We’ve all been there. You head into the gym feeling great, your warmups move like butter, and then…everything somehow goes wrong. You miss your top set, or your technique falls apart, or – god forbid – you even get injured.
Bad days suck, and there’s no way around that fact. But there are ways to avoid having them, or at least reduce their frequency in your routine. In a previous article, I address three ways that you can actually change your training itself to accommodate a day that goes off track. This time, I’d like to address programming methods you can use to achieve the same goal.
Why Bad Days Feel So Bad
First, it’s important to understand why bad days in the gym can be so discouraging in the first place. Usually, it’s thanks to a strong emotional connection to your training or performance. There’s actually a pretty deep pool of existing research on the subject, but academic studies on emotion can be complex, especially in terms of measurement of emotional connection. (1, 2) For that reason, I think it’s easier to explain in layman’s terms:
If you want to be great at something, sometimes you’ll have to care a little bit too much.
In other words, emotional connection to training can be a double-edged sword. In the good times, it provides a source of strong motivation to perform, despite potential difficulties like managing fatigue or anxiety. In not-so-good times – like after a particularly discouraging workout – that same connection can lead to negative affect like anger, frustration, and even depression.
That’s part of the reason for the cliché saying that “athletes have short memories.” In order to truly fulfill your potential, you must learn how to manage your emotions such that you can benefit from them when possible, but not fall victim to their dark side.
In the rest of this article, I’ll address three ways to actually put that idea into practice!
Method 1: Manage Expectations with Autoregulation
Autoregulation is one of the most common forms of loading prescription in the advanced powerlifting world today, and perhaps the most common form of autoregulation involves the use of the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale. If you’re not familiar with RPEs, BarBend has plenty of resources to help get you up to speed:
Now, RPEs aren’t a foolproof method of autoregulation. In particular, they require a good degree of familiarity with your body and performance potential and how those can change on a daily basis. For that reason, I rarely prescribe RPEs in isolation. Instead, I prefer to use them in conjunction with other loading methods, like percentages or AMRAPs.
There are actually a lot of forms of autoregulation that you can choose from to accomplish the same thing. Ultimately, though, you’re looking to manage expectations. Rather than walk into the gym with a specific number in mind, autoregulation allows you to push as much as your body allows on any particular day. In the context of a sound programming methodology, doing so means you’re progressing, even on days when you might not be setting PRs (or even coming close).
Method 2: Avoid Measurement Fallacies
Earlier in this article, I touched on the importance of measurement (in the context of academic research). This same concept applies in programming: you always must compare like to like. Take an easy example, like weight loss. Let’s say your all-time best squat is 300 kilograms, performed at a bodyweight of 100 kilos. You would probably not feel discouraged to squat 290 if you had just dropped enough fat to get down to the 82.5-kilo class, right?
It’s the same with bad days. You’re always going to have them; the trick is to stop them from getting in your head. One of the easiest ways to do that is simply comparing your bad days to your previous bad days, not your previous bests. So, returning to our earlier example, let’s instead say, back in 2019, you could squat 300 kilograms on a great day and struggled with 280 on a bad one. If in 2020 your bad day means 290, that’s actually a sign of good progress: you’ve added 10 kilos to your worst-case scenario, which probably means you’ve added even more to your best case.
If autoregulation helps to manage expectations, then proper methods of comparison help to maintain perspective. Both are crucial to obtaining that elite-level athlete status you’re after.
Method 3: Diversify
You already know the importance of diversification in many areas of your life. If you’re an investor, diversification helps you minimize risk and maximize return. If you’re a major corporation, diversification means you can benefit from a wide variety of viewpoints while avoiding groupthink. More generally, diversity can be thought of as a method for controlling variability in complex systems.
Obviously, your program constitutes a complex system, and it’s no surprise that diversity is a longstanding component of most athletic training systems. You probably know it better as cross-training, but at the end of the day, it’s just another form of diversity in a different context.
For powerlifters, I believe that the best form of cross-training involves combining training for strength and hypertrophy. These methods are mutually beneficial, and if you combine them in a single workout, you can always walk away from the gym with a win. For example, if you don’t think you have a PR in you one day, you can get a killer pump instead, and still benefit from the session. Or perhaps you focus on mobility, technique, or recovery instead.
I call this the “one win” principle. Every time I train, I try to leave the gym with one win, no matter how small that win may be. That way, I always have something to feel positive about!
While this was a bit more of a theoretical article than most of my content, I believe that making the most of each and every training session is a vital component of achieving your potential as a strength athlete. By managing your emotions, training metrics, and variability through autoregulation, sound comparisons, and diversification, you can do exactly that.
If you have other means or methods for dealing with bad workouts, please share them in the comments below!
Feature image via UfaBizPhoto/Shutterstock