We all have those kinds of days from time to time. This happens in the gym as well. A workout can get hijacked by any number of factors.
A bad night’s sleep. Under-hydration. Not eating enough. A physically taxing job. Injury. Life stress. Mental burn out.
These types of factors can usually be attenuated with better planning and management of your daily lifestyle. However, what about the acute issue that sometimes pops up last minute or smack in the midst of a training session? Do you throw in the towel or fight back?
Here are some common “pop-up” issues I have experienced myself. I have also noticed they occur most often with other peers of mine. See how to handle them and bring the workout back to life!
Gym is Packed!
Problem: Gym is packed and everything is in use you need for that day’s workout
Fix. Your plan may involve a certain movement - say bench press. You may be obsessed with this specific movement, but your body does not know the difference (much) between an incline, decline, flat, dumbbell, barbell, or even machine press variation.
As long as the movement is the same pattern, and your loads/RPE, sets, reps, and rest periods are kept constant, you’re going to get 95% of the same adaptation as the movement you missed out on.
One thing I learned very quickly working out on US Navy ships in small cramped gyms, is that you're more than likely not going to get every machine or tool you would ideally like to use. You must get creative and be flexible.
Bodyweight movements. TRX. Kettlebells instead of dumbbells. Bands, etc. Each of these can be used to mimic - if not replace - other primary movements of a more traditional nature.
Problem: Joints suddenly starts to hurt on every rep in an exercise you do.
Fix. Pain, for the most part, is the body's way of saying, “Hold up, something's wrong.” So you can't ignore it.
Toughing it out is dumbing it out. You can do only two things to see if they will help relieve remove the pain.
Trying an adjusted movement such as a close grip bench, and it's bothering your wrists? Move your grip out wider, or try a reverse grip bench press. Try a diamond push up at a decline angle.
Squats bothering the knees a bit? Try dumbbell goblet squats, front squats, or even Bulgarian split squats. These movements create a similar effect with less load and no pain.
Also, consider just dropping the load down period and using higher reps. Much recent research by Brad Schoenfeld is finding that higher reps (20-35) at lower loads (30-50% 1RM) taken to failure can induce just as much muscle size increases over time as higher load/lower rep traditional training. Strength does not seem to carry over well.
Short on Time!
Problem: Got held up/running late and now I have way less time to fit my workout in!
Fix. Ahh, the time crunch issue! Been here many times myself. I used to hate being rushed in the gym!
As a powerlifter for part of my training year, I relished in my 3-minute rest periods between sets. So having to rush through really ticked me off.
However, recently I began to change my perspective. Unless I am in the final few weeks before a formal meet, cutting my rest periods in half when need be (for time sake), and going for more workout density, has been a fantastic way to still train heavy but perhaps getting a fewer reps per set due to slightly less recovery time.
Again, as long as form is maintained and sets are taken to/or very near failure, adaptation, and progress still take place! It almost becomes a personal challenge to see how much I can condense down the workout and still keep form, reps, sets, and load at or near my traditional workout timeframe.
Other than just cutting down rest periods you can also try some classic principles of advanced training (if you're familiar with them) such as compound sets, drop sets. and supersets to get more done in less time.
Problem: I feel like crap, dragging ass, but have to/want to get it in yet.
This issue requires the most delicacy to rectify. Nothing makes a workout go dud like an empty tank, illness, long, grueling day at work etc.
The once-in-a-blue-moon manifestation of these states is no reason for alarm. But, if this is a continuous matter without improvements then rest! Get out of the gym and reflect on your past week or weeks of training, sleep, diet, stress.
Something is off and it's pulling you down quick. Overtraining/under-recovery, whatever kids call it these days, you're headed down a nasty path.
To prevent the latter from taking place you can consider using objective or subjective monitoring to quantify your training readiness. This includes systems like Omega Wave (and other HRV modalities) mood state questionnaires and quarterly blood bio-markers from tests like Blueprint for Athletes.
If this is just a one-time issue where ya just not feeling it then consider one of two options. Drop your volume down (total sets) or load/intensity. Knocking off one, or even two sets from your normal 3-4 will save you from running yourself into the ground needlessly.
If you use a percentage load-based system take 10-15% off. Use and RIR/RPE system? Keep 2-3 reps in the tank on all sets so you’re not killing your CNS further by going to complete failure.
Lee Haney said it best and I never forgot his words, “Your goal in the gym with building muscle is to stimulate, not annihilate.” The last thing I might do is the use of NATURAL stimulates like a strong cup of black coffee and a 400mg green tea extract tablet.
I may just take the short and simple route (but I do love my java!). I simply pop a 200mg caffeine tab for a little pick-me-up, as research from the JISSN has shown that 6mg/kg of caffeine can help significantly reduce perceptions of fatigue and even provide performance benefits to endurance activities. This performance benefit has been found to be absent or equivocal for strength/power sports.
Things to keep in mind about these strategies:
The dieting/weight cutting athlete, pending how long and how hard, may not be able to sway too far from their set training plan as they just do not have the ability to withstand extra/advanced training methods or altered programs. They can’t just go eat more to recover better, sleep more due to higher training frequency/work/family travel etc.
Keep the use of these strategies in perspective. If you have never used some of these methods before or are new to training, consider really becoming a keen listener to your own body. Pay close attention to your levels of soreness, energy, vigor, mood, energy, gym performance, appetite, etc.
Over time you will develop a solid understanding and familiarity with your own body and its responses to training, diet, sleep, hydration etc. You can then better predict and respond to the days when things are off or just result from a “pop up” matter.
If you find that you’re having dud workouts more often than once a week and having to constantly tweak, change, adapt workouts from a set plan then you may very well have to consider bigger more permanent changes such as changing the time you workout to avoid crowds. Change gyms to access the equipment you do need.
Change gyms to find one closer to your work or home you can actually use regularly and consistently. Change your lifestyle habits to better prepare you mentally and physically to kick ass when at the gym recover faster out of the gym. Cut down on drinking, quit smoking, stop eating fast food, cook meals at home, take “mind walks” to clear your head and zone out, relax and relieve stress.