How to Modify Training When Your Schedule Becomes Unpredictable

You’ve changed jobs. It’s your busy season. You have a new addition to your family. You need to take care of a loved one. You’re moving.

Stress, stress, stress.

Your routine, for one reason or another, has been shaken or is about to change drastically. You’re not worried about the modification itself, though. You are concerned about how it’s going to impact your training.

Congratulations – you are a lifter at heart. You are slightly obsessed, at least enough to want to stay on track and to be upset about missing training sessions. That’s great! But don’t let this add to your anxiety. Instead, let’s think rationally and try to find a solution for your specific situation.

The first thing to do is to ask yourself these two questions:

  • How long will my schedule be unpredictable?
  • Do I have a competition coming up? If so, how far out is it?

Let’s break it down and simplify things.

If…you do NOT have a meet in the near future and you anticipate a short disruption

If you are not close to a meet, you can relax a little bit. No one wants to lose “gains” but most of us overestimate how damaging a little time off will be to our training. Think about how our bodies respond to a deload the week of a competition. A lot of people only do openers and warmups and then do nothing for the last couple of days prior. Does this mean that they won’t be able to perform on the platform because they haven’t lifted heavy during the taper? No. In fact, their bodies are well-rested and they haven’t lost strength over the course of just one week. This is proven true on meet day again and again.

Therefore, if you are expecting a chaotic period of two weeks or less, just manage what you need to do – i.e. the thing that is interfering with your schedule. Focus on it fully so that when you do get back to the gym, you can give lifting your undivided attention. You will be back to normal and hitting your usual numbers in a very short amount of time.

The key to remember is that stress is stress. Our bodies react similarly whether it’s physical, emotional, or mental input. So don’t overload with too much physical stress – i.e. “training” – at times when the norm in your life is inconsistency.

If…you do not have a meet in the near future – although you MAY have a meet scheduled far out – and you have a longer or indefinite disruption

For a longer or an indefinite period of unpredictability, there are a few strategies to employ. Consider where you are in your training cycle and how important is it that you get consistent work done. If it is really important to maximize your training, you probably have more options than you think to accomplish it.

To begin with, figure out if there is any chance of penciling in your training, even if it is at times that are unusual. Simply by including training as a “must-do”, and adding it to your schedule, it increases the odds that you’ll make it as important as everything else. It becomes non-negotiable.

1. Be creative with your calendar. If work is keeping you at the office or busy into the late hours of the night, can you squeeze in an early morning training session? What about taking a training break midday? This often leads to better productivity and a clearer mind post-workout. Plus, you may gain some free time back in the evening hours. Are there other times that you can train that you usually don’t? The weekend? Late at night?

There certainly could be hurdles that make alternative scheduling difficult. Maybe your gym isn’t open during your available hours, or you need time to shower but can’t squeeze it in. Perhaps your gym isn’t near work or home or your new location and it takes a good chunk of time just to get there. But there may be more choices for you. Consider the following:

  • Find out if there are other options close by that you can use as a backup when necessary. Do you have a gym in your office building? A local Y? Is there a cheap 24-hour fitness center nearby?
  • Do you have room in your apartment of house to keep dumbbells, a bar, a bench, or even a rack?
  • Out of town? Ask other lifters for local recommendations. The community is always willing to share that information with fellow trainees, regardless of whether you are only an hour from home or in a foreign country.

Although different places might not have all the equipment you are used to or need for your program, they should have enough to keep you moving and basically on track. We’ll give some substitutes for regular movements later in the article.

2. Stick to the program as much as possible. Plan to prioritize. For example, if your training is set up so that the first few days of the week are the most important, do the sessions in order so that you hit the lifts that you can’t afford to skip.

If you have a flex program, think about what your priorities are or should be if they’re not already outlined. Most likely, competition squat, bench, and deadlift would be what a powerlifter would aim to get done primarily. For weightlifting, it probably would be most helpful to get in some technique work on the snatch and clean, balanced with some strength building in the form of a squat or front squat. If you don’t have time for everything, work on your weaknesses! Balance. Alternate.

3. Communicate with your coach. He or she probably knows what will be most beneficial to you when your life is in flux. Your coach is also a touchstone – someone to keep you motivated and accountable when other things are erratic.

Basically, do what you can and don’t sweat the rest.

If…you have a competition in the near future

Do you work with a coach? If so, the first step is to figure out a modified plan together.

If you are only two weeks away from a meet, and you don’t think you’re going to get to the gym regularly, employ some of the strategies above and figure out what you, realistically, can do. Whether or not you had originally planned on it, take it easy the week of the meet. If you can squeeze in your openers about 5 days out, that’s great.

