Discipline Equals Freedom

disciplineI recently finished reading Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, a book by retired SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. The book was beyond inspiring, especially the section where Willink described a concept summed up in three simple words: discipline equals freedom.

Willink recalls how his platoon struggled to efficiently collect evidence from areas which they captured from enemy forces. Their original method involved smashing everything in sight, leaving them to deal with the cleanup and potential destruction of valuable items in the aftermath. Despite the adrenaline rush of going berserk after securing an enemy stronghold, it was a waste of time and put the platoon in potential danger.

Instead, Willink delegated evidence-gathering assignments to different members of the platoon and forbade the mindless rampage which had become standard. This act of discipline bought them freedom; quicker cleanups meant less time with their guard down and less time in enemy territory.

As I digested the parallels between discipline and freedom, I began to realize this connection rings true in nearly every aspect of life, especially when it comes to health and fitness.


Think of it this way: discipline is the currency of freedom.

Freedom is like a bank account, and every time you are disciplined, you put money in that account. The longer you sustain your disciplined ways, the more the interest grows. Then, when you’re ready, you can cash out some of this freedom and enjoy deep, meaningful freedom (i.e. more time with family, financial freedom and a lifetime of health) rather than shallow escapisms that we normally associate with freedom (i.e. partying, sleeping in and eating nutritionally-devoid foods).

There is no freedom without cost. As the late great Muhammed Ali said:

I hated every minute of training, but I said, “Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”

There are no shortcuts. Those who eschew discipline for shallow freedoms and instant gratification will never become champions.

How does this concept apply to different aspects of fitness?

tony squatStrength Training

In true Bonvec Strength fashion, I’ll tackle strength training first.

  • Exercise technique: It takes discipline to make every rep as technically perfect as possible. It takes no discipline to slog through each set, giving in to bad form at the expense of just moving the bar. The more disciplined you are with technique, the better your technique will hold up once the weights get heavy, making you stronger in the long run.
  • Submaximal training: It’s tempting to go balls to the walls every time you hit the gym. It’s fun to train as heavy as possible, but it’s not necessarily the best way to make progress. Rather than testing your strength, you must train your strength, which means lots of volume with submaximal weights. If you have the discipline to train submaximally for extended periods of time, your maximal strength will skyrocket when it’s time to cash in your chips and test your max.
  • Injury resistance: Building the resilience to ward off injury takes tremendous discipline. It means doing the not-so-fun things like foam rolling, warming up properly and not training through pain. It means recovering like a champ by eating right, sleeping well and performing active recovery. Sometimes knowing when to back off takes more discipline than mindlessly pushing through despite your body telling you to stop.
  • Recovery: Similar to injury resistance, taking the necessary steps to recover requires discipline. Going to bed instead of staying up to watch TV, turning off the computer and cell phone before bed so you’re not too wired to relax, doing your cardio so your aerobic system is strong enough to recover between workouts – none of these things are particularly exciting, but it takes discipline to do them consistently. The freedom? Being stronger and more fit than your competition who’s unwilling to go to bed at 10 p.m. or drag a sled for 30 minutes on their day off.


  • Freedom from compulsive tracking: We know nutrition is a numbers game. Tracking calories and macronutrients (protein, carb and fat intake) is a reliable way to reach your goals. There’s a sect of fitness fanatics that practice If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM). This approach abides by the rule of mathematics; as long as you meet your caloric and macronutrient quota, you’ll be fine, regardless of food quality.

Many IIFYM disciples use this as an excuse to frequently consume junk food while hiding behind a wall of numbers and PubMed articles. I’d rather eat my chicken, rice and spinach 90 percent of the time to justify the occasional bowl of ice cream than obsess over every gram of food in order to eat junk food every day.

You could argue that tracking macros takes MORE discipline than eating “clean,” and I’d agree. But we know time is our most precious commodity. The freedom of eating whatever you want via IIFYM costs the discipline of taking the time to measure every ounce of food that enters your mouth.

This is a price I’m unwilling to pay or ask my clients to pay when eating “clean” pays you back via better health and more time. While it may take 60 seconds to track a meal with your calorie counter app, it takes exactly ZERO seconds to understand that 500 calories from chicken and broccoli is NOT the same as 500 calories from a Big Mac.

  • Enjoying “unhealthy” foods: The more disciplined you are with your food choices, the less you’ll derail your progress when you indulge in “unhealthy” foods. If you can’t exhibit the self control to say no to unhealthy foods the majority of the time, you’ll never have the freedom to enjoy these foods without hindering your progress. Wouldn’t you prefer the peace of mind that if 90 percent of your food intake is in accordance with your goals, that one indulgence won’t throw you off the wagon?
  • Meal preparation: One of the first habits I try to get my clients to adopt is preparing meals in advance. When you cook your own food in advance and in bulk, you have greater control over what goes into your body. You won’t get caught off guard and be at the mercy of whatever food is available for purchase when you’re away from home.

And as much as I make it sound like the most important thing in life is lifting weights, it’s not. Here’s some more practical, day-to-day applications:

Real Life Stuff

  • Career capital: I’ve learned there’s an expiration date on your ability to build a meaningful career, not so much because you get too old, but because you’ll never be able to catch those who have been hustling harder and longer than you have.

When I first got hired at Cressey Sports Performance, Pete Dupuis told me, “You don’t have much time to make an impact in this industry.” This stoked an already-lit fire under my ass which was originally lit by observing my co-workers (guys like Eric Cressey, Greg Robins and Miguel Aragoncillo) who had worked tirelessly to build career capital – the skills and knowledge required to be the best in the world.

I knew I was behind the eight ball. I was late to the game by switching careers at 26 years old. If I ever wanted to reach the level of impact these guys have, it meant being disciplined by working longer, harder and smarter when the competition was sleeping or resting on their laurels.

It bodes the question: what are you willing to do to build a career that gives you the freedom to do what you love? To build a career that feeds your family, gives your life meaning and leaves a legacy?

  • Finances: Being an adult is expensive. Rent, groceries, car payments, student loans. And these are just the basics. Yet many people associate financial freedom with the ability to buy things like fancy cars and designer clothes. It takes no discipline to qualify for a credit card and indebt yourself for these meaningless items. It’s much harder to live a minimalist lifestyle, investing in the essentials rather than the excess.It takes discipline to save your money, to stick to a budget, to start a retirement account. It takes a concentrated effort to forgo empty pleasures in the moment and opt for financial security in the long run.

Which freedom would you prefer? The freedom to buy the most expensive pair of jeans? Or the freedom to survive a financial crisis? The freedom to retire at 65? The freedom to send your children to college?

The Pain of Discipline, or the Pain of Regret?

Discipline is a skill. Like any skill, it must be practiced relentlessly to attain mastery. How are you practicing discipline in your daily life? Are you cashing in for shallow freedoms? Or saving for more meaningful freedoms in the future?

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Posted in Monday Motivation

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