Your Physical Limits Reveal Your Mental Limits

caution limits

You might have noticed that around Impossible HQ we talk about physical limits a lot.

And for someone reason I’ve learned that whenever you start to do something – people want you to do something else and lately I’ve been getting a lot of people who want me to write about mental limits because “they don’t want to push themselves physically.”

Apparently, I’ve got some bad news: I’m not going to. I know how this goes.

Everytime someone says they’re not interested in pushing their physical limits and only want to push themselves mentally I call B.S even though they usually have some good excuses at the ready as well;

  • “I’ve already pushed my limits.”
  • “I already know what I’m capable of”
  • “I don’t care that much”
  • “I don’t feel like it”
  • “It sounds hard”


They’re scared.

I’m not going to just write about mental limits – just like I’m not going to write about flowers, rainbows and how the earth smells after it rains.  All great things – sure – but I’m not going to talk about them here – and if I do, I’ll start with physical limits.

This site is about challenging you. About getting you to do something – phsyically do something – with your body – physically. To challenge you to move from inaction to action – physical action – and do something impossible – physically.

Before you think I’m a crazed physical limit maniac overloaded on testosterone who likes to eat raw meat and throw around heavy things and is a little crazy, you’d be mostly right – but there’s a reason for it.

There are mental limits people hit.

There…I said it.

There are legitimate non-physical goals you can have.

You can do things that push your limits mentally.

But that’s not what most people want. Most people want an excuse to stay the same and breaking “mental” barriers let you do that.

Here’s the real reason why physical challenges are so important in all this:

Your physical limits reveal your mental limits.

Your Physical Limits Reveal Your Mental Limits

Your mind sucks. It is unbelievably easy to BS yourself in your mind. You can come up with the worst excuses in the world and convince yourself it’s a valid reason when the only feedback you get is within your mind. When you keep things mental – everything stays mental. When things are mental, they’re imaginary and when things are imaginary – they’re indestructible.

Physical limits are different – they’re tangible – undeniably so – which means they’re also fragile, bendable and breakable.

And that’s exactly what physical limits are – breakable.

There’s something about being able to say “I literally used to not be able to do this. Now I can.” Physical limits allow you to do just that.

I used to not be able to do _____. Now I can.

When you first start out doing the impossible, you can’t do anything. You suck a lot and everything you do might fail. But keep it up and over time you start to suck less and less and you actually are able to do things. You find yourself using the phrase “I used to not be able to do _____, now I can.”

  • I used to not be able to run a mile. Now I can run 5 without thinking about it.
  • I used to not be able to do a pushup. Now I can do 100 straight.
  • I used to cry as soon as I would start a cold shower. Now I have dance parties in it (this may or may not be a factual statement).

When you physically DO something you previously were not able to DO, something changes.

When you break something physically, you know that it can be broken physically and it doesn’t matter what your mind tell you, because you know from first hand experience.

Ever tried to break a nalgene bottle? If you haven’t tried it yourself, you’ve probably had a friend who tried to do it once, threw it on the ground only to have it bounce back up and hit him in the nose without even a scratch on it (as an alternate, you can try this with an old-school candy-bar-style Nokia phone for the same effect). It’ll seem indestructible – impossible to break – and if you try, you’ll end up with a jacked up nose – or at least that’s what happened to your friend. So that’s the lesson that comes with impossible things – don’t try them or you might end up with a jacked up nose. 

But if you have to admit it, you didn’t really try that hard. If I were to give you $1,000 to break the bottle, you’d go and rent a mack truck to backup over that sucker and wee how indestructible it is then. If it seems like it’s impossible in your mind, it is. As soon as you make is possible – and do it – it somehow become possible. But, if you never take action – everything will automatically seem impossible because that’s the default state of your mind.

Once you’ve, broken your Nalgene, run a marathon or done something else, you might still try to BS yourself, tell yourself you can’t do things, and say that it’s not possible, but you’re lying to yourself.

If you run a marathon, you can never say “that’s too hard for me to do” because you’ve done it before.

You’ve been there

You know what it’s like.

You know how hard it is.

And you know you’re stronger than it.

You know you can do it.

You know that it’s possible.

Physical challenges show you your physical limits. When you break through them, you experience a real-life case study on the fact that your limits are just temporary. They are not permanent. They show you that everything holding you back is in your head.

