History seems to repeat itself at the gym for a lot of people. They start off with the best intentions, they get a decent plan together for how they are going to achieve their goal, and they get cracking.
They’re in the gym for a month or two, and things are going well, and they’re heading towards their goal. Then for some reason, the momentum slows down, and the goal gets a bit harder to achieve. It’s often at this point that people’s heads go down and they start to blame the program. It’s not working like it used to, so it must be wrong. They throw it out and start another one – usually whatever’s trendy at that particular moment; whether it’s Bosu balls, kettlebells, resistance bands, boot camps or just some mad new gym class promising to make you a God at everything for £5 a session and 30 minutes a week.
The point of this article is to offer an alternative to this wheel-spinning exercise. I’ll outline the method I use to get back on track when I start getting fed up or when things aren’t quite going to plan. Hopefully, it will help you to get your thoughts in order, avoid wasting precious time and ultimately achieve whatever goal you’re aiming at.
The reason I’m writing this is that I recently found myself in a bit of a rut with my training. I was doing all the right things – with a bit of margin for error as always – but I just felt like something wasn’t quite working for me. Something had changed.
As I’ve said in my previous articles, I’m a powerlifter, so the squat, bench press and deadlift are my absolute bread and butter exercises. These three lifts, or variations thereof, make up probably 70% of my total training volume, so when something is wrong with one of them, it’s affecting a pretty sizeable chunk of what I get done at the gym which is a problem. In this case, my issue was with squatting.
I was getting the prescribed work in my plan done, but I was finding it much more difficult than it should have been at that particular stage of my training cycle. I had to take much longer breaks between sets than I previously had. I was waking up feeling more sore than usual. I was accumulating a series of small niggles and problems physically. Clearly then, something was off.
Once the realisation set in that I wasn’t getting the most out of what I was doing; I had a choice to make. I could:
Now at this stage, it’s important to mention that although the second of these options appears to be the obvious route to take, there is another element to take into account. The other element is the sport of powerlifting. It is well known that powerlifting is very tough on the body with many advanced and elite lifters managing injury almost all the time. Pain is part of the game.
Maybe I was just being a wimp?
Furthermore, a single session in the gym can take up to 4 hours (typically it’s around 2 hours, but long sessions aren’t at all unusual) during which time the body has to perform a lot of work at very high intensities. Concentration becomes a factor over that length of time. If you’re not good at maintaining or resetting your focus between sets, it can be very hard to get the most out of your body and your training sessions. Was I just not focusing like I needed to?
There are also other factors to take into account. I have been on holiday recently, so perhaps I was just struggling to get back into the groove after a break? The recent prolonged very hot weather has affected my sleep and appetite, both key elements of my performance. There were a lot of possible contributors to my downturn in performance, so clearly I had some investigating to do.
Using the two options above, I decided to go ahead with option 2. My logic was; if all else failed and I was unable to identify any areas which I could improve on (VERY unlikely!) I could refer to option 1 and carry on safe in the knowledge that I would break through given the right amount of application of the method and adequate time.
It took me a little while to break all of this down and rule out several possibilities. I started by establishing the three main factors when creating a training plan of any kind. For me, these are:
Seeing as I already knew the work I was doing in the gym was of the correct kind based on previous training cycles, I began by first looking at factors outside of the gym.
Recovery - Was I training too much, not sleeping enough or some combination of both? I train 4-5 times a week depending on work, so it ends up that I train 9 out of every 14 days. I’ve been training this way for a few years now, and it’s been very manageable in terms of volume vs recovery, so no change there. I’m also very good at getting to bed on time. I’m in my pit at 10 pm at least five nights a week, and I’m usually out cold by 10:30 pm at the latest. We get up at 7 am. So even allowing a margin for error, I’m averaging 8 hours a night. This meant I could rule out recovery as the limiting factor.
Diet - The only way to know if this was working properly was to track my intake and compare it to my goal. My goal is to gain around 0.25kg/week, and I keep track of it by weighing myself first thing in the morning, Monday to Friday. I use the myfitnesspal app for tracking my food intake, and after around a month, I use the data I’ve collected to establish my average daily intake and compare it to my average body weight over the same period. Based on this, I established that my intake and my goal are aligned and working well, so I could rule out diet as the limiting factor.
By process of elimination, I came to the conclusion that the issue was with my training. So I began to break down my squat training to understand what wasn’t working. To really get into it, I examined my squat from the perspectives of volume, frequency, intensity, progressive overload and technique.