If you were able to train up to two weeks before the competition pretty regularly, don’t worry. Not much will change. Assess how you feel a few days before the meet and evaluate if you need to adjust your calculated attempts.

Is your meet a month or two away? Your main objective, again, would be to give precedence to the competition lifts. Do the reps and sets called for at this stage in your program for the competition squat, bench, and deadlift if you are a powerlifter and the snatch and clean & jerk if you are a weightlifter. Additionally, consider the following:

  • Break sessions up into shorter, efficient bursts, doing two-a-days if necessary
  • Take care of yourself as much as possible in other ways: stay hydrated, eat healthy food, and get a decent amount of sleep if possible
  • Reevaluate your expectations for the meet and adjust numbers accordingly (as noted above)

Substitutions and Modifications for Weightlifting

Here are some ideas of what you can do to keep fit and energized during your unpredictable period.

Often, a crazy schedule means that you won’t have the time or place to work on the competition lifts – snatch and clean & jerk. Technique is important in weightlifting, but you can progress even if you can’t do the competition lifts regularly.

Find substitutes for technique work:

  • If you can’t snatch because you’re not allowed to bail the bar or don’t have room, do overhead squats
  • If you can’t clean because you’re not allowed to bail the bar, can you safely and quietly power clean?
  • Are you someplace where you can do snatch pulls and clean pulls?
  • Work on foot drills for the jerk. If you have a dowel, pvc pipe, or broomstick around, that’s even better.
  • Add more pressing movements into your training

Pressing will develop your back (especially the traps), shoulders, and arms. Although you are not moving the bar during the snatch or clean & jerk with the upper body, you need to strengthen these areas to support the weight in the rack and overhead positions. Don’t let a weak upper body limit your competition lifts!

  1. Push press
  2. Behind-the-neck press or sotts press
  3. Feel free to do some incline dumbbell bench press or one-arm shoulder press with dumbbells, a kettlebell, or anything heavy.

Take this time to stress strength.

A challenge of weightlifting is that you need to improve both technique and strength. You can have the best technique in the world, but if your baseline strength stays the same, you’ll only get so far. Conversely, being strong will get you moving in weightlifting but, at a certain point, having terrible technique will inhibit your ability to lift more. Therefore, even if you can’t work on technique for a while, you can get better simply by increasing your capacity, leg power, and lower back strength. Once you are able to get back to training the snatch and clean & jerk specifically, you should find that you are able to work on technique at higher weights than you could before.

  1. Squat
  2. Front squat
  3. Deadlift

Add or increase dynamic movements.

Weightlifting is all about speed strength. The movements happen in the blink of an eye. The quicker you can pull yourself under the bar in the lifts, the more efficient you’ll be and the better your chance of success. Speed drills will keep you sharp, just as they would for other sports.

  1. Drop snatch
  2. Weighted jumps
  3. Jump lunges with or without weights
  4. Step-ups

Substitutions and Modifications for Powerlifting AND Weightlifting

If you don’t have all the equipment you want or need, especially if you don’t have a barbell, it would still be valuable to stay active. If there are exercises that can relate back to your lifting, or, at least, build strength, work them into your day.

For example, unilateral movements are exercises that use one limb at a time, such as a lunge. These movements transfer over to bilateral strength. They increase stability, balance, and flexibility, too. Another cool thing to keep in mind is that you can do more work on one side of your body if you feel that it is not as strong as the other. (In other words, do more reps on the side that needs work!)

This is also a good time to enjoy and squeeze in other activities that don’t require planning ahead.

  • Invest in a resistance band or two. They are portable and there are endless exercises that you can do whenever you have a free minute.
  • If you only have dumbbells available, you can do:
  1. Dumbbell rows or flyes
  2. Goblet squats
  3. Split squats (even if you don’t have weights)
  4. Lunges (even if you don’t have weights)
  5. Romanian Deadlifts a.k.a. RDL’s

Good bodyweight exercises to add in at any time include:

  1. Planks
  2. Pushups/elevated pushups/handstand pushups or holds
  3. Pullups
  4. Dips
  5. Pistols (alternately, hold on to a weight for stability)

Other anytime activities:

  1. Light cardio – walk, jog, bike, hike, kayak
  2. Sprint
  3. Meditate!
  4. Mobilize, foam roll
  5. Yoga

Sometimes, the best thing to do is to just keep moving. Even joyous occasions can be difficult to deal with, so take it in stride. Remember that training is a lifelong pursuit and that it’s not the end of the world if life throws you a curveball. Turn it into a positive and use it as an opportunity. Hopefully the change will make you appreciate lifting and renew your excitement about returning full time when you can.