It's happened to all of us at one point or another.
You show up to the gym, anticipating a great training session, or even just another solid day of lifting. However, once you start adding plates to the bar, it just isn't there.
The weights feel heavy. And, you just can't find your groove. Stubborn ass that you are, you keep adding plates, looking for a PR. And, of course, you get buried under your first heavy attempt – or just fall short on the target number of reps.
It might be that you didn't get enough sleep last night, or that your girlfriend broke your heart. Hell, maybe there was just a little too much gravity for you in the gym that day. Regardless, your training partners are calling for the staple removers (because you got stapled), shovels (because you got buried), and spatulas (to get your pancaked ass off the floor). Do you hammer through it and try again? Or, do you just call it a day and get out of there?
Though equally frustrating, at the other end of the spectrum, you've probably had an ache or pain that's unexpectedly jumped up on you in the middle of a training session. It might be a chronic lower back issue, or just some nagging shoulder pain. Is it best to curse and then leave? Should you push through it?
If the gym's crowded, and you can't get to your planned exercise because the equipment is occupied, do you just skip it?
The answer to all these questions is NO. Instead, you modify your plan and make lemonade out of rotten lemons with the strategies I've outlined below.
Scenario #1 You miss a lift, and it IS NOT just a technical flaw.
1. Go back and focus on your assistance movements. Simply put, somedays, you just aren't going to have it. And, if everyone were destined for PRs on each visit, 1,000-pound bench presses would be a regular occurrence.
On the days where the maximal strength just isn't there, you want to just get your reps in. It's been my experience – and that of a lot of really accomplished lifters with whom I've spoken – that some of my most productive assistance work has come on the days when I didn't move as much as I'd have liked on my "main movement" at the start of the day.
2. Take some singles over 90%. Let's say that you missed a 300-pound bench press, but know that you're capable of it on a good day. Anything 270 pounds or heavier is going to be over 90% of your estimated 1RM, and you can use this weight to get some quality work in without missing lifts – and do so in perfect technique. So, if you miss 300, go back and take 275 for a few singles – and you might even find that you're feeling good enough to go back up and try 300, which leads me to...
3. If you don't feel like you're sufficiently warm, go back and take some sets of 3-5 reps with as much concentric (lifting) bar speed as possible. Then, work your way back up to heavier weights and see how you feel.
Also, I'd encourage you to check out The Rule of 90% by Tony Gentilcore; it's a great read on this subject.
All that said, I can honestly say that I think missing lifts regularly – at least on the heaviest attempts – is one of the biggest mistakes beginners make in strength training. I would much rather have quality work at 95% of 1-rep max than see someone miss at 105% - over and over again. Be smart if you miss – and try to avoid it in the first place.
Scenario #2 You miss a lift, and it IS a technical flaw.
Take plenty of rest between sets, and then attempt it again. Figure out where you goofed on technique, and drill a corrective strategy in your mind before you attempt it again.
For example, if you attempted a 1-rep max bench press, but your legs kicked up as you were pressing (very girly move, dude, for the record), change your set-up so that your feet are wider and tucked underneath you a bit more. Then, as you unrack the bar, keep telling yourself to drive your heels into the floor.
Scenario #3 The gym is packed, and you can't access the equipment you want.
Always have a Plan B in case Plan A can't be done to a "T." From an exercise selection standpoint, it's easiest to just stratify things into the following categories:
Quad-dominant: front squats, back squats,
Hip-dominant: deadlifts, good mornings, box squats
Single-leg: lunges, split squats, step-ups
Horizontal Push: bench pressing, push-ups
Horizontal Pull: rows
Vertical Push: overhead pressing
Vertical Pull: pull-ups, pulldowns
Of course, this isn't an exhaustive resource; there are a lot of other facets (e.g., subcategories of "core" training), but on the whole, if you can't get to an exercise, just figure out where it would be in this seven-category scheme, and then pick something else. Exercise selection is just one acute programming variable, and sometimes life gets in the way.
Scenario #4 Your shoulder starts giving you a hard time.
1. Substitute push-ups in place of benching. Closed-chain upper body movements will almost always be better than open-chain movements in avoiding pain. If you have the luxury of chains, you can load these pretty significantly. In the video below, this drop-set begins with ten chains (at 15 pounds apiece) plus 190 pounds of body weight.
2. Substitute triceps pressdowns in place of benching. If you're worried about wasting away at your upper arms because you can't bench heavy, just plug in some pressdowns here and there. You won't be able to load them as much, but it's better than just sobbing in your car on the ride home because you missed your fifth bench session of the week.
3. Just scrap all your pressing and do 8 sets of 8 reps on seated cable rows with a neutral grip. Every shoulder problem is a little different, but you can bet that every one of them demands extra scapular stability in order to get better. I love seated rows, as they build scapular stability and rarely cause pain in those with shoulder issues (particularly typical bodybuilding shoulder problems).
Check out Shoulder Savers: Part 1 to make sure that you aren't making the most common mistakes on this awesome corrective exercise.
Scenario #5 Your lower back is testy.
1. Move to single-leg movements instead of bilateral movements. When we're progressing someone back to "normal" training from any kind of lower back issue, single-leg training comprises the majority of their lower-body loading.
2. Drag/push the sled. This could very easily be included in strategy #1 for this scenario, as sled work is unilateral. However, it's a bit less dynamic than many single-leg movements, and that makes it even easier on most lower-back issues.
3. Do glute-ham raises instead of deadlifts. If you still want to train the posterior chain hard, but your spine doesn't like external loading, glute-ham raises are a good substitution.
4. Add in some extra core stability work in place of lower body training. A lot of people think that they have to leave the gym exhausted to consider their training sessions "productive." As much as I might disagree with this mindset, it's still important to make people feel like they actually did something when their bodies are a little banged up and they want to train. So, just because you can't really load your lower body doesn't mean that you can't do a ton of great stability movements. For some examples, check out the following two articles:
5. Extend the warm-up. A lot of people have lower back tightness from sitting all day at desks, and then in the car on the way to the gym. If you get to the gym and are feeling stiff – even after your regular warm-up – stand up and move around for an additional 5-10 minutes and really get your body temperature up. It can only help.
Scenario #6 Your knees give you a hard time.
1. Shift to a more hip-dominant squat. Instead of front squatting or doing a more Olympic-stance back squat, substitute box squats and sit back with the shins more perpendicular to the floor.
2. Substitute a deadlift or good morning variation for squatting. It won't yield the exact same training effect, but you'll still get a great systemic training effect and activate a lot of the same musculature.
3. Move to static and accelerative-only single-leg movements. So, instead of forward lunges and walking lunges, do reverse lunges and split-squats.
4. Stop what you're doing, do some soft tissue work, and then try again. Try getting in on your quads, IT band, and adductors with a foam roller (or PVC pipe, if you're feeling diesel). Then, work on your calves and glutes with a lacrosse or baseball.