Dealing With and Working Past Bad Days In the Gym

We’ve all been there before: You’ve got a big workout coming up. Maybe you’re going to try to hit some big PRs, or maybe you’re starting a new training cycle, or maybe you’ve just been dealing with some tough stuff outside of the gym and need to get that stress out by crushing it in the gym. You pound your pre-workout, you spend the time putting in a good warm-up, you’re feeling excited… and then it all falls apart. Maybe you miss a rep on your PR set, or maybe you can’t get a pump going to save your life, or maybe you even get hurt.

The comedown is always pretty rough. You’re all amped up on caffeine already, so your body’s feeling frazzled, but your head is even worse. You’re frustrated that things didn’t go your way, angry with yourself for screwing up (even though you’re not quite sure where you went wrong), and maybe you’re even feeling depressed or uncertain about your ability to ever achieve your goals. Not fun.

So, what do you do?

Don’t Get Stuck in a Loop of Suck

The first thing to remember is that you’ve probably had bad days before, and – if you’re reading this – you’ve gotten past them. You’ve come back and nailed that PR, or rehabbed your injury, and you know that you can have good days again. That thought alone should be at least a little comforting, and that’s an important place to start. You should also acknowledge that all those negative feelings you’ve experienced literally are your motivation. They’re just the dark side of your motivation. While you might not be enjoying them right this moment, they’re very much the reason that you are successful and will continue to be successful.

That said, I get it. You understand all that, but you still feel lousy, and you don’t want to feel lousy. To understand how to really get past a bad workout, you have to understand why you feel bad in the first place.

When you’re going into a training session – when you’re going into anything, actually – you have a set of expectations for how that session will unfold. Even if you haven’t explicitly identified them, those expectations still exist; that’s just how the human mind works. When those expectations don’t match up with reality, though, it creates a feeling of cognitive dissonance that results in negative feelings like anger and frustration.

Here’s the thing: those negative feelings, in turn, cause your body to release catabolic stress hormones like cortisol, which make you perform worse at your next workout, which causes more negative feelings. And usually our response to a bad session isn’t to back off – it’s to push even harder, causing our body to release more of those catabolic hormones. You can see how easy it is to get caught up in a loop, and ends up being a pretty lousy situation all around.

(It’s important to remember that it’s normal and healthy for our bodies to release cortisol in response to training. It’s only when we have too much that cortisol becomes a problem.)

Change Your Mindset

There’s a few ways out of the loop:

  1. You can back off on your training. If that’s a viable solution, I recommend it, even if you’re just backing off a little bit. Sometimes, though, it’s not possible. For example, maybe you’re prepping for a meet, or maybe you’re part of a team and have an obligation to train the same way as that team. In those cases, you should still consider your long-term plans. If very intense training is too mentally draining, that might be a reason to do what you can to rely on less intense sessions (perhaps using volume and intensity as your primary training variables, like I explain in my YouTube series).
  2. You can address the negative feeling directly. The best way to do this, I think, is to start meditating regularly. Meditation will help you to step out of that cognitive dissonance – in other words, you realize that the workout didn’t go the way you wanted, but that’s it. That event doesn’t need to be stressful. It’s only stressful because of your perspective. Meditation can help you change your perspective.
  3. Finally, there’s a lot of evidence that relaxing activities like spending time with friends, listening to music, and even just laughter can help to reduce levels of cortisol and help you return to that baseline of “feeling good.” If you’re feeling down, as tempting as it is, you shouldn’t withdraw – you should push yourself to do more fun things that can help you get unstuck.

The most important thing to remember is that your perspective shapes your experiences. If you look at bad workouts as some terrible thing to struggle through, then you’re already in a negative mindset. As hard as it is, you need to realize that and realize how much that mindset contributes to your overall success, or failure as a lifter. I’ve shared this before, but I want to end with an insight that one of my athletes (now a junior world record holder and IPL champion) once shared with me, she said,

“In order to be really good, you do need to care a little too much.”

She’s absolutely right – if you have the desire to excel at something, then you’re very invested in that activity. It sounds so obvious, but it’s a very important truth to own. Those feelings – anger, frustration, loathing, sadness, whatever – that you get when have a bad workout? That feeling goes hand-in-hand with the euphoria you experience when you nail a big attempt, or check yourself out in the mirror and realize, hey – you looked damned good.

So don’t let a bad workout get you too down, and don’t obsess about it. Embrace it, because you know that after a little stress relief, you can come back ready to fight harder than ever to reach your goals.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page.