T Nation

Overcoming Bad Workouts

Good and Bad Workouts

by Keith W. Wassung

Ever have one of those workouts that exceed all expectations. On just about every exercise, you break your personal record for weights and reps used. The feeling is absolutely exhilarating and you leave the gym completely invigorated. On the flip side, you have those workouts where nothing seems to go right. Instead of gaining you actually lose ground and you leave the gym, tired, sore and frustrated. If you do not have a long range game plan, that frustration can lead to a search for new program, a new supplement etc, and the cycle repeats itself over and over.

Workouts are a lot like the kick-off return team in football. You line up for each kick, stay in your lanes, and block your assignments and the kick returner runs as hard as he can. In most cases, you end up around the 20 yard line. Occasionally you reach midfield and once in a great while everything falls into place and the return man finds the seam and runs 100 yards for a touchdown. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you end up on the 8 yard line or even fumble and lose the ball.

I believe that progress is often a matter of working hard and smart on a consistent basis long enough for most of the workouts to be productive (20 yard returns) have a few really good ones (30-50 yard returns) the even rarer outstanding ones (touchdowns) and realizing that the bad workouts (8 yard returns and fumbles) are all part of the game. It is important to always keep in mind that progress is almost never linear and or constant except perhaps in the first year or so of training after which gains often come in isolated batches and often at unexpected times. This reminds me of when I was a boy and had to split logs into firewood. I would place the steel wedge into a seam in the log and then begin pounding it with a sledgehammer. After approximately 14 hard blows there was absolutely no visible evidence that the wedge had penetrated the log in any way. But the 15th blow would result in the wedge cleanly splitting the log into two or more pieces. The first 14 strikes did not appear to do much, but they were slowly breaking down the resistance of the wood.

I have done some reading on biorhythms and athletic performance and though I am not sure of the validity of everything I have read, it would difficult to deny that there is a certain cyclic element which can affect strength and athletic performance. This is one of the problems with many of the 12-16 week programs, where each workout is calculated based on a set percentage of your starting maximum weight -you end up being locked into lifting what the paper says, rather than in following the natural strength fluctuations of your body. You have to be patient and work for long term results, rather than in judging performance on a workout to workout basis.

As a general rule, an occasional bad workout is nothing to be concerned about. Bad workouts have a way of making the good ones seem even better by comparison. Anthony Ditillo, a noted strength author, once said that a bad workout is a sign that your body is in the process of rebuilding and repairing and there may be some truth to this. The worse thing about a bad workout is that is can cause you to question and doubt your program. You must have confidence and certainty in your program or you are destined for a lot of frustration and stalled progress. If you have a string of consecutive bad workouts, or have just hit a sticking point in your training, then there are several steps you can take to get back on the track to progress.

The first step is to analyze your workout recovery. Have you been getting enough quality rest, enough quality food and water? Adding some high quality protein and fresh vegetables, an extra hour of sleep each night or even performing some extra flexibility work will often be enough to get you back on the right track to progress. Remember that all recovery days are not equal, meaning that just because three days have passed since your last workout does not necessarily mean you have recovered. Those days might have been filled with extra physical and mental stress such as sick children which keep you up half the night, family matters, travel, eating on the run, final exams, all of which impede your recovery. Never be afraid to take some extra days of rest. Make the necessary adjustments as needed and when ready-attack the weights with renewed physical and mental energy.

The second step is to analyze and improve your exercise technique which I covered in my article entitled Developing Near Perfect Exercise Technique.

