Tell me if this sounds familiar: You’ve been training to do something — your first pull-up, let’s say — and after weeks or months, you finally make it. Hooray! But the following day or week, you try to do it again, but now you can’t. Did you get weaker? Did your training not actually pay off? Are you a failure? Should you just go lie down and cry?
Of course not: You achieved that PR (personal record) and it is yours. You earned it. Nobody can take that away from you. But if it’s real, why can’t you do it every time?
This isn’t just a problem for lifters. Beginner runners sometimes fall into the trap of timing their training runs and trying to beat their time each day they go out. But running slow is what makes you run faster in the long term, and steady training is what will make you stronger in the gym.
Fatigue masks progress
You’re not the same person you were yesterday. Maybe you’re stronger, but maybe you’re also more tired. Maybe you ate well and slept well, or maybe you didn’t. Maybe you’re extra stressed out from work today. All kinds of things can affect our bodies’ ability to lift a certain weight or run at a certain speed.
The biggest factor, when you’re working out consistently, is fatigue. I don’t mean feeling sleepy (although that can happen). I’m referring to when your body has been working so hard that it can’t perform at its best. You did a pull-up once, but now you can’t do any.
Fatigue isn’t a bad thing! In fact, it’s a sign that you’re doing things right.
You see, beginners often worry that they aren’t “recovered” enough or that they need more rest days. And it may be true that after a few rest days you might be able to hit that PR again, or set a new one. But if you made a habit of waiting until you were fully, completely recovered to show up at the gym again, you’d only get in one or two workouts each week. And that would ultimately hurt your progress, because you wouldn’t be training hard enough or often enough to keep getting stronger.
Short term wins don’t always mean long term progress
It’s short-sighted to measure your performance by what you can do in the gym today as compared to yesterday. What if instead you compared yourself to what you could do last month or last year?
Here’s an example. A few years ago, my best deadlift was somewhere in the low 100s. Deadlifting two plates, 105 kg, was a goal of mine. One day I lifted 100, felt good, and decided to throw on the other 5 kg and go for it. I wasn’t expecting the weight to actually go up, but it did. I pulled 105! I ran and grabbed my phone so I could do it again for a video. I stepped up to the bar with the camera rolling, and… it was glued to the ground.
I tried 105 again later that day. I tried it again later that week. I couldn’t figure out why I was able to lift it just that one time, and never again. Finally, about three weeks later, I pulled 105 for the second time in my life.
But here’s the thing: I didn’t stop my other training. In the meantime, I kept showing up to the gym and lifting whatever was on the program that day, whether it was a heavy single at 90 or reps at 80. I kept getting stronger, even if my levels of fatigue (or stress! Or whatever!) were hiding my ability to pull 105.
What happened was that the minimum I was able to lift on a given day went up. At the time I hit 105 for a PR, my “oh yeah, no problem” weight was probably around 90. As I kept training, it wasn’t long before 105 was a weight I could expect to pull for a heavy single on any training day. Then it was a weight I might do for reps. These days, 105 is a number I hit while I’m warming up; then I throw on more weights and keep going. It’s been a year and a half since that two-plate PR, and I can now pull 135+ on any old deadlift day.
Progress isn’t linear; each week and each training cycle has its ups and downs. Maybe right now you can only get a pull-up on your very best days, but in time you’ll be able to do a single pull-up any old day, and on your best days you’ll be able to do three. Sometime later, three might be your minimum and on your good days you’ll be able to do five. The key to progressing is to bring up those minimums.
Training days are not test days
If you’re one of those people who is able to hit a PR every training day, and you’ve kept up the string of PRs for a while, congratulations! You’re in your “newbie gains” phase, and that’s a fun time of your life. Keep training. Just don’t be surprised when one day you don’t hit a PR; that will be a sign that you need to start focusing more on the process of getting stronger rather than the results of testing yourself.
Think of building strength like studying a new subject in school. If you have a little prior knowledge, you might be able to pass the chapter 1 test without really studying. Maybe chapter 2 as well. But if you want to actually learn new material, testing yourself isn’t going to get you very far. At some point you have to crack open a book and study.
Training is like that. If you look at your upcoming workouts and you can’t separate out which ones are for training and which ones are for testing, you may need to rethink how you’re doing things.
Signing up for a competition can be a way of scheduling yourself a test day, but you can also pick a date on your own and mark it on your calendar. Strength training programs will last a certain number of weeks, and then they often have a testing day at the end. (Similarly, training plans for running will often end with a race.)
So then you’re looking at some amount of training — usually one to three months — that has a purpose. That purpose is making you stronger, faster, or better on your testing day. You may end up feeling tired between now and then, but that doesn’t matter as long as you’re able to complete the day’s workout and look forward to the next.
Use rest strategically
Leading up to a competition or a test day, it’s time to peak. (Runners call this a taper.) For a short time, perhaps a week, you’ll train less. Workouts will be shorter and lighter; you might have a few extra rest days. By working out less you’re sacrificing a tiny amount of future gains but gaining some temporary relief from fatigue.
Without that fatigue masking your true abilities, you’ll be primed to do your very best on test day. Now is when you can expect a PR. But remember, the peak didn’t make you stronger; it just revealed the strength you already had.
Sometimes beginner lifters will notice that they seem stronger after taking a few extra days of rest. This can backfire if they incorrectly think that rest is a tool that makes them stronger. Their progress stalls, so they reduce training volume and add some rest; if it stalls again, they’ll do even less.Do this for long enough, and you’ll end up barely training at all and wondering why you aren’t making any progress.
Instead, keep training, and save the testing for test days.