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Blowing by Bad Workouts

Let ?em go and you will grow

How many times has this happened to you: You’re all ready to have a terrific workout, and what you get is a bust. Perhaps you came in raring to go because your last training session made you think that you were on your way to becoming a living legend. Perhaps nothing dramatic has happened lately, but at least you seemed to be solidly plodding along toward your goals. Or perhaps you had a rough go of it the past several times you hit the gym, and despite your best intentions, this latest workout, just like its predecessors, was a flat tire.

What you do next is crucial not only to your immediate progress but also to how much progress you’ll ultimately make in the sport. In fact, the way you handle the situation may be representative of the way you handle potentially discouraging situations in life. There really are just two fundamental reactions: You can keep going, or you can quit. Let’s see what determines which way you go and lay out a strategy for blowing by bad workouts.

The typical advice for managing bad workouts focuses on physical things. For example, the usual explanation is that you’ve been overtraining and should back off, that your diet is poor or that you need to use a certain supplement. To be sure, a host of physical factors powerfully influence the quality of your training, but if you really want to understand the heart of the issue, look to the psychological, not the physical, world.

Consider two very different reactions to a bad workout. In one approach you conclude that you always have bad workouts and that every routine you’ve tried has been a failure. You can expect nothing else, since you’re genetically challenged. In another approach you conclude that even if this last workout wasn’t so hot, you’ve been cooking with gas lately, or even if you stank on one part of it, other parts actually went very well. Research psychologist Martin Seligman and his colleagues have been exploring the reasons some people quit and others continue to march forward in the face of adversity. Why, they asked, when faced with a discouraging situation, do some people just treat it like a bad-hair day and continue taking care of business while others are completely devastated? To help explain such phenomena, Seligman’s group suggested three critical dimensions: permanence, pervasiveness and personalization.

When you have a lousy workout, do you view it as something that always happens or as something that just happens from time to time? That’s what permanence is all about, and it’s key to the way you deal with misfortune: People who throw in the towel believe that permanent causes underlie their problems, while people who keep on trucking believe that their problems are temporary. The quitter’s view of a bad workout is that he or she always has bad workouts. Conversely, the person who sees the bad workout as an occasional thing can take it in stride.

Pervasiveness has to do with whether you regard your unfortunate situation as specific or general. For example, one person might say that he or she has tried everything and nothing has worked, but another might say, ‘I gain a lot better on abbreviated whole-body routines than I do on six-day splits.’ People who quit see negative situations in broad, universal terms, while people who keep plugging away put limits around the negative situation, controlling the damage rather than letting it flood into other areas.

Personalization has to do with whether you explain things by what’s called an internal or external locus of control. For example, if you explain a bad workout by talking about your limited potential, that’s an internal perspective’you look inside yourself for the cause of the problem. On the other hand, if you explain a bad workout by noting that you simply had a bad day, nothing more and nothing less, you’re using an external perspective.

The next step is to use those dimensions to help frame a productive response the next time you’re faced with a bad workout or any other discouraging situation. First, be sure to view the problem in the narrow frame it deserves’for example, think in terms of this workout, not training in general. That will help you look at the occasional bad workout as just that: occasional and not something to get discouraged about.

Second, when one part of your workout goes south, it’s tempting to throw in the towel, but don’t. In fact, if you quit at that stage, you’re digging your own grave. Reduce your weights and/or reps or even change your routine, but keep going, and chances are you’ll leave the gym with a feeling of success, even if one aspect of your workout didn’t turn out as planned.

Third, look outside yourself for explanations of why things went wrong, rather than trying to attribute them to your internal characteristics. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should avoid taking responsibility where appropriate. It does mean that you shouldn’t call yourself hopeless when, for example, a bad workout might easily be due to a particularly stressful day at work.

When you’re in it for the long haul, bad workouts come with the territory. The way you handle them, however, is up to you: Either they can leave you broken down and in despair, or you can learn to blow right by them. IM

Editor’s note: Randall Strossen, Ph.D., edits the quarterly magazine MILO. He’s also the author of IronMind: Stronger Minds, Stronger Bodies; Super Squats: How to Gain 30 Pounds of Muscle in 6 Weeks and Paul Anderson: The Mightiest Minister. For more information call IronMind Enterprises Inc. at (530) 265-6725 or Home Gym Warehouse at (800) 447-0008, ext. 1. Visit the IronMind Web site at

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