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

About the Author: 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.