It’s so easy to BS yourself in your mind because there’s no tangible realization of doing something that you never did before. You can think, think, think, all you want, but you don’t know until you do it.

With physical limits, progress is almost offensively obvious. When you challenge your physical limits, you start to use this phrase:

I used to not be able to do this….now I can.

  • I used to not be able to run this far – now I just did.
  • I used to not be able to lift this weight – now I can.
  • I used to cry at the 1 minute cold shower mark. Now I go 5 minutes without flinching.

I used to not be able to do _______. Now I can do 5x that.

Try it.

If you do, things change. You change. Try it. Here’s what mine looks like.

I literally used to not be able to run more than 2 miles. My knee would hurt, I’d quit and go home and tell myself “I just wasn’t a runner.”  But, I switched to minimalist shoes, started actually training, ran a bunch of races and finally ran my first marathon. I know I can go out and run 10-20 miles on demand. It might suck, but I can do it if I need to. I used to not be able to run 2 miles. Now I can run a marathon. I know that.

I literally used to never think I could be strong, build muscles or get ripped. But, I dialed in my diet, focused on my workout routines and lost 34 pounds in 8 weeks and got to 5.5% body fat. I know I can lose 10 pounds in 2 weeks if I need to. It might be tough, but I can do it and I know how to now. It might be hard, but I can do it. I used to not be able to get cut, get ripped, but now I can. I know that.

I used to not be able to hear a challenge without thinking about how incapable I was, telling myself how I was different and that everybody else could do them, but not me. Now I see challenges and wonder what’s keeping me from doing them and I’m messed up in the head enough to actually go out and try them.

Talking >>> Doing

The entire mentality shifted when I moved from talking to doing. Moving things from simply being mental to being phsyical and actually doing the phsyical challenges I told myself I couldn’t do.

Physical challenges show you your limits are physical things – nothing more. They’re physical things that you’re capable of backing up over with a mack truck and smashing into 1,000 pieces and going farther beyond them than you ever thought you could.

If you keep telling yourself that you “know” you could, you’re lying to yourself. You might be confident, but you can’t actually know until you actually do it. If you’re so confident and “know” you can do something – why not actually go out and do it?

If you really have no desire to do something, then I can’t say anything – I can’t make you do anything and if you want to spend your life arguing your reasons why you’re not doing things – at least skip the talking and start “not doing” all the things.

But, I will bet that behind your tough facade of “you not caring” or “not feeling like it” is a little bit of fear that you’ll fail – that you don’t think you can actually do it.

And when you think like that – you’ve already lost the mental argument that you want so badly to hang on to.

You’re fighting to keep your limits intangible – to keep them unquestionable and mysterious rather than physical and concrete. When they’re like that – then nobody can question you – you can say whatever you want, all your excuses seem valid and no matter how many  people challenge you – you’re always able to rationalize it (because nobody else understands). So, since your reasoning isn’t concrete,  you stay a self-matyr – proud in a twisted way that nobody can understand you, that your situation is completely and utterly unique and that you’re “stuck” – no matter what – and that nobody really “gets it.”

But if you try – just once – try to push your limits – even on the smallest scale – things will change.

You’ll whine, complain, sweat, cry and maybe even bleed a little trying. It will hurt, it will suck and it will be freaking hard.

I’ll say that again.


But if you keep going, eventually you’ll succeed and when you do – you’ll change. Because once you do something you used to think was impossible – it no longer is.

You just did the impossible. Literally.

Something used to be impossible for you. Now it’s not.

You broke something you thought was unbreakable and suddenly this web of stories you’ve told yourself about your capabilities starts to unravel, thread by thread.

If this one little story you believed about who you are isn’t true, what else isn’t true?

And then your approach completely changes. Maybe not immediately, but over time – it does.

Instead of backing down from challenges – you look forward to them. Instead of shying away from stuff that might be tough, might hurt, or might be impossible – they get into you head and intrigue you.

You want to do them, because you want to see if you can do it – you want to see what you’re made of. You want to see how far you can really push your limits – both physical and mental.

You take them on – even when everyone else thinks you’re nuts – you look forward to them.

The big thrill most athletes I know get, isn’t from the physical aspect of it – in fact, most people will tell you that aspect sucks – it’s from the mental aspect. The key point in most games, matches or competitions is NOT physical. It’s mental.

