STRESSED? 😬 What to do About Your Training
“I went to squat yesterday. My warmup felt fine — I was a little tired, but I thought once I started lifting I’d feel better. I usually do,” a client said to me.
"When I got to the working sets, everything felt HEAVY. Like, heavier than it should have. I finished the workout anyway, because it was written down, so I had to do it. But I’ve felt like everything is heavy and takes longer than it used to for a couple of weeks now.
What am I doing wrong? Am I losing all my progress? How am I going backwards when I haven’t skipped a workout?”
I could hear it in her voice: the frustration, the confusion, and the shame composing a horrifying opera whose featured aria, “You’re a Failure!” is familiar to us all.
When I hear this song in my line of work, my first course of action is to listen (we all need to be heard, after all), followed by asking questions.
The questions give me box seats to the full production, where I learn it’s not only the weights that feel heavy but life as well. And the last thing we need to do when life gets lifey is up the stress ante with long, heavy, grindy workouts.
Exercise, while generally positive, also places stress on our bodies. So, sometimes long, heavy, grindy workouts are just what the doctor ordered, but sometimes they’re pouring gasoline on the fire, leaving us feeling ineffective and not knowing where to go next.
I’ve been right there with you, the last few months (if you’re there), and things have shifted quite a bit. But how?
How do you know when to push and when to pause (to borrow a phrase)?
Signs it may be time to modify your training:
1. YOUR SLEEP IS SUFFERING. When was the last time you slept through the night (I acknowledge this is perhaps laughable if you have children under 3 or over the age where they wreak havoc)? When was the last time you felt rested? When you didn’t stay up until 1a tired but wired, then wake up groggy with 6 cups of coffee at 5a? If the answers to those questions are anything like, “...when I was 17?” it’s likely a good time to back off.
2. YOUR PROGRESS HAS COME TO A SCREECHING HALT. If you’re not seeing results, in whatever ways you measure them, for weeks at a time, this deserves inquiry.
3.. YOU’RE ENGAGING IN COMPENSATORY THINKING: “I know I should go for a walk, but later on, I’m going to that networking event, and there will be cheesy appetizers and champagne. Walk later; sprints now.” You know the drill. Just like racking up debt with Visa, overriding your feels to charge your metabolic credit card is not where you want to be (probably). Find yourself there? Step back and evaluate.
4. YOU AREN’T HAVING FUN. Look, not every workout is gonna light up your life, but if, overall, you’re dreading going to the gym, you’re hating every minute, you’re counting the sets and need to resort to motivational YouTube videos for your entire workout for weeks on end, something isn’t working. Strength training can be serious, but IT’S NOT THAT SERIOUS. Overall, it’s something we do to improve our lives and make the rest of the stuff easier, not some torture device. Not fun? Find what is.
And, not to leave you hanging, if you’ve determined it wise to back off in your training, you may be experiencing a bit of fear:
Does, “backing off,” mean I do nothing?
Will I enjoy rest so much I never return to activity?
If that happened, what would it mean about me as a person?
Will I look ridiculous doing something new?
Does not sweating through my eyeballs or being so sore I can’t walk mean I’m giving up?
That fear can be so intimidating, especially in a culture driving us to always be "on."
Many of us stuff it down and keep pushing. We charge on all the way until we’re burnt out and forced to stop, swinging freely from the all-or-nothing pendulum without looking down to see the crash pad just beneath us providing a softer place to land.
If you’re having trouble knowing how to adapt when you’re exhausted but want to stay moving, engaged, and connected to your body:
💫 SPLIT YOUR PROGRAMMING. With total body workouts, it’s usually pretty simple to perform what was once one longer workout in two shorter ones and get similar benefits. You could also do fewer sets, fewer reps, or lower intensity (lighter loads, or a different amount of time, depending on how your program is structured).
💫 CHANGE THE FORMAT. Do you *have* to follow one workout structure from now until the end of time? Nope. You can change from sets x reps to time-based circuits, for example, which may be shorter, lighter, and more fun. Or you could move from time-based HIIT to slower, gentler bodyweight circuits, which may feel better on your joints and fatigue you less. The world is your oyster.
💫 SWAP OUT YOUR ACTIVITIES. I used think yoga wasn’t doing anything unless I could get my foot up near my face. Once I got it through my head that there’s tremendous benefit in learning to breathe, flow, and pay attention, I found myself regularly opting for the mat instead of the squat rack more than I ever imagined (hello, #mediocreyoga). What activities are you holding yourself back from trying because you think you’ll look silly, you’re biased toward higher intensity activities, or you think don’t, “count,” as exercise? They may be just what you need to feel nurtured, cared for, and plugged in to your fitness again.
Above all, please remember…
IT'S OKAY TO TAKE A DAY OFF.
In fitness and outside it.
From a young age, I was told lying was wrong (in fact, it was the only thing for which I got in actual trouble with my dad — fun story and cool unforeseen reasons about that — Ryan Lochte makes a cameo — another time). I was told the only thing I have in life is my word. I internalized this message and proooobably took it a bit too far. Fast forward through adolescence and into adulthood, and I was THE prime audience for #teamnodaysoff, "you can sleep when you're dead," and #noexcuses.
If I made a commitment I would follow through, come hell or high water, and come, hell did.
"But I said I'd squat/meet her for lunch/get that report done today," I'd think. "Just a few more hours, that's all. Then I can rest."
You aren't doing anything wrong when you listen to your body, to your mind, to your blood rushing through your ears screaming at you that those, "few hours," of trudging through Mordor with a loaded barbell on your back could take 30m in two days, after a nap.
Forcing it adds stress and shame to an already-overloaded machine.
Consistency and joy are what keep us nourished, focused, strong. That's the point of this fitness thing, isn't it?