For those of us who have trained for strength or competed in a strength sport such as powerlifting or strong(wo)man, it can be extremely mentally challenging to survive a period where you feel weak. Whether you have taken time off for an extended vacation, are recovering from an injury, or just haven’t been training as hard as usual due to life circumstances, it is difficult to load lower weights onto the barbell.
I speak from experience. Last June, I was the strongest I’d ever been. I’d competed in six strongwoman competitions and one powerlifting meet, and was feeling better than ever about my training. I knew that once I started living nomadically it would be difficult to keep progressing at the same rate I had been, as I would be dealing with sketchy gyms and sporadic gym access. Nevertheless, I was determined to maintain my strength levels as best as I could.
Although I have done a pretty good job, I am still probably 10kg off my all-time squat and deadlift PRs at the moment. When I am in Paris (which is half the time), I find it exceptionally difficult to train properly. My life in Paris is pretty hectic and I am usually under-fed, sleep-deprived and fairly stressed. My workouts are short, mostly unprogrammed and squeezed in whenever I can fit them.
While I am obviously thoroughly enjoying Paris and increasingly realising that there is more to life than training, I can’t pretend that it doesn’t sting when I struggle with a set of 90kg squats or 110kg deadlifts – weights I could have done in my sleep a year ago.
My sentiments seem timely, as I’ve received a number of emails lately about how to deal with the feeling of being weak, after already having realised your true potential. So today’s post is for me as much as you.
If you are feeling weak or deflated in the gym due to injury or something else, bear these tips in mind.
- Accept that your body will change, both in terms of strength and aesthetics. If you are not training as hard as you were before, accept that you may lose some muscle mass and gain some body fat. If you are prepared for this, it’s easier to deal with. Remember that anything you lose can be gained back.
- Don’t do more than what your body is ready for. After a few weeks or months off, it can be tempting to jump straight back into the same program you were following before, using the same weights. This involves a high risk of injury, which can lead to even more time off.
- Focus on what your body can do right now and try different training methods. Do not let a period of bad training erode your confidence. Instead of focusing on how much strength you’ve lost, focus on the things that you are just as good – or even better – at now. If you are not feeling as strong at the big three lifts, take this time to master exercises that require a different type of strength that you may have once neglected such as pull-ups, pistol squats and handstands. Instead of being married to a powerlifting style of program, try following a bodybuilding split, adding in more plyometrics or even trying different kinds of exercise outside of the weight room.
- Set manageable goals. Rather than feeling depressed about how much strength you have lost and telling yourself you will never get back to the same level again, set small, realistic goals to hit every three to four weeks. Approaching your training with a positive attitude will keep you motivated and prevent you quitting entirely. Accept that you may feel frustrated during this time, but don’t beat yourself up about being weaker than before.
- If you’ve done it before, you can do it again. If you have already overcome one injury or prolonged training break, remind yourself that you came out of that bigger and stronger. I generally tell people that it will take half the amount of time you’ve had off to get back to full strength. That is, if you take six months off due to injury, it will take you three months of consistent training to get back to full strength – if not stronger.
- Revise your one rep maxes (1RMs) accordingly. You can almost always hit 1RMs again. If you are going through a weak period, simply revise your predicted 1RMs downwards. There is no point forcing your body to grind through difficult reps as a percentage of a weight you could not realistically move at this time. The last periodisation cycle I ran was based off numbers 5 to 15kg lighter than my all-time maxes, and yet it was still challenging enough to stimulate growth.
- Make sure you’re eating enough. When you are not training as heavy or as often, it can be tempting to cut back on calories. But you will never maintain your strength if you eat like a bird. There is no need to throw in additional challenges when your body is already trying to deal with a reduced training stimulus, so keep eating plenty of healthy, nutritious food.
- Remind yourself that you’re still stronger than most people. While it can be tempting to throw in the towel and quit lifting altogether after a bad workout or two, remember that you are still light years ahead of most people. Some days I feel as weak as a kitten, but then I look around and realise I’m still the strongest person in my gym (yes, I go to a terrible gym, but still). If you are a seasoned lifter and have a few years of training under your belt, all that strength and muscle mass will simply not disappear after a few months off.
- Change the factors within your control. Sometimes, we feel weak for reasons out of our control. But if our poor training sessions are a result of a lousy diet, bad night’s sleep or a big weekend of partying, make the necessary changes so that it doesn’t happen again. You will be back to normal in no time
- Accept that the gym will always be there. Even if you have to take as much as a year or two off training properly, there is no reason why you can’t pick up a serious program later down the line. Barring an apocalypse, the weights will always be waiting for you. I plan to continue training for decades to come, so a few years of travelling will not derail my future competition goals.
Sometimes you cannot control the events in your life that affect your training. What you can do, however, is control how you respond to these events.
Have you ever gone through a period of weakness/injury? Do you have any additional tips to coming out the other side?