It’s from out thinking your opponent – and even more commonly – outthinking yourself. Your mind is screaming, screaming, screaming for you to stop, give up and go home. Quit! Take it easy! Be normal! But you decide to keep going, and shift from autopilot and manually override your brain, find a door, keep going and go farther than you’ve ever gone before.

But when you’re just trying to process things in your mind – it doesn’t work quite so well. When you try to smash your mental limits just by thinking – you might do it – there’s no telling. You might smash one. Maybe, but you’ll probably just B.S. yourself into oblivion and never really change things.

When you smash your physical limits, you smash your mental ones along with it. You get both.

You have to become stronger than you are now. Getting stronger physically, get stronger mentally.


  • I’m different!
  • You don’t understand!
  • I just can’t!
  • You’re not listening!

Stop it.

I hear your words, but I don’t believe them.

You’re not special. Contrary to what your mother told you – you face the exact same dilemma that each and every one of the other 7 billion humans on this earth face.

Every one has something they think they can’t do and every single one gets to choose whether or not they do it anyways.

Which one will you be?

Never stop pushing your limits.


When you’re done reading – actually do something. The Impossible League 30 day challenge started two days ago, but it’s not too late to start (protip: it’s never to late to start). Get in the league and get after it. Go push yourself physically and see what happens.


I’m tying up a bunch of loose ends today related to WDS. A few weeks ago, we gave away 2 copies of Chris Guillebeau’s $100 startup. Congrats to Lore and Jorge O – look for your copy of the $100 startup in the mail soon!

In case you didn’t know, I’m taking 25 people bungee jumping this Friday on one of the first Impossible Adventures. If you’re signed up, make sure to sign your death waivers!

If you’re not going to be getting in early to jump off a perfectly good bridge but still want to meetup, we’re having one of our first meetups next monday in Portland. If you’ll be in the area, RSVP here. See you there. Boom!

Oh, and if you see me around at WDS, come say hi. I’ve got something for you if you do :).

photo credit: skyloader via photo pin cc

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  1. says

    Totally agree that we set our own limits and barriers.

    I love hearing the would of, could of, should of people since they just put their self imposed limits into words.

    Those are the words that we say to make ourselves feel better about our excuses.

    The mental and physical are tightly linked and need to be nurtured together or things get out of whack.

    Have fun jumping off the bridge. I’ll be grinding out the miles on my way to finishing Vineman!


  2. Rita says

    HA! Awesome. I especially loved the “dancing in the cold shower” possible factual statement. As I know that my friend Nicole is a gangsta rapper in the shower and she’s got some dance moves to go along with it. That’s how she gets thru them. I scream and yell and whimper and laugh. Whatever. I get them done. What I Love most about this post is that you reminded me that it’s because of you that I can go and push myself to work out hard enough to want to throw up. If you didn’t write this stuff, I wouldn’t have done that. Nor would I know what it feels like.

    Let me write about the smell of the earth after the rain (although that’s a bit too flowery even for me) and you write the stuff that kicks our asses into action.



  3. Rita says

    PS…pushing your physical limits pushes your mental limits right? Don’t all roads lead to the same thing? Remember in your first Cold Shower Therapy Challenge in April (when the challenge was simply to complete the challenge?) you talked about becoming invincible. Isn’t that a mental side effect from doing something physical?

    I may still not want to jump off a bridge, but holy crap have I pushed my mental limits while pushing my physical ones. And I have you to thank for it.

  4. Joe Pro says

    Can’t get enough of articles like these and I couldn’t agree more. I used to be one of those people that saw no point in challenging myself physically. Then I read Bullsh*t Qualifications in January, signed up for a triathlon, trained for 6 months and did something impossible. Oh and along the way, I quit my old job, moved out of my parents house, and moved to New York City with a brand new job. I broke down mental barriers that I never could have before because I had proven to myself that I could tear down physical ones. Awesome article, Joel!

  5. Andrew says


    Up until this one, Cold shower therapy was the best article on here.

    This takes it. For me, the shattering of the mental was more profound, although it was almost always achieved through the physical.

    I feel like I always knew deep down that I could do amazing things physically, but once I actually did them, I had reached a new level, a new platform in my mind.

    I could always call on the time that I destroyed that one persistent illusion telling me that I could not, and know that every time we think we can’t, we can.

    We just have to conquer these pathetic, ingrained, persistent illusions formed by the weak-willed complacent people of this earth, mentally and physically.

