So, you’re aiming to achieve progressive overload, especially trying to increase how much weight you lift, but instead you go backwards! Your weights drop, your reps drop, or both! What happened? And what should you do about bad days in the gym?
Q: Hi Tom, I just read your updated edition of the Ultimate progressive overload manual. The new FAQ section is incredibly thorough, but I do have a question that I didn’t see answered…
You talked about how the number one key to muscle growth is progressive overload, but that we shouldn’t expect to make weight progression at every workout.
I understand that, but what if you have a bad day in the gym and you actually go backwards? What if your reps drop off or worse, you can’t even lift as much as last time? What should you do if you got weaker?
A: My contention is that if you fully understand the progressive overload training system, it’s possible to never have a bad day in the gym.
I’ll explain how in just a minute, but first let me share what to do first if your performance is off for one day, and why it might happen.
The First Thing To Do When You Have A Bad Day
Everyone has off days, and if it happens only occasionally, you should simply accept it as part of the journey. Shrug it off and focus on the next workout. Go home, relax, eat well, get a great nights sleep, and get back to it next time.
It’s very similar to what happens if you have a bad day on your diet. There’s no sense in beating yourself up or getting mad about it, you simply get back on track with your next meal. Your nutrition is not going to be perfect 100% of the time and neither is your training.
Progressive overload is important, but if you’re focused on lifting more weight to the point of obsessing over it every day, it could work against you psychologically. One bad performance can ruin your day (or whole week) and you may leave the gym feeling dejected.
What happens occasionally is not important. What happens consistently over time is what matters.
That’s why the first thing you should do is look at your progress trend over time and not worry as much about isolated down days. Let go of perfectionism. Pat yourself on the back because at least you showed up (plenty of people skipped the gym completely!)
Reasons For Occasional Bad Days In The Gym
The next thing you should do is to learn what causes those occasional dips in performance. Bad days can be caused for many reasons, including:
- Your sleep quality or quantity dropped.
- Your nutrition quality or quantity dropped (Inadequate fueling).
- You were dehydrated.
- Your stress levels were higher than normal or not balanced with rest and recovery.
- You were dealing with personal, relationship or career problems, which distracted you.
Your head just wasn’t in it, for no particular reason (physically you might have been fine, but mentally you weren’t there.
- You were sick or not feeling well (cold, headache, stomachache, etc).
- You were dealing with aches, pains or minor injuries.
- You didn’t warm up – you did an exercise physically and mentally cold/unprepared.
- You forgot your belt or lifting straps or knee sleeves.
- You were jet lagged or sat cramped on a plane all day.
- You trained at a different gym than you usually do.
- You trained at a different time than you usually do.
- You cut your rest intervals between sets shorter than you usually do (which causes your reps and weights to drop after the first set)
Frankly, just about anything that’s different from your usual plan or slightly out of kilter in your lifestyle could cause one off day in the gym. While it’s not a bad idea to reflect and see if you can pinpoint the cause, that’s often difficult to do because so many factors can come into play.
If you can figure out what caused it, that’s great. If possible, take action to see that it doesn’t happen again – or at least, that it stays infrequent. For example, improve your sleep, nutrition, hydration, stress coping, warm up, concentration and so on.
Normal progress plateaus due to adaptation and what to do about them
The next thing you have to remember is that the longer you stay on the same training program (same exercises, same repetition and loading patterns, and so on), the more likely you are to hit a progress plateau. Why? Because your body adapts.
After months on the same training program, it’s perfectly normal for your rate of progress (especially strength gains) to slow down.
Whereas you could add weight at every workout in the beginning, now you may only be adding weight every two or three workouts. Progress comes so slowly at times, instead of adding weight, you have to aim for adding just one rep at a time. It’s slow going – you build up your reps first, then finally increase the weight again (the “double progressive system”).
It’s typical to see a drop in progress after three to four months on the same workout because your body has gotten used to it. Also, the more advanced you get, the sooner these plateaus are likely to happen.
So what do you do about it?
At this point, many trainees will change the entire program (or at least parts of it), switching exercises and training systems or techniques, and then start a new cycle of progression all over again on the new program. If you’ve been on the same workout plan for three to four months or longer, this is a simple solution, and it helps avoid boredom as well.
You could also keep the same exercises (or at least the primary movements), and change the repetition and loading patterns. If you weren’t using any kind of periodiation before, this is another great solution because your body may adapt to rep ranges faster than exercises. For example, if you were doing 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps, you could switch to a heavy-light system and rotate a heavier day with a moderate or lighter day.
If you’re only a month or two into your program or if you’re not ready to change your entire program yet, one strategy that helps you keep making more gains is de-loading. This is where you keep training, but you back off the weight, volume and or intensity. Most people take a full week de-load, though sometimes just 2 to 4 days of lighter and easier lifting does the trick.
This is a recovery strategy that gives your body a rest, and when you go back to heavier and harder training, lo and behold, your well-rested body starts performing again.
Are you overreaching or overtraining?
If your poor performance has been chronic, the next thing you should ask yourself is whether you are overreaching, which is the early stage of more serious overtraining. If you’ve been training hard non-stop for months, it’s a real possibility.
To identify whether you’re overreaching (or overtraining) you should run down the list of classic warning signs and symptoms.
