Handling bad workouts and sub-par performances
I step under the bar, I have a 5/6 rep max loaded up. I’m doing 5×5 on high bar squats. The setup is tight and correct as always. Unrack the bar, step back, big breath and descend………
“Have I overloaded the bar?!”
I haven’t, but the weight feels like a 1 rep max today! What’s going on? I’ve warmed up more than adequately.
The DREADED ‘bad workout’
Step 1: Identification – sometimes we just have to accept the reality of certain issues. It’s the nature of the beast, the more you do something, the more the law of averages comes into play. The rough makes itself known and the smooth takes somewhat of a backseat.
Sometimes it really is just a ‘bad day’
Or could there be something else wrong? Possibly, if you find yourself having one of these discouraging days, here are a few questions you must ask your yourself:
- How was my sleep?
- How has my nutrition been?
- How was last workout’s performance(s)?
If you’ve slept less than usual, more often than not the culprit is this in itself. Even the slightest decline in sleep quality has been correlated with performance decline.
Nutritionally, have you been eating sufficient overall calories? Has your pre-workout meal/ritual been consistent? Your body cannot produce stellar results without adequate fuel.
If these two foundational aspects are in check, it tends to cause quite a bit of head-scratching and confusion. However, an answer can often be found in casting your mind back to your last workout.
Was it a ‘PR fest’ or a slump?
We are usually so quick to associate a bad session with negative explanations. ‘What is wrong?’ but as I’ve come to realise, sometimes a seemingly bad session can be the result of a previous record-breaking session. I’ve detected an eerily similar pattern – anytime I enter uncharted territory in terms of performance, more often than not the next workout will bring me back down to earth in style!
But let’s think about it logically for a second…………….
More exertion in the last session = more RECOVERY required than usual.
Sometimes a bad session is little more than you demanding more recovery out of your body without realising it. So please don’t get so depressed over a bad session, always bear this in mind. And when I say ‘great performance’ – I’m referencing stretching your boundaries only slightly more than you ever have.
An extra rep here or there, a few seconds off your personal best sprint time, maybe a few pounds extra on the bar. Not bettering your numbers by 200% or something insane like that. The longer you’ve been training, the smaller the increments of improvement and progress become.
To conclude, maybe you have had numerous sub-par sessions in succession. If that’s the case, it’s often a sign that your overall work volume is too high (providing your lifestyle habits, i.e. diet, sleep etc. are in place). In fact consecutive bad workouts can often result from workouts of excess duration – over an hour.
“If you’re in the gym longer than an hour, you’re making friends not gains!”
So if you detect repetitive dwindling performances, take a moment for some re-evaluation. Keep an eye on your workout length and frequency. Maybe scale it back a touch, often when we think ‘we’re taking steps back’ we’re actually taking greater steps in the right direction.
In summary: One bad workout? Don’t threat it. Was last time around a blinder? Yes? Awesome. You’ve just sparked the super-compensation effect! (This is the secret of progress)
Multiple bad workouts? Get the magnifying glass out, scour over your journals (yes you should have one!) and see where you may have been needlessly overdoing things.
Training in check? Sensible amount of volume and frequency? Take a look at your diet and sleep and tighten these areas up; consistent bedtimes, concrete macronutrient ratios that are adhered to.
These scenarios should explain 99.9% of bad workouts cropping up. Most importantly, NEVER let a bad workout cause you to question or lose faith in your routine.
Have faith in the law of repeated efforts: It’s not one tremendous workout session that transforms you. It’s repeated consistent efforts that shape the body and life you wish to create.
JR @ Straight-Talking-Fitness View All
The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.
Good post. I completely agree with the hour-quote: doing a compound and a couple of assistance lifts does not take a long time. If it does you’re over-resting or doing useless exercises.
Thanks. Absolutely, you can get a really efficient and effective workout done in 30-45 minutes. You’re bang on, every session should be centered around at LEAST one compound movement and if you use assistance lifts, they should be relevant! And with rest periods, it still amazes me how many ‘regular’ gym-goers give no respect to the significance of them! Used correctly, they can dictate the entire training effect.
Excellent points, thanks for the feedback!
You’re welcome, and in spite of the overwhelming evidence against it: people still prefer isolation movements to compounds. Vanity, I guess? Even though I didn’t do a single isolation movement on a cut last year, strictly compounds and useful bodyweight movements (pull-ups, dips, pushups, abs), I had definition everywhere I wanted it.
I think your vanity suggestion is just the answer, sadly! I mean all that ‘pump’ work is fine if you’ve got a solid foundation….i.e. built a lot of actual muscle via proper strength training. But most guys/girls are trying to hypertrophy muscle that they hardly have! Why not focus on building a solid base first, then expanding it or putting the “finishing touches” on it via isolation and pump work? You’re obviously living proof of compound power.
I’m currently running a 5×5 style program at present, fairly low volume, reasonable frequency, absolutely NO isolation and it’s been going great! Seeing good results in just 10 weeks. What rep/set schemes did you run on the compounds during your cut, out of interest?
At the time, even though I was ignorant of it, I was running a modified 5/3/1 protocol coupled in circuit training. Every four weeks there would be a deload and every eight weeks the compounds would shift to a form of substitution (deficit deadlifts rather than deadlifts, front squats rather than back squats, etc).
That sounds like a terrific rotation split! I hear nothing but praise for 5/3/1 everywhere I go. I will definitely run that program myself at some point, but not for a good while yet. Got to milk each and every program absolutely dry! No place for program hopping around here, ha!
The rotation of movements is something most people don’t do, but I think it’s great. I like switching between conventional deadlifts and sumo’s, flat bench and incline etc. But only when progress absolutely halts on a particular movement, otherwise as always: Milk it for all it’s worth!
Precisely. Beginners that are still making starter – gains have no reason to switch anything and yet people always do. Fitness is so much easier than folks make it. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it
Well said sir!