The reasons were as follows:
Volume - The number of sets and reps you’re performing of a specific exercise in a specific timeframe. Not enough and you won’t be improving your strength or growing at an optimal rate. Too much and you won’t be able to make meaningful forward progress because you’re not allowing the specific musculature used in the squat and variations to recover properly. You’ll also be sore as hell all the time until you get injured (which you eventually will). This is very different from systemic fatigue which was examined when I took a look at my overall recovery earlier.
Frequency – How often do you train the specific movement pattern? I squat 2/3 times a week dependant on work, with at least one day between squat sessions to allow for recovery. I’ve been doing this for around a year now, and I’ve been making significant gains and doing well regarding niggles and injuries, so no issue here.
Intensity – What level of physical exertion are you performing your sets and reps with? As part of my hypertrophy (muscle building) and strength focused program, I train at different intensities on different days in any week. Lower intensity (lighter weight) and higher reps are good predictors of hypertrophy. Higher intensity (heavier weight) and lower reps are good for developing strength.
N.B. – As an aside, it is a careful balancing act to get the right combination of Volume/Frequency/Intensity to suit your goals. It’s often quite specific to the individual as people often respond differently to different training stimuli. There is an element of trial and error to this. However, the guiding principles remain the same. There is a combination of these three factors which will work for everyone (provided your recovery and nutrition are in order) regardless of your goals.
Progressive Overload – This is probably the most often overlooked part of a successful strength and hypertrophy program and it’s almost certainly the most crucial for long-term progress. If you’re not slowly adding more weight to the bar over time (or increasing sets and reps to a certain extent), your gains will increase only to a certain point and then stagnate. You will not get bigger or stronger for long without progressive overload.
Technique – Technique is a subtle beast. Despite what internet trolls and gym bros would have you believe, there is no single technique for squatting (or many other movement patterns for that matter) which suits everyone. We are all biomechanically different owing to a number of factors, not least size, gender, underlying medical conditions, impingements and a plethora of others. That said, there are foundational techniques and guiding principals of which are a great place to start for everyone and then as we improve, we learn to listen to our bodies to develop optimal performance which works for us as individuals. These are often small tweaks but they can make all the difference.
Having run through these options, I established that my Volume/Frequency/Intensity balance was good. In fact, by doing a bit of digging, I realised that I was leaving money on the table and that I could afford to be doing some more volume. Winner! That wasn’t a solution to my issue, however. A slight shortage in volume wasn’t going to cause the issues I had been experiencing (increases in perceived effort, extended rest periods, soreness, niggling injuries). I knew the problem wasn’t with progressive overload as I structure my programs to increase weight in the core lifts each week and I reassess my accessory work once a month.
‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth’ – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - Sherlock Holmes, ‘The Sign of The Four.’
So we have our culprit. Having eliminated all other possibilities, I realised that the reason I have been suffering while squatting was due to technique issues. But the story doesn’t end there. I then had to break down my technique before I found the elements I needed to change. I started by filming myself from different angles. I then showed the footage to my coach and to the owner of the gym I train at (also a powerlifter and vastly more experienced than myself). We all agreed on a couple of things. My feet were slightly too far apart, and the bar was sitting slightly too low on my back. That was it. No more, no less.
Adjusting those two things have made all the difference. In a single session, I was squatting for five sets the weight that only a few days prior I had struggled to move for three sets with significantly more rest. Since making these changes, I’ve found that my sessions are not as mentally draining, my rest periods have decreased, soreness is much the same (my volume has increased significantly, so no surprise there) and my niggling injuries have improved if not gone altogether.
Thank God That’s Over, Please Get To The Final Point and Let Me Get On With My Life
The point of this (admittedly lengthy) article is this. If you are serious about achieving a goal you have set for yourself, you will seek help or additional information to get your programming, recovery and nutrition correct. If, however, you decide to abandon the plan as soon as something isn’t going your way, then all your good work preparing for your goal upfront has been wasted.
There is no such thing as a perfect plan - but a good plan will get you a long way. When your good plan starts to falter, it needs to be re-examined, not discarded completely. That mindset only results in frustration because for it to work, the plan you lay out has to be perfect, not just now but forever. That’s an incredibly high standard.
Instead, be a little bit kinder to yourself. Be humble enough to accept that your plan needs some rethinking. Then actually DO the rethinking. The example I’ve laid out above is a good example of how to do this. No, it isn’t applicable in every situation.
No, it isn’t going to make you an unstoppable machine in the gym. However; it might just save you a lot of time and effort fannying around getting no closer to your goal. You can end up getting what you wanted in the first place. If you’re really lucky, it might even stop you from becoming another occlusion-training, HIIT-spin, Bosu ball-hugging, boot-camping, booty-blasting, boogie-bouncing, boo-tea drinking, directionless gym class hero.
Stick to the plan and achieve.