Bye Bye, Beginner Gains
PRs (personal records) come pretty easy for beginners. Your lifts go up nearly every workout. You see dramatic changes in your body too. You could basically LOOK at the dumbbells and get bigger. Eventually though, the PR's go from daily to weekly, then weekly to monthly. And your physique stops changing as rapidly too.
Is this you? Congratulations! You've officially passed your newbie-gains phase.
The Intermediate Lifter
As much as you love the gym, it may take more work to get motivated now. Training isn't going to always be easy, fun, or full of PRs. But that doesn't mean it's not working anymore.
Most of your sessions will feel pretty average. Not really super great, but not terrible either. And this – the fact your workouts feel average – is your greatest strength. It's the area in which you'll improve most.
Why? Because there will be a lot more of them than any other type of day, and accumulating them by simply putting in the time is what will make you a resilient lifter.
A Thought Exercise
Take all of your training sessions of the last month and give them a rating of 1-3.
- Days that get a 3 are PR-fests. Every barbell moves effortlessly, you hit heavier weights easily, or you hit higher reps with the same weight as your last session.
- Days that are a 2 are your average days. These are what Coach Dan John calls "punch the clock" workouts. You still enjoy them, but there's nothing special about them.
- Days that are a 1 leave you frustrated or injured. You exit the gym feeling pissed. You even start questioning why you spend so much time there.
Now, with this rating system in mind, think of how often you have each of these days. For most lifters who are past the newbie stage, the terrible training days happen 10% of the time and the awesome training days happen 10% of the time too. So, 80% of your workouts are okay – just average.
So in one month of training, you might get 16-20 workouts in. That means you're going to have two terrible sessions, two amazing ones, and 12-16 sessions that are more average than a Toyota Corolla.
It probably doesn't take long to realize that these fun sessions, where everything seems to go right, don't come by often. Your improvement doesn't magically get worse or better in the extremes of your training.
That's right. Even when you're crushing PRs on those 3-rated days, you're just demonstrating the strength you slowly built during the average days. The real and lasting improvement is what happens during your average workouts.
And here's the best news. Your average can improve. If you're able to raise the average of your training session, in a few months what you did during a 3-rated workout is now just what you can do during your average workout. That's progress.
Raise Your Average
Your average doesn't just improve on its own. And it may not even improve with overall increased training volume. Improving your average training days happens through external or internal factors.
This is what you can do for yourself that will improve your training:
Hire a coach
You may need a second set of eyes examining what you're doing and improving on your plan. This is especially true if you never change anything in your workouts. Having someone either write a program based on what you can do, or having them with you a couple times a week will help you make the most out of average days.
If you want to feel good and actually look better you need to start caring about your food. Eating well, and eating enough to support your goals, will work wonders. This may require tracking for a period of time. It can bring your training to superhuman levels.
Focus more on rest and recovery
Prioritize sleep. It affects how well you can do everything else – from training and performance to diet and immunity. Recovery happens when we decrease our stress and allow our body to heal. If we don't have the ability to bring our stress down to a manageable level, we're going to get injured, be constantly fatigued, and live with a lot more 1-rated workouts. Improve your sleep by limiting your screen time before bed and blacking out your bedroom. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep.
Soft tissue work
From stretching to foam rolling to massage therapy – when used appropriately, it's all good. There's something therapeutic about doing all these modalities. Don't focus so much on increasing range of motion with all of these. The range of motion improvement ends up being minimal. That'll happen naturally, but all of these will allow your muscles to just relax as well. And the regular practice of these will help to decrease stress.
This is what's going on inside your head – your focus, intention, and perspective on training. This can be just as important as any external factor.
Know your focus.
If your focus is strength, do you have a cue to help you make each rep easier? It could be squeezing the lats in the deadlift, or keeping the tension on your glutes instead of the lower back. And HOW do you plan to do each set? Focus on trying to make the next set feel or look easier than you did the last time. If your goal is bigger muscles, focus on feeling the muscles work during each rep.
Before going for the heavy weights, do you see yourself making the lift? Or do you see yourself failing the reps? Spend 10 seconds before your lift visualizing perfect, aggressive reps. This can make a huge difference in the quality and consistency of your training.
Develop a killer instinct.
Have you ever seen a nature documentary where a lion is hunting a gazelle? What happens? It absolutely decimates the gazelle. Why? He has a killer instinct. Nothing will stop him in this pursuit of the gazelle. By developing that killer instinct in yourself, where nothing is going to destroy your drive or focus, you're going to see your average training sessions improve.
Remember, these average workouts will determine your training future. Don't rely on the perfect days where everything in your life and training lines up. Make the most of your average days, day in and day out, and you'll see that what you used to be able to do on awesome days are now things you can do any old day of the week.