Ben Nadel
On User Experience (UX) Design, JavaScript, ColdFusion, Node.js, Life, and Love.
I am the chief technical officer at InVision App, Inc - a prototyping and collaboration platform for designers, built by designers. I also rock out in JavaScript and ColdFusion 24x7.
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Ben Nadel at Scotch On The Rock (SOTR) 2010 (London) with: Matthew Bourke

Project HUGE: Success Strategy For Working Out When You're Tired

By Ben Nadel on

Last night, I tried to do a "Pull" workout (a.k.a. Back). But, I was very tired having not slept well the night before and having not taken any caffeine pre-workout. Normally, I would pop one of the 5-Hour Energy shots on the way to the gym, but it was late and I didn't want to risk having another bad night of sleep. When I got the gym, I did a few sets of pull ups and a set or two of low-pulley rows and left the gym. Overall, the workout was crap. I performed much worse than I did the previous week in pull ups. In a sport where "improvement" can be one extra rep or simply a more confident feeling at the same rep count, actually performing less reps at a given weight is a huge psychological hit! And, in an arena where a positive mentality is quite crucial, feeling negative about a workout is a horrible thing and can quickly spiral into a vicious cycle.

On the long walk home, I had time to reflect on my gym experience. I knew that I could either throw a little pity-party for myself and accept that sometimes the gym just sucks - or, I could actually come up with a way to make sure this sort of thing doesn't happen again. I started to think about the gym dynamics and the workout mentality and I quickly formulated what I'm calling my success strategy for working out when you're tired. It's very simple, but I think it will be quite effective:

If you're feeling tired and / or feeling like you're going to under perform in comparison to your last workout, stop what you're doing immediately and pick new exercises for the workout. These can either be new exercises or simply ones that you have not performed in a while.

From what I have theorized, this very simple strategy has several very powerful payoffs:

  1. Because these are exercises that you have not done before (or haven't done in a while), you won't have much data to compare to. Even if you don't perform well, you won't get the psychological hit of knowing you were stronger the previous week.
  2. Because you will probably not perform well during this workout, you are automatically building a huge emotional payoff into your next workout where, compared to this one, you are bound to perform much better.
  3. By selecting new exercises, you will help keep the body in an adaptative state where it has to grow more muscles to cope with the variety of workout stimulus.
  4. I think that by simply changing exercises, you will experience an elevated mood (change of scenery effect), which will help your performance.

So, that's the strategy that I'm putting into affect in my workout regimen. I am also formulating some other thoughts on exercise rotation in general, but that will come in a later blog post.


 
 
 

 
Arnold Schwarzenegger Looking Badass.  
 
 
 


Reader Comments

I'm sure you've seen "Pumping Iron", but I wanted to recommend it to anybody else who's interested in fitness, or just in being entertained.

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Great advice. I had to ease off the caffeine completely recently (long story). So this lack of energy has recently had a physical and psychological effect a few times when coupled with this colder than normal weather.

One thing I found myself doing instead of leaving it out entirely was to avoid the exercises that either involve a large range of motion, or move your center of gravity the most, these seem to be the worst when physically or mentally tired, running doesn't seem to come into this category though, probably because you're always upright.

So I'm talking about avoiding things like swissball prone jacknifes, and even back squats, opting instead for machine-based or if you have the mental energy, sticking to some simple small range free-weights. Maybe just me, but I found those easier to stick to when my body wanted to go sit in front of the TV ;)

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"In a sport where "improvement" can be one extra rep or simply a more confident feeling at the same rep count, actually performing less reps at a given weight is a huge psychological hit!"

Thanks for sharing that. I never thought about it before, but there are definitely days where my workout is 'up' just because I feel more confident - even though I do the same amount of work.

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@PJ,

Heck yeah I've seen it / own it on DVD. The 25th anniversary edition is most excellent. All the behind the scenes stuff is great!

@Rich,

That's good advice as well - sticking to the smaller exercises. I think want to engineer the most successful workout and when you're tired, that's not gonna include things where you're moving your body all over the place.

@Ray,

Absolutely - Sometimes I find it really helpful to keep notes on my exercises where I'll actually say things like "that last set was really sloppy," or "last two reps were extremely hard." That way, when I come back and do something, I might not get any numeric improvement, but I can think to myself, "That was easier than last time," or "only last rep was really hard that time." Sometimes, it's just the smallest increment of improvement.

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I really like this idea. Since you want to change up the routine every so often anyway, doing it on a low energy day is perfect.

Especially the built-in benefit of almost definitely performing much better next time on that workout.

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That is a great idea!

I usually just push my way through a workout when I am tired. Many times I will get mad at myself and just push harder and sometimes I have gotten a burst of mad energy and wound up having a great workout.

Other times I have had what I thought was a crappy workout only to find out that I was sore the next day and the next week my weights went up when working the same muscle group. My logic was that even though my weight was down in the tired workout, pushing myself through the workout stressed my muscles into growth despite the lesser weight I was lifting.

Then there are those times, usually when I am overtrained anyway, where my weights just keep going down until I get some rest.

Your idea is a great one for the toolbox, though.

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I think everyone who lifts weights know exactly where you are coming from.

You have really made a good point and I will certainly implement this into my workouts from now on.

Generally, I will only lift heavy weights with compound exercises but cannot count on my hands how often I have felt completely out of it before workouts...not on the level at all. It really makes sense what you've said and I will certainly use this method!

Cheers mate ;) I have not read the rest of your blog yet (maybe a bit off subject for what I am searching for) but going by this post it looks great!

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@Randell,

I read this after I commented.

I can relate to this too actually. Sometimes a workout will just be crap but when I am just tired (lack of sleep) and not mentally tired from drinking ect... then the workout will usually go pretty well.

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@Big Rob,

(I have a friend I refer to as Brolic Rob) I find this to be a useful approach. Especially for me because sometimes I just have joint pain that comes and goes. If I get to the gym and try squatting and my knee hurts, I know it will be so morally defeating to try and continue squatting that I have to stop and try something else (something preferably more emotionally rewarding).

Same goes for shoulder; if I start to bench and anything feels funny, I try to immediately switch to something else. I've gone too many times and just pushed through the pain / tiredness and I always regret it later.

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