team building” – so maybe you can do another post on team building. hahaha

    This does not mean you don’t have to train hard, but you need to train just enough to provoke the correct adaptation.

    Many times under high heart rates, form and ability to respond to commands (cognition) will decrease as the athlete gets closer and closer to a state of hypervigilance. Fine motor skills go in the crapper.

    Keep the end goal in mind as you stated. If you train football players, your job is to make them a better FOOTBALL player, not a stud in the weight room (yes, I know this would be in a perfect world).

    Keep on thinking for yourself and asking good questions. We need more people like that!

    Rock on
    Mike T Nelson PhD(c)

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