One of the worst feelings is when you thought you were psyched to train, but you hit the gym floor and your warm-ups feel heavy. You feel like you’re walking through water.
Your muscles are burning and you ask yourself, can I make it through this one?
Your first inclination is to keep training—go through the motions and get it done. Because you’ve been here before, and you remind yourself that you always feel better when it’s over.
But the pain persists.Should you bag it and go home? Come back later? Try something else?
#1: There are days when it’s best to just go home.
This is a personal assessment and choice, but consider the following factors:
- If you’re sick with a fever, skip it. Got a cold, and you have more leeway to work out, since exercise has been found to boost the immune system in the case of upper respiratory infections.
- If you’re tired from life in that way that the chronically tired are, or running on a single night of very short sleep, it can be worthwhile to train.
- But there are also days when you should ask yourself, who am I doing this for? To show that I can overcome adversity? For extra credit?
- We have been so conditioned by the fitness industry to power through pain and ignore how we feel in favor of physical heroics that we often lose sight of what’s most effective, let alone healthy.
- If you’re exhausted and overtrained, as can often happen to competitive athletes or high-intensity trainees who burn the candle at both ends, you’re nervous system will be suppressed. Take the day off and focus on recovery.
#2: Stick With the Plan To Develop Mental Toughness
If you’re actually dressed and in the gym, it's often valuable to follow through with the original plan. Proceed rep by rep, set by set, pound by pound, like a machine through your workout.
You will develop mental toughness, and by the end you will have confidence in your ability to do something you doubted. Such consistency and perseverance are skills that you can apply to other parts of your life when the challenges feel insurmountable.
#3: Use Caffeine & Creatine
Caffeine and creatine should be your best friends when you don’t feel like training. They are very likely the most powerful legal performance enhancers available. Consider the benefits:
Caffeine significantly reduces pain, but it also decreases fatigue, activating neurotransmitters that make you feel more motivated. A nice dose of caffeine can transform a bad workout into a worthwhile session, improving your ability to produce force, react, and have more stamina.
Caffeine also enhances motivation when sleep deprived because it boosts metabolic activity in the brain that is involved in decision making—try 4 mg/kg/bodyweight of caffeine to get the benefit.
A small dose of creatine (5 to 10 grams) can also boost brain function and support physical performance when you’re exhausted. For example, when sleep-deprived rugby players took creatine before a workout, they had higher testosterone, which indicates motivation and readiness to perform.
#4: Change How You Count Reps & Sets
Sometimes you need a mind trick to get you through the workout. Changing your set-rep scheme can completely transform how your brain perceives the challenges it faces.
Breaking your workout into more manageable clumps will distract you from negative thinking and allow for a more effective workout. Try cutting your reps in half but doubling your sets and reducing your rest periods.
For example, if you had planned on doing 4 sets of 10 reps with 1 minute rest during a muscle building phase, do 8 sets of 5 reps with 30 seconds rest. You’ll produce significant lactic acid and cause a serious metabolic disturbance for body composition, but you’ll also get a nice pump and boost growth hormones to support muscle growth.
Or if you’re training for strength with low reps and high sets, try reducing either your reps. Try working most of your sets in the 2-3 rep range, doing singles for the final 2 or 3 sets. You’ll hit the neuromuscular system and maintain your strength so you can get after it in the next workout.
#5: Are You Sore? Do Conditioning or Concentric-Only Workout
If what’s holding you back is muscle soreness or DOMS, try a concentric-only workout.
Concentric training refers to when the muscle shortens, such as when you perform the up motion of a biceps curl, bench press bent-over row, deadlift, leg curl, or squat. The down motion of all these exercises is the eccentric exercise.
Concentric training has been shown to reduce muscle soreness and it doesn’t further damage muscle tissue. Plus, you reduce the volume by half and give yourself a break.
Light-to-moderate conditioning also reduces soreness—if you like “cardio” try a brisk walk or jog. If you’re not a fan but want to get something done, do easy intervals for 25 minutes: Try walking hills, or do run-walks on a track or on the road. No need to sprint, just pick up the pace above a plodding jog.
#6: Do One Short Maximal Effort (2.5, 4, or 7 minutes)
If you’ve played sports, you probably know how to deal with physical hell, and are able to push yourself through it as long as you know what you’re facing. Enter the single maximal effort workout.
Try an all-out 2.5 minute sprint on the track or up a hill. Push a weighted sled for 2.5 minutes straight. Or see how many burpees you can do in 150 seconds—50 is a good number to shoot for if you’re in shape.
Or, if you can stomach a little more and prefer conditioning, do a Tabata workout: a 4-minute set with 20 seconds maximal effort and 10 seconds rest. Do sprints, burpees, or a series of bodyweight lifts.
A 7-minute circuit is another option, either with free weights or with body weight exercises like squats, jumping jacks, push-ups, chin-ups, step-ups, and burpees.
#7: Do Single-Set Training, Preferably To Failure
Single-set training can be the perfect solution when you’re mentally tired and need some brain relief. Try your original workout and just do one set to failure, possibly reducing the load if you are in a maximal strength phase. Or, just pick 4 to 8 multi-joint lifts and work through them.
Training to failure is ideal because it stimulates the muscle tissue for growth and can be metabolically challenging, but don’t do it if you think you might be at risk of an injury or are overtrained.
#8: Try a Rest-Based Workout
It’s unlikely to get you the best results in the long run, but a “rest-based” workout may be the perfect option when the going gets really tough.
Rest-based training is most useful when doing high-intensity training. Use pre-planned work intervals interspersed with all the rest you need. Rest can be passive—sitting, standing, or lying down—or active—walking, jogging, stretching, etc.
Rest-based training is inspired by self-determination theory that suggests that when you are in charge of making a change, there is a greater chance that you will be innately motivated. It allows you to truly be “in the moment” and listen to your body instead of forcing yourself to follow a pre-set plan.
Self-regulation has an evolutionary basis: Our ancestors didn’t go out and train or run 10 miles. They did what had to get done for preservation and maintenance, maximizing (and enjoying) rest when they could get it.
#9: Go For a Walk with Unplanned Intervals
This is a surefire way to help you feel better if you’re not sick because it gets you outside, and completely eliminates the physical and emotional pressure tied to training.
All you have to do is walk and get in synch with your body, and if you want to try a moderate run, sprint, or high knee jog between telephone poles, go for it.
#10: Train One Body Part, One Exercise, or Just A Superset
This is the perfect rescue workout if you’re super tired or sore but committed to getting “something” done.
The benefit is that you work a large amount of muscle in a short period of time, but it uses short rest between sets, so you don’t have time to think about how hard it feels.
For example, for the legs try the following:
A1. Front Squat, 3 x 4-6, 40X0, 10 seconds rest
A2. Heels-Elevated Back Squat, 3 x 6-8, 30X0, rest 2 minutes
B1. Lying Leg Curl, Feet Neutral, 2 x 6-8, 40x0, 10 seconds rest
B2. Romanian Deadlift, 2 x 10-12 reps, 4020, rest 2 minutes
Note that you can set up the B exercises during your 2-minute rest periods. This workout only requires 10 sets total and can be done in 20 minutes.
An alternative rescue workout is to pick two compound exercises—one for the upper and one for the lower body, such as a deadlift and an overhead press or chin-up.
Do 10 sets of each, alternating between them with maximum 30 seconds rest. Be sure to focus on proper form throughout whatever workout you do. If you have to decrease the weights to do this, go for it.