I know you’ve been there. Perhaps today is one of those days…
You’re stale, weak, and dehydrated from the previous nights (insert crazy activities here). On top of that, you’re running off fumes from some weak espresso you picked up on your way to work. You still have the bitter taste of day-old coffee on your palate.
By lunchtime, you’re famished; but the container of hardboiled eggs, and that soggy tuna sandwich you whipped together will tide you over until you hit the gym for back and bicep day.
As you plow through the rest of your shift, you continually nod off; quickly looking up after each mini-snooze to be sure no one caught you sleeping on the job. In the back of your mind, you know the smart thing would be to head home, get into something comfortable, and chill out for the night.
But that’s the rational thing to do, and we’re not rational beings.
No, we continually find a reason to go against logical thought processes and dive into senseless acts of I-can-do-whatever-I-put-my-mind-to insanity.
Once we get to the gym, one of two things will happen. If, and only if we’re lucky, our workout goes smoothly and according to plan – nothing out of the ordinary and we make it out alive, for the most part.
Nine times out of ten, though, it will go pretty sour.
Recently I was chatting with a client, who was more than halfway through his rapid fat loss diet (ala Lyle McDonald’s book The Rapid Fat Loss Handbook) and he texted me during his workout: “Why was deadlifting 315×5 fairly easy a week ago and today I can’t even get it off the ground?!!”
I responded with “Well bro, you’ve been on a starvation diet for the last 6-7 days – it’s no wonder you’re struggling with the weight – it’s heavy and you probably need some food.”
I then went onto explain that, in the end, it (lifting the heavy weights, or not) doesn’t really matter.
Sure, it sucks that you go in expecting a certain result and that it doesn’t pan out. It sucks to feel like a failure (even though you’re really not) in that moment of supposed weakness.
But guess what? It doesn’t matter. Nobody cares too much whether or not you had a crappy (or awesome) workout.
You’re not doing this for anyone but yourself.
Strength training, bodybuilding, whatever you want to call it – it’s not a team sport. Sure, we might train alongside other people, but you’re not building your ideal physique for the benefit of your teammates or even your significant other.
You’re doing this because it’s something you set out to do – you make the rules, and you live by them.
As a result, you probably don’t have a coach as your dictator, either. You don’t have someone who’s guiding you day in and day out – someone to make the call and say, “Hey buddy, your form is awful and we ain’t even finished your warm-ups yet. Why don’t you do some mobility work, roll around on the foam a bit, and get home to rest?”
That would be nice if we could all have a daily guidance counselor to ensure we get it just right, but that’s a fantasyland. Unless you’re qualifying for Olympic trials, you’re most likely on your own.
As a result, we must know when it’s time to simply walk away.
For the last 12 years or so, I’ve been doing some form of strength training and I can only recall a handful of times in my life I ever took a deliberate training break. Outside of being injured, sick or on vacation, I’ve been a steady gym-goer since I was 13 years old.
However, it wasn’t until the last few years that I developed the maturity to know when enough was enough or alternatively, when to keep pushing.
A long time ago, when linear gains were abundant, I’d go into the gym with an expectancy of doing a certain amount of weight. Without fail, I’d almost always hit my mark, but eventually, those days were gone.
I’d go to the gym for a few weeks and struggle just to add 5lbs to a lift. Once I finally added those 5lbs, it seemed as if I were there for another 4-5 sessions before being able to add more weight to the bar.
I used to get overly frustrated with myself – to the point of being internally upset and wondering what I was doing with myself and how I could correct it.
As you probably know, transitioning into an intermediate trainee can be rough on the psyche. Sure, you’re bigger, stronger, and fill out your clothes better, but you no longer get the satisfaction of seeing constant improvements you once saw as a beginner.
This addiction of self improvement suddenly isn’t what it once was – you can’t get your fix as easy anymore.
Soon thereafter, you realize that every session might not be what you’d hoped. I started to feel like each time I stepped foot in the gym was a crapshoot – I was rolling the dice, praying for a new PR.
Then one day, I woke up. I realized it was never going to get any better and I had to deal with it. I had to find a coping strategy. It was that, or find another stress reliever.
