5 Tips For Dealing With A Bad Day At The Gym


“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

Missed Lift

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

Narrowly Missed PR Squat

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.


  • Dan Clugston

    A cracking article Jodi. Thanks.
    It’s surprising how much of physical training is dependent on a having a solid mental perspective. In my adult gymnastics class especially there was sometimes a tendency for me, and some of my training partners, to be very self-critical. I made a point of reminding myself that training was a process, and being able to do it was actually huge privilege. 
    Before entering the gym now, I take a moment to recognise that I’m crossing a boundary from the everyday, analytical world and simply commit to doing the quality work I showed up for in the first place.

  • http://www.alltheheavylifting.com/ Jodi Mullen

    Thanks for your comment Dan!

    It took me a while to adopt the right perspective on training, especially after seeing some impressive beginner gains on the squat and deadlift early on. To some degree, this skewed my sense of expectation around progress and caused me to put more pressure on myself to be always pushing PRs.

    One approach I didn’t mention in the article is something I heard Donny Shankle say on a podcast last week. He recommends tracking performance on all sorts of exercises and their variants so that you have a chance of making a PR every day. Didn’t do too well in the snatch today? It’s probably been a while since you tried no-hook-grip, feet flat on the floor hang cleans so try for a PR in that instead of maxing out!

    I’m not sure this approach would work for me – the way I see it is that progressing on what you’re being judged on in competition is more important than massaging ego – but I can understand this working really for some people.

  • myquirkylife

    Great article! I realize it a year old but have encountered this article when Googling “bad training days weightlifting”. I’m on week 4 of Outlaw Barbell’s Arnold prep cycle and it has been beating me up. It’s not just bad training days, it’s been bad training WEEKS. My 80% weights feel like they’re 100%. My coach tells me it’s the high volume that is beating me up, not the weights. But my training feels OFF. Carefully read through your #4 – and I know my nutrition is on point, I’ve even tried to be mindful of nutrition timing. Sleep might be slightly off but not by much. There are some life stresses, but not enough (i think) where it would effect my training this much. :( The first cycle I had done through Outlaw programming went very well, strength increased, the occasional PRs, etc. But this cycle, man. It’s been discouraging to say the least. Any advice? Feedback?

  • Chris McGrath

    Hey – I’ll take a bad day at the Gym over a bad day at Work anytime. As the author says – “its all about perspective.” If I’m not feeling it, I lessen up on the resistance or weight – focus on form and increase reps. Generally works.

  • Jarle Tveitan

    Just had a bad day, needed to find an article to remind me not to worry too much about it. This did the trick.

    Now I’ll just be sitting here mumbling to myself “don’t worry about it” repeatedly until my next training session :p

  • ChromePile

    Damn,my body feels like it hasn’t train for a year because I’m not hitting what is usually light to me this week