Motivation seems like an easy concept. We either have it or we don't, right? If we have it, it's a breeze to head to the gym day after day, month after month, year after year. We've got a goal in our head and we're dedicated to reaching it.

But what if you're not feeling motivated? Is it because your goals aren't big enough? Or maybe you just need the willpower to force yourself to work toward your goals.

Unfortunately, motivation isn't as simple as setting an audacious goal or conjuring up some mysterious willpower for yourself. It's a subtle process that requires you to follow a basic recipe built on two main ingredients: self-understanding and reasonable goals. 

Love the Iron; Love the Arnold

Motivation is the reason behind our behavior. It comes in two forms: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation means it comes from within us—doing something simply for the joy we feel in doing it. Extrinsic motivation comes from outside of us—external rewards such as goal achievement and praise.

Training because you love being in the gym, you love the feeling of iron in your hands, and you enjoy the process is intrinsic motivation. Training because you want to bench press 400 pounds or win the Arnold is extrinsic motivation. Providing yourself with external motivation also helps you keep track of whether you're making actual progress, such as benching 250 last week and wanting to reach 260 this week. But one is not better than the other. In fact, we need both types to be fully motivated human beings.

Providing ourselves with external motivation helps you keep track of whether you're making actual progress: You benched 250 last week and want to reach 260 this week.

Cook Up A Perfect Batch of Motivation

Don't Struggle. Thrive!

When was the last day that you went completely without eating, drinking, or sleeping? Stupid question, right? We're all pretty good at making sure our basic physiological needs are met, but we also have basic psychological needs. These psychological needs help us to move beyond just existing and actually experience a deeper connection to life and all we can bring to it.

Motivation includes three psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

  • Autonomy is your need to take responsibility for your own life path without feeling controlled by some external force.

  • Competence is the need to feel successful in the various environments that make up your world. It's the feeling that you have, or are developing, mastery over something.

  • Relatedness is the need to have different kinds of relationships with other people. It's the basic human need for connection.

When all three of these needs are met, you can thrive. You feel the intrinsic motivation to do what's right for yourself—and the responsibility to do right by others. You're able to seek out activities that stretch your limits and find reward in the process of challenge and growth.

Self-Directed, Confident, and Connected

So how can you create for yourself the psychological "soil" that grows your motivation "tree"? Begin by paying attention to your thoughts and seeing if they align with your actions. Let's go back to those three basic psychological needs:


We all need, and want, to be self-directed. But are you forcing yourself to do things you don't want to do? It sounds crazy, but it's true—we do it all the time. We coerce, cajole, and convince ourselves to train a certain way. We set crazy goals that are way beyond our reach because we think that's what we should be doing.

But why? Why should you train or eat in a particular way? Is it because you love the process? Or is it because you feel influenced or pressured by some outside source to believe doing so is the only way to be successful?

Cook Up a Perfect Batch of Motivation

When you choose to do something freely, rather than feeling obligated, the little details that otherwise seem overwhelming and de-motivating become part of the process. Train in a way that you love and you'll maintain your motivating autonomy.


How do you acquire and maintain a competent feeling in your training? You do it by training to become proficient at your workout. It's the difference between saying that you want to bench 400 pounds, and that you want to be the best bench presser you can be.

There are lots of ways to cheat your way to a heavy press, but it's only when you train carefully to gain mastery over the process that you earn the feeling of competence. If you cheat exercises, you tend to feel like a cheat. That's not very motivating.

Part of this process of training is having attainable challenges—goals that stretch your limits just enough to stay motivated. Performing tasks too far above or below your skill level can destroy your motivation. Choosing realistic but challenging goals—and then meeting them and creating new goals—is a great way to build confidence over time.


It's easy to feel like you're all alone if you're not surrounded by people who accept and support what you're trying to achieve.

It really helps to find your people, your tribe, your squad—a community of folks that train the way you love to train. Even finding just one training partner who will go all in with you makes a difference.

Cook Up A Perfect Batch of Motivation

Dig Deep to Find Your Motivation

Motivation isn't so much a matter of will power, it's more about making the effort to understand yourself; taking the time to look inside and see what really makes you tick. The clearer you are about why you want to do something, the more you'll be able to stay motivated and committed to reaching your goals over the long haul. Once you learn this recipe for self-motivation, you'll be the master of your destiny.

About the Author

Todd Bumgardner

Todd Bumgardner, MS, CSCS

Todd Bumgardner, MS, CSCS, is a strength coach, nutrition coach, and manual therapist in the new York City area.

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