If you’ve been training for any amount of time then you’ve had a bad workout.
You hit the gym full of beans and ready to smash your programme but find you can’t even hit the weight or rep targets on your first exercise.
From there it goes downhill with each subsequent move becoming more and more depressing as you demonstrate all the strength of a newborn lamb.
Or maybe you’ve been diligently following a strength cycle and this is the day for the new PR?
Each session prior has been bang on point with you feeling strong and blowing through your working sets. But on PR day you just don’t have it and find you can barely lift what you did several weeks before.
The inspiration for this post came from an experience similar to this just recently.
I’d been following a modified 5X5 squat programme to increase my max lift and was in week 4 of the plan and required to squat 5 sets of 5 reps at 85% of my max.
Hard going, but as my first 4-week cycle on the programme, I’d set a reasonably conservative ‘max’ based on a raw lift weight (i.e. no belt, wraps etc.). Thus, max weight-wise, this was nothing I hadn’t done before.
My performance in this particular session, however, was a disaster.
Warning signs appeared early in my warm-up sets where I struggled with moderate weight singles and doubles. When I got to my working sets I couldn’t even manage the first one. I ended up performing the 5 sets but at a weight lower than I had in the first week of the cycle.
Weight-wise, I was at least 20-25% down on where I should have been and had been in the past.
I didn’t take my performance well and spent the rest of the session and half the day beating myself up.
The usual negative thoughts popped up on repeat; I suck, training is a waste of time, I should be much stronger/fitter/bigger/ better looking (delete as appropriate) after all this training, why am I bothering?
Fairly standard stuff and all completely pointless and a waste of energy. But something I’m sure we’ve all experienced at least once.
So what can you do to help deal with a perceived ‘bad’ session?
First up, was the session really so bad?
It’s all too easy for us to focus on the negatives – not hitting a PR or not pushing the weight/reps/sets you’d planned. But there are always positives to take from every session.
Remember the most important performance metric? You got off the sofa and completed a workout.
Celebrate this and pat yourself on the back.
And even if you didn’t hit the weight you planned, you still practised and hopefully honed your form.
This too is a win.
You may not have hit your goal today but you still moved towards it. There is always the next session where you get to go again and once you hit the target any bad sessions in the past are quickly forgotten.
Plus, if you undertake any activity regularly and consistently, the law of averages dictates that at least half of your sessions will be below average!
This isn’t negative, embrace it and realise that the principal benefit is in undertaking the practice and, as above, the fact you got through the gym door.
So try to shift your thinking from pessimism/negativity and instead focus on the positives, however small they may feel.
But what if you have several bad workouts in quick succession?
Well, it may be worth taking a step back and looking at your wider well-being.
There are many reasons why you may not be performing at your best but the usual culprits will be your diet, sleep/recovery or stress.
Take a look at your recent diet and sleep patterns. Have you cut your calories significantly? Maybe been partying a little too hard? Has work or family stress impacted your sleep?
If you journal (and you should) have you noted anything in there that is affecting your mood and which may be having an impact on your workouts?
You should do what you can to improve or mitigate any negative external factors impacting your training. But it may just be that you need a de-load week or a few days away from the gym completely.
Yes, you need to work super hard to see results. But if your performance is dropping, a few days R&R is likely to be very beneficial.
So, to conclude my personal experience, what was the culprit for my terrible squat performance?
Just 3 days earlier I’d completed a 102km bike ride. This was pretty much double any distance I’d ridden in the past 12 months and also undertaken at a pretty high intensity.
And, to make me feel really stupid, it was the 2nd ride in the previous 7 days.
Looking back, was it any surprise that I struggled to turn in a high intensity, heavy squat session?
No, of course not, and my tantrum was childish and a waste of energy.
It was frustrating but by examining why I performed the way I did and focusing on the positives of completing a gym session, I was able to quickly rationalise my performance and move on.
If you experience a bad session that feels well below your best, try not to let it get to you. If you need to, think about external factors that may have impacted your performance negatively but ultimately try to focus on the positives and that you still got to complete a session.
Remember, there is always another session and the chance to smash the previous poor performance out of the park.