Workout Motivation: 5 Surprising Mental Blocks to Conquer

By Emma Rose | Tuesday 8th January 2019

Last updated on Tuesday 28th July 2020

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Hit a slump in the gym, and need some workout motivation? Has your get up and go got up and left when it comes to working out? Sometimes, reading motivational quotes on Facebook doesn’t quite cut it – we’ve all been there. It might be tempting to splurge on that new pair of leggings or spend your wages on a personal trainer to kick you back into motivation. However, these things don’t have lasting effects. Sooner or later you may find yourself back in burnout, and out of pocket.

The good news is there are far quicker and less expensive ways to get your workout motivation back. These simply involve ways to change your mindset, and some of these might surprise you. Below are some surprising mental blocks to motivation, and how to get around them. Let’s get your mojo back in the gym!

Five Gym Motivation Killers That Are Guaranteed to Ruin Your Training

Workout Motivation Killer 1: Too Many Workouts

You might have heard the phrase “your mind gives up before your body does”, and this is true. But the second part of that common phrase, “push yourself harder anyway” is not the answer – in fact, it can be counterproductive. If you’re training every day, your body is not getting the rest it needs to recover. So if your mind is giving up, don’t ignore it – it might be telling you that you need to rest.

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Central Nervous System, Muscular Recovery

The central nervous system is essential in talking to the body and making muscles work properly. Take rest as part of your training.

Mark Palfery, coach to competing female athletes says “rest is just as important as training in achieving your goals”. If you’ve been training in the gym for a while, you’ll notice those same few people there every single day. You might also notice their bodies are not changing, despite all the effort they are putting in. This is because they do not allow their muscles and nervous systems time to recover. Constantly depleting your body’s energy levels kills its ability to develop the changes you want to see.

“Rest is just as important as training in achieving your goals”, Mark Palfery, n.d.

Just like a muscle, the mind needs to rest and recharge. After a period of time doing the same tasks, the brain loses the ability to concentrate and focus, killing your motivation. This coupled with a fatigued nervous system means quite simply, if you do not rest your mind and body, you will burn out.

Try planning at least one rest day which involves something relaxing that you truly enjoy, and see it as a part of your fitness regime. Take a walk, a hot bath, or watch that movie that you have been putting off because you ‘need time to work out’. With your body and mind rejuvenated, you’ll feel refreshed and motivated next time you walk into the gym.

Workout Motivation Killer 2: Too Much Fitspo

A simple search for the word ‘fitspo’ will bring up thousands of images intended to increase your gym motivation. But images of super toned, thin bodies are far more likely to leave you demoralised, or worse. Research from the Journal of Health Psychology shows that after looking at ‘fitspo’ for only half an hour, people feel depressed, anxious, and in a negative mood. Total motivation killer!

“After looking at ‘fitspo’ for only half an hour, people feel depressed, anxious, and in a negative mood”

‘Fitspo’ quotes such as ‘no pain no gain’ and ‘excuses don’t make you thin’ turn fitness into a punishment. When your mind sees working out negatively, and not as something to be enjoyed, it will be very difficult to motivate yourself in the gym. Working out is meant to challenge you, but not constantly hurt you. Be mindful of how you’re feeling next time you are working out – are you enjoying it, or are you just praying for it to be over?

If it’s more the latter, make some changes so that your routine is something to enjoy; if you don’t like squats? Try hip thrusts instead. Bored to death running? Try sprints. Why? Well when your mind associates something with a positive experience, it will want to repeat it over and over again. Instant workout motivation!

Looking at fitspo can lead to comparing yourself, and perfectionism. This only sets you up for failure. Instead of scrolling social media comparing yourself to unrealistic images, try measuring yourself against your progress. Where were you six months ago? Instead of beating yourself up because you don’t have six pack abs in 3 weeks, try patting yourself on the back for the progress you have made.

Workout Motivation Killer 3: Too High Expectations

We have all seen the cover model on the fitness magazine, and said to ourselves ‘I want to look like that!’ It’s great to have ambition, but we often fall into the trap of setting sky-high expectations of ourselves. When we don’t see ourselves meeting those expectations, we feel a decrease in self-esteem which leads to low motivation.

; they found that positive expectations lead to higher effort and successful performance. However, expectations that were too high did the opposite, they resulted in low motivation and less success.

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So, how can you tell if your expectations are positive, or just unreachable?

Try thinking of some of the expectations you have of yourself. Are they measurable and realistic? If you immediately focus on how far you are from where you expect yourself to be, it might be that you are setting your expectations too high. To fix this block to workout motivation, break your expectations down into more realistic and measurable goals. For example, ‘lose two stone in weight’ turns into ‘lose a pound every two weeks’, and ‘run a marathon’ becomes ‘run a kilometre more each session’.

While unrealistic expectations are a surefire motivation killer, setting realistic and measurable goals, have been widely proven to increase motivation. By turning sky-high expectations of yourself into smaller, measurable goals, you are setting yourself up for success. Each time you hit one of these ‘little wins’, you instantly change that negative mindset by focusing on the progress you have made. Your self-esteem rises, and with each boost of self-esteem, comes a boost in motivation.

