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The other day, I felt like crap but had heavy deadlifts on the menu.
I did my first warmup set of 10 reps and I knew right away that it would not be my best pulling day.
So I did my two remaining warmup sets, and then moved onto some speed and technique work at about 70-to-80 percent of my 1-rep max (RM), doing six sets of two reps.
Next I did some light higher-rep accessory work and finished with 30-minutes of non-stop alternating stepups. Then I called it a day.
It’s on days like that one when I’m most proud of the progress I’ve made in my fitness journey.
Why would I be happy with a less than my best workout? Because in the past I would have tried to grind it out, risking injury and leaving myself feeling worse than when I started.
But I still did something to improve myself—and I left the gym feeling better than before. Mission accomplished.
Too many of us approach each workout like it’s life or death. I get it: You want to PR at every session and it’s that “get better today” attitude that keeps the gainz coming month after month, year after year.
Truth is, it’s just not possible to beat your former self every single session. But it doesn’t mean you can’t do something that makes you better for the long haul every single day.
On days when you’re not at your best, you have two options:
- Skip the workout altogether.
- Modify the workout so that you move with a purpose. So that it’s more about stimulation, and less about annihilation.
The best bodies in the world are built with the dogged consistency of the second approach. It’s an intuitive style of training where you auto-regulate your workouts based on “feel.”
If you’re considering skipping a session, use any of the outlined options below instead. They’ll keep you moving and grooving so you never miss a beat.
1. Lighten the Load
You can almost always predict your future performance based on how you felt during your first warmup set.
Sure, the warmup is meant to boost circulation, lubricate your joints, and improve mobility. But also allows you to gauge how much loading and volume you should put through your system that day.
That’s why it’s so important to embrace an extended warmup at any age.
On days when the warmup is feeling more like a workout, lighten the load and get some good technique work in. You can either do some power training or endurance work.
If you choose power, use a load that’s about 60 to 80 percent of your 1-RM. Then do 3 to 10 sets of 1 to 3 reps, lifting the load as fast as you possibly can. Do a set every 2 to 3 minutes.
You could also swap in a more ballistic exercise for a similar movement pattern, which inherently lightens the load.
For example, replace those heavy deadlifts with 10 sets of 10-rep kettlebell swings. Both exercises involve a hip hinge, but no matter how much weight you can swing, the actual load is still what amounts to warmup weight for deads.
If you choose endurance, use a load that’s no more than 50% of your 1-RM, and get in a lot of quality reps. You can do 3 to 5 sets of 10 to 20 reps with short one minute or less rest periods. This is what many call “barbell cardio.”
Or you can set the clock for 5 to 30 minutes and get as many quality reps as you can within that time frame.
Personally, I like to use the EMOM (every minute on the minute) protocol, in which I perform a set number of reps at the top of each minute and rest the remainder of each minute.
For instance, if I’m not feeling up for heavy barbell squats, I’ll swap in goblet squats with a dumbbell or kettlebell and do 10 reps EMOM for 10 minutes. (Sometimes I’ll go longer if I really hate myself).
2. Go Back to the Basics
When you’re feeling out of it, turn to your fundamentals.
Most guys make the mistake of thinking they’ve moved past easier exercises, particularly bodyweight moves like pushups, lunges, and squats. Trust me when I say that you’re never too good for “beginner-level” exercises. That’s like saying a house is too good for it’s foundation.
Do you know what 4-time CrossFit champion Rich Froning does to start every squat workout? Ten straight minutes of air squats.
Why? Because not only does it warm him up, but it burns a perfect squatting pattern into his brain so his hundredth rep looks just like his first rep. And that’s how you become a master of your own body.
My recommendation is to either do straight sets of a single bodyweight move for a certain rep total or time, or do a total bodyweight circuit.
For the former, I love to do 10-minute blocks of straight squatting, lunging, or crawling. Just get inside of the movement and own it.
There are two rules: don’t stop and keep going.
Do 10 minutes of each move for a great 30-minute equipment-free workout that will get you better at just about everything.
For the latter, here’s a great “bodyweight 8” circuit from my book Bodyweight Burners. Do each move for 50 seconds with 10 seconds of rest between them.
