Frequently I’ve gone to the gym to train something – push-ups, chin-ups, bench press, squats, boxing, rowing, whatever – only to discover that I’m capable of far less than I thought I was. It’s easy to feel discouraged, but this mentality is not helpful.
It’s important to only work on what you can recover from. When you’re done, you’re done – strength training is about stimulating progress and to that end – the essence is simply this: challenge the muscle to a point of fatigue, then rest it and feed it and it will grow stronger.
The acquisition of skills, however is about repetition. But not fatigue. As such, skills development generally requires more practice, and does not require that you fatigue yourself in the process – in fact, the opposite is preferable. Practice many times, and you’ll get better, but if you push it too far, you’ll only end up practicing fatigued, inefficient movements. It won’t quite be the action you want to get better at, so rather than practice a poor movement pattern, it’s better to know your limits and not overdo it. This can be a difficult one to judge, but over time as you practice, your body awareness will also improve and this helps you to judge where and when to stop and how much to do overall.
Of course, if you’re new to weightlifting this creates a conundrum. How do I learn and practice good movement patterns yet also fatigue myself enough to grow strong? Have clear objectives when you train. This session, or this set – what is your purpose? Skills development? If so, train heavy enough so that you are forced to do the technique correctly, but not so heavy that you are forced to do it poorly. And stop well shy of fatigue. Or do some incredibly light sets to practice the movement pattern, and then some heavy sets to challenge your strength when you have developed some confidence in your technique.
What becomes challenging of course, is if you’ve been training for a while, you’ve hit a plateau or two and you wish to be able to do more, yet you cannot. How do we progress, when we don’t seem to be capable of doing as much as we wish we could?
You can try training harder – most of us do – but you risk just wiping yourself out. Doing more than you are capable of recovering from – this will actually require you to train less frequently, because your recovery will take longer.
If you wish to improve your capacity for work, cardio may be helpful – if you improve your cardiovascular capacity – depending on where it’s at now – you may find you can sink your teeth into more weights training and have a more satisfying experience – this you can judge for yourself. When you’re fatigued and you can’t go on – if it’s specific fatigue in your muscles, then you’re pushing up against the limits of your muscular strength. If instead you feel exhausted, you’re puffing and you don’t feel the fatigue in a specific way, it may be that you’re at the limits of your cardiovascular capacity. Pick what you wish to develop, and work specifically at that issue. There’s no need to try to do everything at once.
Last year I started trying a kind of old-school bodybuilding circuit: five days per week – chest one day, then legs, back, shoulders and arms on subsequent days. I’ve seldom trained like this because I’m not a bodybuilder, but coming from the background of one who does full-body training maybe a little too frequently, it was surprisingly useful in terms of building up my work capacity.
If you do a full-body workout every time you go to the gym, it can wipe you out for days. Even if you’re not doing as much as you think you should be able to. But taking on this five-day split got me used to training more frequently again, while each day I was only working small or specific body parts. So when I was fatigued, my muscles might hurt in one area, but it’s not like my whole body was wiped out. It seemed to help keep the Central Nervous System kind of fatigue at bay. And I was still good to train again on the next day, because the fatigue wasn’t permeating my whole being.
Then when I went back to my full-body training again – deadlifts and bench press on the same day or whatever – it seemed my ability to work hard had improved a little and my ability to work frequently had improved a little too, even though I’m not looking at being able to deadlift heavy every damn day.
So these may be some ideas you can think about if you feel like you should be able to do more, but you can’t – either focus on a specific area, or build up your cardiovascular capacity, but the other obvious option that needs to be addressed: you might simply need to be doing less.
I remember some time ago, I decided to throw myself into some serious bench press training. At the start of the cycle I was benching 80 kg for a set of eight, and then I trained my ass off and a couple of months later I was benching 80 kg for a set of only three! I just got worse. Sure enough, I took a few months off altogether, and next time I went back to bench, I managed 80 kg for a set of ten.
That was a really solid experience of what they call overtraining. All I really needed to do at that point in time was not bloody well train.
It can be tough to improve your work capacity. Sometimes you’ll need to do less, even if you feel like you should be doing more. But it’s a complete waste of time just throwing yourself at a thing until you become worse at it.
Instead, reassess. What can you do differently? Is there another way to approach the situation? Can you break down the issue, identify the different areas, your relative strengths and weaknesses, and do any solutions naturally start to present themselves? “Work harder” often isn’t a useful cue – instead, what are the answers that seem obvious or natural, that aren’t insecurity-based? When you strip away your fears or your ego – what answers remain?