“They can’t all be gems.” – Dan John
Even with the best planned training and recovery regime, eventually it’ll happen. You’ll have a really bad day at the gym. The kind that seems so disastrous at the time that you’ll momentarily consider chucking the whole thing in and going back to a semi-vegetative existence inhaling entire tubes of Pringles in one sitting while collapsed on the sofa.
Though these thoughts are rarely more than fleeting, there’s no denying that a particularly disastrous training session can shake your confidence in various ways, undermining your belief in your own ability and maybe eroding your faith in your long-term plan or programming.
I’ve had workouts where nothing seems to go right. Technique that was fluid and effortless the previous session seemingly evaporates, to be replaced by a catalogue of errors major and minor. Weights that flew up last time suddenly feel grinding. Callouses tear and disrupt plans, making the rest of the session difficult and painful. On these nights, I feel weak, un-coordinated and ineffective. It’s not exactly a lot of fun.
The Rule of Five
Perspective, naturally, is key. In these situations I always refer back to Dan John‘s “Rule of Five” to help keep my head in the game and prevent a lousy evening at the gym from souring upcoming training sessions and affecting my overall progress.
In a group of five workouts, I tend to have one great workout: the kind of workout that makes me think that in just a few weeks I could be an Olympic champion and Mr. Olympia. Then, I have one workout that’s so awful that the mere fact I continue to exist as a somewhat higher form of life is a miracle. Then, the other three workouts are the “punch the clock” workouts: I go in, work out, and walk out. Most people experience this.
For me, the “Rule of Five” is probably more a “Rule of Six” – one great workout, one good, three okay and one awful in any given six training sessions – but the basic principle still holds. Inevitably, you will have lousy workouts and probably more frequently than you’d like. These five tips cover some of the different thought processes I go through – and avoid – to help ride out the ups and downs of weightlifting training.
1 – Don’t Over-Analyse
A bad training day can be caused by virtually anything – a poor night’s sleep, not eating enough, timing food incorrectly, stress, illness, inadequate recovery… the list goes on and on. After a bad day at the gym, it’s natural to consider exactly what went wrong, either to prevent it from happening again or to be able to write poor performance off to one excuse or another. However, obsessively attempting to draw causality between minor variations in lifestyle and natural blips in training performance can result in knee-jerk reactions ranging from needlessly changing nutrition and recover protocols to throwing out entire programs and starting again. Sometimes, it’s best to simply chalk a poor day up to bad luck and move on.
2 – Derive Satisfaction From Putting In The Work
Dan John’s “punch the clock” workouts should be the standard for every training session. Your goal is to get into the gym, get your prescribed reps and sets done, and get out. If things go especially well and you feel like you can push on for a PR, make sure you achieve what you went in to do first. Likewise, if things don’t go well, focus on just getting the work done and getting out. Even if every rep is a grinder, you’ll at least be able to derive satisfaction from the fact that you’ve triumphed over temporary adversity, kept your on track and proved that you can take the rough with the smooth.
3 – Don’t Allow One Bad Day To Cause Another
One of the worst things you can in in the event of a bad workout is allow a black mood to carry forward into your next training session. This can manifest itself in a number of ways, from allowing your bad day to stress you out so much that it negatively affects your performance in your next workout to setting unrealistic expectations to “make up” for the blip that you’ll inevitably fall short off, kicking off a vicious cycle of negative thinking. If things don’t go well, try and draw a line under that session and move on; there’s nothing you can do to change what happened anyway and there’s no point in risking a disappointing session negatively impacting future workouts.
4 – If Bad Days Become Chronic, Reevaluate
One bad day is most likely a blip and shouldn’t be blown out of proportion. However a succession of bad days – three or more – may hint that something deeper is wrong and that intervention may be required. If underperformance becomes chronic, the first area to evaluate is almost certainly your recovery; are you sleeping enough, eating enough, eating the right things, supplementing correctly, performing necessary mobility work? If it’s clear that there are shortcoming in this area, try not to change everything at once – change one factor (perhaps two if it’s clear that you aren’t sleeping and eating enough) and see how your body responds before shaking things up drastically. Also consider any recent changes you’ve made to your regime – if you’ve just switched to a new program, did you calculate your starting weights correctly? Have you just jumped from training three days a week to five days a week without allowing your body to adapt and adjust properly?
5 – Remember the Big Picture
A bad day at the gym shouldn’t affect progress towards your goals in any meaningful way, unless you allow it to. Everyone has training sessions they’d sooner forget sometimes, just as they have absolutely fantastic ones every so often; ultimately, the ups and downs cancel each other out. If you’re getting the work in, you’re still progressing towards your goal, regardless of a bad night here or there. At worst, you’ll be delayed by a week or two and really, what’s a few days in a lifting career that could last decades? Don’t let one bad workout every couple of weeks cloud your judgement, undermine your confidence or divert your course. Stay focused on your goals, remember the big picture and take satisfaction in striving to better yourself.
How do you handle a bad day at the gym? Let us know in the comments below.