The third step is to modify your training program-notice that I said modify, not change. If you have a decent program, based largely on the fundamentals, then chances are you just need to mix-up either your repetition scheme or the order of your basic movements. If you have been doing mostly low-medium reps, then perform higher reps for 4-5 sessions. If you have been doing nothing but high reps, then consider working in the lower rep range for a couple of weeks. Try rest pause training, the total tonnage system, power rack training, or timed sets for a couple of weeks to break the plateau, and then resume your normal routine. You may need to change the priority or order of your exercises. For example, if you have been stuck on the overhead press, and you always perform them after bench presses, try putting them first in your program for a month or two. All of us are somewhat greedy in that we want all of our lifts to be going up simultaneously. Many of the lifters of the past, such as Louis Abele would often spend 3 months at a time focusing on just one lift or one area of the body hammering it with reckless abandon, over and over again, making tremendous gains and them moving onto another area. I have done this on numerous occasions with great results and will share one example. When I was a competitive powerlifter, my deadlift was always the weakest of the three lifts. Having short arms, I was structurally at a dis-advantage for the deadlift (or so I was told and I believed it and used this as excuse to have a poor deadlift.) Since my deadlift was the poorest, it received the least attention in my program. I trained it, but never with the enthusiasm of the squat and bench. After growing tired of losing close competitions, I spent just over 5 months specializing and focusing on deadlift and back training. I really did not train it with any greater frequency then I had previously, but it became the top priority in my training. I broke down and analyzed my technique and worked hard at my weakest portions of the lift and they soon became my strong points! My number one assistance lift became the barbell row and I attacked this movement as if it were a lift itself. After five months of focused training, I gained a tremendous amount of back development and added 70lbs to my best deadlift single, which was more than I had gained in the previous three years combined. The strength and development also laid down a foundation for increases in my squat and bench press in the following year.

The fourth step is to intensify your leg and mid-section training. Lower body workouts, and more specifically, squats will do wonders for your overall strength and development and are an excellent way of breaking plateaus. If you can squat, then you should squat, hard and heavy with a variety of repetitions and a solid and precise technique. If you need do perform something other than squats, then do so with an all-out approach. All force generated by the musculoskeletal system in the upper and lower body originates, is stabilized by, or is transferred through the trunk and the lower torso. Given this fact, if you are going to develop your full strength potential, then this area must be worked. Intense abdominal training is a great way to break plateaus for the simple reason that it is very easy to neglect it in the first place. There a wide variety of exercises to choose from and virtually all are effective if performed correctly. Here is one of my personal favorites: Lie on a flat bench and hold either a barbell or a pair of dumbbells and arms length just like in a normal bench press and then perform a set of stomach crunches, holding the top movement for a count of 2-3 seconds. You will not need very much weight to make this an extremely effective exercise.

The last area is your mental attitude and preparation towards your training. I believe that your attitude, enthusiasm and expectations towards your workouts pretty much dictate the results you achieve. Henry Ford summed it up when he said, “If you think you can, or if you think you can’t, either way you will be right.” This has pretty much been demonstrated and reinforced by just about every great human achievement in history. The good news is that you can control your attitude and expectations to a large degree. The mental preparation and expectation begins shortly after a workout is completed. Take a few minutes to evaluate the training session and then jot down some specific goals you wish to accomplish in the next session. I continue to be amazed by how few people will take the time to use written goals in their training program. Write the goals on an index card or a post-it note and stick it on your bathroom mirror, your refrigerator or some other place where you will frequently see it. The human mind cannot distinguish between what is real and what is imagined so it’s important to spend some time mentally rehearsing your workout. When you enter the gym, you must expect and literally demand a good workout, rather than in just hoping and wishing for one. You have to develop and maintain the proper mental toughness and discipline which is necessary for you to reach your own potential. This toughness is largely the ability to deal with pain, fatigue and discomfort associated with hard and progressive training. There are tens of thousands of people who want better strength, development and conditioning and they are totally committed to spending two or more hours a day, six days a week in training, they are willing to buy supplements, equipment, they are willing to do just about anything??except to include and embrace pain, fatigue and discomfort as necessary in their training. In fact, everything they do, everything they buy, every excuse they make is to avoid pain, fatigue and discomfort at all costs. The closest thing that I know to a “lifting secret” is this: Once you are willing to be uncomfortable at times in your workout, it does not take long for you to get used to it, in fact you may look forward to it and thrive on it. This is when you will embark on the journey to achieving the potential that lies within you.

Keith Wassung


Another excellent article. I really enjoy your posts.

I had one of these bad workouts just about 2 weeks ago. Bummed me out all day. It’s good to hear I am not the only one that has these off days occasionally.



I’m no tough guy, but I notice that my reaction to common minor painful accidents (things like bumps and cuts) has changed.

Perhaps it has to do with getting used to dealing with “pain” of exertion?

Anyhow, good article, had me thinking.

Yeah. Now the calluses on my hands and cuts on my shins (ahhh deadlift) certify me as one badass mofo… Or somethin like that.


Great read!

A lot of what you wrote really makes sense. Those little twists and turns can make all the difference, to propel anyone to the next level.

Good job!

You write some of the most helpful articles on this site. Keep it up!