Dear Swole Woman,
I am a guy who started lifting about six weeks ago, in no small part because your column gave me the confidence I needed to be okay being a newbie in front of other people. So thank you. I love the new things I can do already and I feel more powerful and capable than I have in years.
I am writing today because last night was my first truly bad workout.
I've had a few that were hard or annoying. But this one sucked. My body just wouldn't work the way I wanted it to. I regressed in a few of my lifts and then I got mad and ended up straining something... I really wasn't prepared for how emotionally difficult it was to not feel good about my workout for the first time and I was surprised at how sad I felt afterwards.
I would love to know how I can reframe or adjust my attitude when it feels like nothing is going right? Any tips?
Thanks again, Casey.
A really beautiful thing about starting to lift weights is that progress comes pretty easy in the beginning, and the feedback loop of eating and resting and lifting, and then eating and resting and lifting so you can (and do!) lift more the next time is so rewarding. But inevitably, this previously meteoric trajectory levels off, and progress becomes less predictable, not least because how “well” each training session starts to depend on more variables. I want to talk about this, because when everyone stampedes into the gym come January 1st, they will inevitably hit this wall, because everyone does.
Few people like to talk about the bad days, least of all me, because I hate for lifting to sound like a bad experience. You should generally have expectations of progress and getting stronger, but you should also expect, in the gym as in life, that things will not always go as you wanted, and some days shit will really hit the fan. I can’t promise you won’t have shit days, but I can promise you will learn to recognize them for what they are and be nice to yourself about it in a way that will let you keep your overall momentum, even when you’re not rocketing upward with ease. Any workout is only bad insofar as you have expectations that exceed your grasp on that particular day.
Momentum matters in lifting: people can get stronger much more quickly than they think, to the tune of lifting several more pounds each week and potentially hundreds more pounds after a several months to a year. That doesn’t happen without putting trust in the concept of “progressive overload,” which is what allows muscles to get stronger—you lift heavy weights, you recover by eating food and resting, and then you are capable of lifting more weight the next time you go into the gym (in technical terms, this is known as the “stress-recovery-adaptation” cycle). There is value in pushing yourself way past what you might think you're capable of. You don’t need to be a born football player or huge playground bully in order to be able to build muscle slowly but surely using this biological process; literally everyone can do it.
But everyone has bad days where you are supposed to be able to do more, or at minimum, repeat what you’ve done before with equal success, and due to reasons, you just can’t. World-class Olympic weightlifter Mattie Rogers has bad days. Hafthor Bjornsson, who played The Mountain in Game of Thrones, has days when he is doing less than what he's fully capable of. I sure have my bad days, and not just bad in the sense of attitude or not being in the mood, but biologically sabotaged—I slept badly, I’m about to have my period, I’m really stressed out by work. I can even feel generally okay in my normal life, until the intensity of a training session lays bare how I’m struggling. These days happen, and they will happen more than the days when you feel good you could kill God.
You might be forgiven for thinking these days are infrequent due to the overall rhythms and rules of social media: When I have terrible a day, I sure don’t feel like posting about it, or know I will probably be shunned if I do, since the System rewards positivity. But another reason experienced lifters don’t talk about them all that much is that you learn to read your own self and your rhythms, and learn to respond and adjust accordingly. If your bench warm-ups are shaky, today might not be the day to push your numbers. But this also goes the other way: if all the weights are flying, it’s a good day to reach a bit further than you might have expected you would.
Here is the reason this is all OK: Lifting progress, or any kind of progress, really, is such that you actually don’t need your sessions to be linearly better and better every single time in order to get overall better in the long term. While starter lifting programs tend to have pretty rigid progress, adding a few pounds to each lift every week, more advanced lifting programs are actually often built around lighter and heavier days, or lighter and heavier weeks, because not everyone can be “on” all the time forever. In a year, no one is going to know you had a bad day. There will also be days when you know you feel like shit, and yet your training goes better than you could have ever dreamed. I’ve had a cold a few days now and waffled on going to the gym at all, but then when I did, I squatted 235 pounds for four reps, which I’m pretty sure at least matches my all-time PR. I would not have known I’d actually be more than okay doing this workout if I hadn’t gone to feel it out.
Sometimes progress just means maintaining your flow, doing what you can do for the day and checking the box. Sometimes it means focusing on your form instead of pushing your numbers. And sometimes, progress has nothing to do with the physical component at all, and is strictly coming to know yourself and how to be patient. It may not feel like it matters as much as crushing a workout. But in the grand scheme, on the scale of years, no one is going to know you had a bad workout here and there
Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.