- Hip-Thrusts (1 or 2 legs)
- Pushups or Planks
- Rows or TRX Shoulder Raises
- Hip-Hinges (1 or 2 legs)
- Handstands or Dips
- Lunges or Stepups
- Hangs or Pullups
Rest two minutes after completing all eight moves. That’s one cycle. Do 3 to 5 total cycles.
For single-sided moves, switch sides from set to set, or at the halfway mark (25 seconds) into each work period.
3. Recovery Work
Active recovery work includes mobility and self-massage drills to improve tissue quality, joint positioning, and range of motion.
This is the boring, low-intensity stuff that you have to do if you want to have longevity in the fitness game. Neurologically, it helps you shift from a “fight-or-flight state” to “recovery mode.” This is crucial for overall health and performance.
The best resource for exercise recovery is the book “Becoming a Supple Leopard” by Kelly Starrett. You could also watch endless mobility videos at his site at MobilityWod.com.
I believe that there should exist a 1:1 ratio of high-to-low intensity exercise. So if you did a 30-minute workout, you should do 30 minutes of active recovery work at some point during the day as well.
On days when you don’t have any high-intensity work in you, just do more recovery work. You’ll still break a sweat and you’ll improve your exercise form and technique.
Physical therapists recommend a minimum of two minutes for mobility and foam rolling to create change in the tissue. Sometimes it takes as long as 5 to 10 minutes for really sore or tight muscle groups.
The better approach is to do a drill for as long as you need until you feel it make a change. Then move on to the next drill.
One of my favorite recovery workouts is what I call “Sweat and Stretch.”
Do a cardio exercise—like jump roping, running in place, or jumping jacks—for two minutes to get your heart rate up. Then do a mobility or self-massage drill for two minutes for active recovery. That’s 1 round. Move onto a new cardio and recovery move each round.
You could also break up the 2-minute cardio piece into 60 seconds for 2 moves, 40 seconds for 3 moves, or 30 seconds for 4 moves. This tends to be a little more fun and the time will pass faster.
4. Accessory Work
Accessory work is the extra stuff you do to help improve the most important exercises you train. These tend to be better for high-rep sets with lighter loads.
On a day when you can’t muster up the strength for your big core lift(s), do some higher-rep work on the accessory exercises that will make you better.
For example, close-grip bench presses, rows, dips, band pull-aparts, and triceps pushdowns tend to boost your bench press. Do 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 15-plus reps for each move. And maybe finish with 100 pushups in as few sets as you can.
Oh yeah, and don’t be afraid to use machines.
Are they as functional as free weights? No. But they are less taxing on your nervous system and joints because they don’t require as much stability. In this way, machine work is easier to recover from.
Plus, there’s nothing wrong with some dedicated isolation work. It’s the safest way to put your muscles under prolonged time under tensions to create a metabolic stress that triggers muscle growth.
For example, there’s simply no way you can create as much of a pump in your quads from squatting as you can with leg extensions. That’s because with squatting, you’ll reach technical failure before muscle failure.
Plus, with leg extensions you can’t enlist the help of any other muscle groups. It’s you versus your quads.
Finally, a machine-based workout consistently allows you to get in an extra session in each week, you’ll get better faster than the other guy who’s too good for machines and just takes the day off. That’s the bottom line.
One of my favourite accessory days is to just crank out a whole body workout moving from machine to machine.
You could do a 5 to 10 machine circuit, doing 10 to 20 reps (or max reps) of each move with little to no rest between moves.
But this may be hard to do in a gym setting when you’re constantly competing for space and equipment. So I’d recommend setting the clock for 5 minutes and doing as many reps on each machine as you can. Then move on to the next machine.
You’ll leave with an epic muscle pump and your central nervous system will get a much-needed break.
5. Have Fun
It seems cliché, but isn’t having fun the whole point of training?
On days when motivation is low, it’s the perfect time to try the new training techniques you’ve been researching. It infuses some excitement into a stale routine.
Or you could play some soccer.
Or maybe you just go for a run or do 30 to 60 minutes of steady-state cardio while listening to some good music or a podcast.
At the end of the day, the ultimate goal is to move with purpose and break a good sweat without fail. There are an unlimited number of ways you can accomplish this.
And yes, technically Zumba counts too.
When I’m not into it, I love to take a long 1-2 hour walk with my wife and 2 dogs. It always energizes my body and mind and it reminds me that there is actually more to life than just exercising. And I’m referring to Netflix.