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Imagine for a moment you’ve been working out consistently for several weeks. You feel great, you’re steadily improving your performance with your strength training sessions and getting in cardio work a couple times per week. Things are moving in the right direction for once and you’re enjoying yourself!

Then things at work get chaotic. You’re working longer hours, your boss gives you a deadline that spikes your stress level, you start sleeping less. At first you go about business as usual with your workouts. After all, you’ve built momentum and don’t want to stagnate—you want to keep racking up the wins in the gym and collecting personal records. 

Then you start to notice a few things: Weights you were able to lift for 10-12 reps are a challenge to lift for eight, a slight ache starts in a knee and lingers for a few days after. 

In this example, most people respond in one of two ways:

1) They’re committed to making progress and refuse to relent to the circumstances. They ignore what their body is telling them and continue to push as hard as possible. They grind out weights that feel heavier than usual and ignore any aches that pop up and linger for days.

2) They get discouraged at the slightest sign of adversity and quit. They catastrophize any small ache and cease all activity out of fear of getting hurt. If they stop progressing (e.g., they’re no longer able to improve their performance or regress slightly) they feel defeated and give up.

Neither response is ideal, and neither will lead to long-term progress or enjoyment. The first response completely ignores the effects of increased stress levels and accumulating sleep loss on their performance, and the individual tries to push through rather than adjusting to the situation. 

The second response isn’t any better: Panic is not an appropriate response to an ache or pain that pops up, because it’s unlikely anyone will never experience some type of discomfort or even mild injury from physical activity in their lifetime. Ceasing all activity is rarely the answer (unless there’s a medical condition that necessitates this response, and that’s a discussion that must be had with your medical doctor).

What would be an appropriate response to this common scenario where stress is elevated and is accompanied by loss of sleep?

Listen to your body, and consider other variables outside of the gym (e.g.: stress, sleep, nutrition, etc.) that can affect your performance.

This is not to suggest you must be hypervigilant about monitoring every little thing. That’s unnecessary and counterproductive. But when something noticeable changes, like overall stress and loss of sleep for a couple weeks in a row, know it’s okay and normal if this temporarily affects your performance in the gym. 

Returning to the example above, if after a couple high-stress weeks and less sleep you’re having a hard time lifting weights for eight reps that you were previously lifting for 10-12, and a slight ache has developed in one knee, how should you respond?

Gauge how the workout will go with the warm-up sets. 

Within the first few warm-up sets you may notice weights that usually move fairly easy feel a bit heavier than usual. For example, let’s say warm-up sets for squats typically go something like this to lead up to the first work set with 125 pounds:

  • Warm-up set 1: empty barbell x 5 reps
  • Warm-up set 2: 65 pounds x 5 reps
  • Warm-up set 3: 85 pounds x 5 reps
  • Warm-up set 4: 105 pounds x 5 reps
    • Work set 1: 125 pounds x 5 reps

But this week, due to factors like accumulation of stress and sleep loss, the third warm-up set with 85 pounds feels harder than usual, and you notice the increased difficulty with the warm-up set with 105 pounds. Rather than those warm-up sets moving quickly and feeling good, they might feel slower, or just heavier. Or they vaguely just “don’t feel great.”

Rather than doubling down on your effort and adding more weight to the bar—and letting emotion influence your workout choices—you could acknowledge the situation and keep the weights a little lighter this workout. That could mean working up to 115 pounds or so for the work sets, instead of 125 or more.

It’s very likely, in this situation, that 115×5 may feel just as challenging as 125×5 in the previous workout. And that’s okay. Even though you are using less weight, you’ll still produce a training effect and, most importantly, you’ll get practice learning how to listen to your body and respond accordingly, without allowing emotion to influence the response. This is good practice because it certainly won’t be the last workout that doesn’t go the way you expected it to, so it’s best to learn how to respond now.

Listen to your body and do your best to be as objective as possible, then respond pragmatically. Warm-up sets will help guide you in selecting the weights you should use for the day.

