We've All Been There
- Progress has stalled.
- Motivation has evaporated.
- Even thinking about training makes you feel bad.
- You feel weaker than usual.
- Even though you go to the gym, everything just feels stagnant.
Don't panic. It happens to even dedicated lifters. Here are five strategies to help you snap out of it and start making progress again.
1 – The Same-But-Different Approach
Keep your basic lifts the same but make minor adjustments. It's mentally stimulating and leads to better physical adaptations.
Variety: It's the simplest form of adjustment. Some people can do the same exercises with the same set and rep schemes for a long time, but most people prefer variety. Not variety for the sake of variety, but intelligent changes – either a change in the training system you use, or within the system you're following.
The same-but-different approach can be used for whatever kind of training system you're already on. Consider the bench press. Instead of dumping it entirely or changing the sets and reps, try things like:
- Use a closer or wider grip than normal
- Add chains and/or bands
- Start the lift from pins just above the chest (dead press)
- Press against pins (isometric work)
- Do a new variation of the exercise (board press, floor press, etc.)
You don't always need much to get out of training depression, but you always need something. And small things often make a big difference.
2 – The 180 Approach
Do something completely different, even if it takes you out of your comfort zone.
Sometimes the training system you normally use stops being beneficial. Not because it's flawed, but because you've adapted and it doesn't give you the same progressive results it used to.
Achieving mastery is like acing a test in subject. Once you do it, you can choose to go further and make this subject your all-encompassing focus, you can complement it with something else, or you can go master a different thing and change your goals.
The 180 approach will introduce something completely new. By turning 180 degrees, you'll have to open your eyes again. It can be frightening because it'll challenge your beliefs and comfort level. But being challenged is a good mark of progress and a clue that you're on the right path.
This doesn't mean going from barbells to dumbbells. That would be more like the same-but-different approach. You'd have to go further than that and do something requiring different skills. For iron-lovers, this approach can mean things like yoga, running, cycling, martial arts, gymnastics, or a specific sport.
The benefit of moving differently will lead to improvement in some form: body comp, strength, performance, agility, mobility, stamina, etc. The key is to train in a way that supports your main goal. Going for a long distance run every day doesn't support a goal of carrying the most amount of muscle possible, but training to improve your aerobic system in a targeted way to boost recovery does.
Building explosive power through martial arts training can benefit your lifting and will probably increase your enthusiasm about training in general. It can add new meaning to movements and muscles. This doesn't mean you need to step into the ring or cage and be hit in the head. There's nothing saying you need to compete to reap the benefits.
Why stick to one training methodology when you can have the best of both (or several) worlds? The 180 approach gives you this opportunity. If you're stuck, you should embrace this kind of thinking as soon as possible to avoid following the same old path that takes you nowhere.
3 – The Minimalist Approach
Simplify your training. Dump all the fluff.
Take a look at how you've been training the last couple of months. There's a chance you've been overdoing it, either by having done way too much work or way too much shitty work.
If you're used to combining a lot of high intensity work with a high volume approach, you're heading towards trouble. This is especially a big pitfall when you create your own training programs, since we all tend to think we're advanced and can always handle more.
When stagnation hits and motivation lags, ask yourself: What can I get rid of in my training and in my life? What makes me better? And what am I doing that's just busywork?
Your body is a system of systems that requires recovery from the stress you place on it. When you reach a plateau, or even worse, your performance regresses, it could be a training problem, but it's probably a holistic problem. There are things that take your stress beyond your recovery capabilities.
Figure out where the stressors are coming from. A simple and highly effective strategy is to make your training as minimal as possible. Sometimes doing the least amount of work will create the most amount of progress.
Consider the Pareto principle. It states that 20% percent of what you invest tends to be responsible for 80% of your results. If you look back on your training history, you can probably see this. There are certain strategies and exercises that are responsible for where you are today.
Dump 80% of your training, do shorter training sessions, and see what happens. Not only will you likely perform better, you'll probably start to build up your enthusiasm for training again since you'll have more energy.
If you're a powerlifter or athlete, it's not the biceps curls and side raises that have been foundational to your training. If your program is full of accessory work, remove all of it for a couple of months and see what happens to your performance. All that extra work may be overstressing your system via accumulated fatigue.
Stagnation is a signal from your body. It's telling you to change something. If you don't, what do you think will happen? Certainly not progress. We do need to push the envelope from time to time, but not all the time. The Olympics aren't held every week, all year round. They're once every four years. Have you ever considered looking at your own training with this kind of timeframe?
4 – The Follower Approach
Hire a trusted coach so you can stop overthinking everything.
The main benefit of having a trainer or coach is that you no longer second-guess every part of your training. One of the hardest things to do is program your own training. It's hard to be objective with your own training needs and weaknesses.
You may also fall into the trap of program hopping. When programming on your own, it's too easy to change things on the fly, since you have no one to answer to but yourself.
Overanalyzing your training can be a big obstacle. You can tweak and customize your approach for several days, or you can go to the gym and train as hard as you can with the parameters a coach provides and then go relax and recuperate for a change. Coaching removes a lot of the hemming and hawing you'd do on your own.
Someone once said that to be a great leader you first have to be a great follower. Follow by hiring someone you trust and you'll free up a lot of time spent overanalyzing the minutiae.
5 – The Vacation Approach
Take some time off on purpose until the desire to train hits you hard again.
Ever been on a vacation without a gym nearby, or simply had to skip training for a while? Near the end of it you begin to crave the feeling of hard physical work. It feels like something is missing when you're not able to follow your regular schedule.
Why not use this strategically? Instead of forcing yourself to train when your body and/or mind is working against you, simply take time off to allow the anticipation of training to build up again.
Training depression, or the perception of it, can simply be a result of the fact that your body needs its rest. We live in a world where we're constantly doing instead of being. This isn't to suggest you should go all Zen, but a little bit would be beneficial.
If you no longer experience progress, continuing to do the same stuff is senseless. By taking time off and practicing some mindfulness, you'll probably gain some new insights to what your body actually needs.
Training can be addictive, and while more positive than many other addictions, it's still an addiction. Don't be a slave to your training habits. Take charge of the process.