I began the practice of letting go more often and accepting that each session could be meaningful if I allowed it to be.
It was all in how I dealt with it. Here are a few methods.
Option #1 – Hang it up and go home
My first option is very stark – either you’re in or you’re out, no straddling the fence.
What I used to do is take every session for what it was – nothing more, and nothing less. If I got under the bar and did more reps than last time, it meant nothing. If I added some weight, that’s fine. But again, it meant nothing.
I did my best to remain neutral about it. If I couldn’t do more weight or reps than last time, it was the same thing – neutral and didn’t matter. I am not attached to the outcome of what happened in the gym.
It’s only information. Adding weight was information. Regressing, again, was information. However I interpreted the data was up to me.
As long as I went into each session with a goal to improve, but being completely okay with however it turned out, I no longer placed such a high importance on whether or not my progression was linear.
On the downside, there were times when I’d get all warmed up and find myself much weaker than the last session. We’re talking 75-80% of my previous working loads to be very taxing. In these cases, I simply packed my stuff and left. No second attempts, and no talking myself into trying harder. This is when I’d simply hang it up and head to the house.
Why didn’t I try any harder? Because it’s just like I mentioned earlier – it means nothing. There’s no reason to push the limit and risk injury. Being weaker for one day doesn’t mean I’m weaker forever, or that I’m a weak person in general. What I do know is that it doesn’t define my personal fitness levels or me as an individual.
While I don’t typically practice this approach anymore, it was probably the greatest thing I’ve ever done for myself in terms of
A) Actually listening to my body – knowing when and when not to push it.
B) Learning to separate myself from my performance in the gym.
The following method is what I now practice on the regular and it’s very similar to the auto-regulation methods of training I’ve mentioned previously in my writing.
Option #2 – Decrease the load and practice
Alright, so nowadays, I’m training a lot more frequently. My focus for each session is to increase the tension in some fashion. I can do that by adding weight, reps, or a bout of pump sets for a particular muscle group.
I have a template I go by, which keeps me honest, helps me track progress and also gives me some structure.
Every training session starts with a benchmark of 3-4 sets in which I test myself to check progress. The reps are anywhere from 5-12 reps depending on the stage of training I’m in.
I always aim to increase in reps or weight on these first 4 sets. However I do on these ALWAYS determines the rest of the workout.
If I improve by at least one rep or by adding weight to the first movement of the day, I treat the workout as normal and blast through all of my predetermined sets.
If I remain stagnant, I do similarly and make note of how I do on the rest of work sets in comparison to the previous session.
If I happen to regress and am unable to do a previous weight or the same amount of reps, I immediately drop weight by about 10% on everything, focus on smooth movement and getting a quality overload (training effect) even with submaximal weights. This way, I’m still getting some good out of the training even though weights are not maximal.
When I’m feeling incredibly crappy, I’ll cut my workout in half, take it even easier and then get out of the gym.
So What’s The Difference?
I know when to fight and when to walk out. If it ain’t happen’, it just ain’t happenin.’
Gone are the days in which I furiously push through a workout only to make myself feel worse and risk injury.
I’ve learned my limits and understand that it’s impossible for every workout to be perfect. Some days will be great and some will be awful.
In fact, I’ve even set PR’s the day after a long, sloppy night of drunkenness and very little sleep. Then I’ve had my worst training sessions during periods where I was resting and eating exceptionally well.
How you feel is a lie.
We can never know how it’s going to turn out – we can only strive for continual improvement and understand not every day can be perfect.
And here’s my advice for you. Practice this for yourself. Practice objectivity in the weight room and understand that through your advancement as a strength athlete, your gains will slow down. Your progress will come to a screeching halt now and then. You will go 3-4 workouts in a row where you see no progress at all.
You must understand this is perfectly okay and completely normal. Just don’t give up or think something is wrong if you’re not making the rapid progress you once did as a beginner.
Now I’m not saying you should continue doing something that isn’t working – that would be silly.
But just because you stall out for a brief period, it’s not the end of the world; it’s part of being human, getting stronger and becoming a better individual for enduring the struggle.
Embrace the struggle and know when to walk away.