Workout Motivation Killer 4: Too Little Change

Imagine eating pizza for dinner every single day. At first, that sounds amazing, right? But after a while of the same thing repeatedly, day in day out, you’d never want to see another pizza again in your life. The same applies to your fitness regime. Sick of the sight of the squat rack? Completing that same running route with your eyes shut? It might be lack of variety that’s killing your workout motivation.

For the brain to stay motivated, it needs stimulation. Research has shown that one of the quickest ways to increase motivation in our minds is to introduce something new. Studies measuring brain activity showed that when people were shown new things, their brain’s dopamine system was fired up. Dopamine and motivation are directly linked– increased dopamine means more motivation! So for a quick way to revive your passion for working out, it’s a good idea to wake up your dopamine system by introducing new exercises and activities.

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The Body Also Benefits From a Variety in Exercise

The more you repeat the same routines, the easier they become. Your nervous system and muscles adapt to a workout routine in as little as six to eight weeks. After this time, your workouts will stop being challenging to your body, and your results will plateau. Of course, seeing results is a really powerful motivator. So when you see little change, it’s likely you won’t have as much workout motivation. Peggy Pletcher of healthline.com  states to maintain a challenging exercise regime, it’s important to diversify your workouts with a variety of activities.

“To maintain a challenging exercise regime, it’s important to diversify your workouts with a variety of activities”, Peggy Pletcher, 2016

So, if you are struggling to find the enthusiasm you once had for those same workout routines, it’s probably because your brain and body are crying out for change. Time to activate that dopamine system! One way to do this is to change your environment. If you run on a treadmill for cardio, try venturing outdoors for a jog instead, or give home HIIT workouts a go. You can also change up the exercises within your workouts. Experiment with different exercise variations, rep ranges, or you could try an entirely new routine.

While you’re doing this, be prepared for it to be challenging, that’s the point! If your body is adapted to certain exercises, it might feel uncomfortable to venture out of your comfort zone. It might also mean spending some of the time normally spent working out, on researching new things. But remind yourself that by challenging your body, you’re waking up your muscles and your nervous system, which means better results in the future. And by giving your brain something new, you’re firing up your dopamine system, boosting your gym motivation for many sessions to come.

Workout Motivation Killer 5: Too Little Direction

“What body part should I train today? How long should I work out for? Barbell or dumbbells? HIIT or steady cardio?” If questions like these pop into your head before you have even got to the gym, it’s likely you’ll be tired before you have even put your kit on. If you have no clear plan or direction for your next workout, you could be spending all your mental energy just figuring out what to do, leaving none left to motivate you when it comes to exercising.

Get Some Direction!

Psychologists have found that direction and planning are key for staying motivated. Dr Falko Sniehotta of the University of Aberdeen explains that “knowing what is good for you and wanting to do it, is alone, not sufficient to make behaviour changes.” Does this ring true for you? If so, the good news is that Sniehotta goes on to explain that having a plan is one of the most effective ways to change your behaviour. This means getting some direction in the gym may be all it takes for you to change your mindset around exercise and to get motivated.

A study by the University of Alberta backs this up. People who exercise as part of a regular plan don’t spend time weighing up the pros and cons of a workout, they just do it. Amelia Watts, exercise coach, explains that “once you get into a rhythm of regular exercise, it becomes a habit and you just get on with it.”

“Once you get into a rhythm of regular exercise, it becomes a habit and you just get on with it”, Amelia Watts, n.d.

So a consistent plan and direction in your fitness regime boost your motivation by transforming your workouts into part of your daily lifestyle. If you know when and how you’re going to work out in advance, it takes the brain work out of it for you. No more weighing up decisions about when and how to exercise, all you need to focus on is getting your kit on and getting going.

Direction Techniques

There are many ways you can introduce a bit more direction to your exercise regime. Packing your kit in your bag the night before, or adding time to work out into a weekly calendar, are a couple of strategies. However, by far the simplest and most effective way is to get yourself a good workout programme. This will provide you not only a daily plan for workouts but an opportunity to track your progress each time you train. As we’ve discussed, recognising your progress leads to a boost in self-esteem, which also increases your motivation levels. Double motivation win!


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To make it super simple to get yourself motivated in the gym, here’s a recap of what we have covered:

  1. Take time to chill! Take at least one rest day per week, to let your brain and body recharge.
  2. Be mindful of the effect ‘fitspo’ really has on you. Measure yourself against your progress, not unrealistic images of others.
  3. Go easy on yourself! Set small, achievable goals instead of expecting too much of yourself in the gym.
  4. Change it up! Vary your workout routines every 4-6 weeks to ‘wake up’ your dopamine system and get motivated.
  5. Have a plan! Take the brain work out of working out.

Emma Rose


Mindset Specialist, BSc (Hons)

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