3 Ways to Modify Lifts When You’re Having a Bad Workout

We’ve all had those days: the ones where you walk into the gym and you’re just not feeling it. Whether you’re feeling under the weather, you’ve had a hectic day, or you’re just plain worn out, it’s sometimes really difficult to get in the zone and smash heavy weights.

Just because you’re having an off day, though, doesn’t mean that you have to write off your training. In fact, even if you’re feeling like trash, you can still have an extremely productive workout — if you’re willing to make a few modifications to your program. There are countless different ways to do that, but here are a few suggestions to get you started.

1. Try a new variation.

This is one of my favorites. Small variations on competition lifts can be fantastic tools to strengthen weak points, but they can also be fantastic tools to give yourself a break from the monotony of many training programs. Now, usually, I’d argue that monotony is not bad — you have to do the same thing over and over again if you want to get really good at it. But if you’re dragging physically, then monotony might work against you.

[Ben Pollack’s favorite variations for the deadlift, squat, and bench press.]

So, instead of dragging your feet through the typical squat, bench press, or deadlift workout, try a small variation instead. Just make sure you’re following these rules:

  • You need to use a small variation. Using leg extensions in place of squats isn’t going to cut it. If you need help choosing a variation, check out the list below.
  • You don’t want to overreach, especially if you’re using a movement you haven’t done in a while. You can get good work in without pushing yourself to your absolute limits, so make sure that you take plenty of time to warm up, and even on your work sets, keep at least one or two reps in the tank rather than pushing to failure.
  • Have fun with it! If you’re not feeling deadlifts, but you absolutely hate block pulls, it’s not going to help to make that substitution.

Here are my favorite variations for the three powerlifts:

  • Squat: front squat, safety bar squat, pause squat
  • Bench Press: close grip bench press, floor press, bench press with Slingshot
  • Deadlift: block/rack pull, deficit deadlift, switch-stance deadlift (i.e., sumo if you usually pull conventional)

2. Go backwards.

You can try this one in two ways. First, if you follow the usual progression of competition (or compound) lifts followed by accessory (or isolation) lifts, switch it up. Do your lighter, easier movements first, followed by the heavier, harder ones. Sometimes, the lighter movements can function as a gradual warm-up, and by the time you get to the meat and potatoes of your program, you’re feeling a lot better than when you started. Just keep in mind that when using this method, you’ll probably have to knock down the poundage on your heavy work a bit. That’s okay — you’re still getting good training in!

Alternatively, you can stick with your usual workout, but work backwards through your actual sets. If you usually work up to a top set in a typical pyramid scheme, try starting instead with a heavy set and then do backoffs. For example, if your typical workout is:

  • 135×10
  • 225×8
  • 315×5
  • 365×3
  • 405×3

Mix it up and do this instead:

  • 405×3
  • 365×3
  • 315×5
  • 225×8
  • 135×10

You still get in the exact same amount of work using this method, but you might have saved a little energy warming up, and so you’re able to crank out your top set more easily — which can be very helpful on days when you’re not at your best.

If you really don’t want to change anything up, and just need a little boost, you can even try reversing your reps — in your head, of course, not by standing on your head. Here’s how it works: if you’re doing a set of 10, and you start counting at 1, it can be pretty intimidating to think about how much you have left by the time you get to rep 5 or 6. Instead, start counting at 10, and work your way down to 1. No, it’s nothing magic, but oftentimes even a little trick like that can be enough to help you crank out an extra rep or two during a tough training session.

3. Train with a partner.

I write about the benefits of training partners a lot, because I really believe that training with a like-minded lifter is one of the best things you can do to progress more quickly. Besides all the obvious advantages — like the fact that you’ll always have a spotter — a training partner can be a huge inspiration and help you push yourself harder than you would have otherwise.

I’ll share one of my favorite stories for this one. When I used to compete in strongman, I trained with a guy named Matt Makara. Matt and I were pretty competitive, and would always push each other to do a little more each session. We called one of our favorite workouts “Texas cardio,” and it was simple: we’d pick a heavy tire, and flip it back and forth. He’d flip the tire towards me, and I’d flip it back towards him, and we’d just keep doing that until one of us gave up.

Now, if I were training by myself, I’d probably get tired or bored after 4 or 5 flips, and if I were really feeling it, maybe I’d push myself to do a set of 10. If I wasn’t feeling it, I’d probably skip the flips altogether. In contrast, during our hardest Texas cardio session, Matt and I did fifty reps with a 700-pound tire. Moral of the story: there’s nothing like watching the guy next to you push to their limits to encourage you to push to yours.

Not buying it? Check out Da’Savage and the Forsaken Warrior doing Texas cardio with 600-pound deadlifts, and see if you’re not convinced!

Now, I want to end by saying that I strongly recommend avoiding using these strategies on a regular basis. In fact, if you think there’s even a shot that you can complete your training as programmed, that’s what you should try to do. In most cases, deviating from your program is going to cause more harm than good. And if you frequently feel “off” when you walk into the gym, there’s probably something major you need to reevaluate about either your training or your recovery.

But if you’re generally feeling really good and progressing well, and you’re just having one of those days, don’t get discouraged — get creative. Try these strategies, or try something else to mix things up, get your head in the game, and hit some PRs anyway!

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s 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 and photo by @kyle_wurzel.

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