Manage Expectations

It’s helpful to know how to listen to your body’s feedback and respond accordingly, but it’s also helpful to manage your expectations.

Don’t expect your workout performance to take a dip just because you had one or two nights of not-so-great sleep or, as another example, you suddenly have to work out at a different time of day than usual. Resist the temptation to automatically assume you won’t perform well due to a certain circumstance.

Rule of thumb: Expect to do well each workout unless warm-up sets indicate otherwise. Then do your best that day. Keep emotion, and your ego, out of the decision-making process.

What If an Exercise Causes Discomfort or Pain?

This is a loaded question with a tremendous amount of nuance. Below are guidelines for common issues that may occur, and how to handle them. This is not medical advice and when in doubt, or you know something isn’t right, see your general physician or physical therapist.

Let’s use squats as an example. A trainee feels discomfort in a hip with the first warm-up set. What should she do? Here is what she could try, with the simplest possible solution first.

Perform a few additional very light warm-up sets. Sometimes this is all that’s needed to alleviate discomfort. She could perform a few sets of bodyweight squats, or extra sets with an empty barbell if doing back or front squats. Sometimes this extra exercise-specific movement with very low loads does the trick.

If you experience very mild discomfort or a movement “doesn’t feel good,” then perform additional very light warm-up sets.

If the additional warm-up sets don’t make the discomfort go away, but it doesn’t get worse, she can try to continue with the workout as planned. If the discomfort doesn’t get any worse and it’s so mild it doesn’t distract her from the exercise, she may be able to perform the workout without any modification.

If, however, the discomfort is to a level she doesn’t feel comfortable training through with a regular workout, she can …

  • Limit the loading to a level that doesn’t increase the discomfort. Perhaps in previous workouts she performed goblet squats with 45 pounds, but she may have to limit the load to 20 pounds this workout to keep the discomfort to a tolerable level.
  • Slow down the rep tempo. Instead of performing the exercise at a regular pace, the trainee can take a solid three seconds to squat down, pause in the bottom position for 1-2 seconds, then squat back up. The slower tempo will also limit the loading potential, since less weight will have to be used when compared to a normal, faster tempo, for the same rep range.

Want to see an example? Here’s a video of me performing a safety-squat bar squat with a slow eccentric and a pause in the bottom of the squat:

Here’s another example of using a pause with the bench press:

  • Shorten the range of motion. If using less weight and slowing down the tempo doesn’t work, the trainee can see if a shorter range of motion eliminates discomfort. For example, instead of squatting to the regular depth—hips just below the knees in the bottom position—she can shorten the range of motion to a tolerable level. This may mean squatting a few inches higher than normal. With deadlifts it could mean putting the plates on 2-inch blocks to reduce the range of motion, or doing Romanian deadlifts to just below the kneecaps.

Perform a different exercise. When the above suggestions don’t work, or you just don’t feel like trying to force an exercise to work in any capacity, perform a different exercise that trains the same muscle groups as the original exercise. The trainee could instead perform a leg press, or a single-leg exercise like a split squat, in the above example.

When in doubt, err on the side of caution! If something just doesn’t feel right or you have any doubts or concerns about discomfort or pain, go see your physician or physical therapist.  

Listening to your body and knowing how to best respond takes diligent practice and patience, but it’s no different from learning any other skill. Just like learning to squat or perform any new exercise for the first time may feel awkward and take several attempts before you’re comfortable with the movement, so too will things like learning how to use warm-up sets to determine how much weight to use for the work sets, or knowing how to respond when weights feel heavier than usual, or knowing when to modify or swap out an exercise when it just doesn’t feel right.

Don’t get discouraged or frustrated. Know you are building a valuable skill. Do your best to be objective. It will get easier and more intuitive with practice.

This article is an excerpt from the ebook and training program Screw Fat Loss. You can check out the entire system right here.

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