by Robert Maxwell
You head to the gym for lower body day. Feeling that familiar nervous excitement as you warm up, you wonder if you’ll hit any PR’s. After a few warm-up sets of squats, you load up the barbell for your first working set. You get under the bar, take a deep, bracing breath, and push it free of the standards. Something’s wrong. It’s only 10 pounds more than what you squatted last week, but it feels way heavier. Shockingly heavy. You start squatting and the first rep feels like a 1 rep max. You struggle through a few more, each one harder than the last. Finally you finish the set, slamming the weight into the standards and breathing like you’ve just run a marathon. What’s going on? Why is it suddenly so hard?
This scenario isn’t unusual. In fact, for anyone who’s been training seriously for more than a few months, it’s inevitable. Everyone’s suffered through occasional weak days in the gym. Sometimes it’s something you did or didn’t do, other times it’s just the way your body’s running that day. It doesn’t feel great, but understanding this is a normal part of training helps. That said, I don’t suggest you simply accept weakness in the gym without doing everything you can to work around and eliminate it. Here are a few strategies to help you minimize weak training sessions, and deal with them optimally when they happen.
Make Sure You're Well Rested
This should go without saying, but sleep has a massive impact on your ability to lift heavy weights. Without 7 to 9 hours of quality rest each night, you simply won’t run on all cylinders. More than any other part of your daily routine, a session of heavy barbell training taxes your body to the limit. If you want to get strong, don’t stay up half the night partying, reading or watching TV. If you insist on doing these things, you don’t really want to get strong. If the short-term pleasure of staying up late outweighs your desire to train effectively, do yourself a favour and quit training. This is one area where you can’t have it both ways.
Eat Enough Food At The Right Time
Food is fuel, and without the right quantity and type of fuel your engine will run poorly, or sputter and die. For those aiming to gain size and strength through heavy weight training, the right fuel is lots of protein, healthy carbs, veggies and fats. If your progress has been slow or nonexistent in the gym, there’s a fair chance you haven’t been eating enough, particularly if you’re skinny. Eat more food, and be sure to include pre and post-workout meals. Eating a light, high energy meal an hour or two before a workout will get your body fired up for the battle ahead. You’ll be noticeably weaker if you hit the gym without having eaten for hours. Even if you start off able to lift your usual amount of weight, you’ll tire faster as the workout progresses. High protein post-workout meals aid recovery. They don’t need to be complicated. A whey protein shake and an apple 10 minutes after a workout is my personal favourite. Eating protein right after training gives your body a head start in rebuilding itself, so you’ll be that much more prepared for your next training session.
UNDERSTAND YOUR BODY CAN’T CHANGE THAT QUICKLY
If you’ve got the rest and eating bases covered but still feel weaker than normal in the gym, there’s a good chance the problem is psychological. Every trainee experiences this. For some reason, your mind occasionally likes to play tricks, trying to convince you that in the past week you’ve lost strength, and are now incapable of completing the task before you. This is a lie. If your body is trained and ready for the workout, your mind is the factor that determines success or failure. It’s your most powerful ally or most cunning enemy. On those days when it’s an enemy, whispering that you’re weak, fight back. Hold to the certain knowledge that you’re strong and unstoppable, and refuse to believe otherwise. Use logic. If you squatted 200 pounds for 5 sets of 10 reps last week and are properly fed and rested, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to squat just as much or slightly more this week. Your body is fully capable, so don’t let your mind trip you up.
REALIZE YOU WON’T ALWAYS HIT PR’S
Even after employing the strategies above, some workouts will go better than others, and that’s ok. Don’t go to gym expecting to break records every session. You’ll be disappointed. Instead, hit the weights with only one expectation – to do the very best you can. Push hard and don’t let pain deter you, but realize at the same time that you’re not a machine. You will have good days and bad days, and the bad days don’t mean you’re a failure. On the contrary – if you can get through weaker-than-usual training sessions without losing enthusiasm, you’re much more likely to succeed long-term.