    Thanks man, keep up the gold.

  6. Niza says

    I read this after a recommendation from Vic Magery and I love it! I broke my knee into 10 pieces about 7 1/2 years ago and doctors told me I would be sedentary. I was 38… Sedentary? Not me! The doctors told me I had a life changing injury. Yeah, right! I’ll be back at the ski lodge with my friends later tonight talking about riding in the ambulance. Ummm, not quite. But I do know about sucking. After being active and athletic my whole life, I SUCKED, at pretty much everything. I was on crutches for almost a year, and then I had to learn to walk again. Actually I learned how to walk again twice because the first time they figured out that there must be another broken piece of tibial plateau in there and that meant another surgery, and that meant more time on crutches and learning to walk again. When you learn to walk after an injury like this you learn to walk wrong. No matter. I did my physical therapy for almost a year and then I took over. I went back to the gym on crutches. I got myself up on the upright bike seat and rode for about 5 minutes with no tension. Pathetic! But I couldn’t think that way and I resolved to pat myself on the back every time I even stepped foot in the gym. I started painfully slowly with my weak knee, atrophied leg, and determination. I patted myself on the back and noted every little bit of progress. Joel is right, when you can’t do anything then anything you do is pretty easy to spot. That’s fun! I got back into great shape just about the time my knee started acting up again. Time to take all the titanium out. And then recover from that. I’ve started over, it seems like, a million times, but I know I can do it. Right now I’m in better shape than I’ve been since before the accident. Sure, my knee is not exactly straight, and it has more scars than a road map has lines, but what I’ve learned about what I can do is kinda priceless. So for anyone saying they can’t do a push up… SURE YOU CAN! Maybe not today, but if you start trying today, you might be able to tomorrow, or the next day, or… But if you don’t start trying, you are never going to be able to do it, and you are never going to have the feeling of satisfaction that you get when you conquer something. The harder the challenge, the better the feeling!

  7. Kris says

    I’m sure this post is long over, but as I sit here under the moon out my window, I am thinking heavily about your words, and need to express. Incredible perspective. After nursing my husband for four years until his death last year, I have become a bit of a sloth. Fitness time was not an option for me while caring for him 24/7. We used to go to the gym together – he was incredibly fit for years. I don’t know why I don’t now head for the treadmill and small in-home weight machine every day. ‘Out of practice, out of the routine, I guess. It’s collecting dust in the garage………’need to lose about 40 pounds, hate my body and my aging bones – only recently, a soreness in one knee. So, I am a perfect example of how *not* to be. Bah! Surely I will soon muster the mental attitude to get back on track! At 65, *IF* I take care of my body, and if genetics have anything to say about it, I should have a good 25-30 years. Can’t waste them in a funk! Thanks for this inspirational perspective. It’s a “kick in the buns I will contemplate”.

  8. Ryan says

    I came here looking for something entirely different, here’s what I think anyway…

    Pushing physics limits is relatively easy, you know what actions you need to take and you keep pushing yourself to do them. Usually you can become ‘zombified’, your mind can turn to sheer determination. You don’t have to really think, if there’s pain you just ignore it and keep going. Also, is it really that hard to take a cold shower, I use them to wake myself up.

    What I’m interested in is how far it is possible to push our mental limits. I know we can go without sleeping for over a week safely, but can I spend 20 hours a day working a job which requires constant judging or calculating? How fast can a student catch up in their physics degree, can they do a mentally challenge job alongside it? How fast can a normal person learn a new language? This is what I’m interested in.

    Apart from simply not sleeping, I see these as different to the mind-less ‘mental’ limits which are pushed physically. They seem a lot more challenging, you can microsleep, your thoughts can trail off, or you can forget, without even realising it. There’s a point where it seems challenging to keep figuring things out, or keep reading while taking in information. Mental pain activities the same parts of the brain as physical pain, you’ll get headaches too, start losing your mind, I think it’s hard.

    I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone, perhaps some people are opposites of me.

  9. Cathy Gillespie says

    To Kris, the lady who lost her husband. First if all condolences on your loss and hope things are getting less painful for you. I just wanted to reply to you as we are the same age so ?i was interested in how you are getting back into shape. I need to lose 21lbs which is not much but just won’t budge. I walk everywhere I can, sometimes for miles and would like to start running again but use all of the above excuses to stay the same size. Let me know how you got on with your fitness program.


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