- Decreased performance or inability to maintain your usual training regimen
- Prolonged plateau in performance (keyword: prolonged. Just having one bad day is not overreaching)
- Persistent fatigue (a washed-out feeling)
- Persistent stiff, sore, “heavy” muscles
- Increased incidence of colds, flus, infections, or headaches
- Nagging and semi-chronic injuries (including joint pain and muscle aches)
- Poor sleep quality or sleep disturbances
- Decreased mental concentration and restlessness
- Increased irritability
- Depression or mood downswings
- Lack of motivation or interest to train
- Loss of appetite and or unintended weight loss
- Elevated resting heart rate in the morning
If you push too hard for too long you will reach a point of diminishing returns, then a leveling off, and ultimately going backwards.
If you’re seeing many of these symptoms, in addition to reduced performance, the solution is not to keep pushing harder but to temporarily back off and give your body more rest. That could mean taking a week-long de-load, or in many cases, recovery from overreaching requires a complete break from training. A week of total rest can work wonders.
To learn more about overreaching, overtraining and recovery strategies, read my article on recovery here: 10 Tactics To Reboot Recovery After Overtraining (members only)
How To Turn Bad Days Into Good Days With Creative Overload Training
So now that you know the standard advice for what to do if you have a bad workout and your weights are stuck or going backwards, I want to introduce you to some new ideas.
If you’re simply having one of those random off days, and you don’t think you’re overtrained, I’d like to propose that you can always finish your workout a step ahead of the last one.
You may not lift more weight on a primary exercise like a barbell press or squat, and on some tough exercises like pullups, you may not get more consecutive reps. But if you understand all the progressive overload strategies and you get creative with using them, you can always move forward in some way.
Stated differently, when you use my progressive overload system, it’s possible to never have a bad day in the gym!
Let me give you a few examples that recently happened to me.
On my most recent back training program, my pull ups had consistently increased in reps for five workouts in a row. On that fifth session I hit 14, 13 and 11 consecutive reps per set. Then on the sixth workout, I did only 12, 10 and 9 reps. I had gone backwards by a substantial margin (from 38 to 31 total reps).
I could not trace this drop in performance to anything I did that day or in recent days and I had no reason to suspect I was chronically overtrained. The pullups just weren’t happening. In the past I would have gotten upset about this, but understanding the progressive overload system, I knew exactly what to do.
I simply added a fourth set, and while I only did 8 more reps on that fourth and final set, you can do the math and see the results: my total reps increased to 39. The goal of progressive overload is to do more than you did before, and I did one more rep than I did before.
A similar thing happened on a recent leg day. My goal was to squat 285 pounds for three sets of 10 and I hit it no problem (that was a total tonnage of 3 X 10 reps X 285 lbs = 8550 pounds). My goal for the next workout was to increase the weight to at least 290 and preferably 295. I thought I might even go to 300 if I was having a great day.
The opposite happened. Even my warm ups felt off. So I decided I would stick with 285 for the first set and it was a grind to do only 9 reps. I decided not to increase the weight because I felt a little tight in my lower back and I did only 8 reps on the next two sets (that was a total tonnage of only 7695 pounds – I went backwards).
I could have sulked out of the gym feeling defeated. Instead, I decided to add another set, and since my lower back was feeling a bit off, I made it a lighter set of 12 reps at 195, but I used slow continuous tension (no lockout) reps which made it extremely intense. That added 2340 pounds for a total volume of 10,035 pounds. Once again I beat my previous workout (by a substantial margin), even though I was having an “off” day. It ended up being a good day.
Here’s a third example. I was recently doing standing overhead barbell presses on my shoulder/pushing day, but adding more weight or reps just wasn’t going to happen. I’ve always struggled with this exercise and on this day, I barely managed to equal the last workout. No progression. But barbell presses weren’t my only shoulder exercise – I also had dumbbell lateral raises on the schedule.
I wasn’t ready to make a jump in weight on lateral raises either, but I was able to increase reps – and substantially, from 12 to 15 on all three sets. So while I didn’t increase on my primary exercise, I did increase on my secondary exercise, and I achieved my progressive overload goal for the workout as a whole.
Know when to back off and when to push ahead and you’ll keep winning in the long haul
Again, let me emphasize that there are times when the right move is to take two steps back for one step forward, to de-load or even take a whole week off completely to rest and recover. There are also times when you need to change your entire routine.
But for those occasional days when your performance is off in one way, you can still keep advancing in other ways if you understand progressive overload and you think out of the box a little.
You will always have to deal with bad days from time to time. The good news is, if you’re familiar with all of the progressive overload techniques that are available to you (which are all explained in the Ultimate Progressive Overload Manual), you can flip bad days into good days, and in the end, you’ll be so far ahead of everyone else, you could call it an unfair advantage.
If you want to learn even more, then download a copy of my new e-book, The Ultimate Progressive Overload Training Manual For Body Building and Body Transformation.
About Tom Venuto
Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural (steroid-free) bodybuilder, fitness writer and author of Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle: Fat Burning Secrets of Bodybuilders and Fitness Models and the national bestseller, The Body Fat Solution, which was an Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine pick. Tom has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Oprah Magazine, Muscle and Fitness Magazine, Ironman Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine, as well as on dozens of radio shows including Sirius Satellite Radio, ESPN-1250 and WCBS. Tom is also the founder and CEO of Burn The Fat Inner Circle – a fitness support community for inspiration and transformation