How To Be Awesome: Dealing With Bad Days

By Jesse Burdick

Eric Spoto’s day was shit. Absolute, total, unmitigated shit. At one in the afternoon, he’d managed just two hours of sleep since the night before. All he’d had to eat since three in the morning was a handful of pistachios, a cup of yogurt, and a glass of apple juice. For most working people, this isn’t much of a problem—or, unfortunately, a rarity. We all have days like this once in a while, so the idea is to just suck it up, soldier on, and go to bed early that night, right?

Trouble is, this shit was happening to Spoto while he was sitting in the Animal Cage at this year’s Arnold Classic—surrounded by a huge crowd of people waiting for him to attempt a 700 pound raw bench press. What started out as a subpar day had the potential to get a lot worse. Dangerous, even. A lot can go wrong under 700 pounds when your mind ain’t right.

So, yeah. He crushed it, of course.

What I want to know here is why. And how. How is it that, under perfect conditions, with perfect sleep, perfect nutrition, and perfect training, I can’t do that but he can? How the fuck did he do that?

When Things Feel Wrong

We all wake up feeling like shit from time to time. This is part of being human. If you’re having a bad day before you even get to the gym, however, you have to remember that it’s still a day. It still goes in the books no matter how you feel, so you need to decide what you’re going to do with it. What you’re going to make of it. You still need to show up.

Once you’re there, the keyword is intent. What do you want to do? Is today a high-rep day? A max effort day? A speed day? A conditioning day? Determine your intent and keep it in the front of your mind. You may be walking in with your gas tank half empty, but you’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t use what you’ve got. If 50 percent is all you have to give, then just give it and be done with it. You’re still getting in the gym, you’ve still done the work, and it’s not going to negatively affect you.

Like Rocky said, “To you it’s Thanksgiving. To me, it’s Thursday.”

Move Your Ass

No matter how shitty you feel, odds are you’ll end up feeling better once you start moving. Of course, if you’re suffering from pneumonia, it might behoove you to stay home—but if your only problem is an acute case of poison ivy, cover yourself from head-to-toe and go. Just don’t wipe that shit on the bar. The point here is that you have to get up and go, because most times, you won’t know how you’ll feel until you get there.

womansquatThe other day, I worked with a female client whose goal for the day was to hit her “opener” in the squat—the first of three she’ll be performing in her upcoming powerlifting meet. We started with the bar, then worked through 95 pounds, 135, 155, 185, and 225. It all looked and felt like shit.

“I just feel really weak right now,” she told me.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “You’ll be fine.”

I put 250 pounds on the bar, and she crushed it. Every lift to this point was slow and sluggish, but this one looked like she was working with an empty bar. We took another small jump to 265, and she killed that one, too. Then 285 practically jumped off her back. That’s almost 90 percent of the best squat she turned in at her last meet, on what she assumed was going to be a horrific day. How do we explain this?

The Mental Game

If you’ve been doing any reading on this subject, you’ve seen a lot of material regarding autoregulation and the various devices available to monitor your “state of readiness” on any particular day. I love tools like BioForce HRV and the Omegawave, and I highly recommend them because they’re extremely useful. If you’re not using something like this, though, the process of regulating your training is heavily psychological. In other words, it’s possible to talk yourself into—or out of—just about anything, including the kind of day you’re having.

The idea, then, is to go in and go through the motions. That’s where your best autoregulation is going to happen. Get in the gym, feel things out, and use that as your barometer for what kind of day you’re really having. With my female powerlifting client, if we’d worked up to 70-80 percent and the barbell still moved slowly, we’d have cut it off and called it a day. If you just get moving, and your lifts move up to 50-60 percent with things still going well, you’re doing fine and it’s all in your head.

Built-In Excuses

I don’t prescribe deload weeks, and I don’t prescribe deload days. That’s not something I’m able to ascertain that far ahead of time. People tend to use deload weeks as an excuse to not train hard—or to avoid the gym altogether—and they’ll do this without knowing if they actually need this time off in the first place. Instead of penciling in an automatic week off, take an honest look at yourself and what you’re doing instead. If it looks like shit, and it feels like shit, you should probably back off—but you won’t know until you actually get there. If things are still going well, and it turns out that you simply woke up with a bad attitude, take it as a lesson learned and correct the problem from there.

liftingAthletes feel better when they’re under that kind of stress. Not moving—and not training—will hurt them more than it helps. When I’m coaching competitive powerlifters, I don’t want them to take time off the week before their meets. Instead, we’ll drop their intensity to about 50 percent for that last week, because I’ve found it more effective to keep them in the gym and keep them moving. For me, not moving just cripples me. If I don’t move, and I don’t get that peripheral blood flow to lubricate my joints, I’ll feel like a useless lump of shit.

We all get off on adrenaline. When you get to the gym, everything will eventually start to click. Your mind switches to autopilot, and you’ll be able to press the accelerator when you need to. If you decide to just stay in your cave and wallow at home, you’ll continue feeling like shit. This won’t solve anything.

You don’t see a hell of a lot of people shooting themselves in public. People shoot other people in public, but it’s rare that someone commits suicide in a crowd. They generally prefer to do that privately. When someone is depressed, the best thing you can do for them is to get them outside and moving, into the sunshine and fresh air. Getting yourself physically reacting to things will make a huge difference in your mindset when you feel like shit.

Talking Yourself Out of It

I don’t play golf. I lift fucking weights. For me and many others, the gym is our safe haven. It’s our social network and our release. If you train hard without playing a competitive sport, the gym is likely your main hobby. It’s something we all do to feel better, and for me, it goes as far as partially defining who I am. If I don’t go to the gym, that absence psychologically crushes me more than anything else you could take away from me, with the exception of my kids.

Wake up in the morning trusting the idea that there’s a chance that this is a false alarm, and that there’s always an opportunity to feel better. Say to yourself, “You know what? I need to do something. I’m still going to the gym, and I’m getting it in.”

How much you actually need, again, will be determined by how you feel once you get there and get moving. We could run all sorts of studies on this and come up with a thousand different reasons why things work this way, but for me—and for most people who love the gym—there’s something transforming about this routine and habit that kickstarts a certain mindset for us. It allows us to shake loose all our stress and do the work we need to do.

Bad Days: The Aftermath

Okay, so I’ve told you to get out and go to the gym, and that you’d feel better once you’re there, but what happens when your day really does suck? What do you do when you go into the gym with a specific goal in mind, and you don’t even come close to achieving it?

icecreamFirst, you need to get in the shower and have a good cry. Next, you should eat a pint of ice cream with a soup spoon. Finally, you have to realize that these are gym lifts, and nothing more. Gym lifts prepare you for something, whether we’re talking about competition or life in general. Your gym lifts don’t define you. If they did, people would be a hell of a lot stronger. If gym lifts actually meant something, they’re all we’d ever read about on Facebook and Twitter.

Something interesting just happened at the CrossFit Open that illustrates this point perfectly. A guy in the male division in southern California—an athlete nobody had ever heard of—reported a score that ranked him in the top ten in the world. When his lifts were seen on video, they didn’t even come close to the movement standards CrossFit scoring requires. They were nothing but shitty gym lifts, and he was lying. They didn’t mean anything.

For you, this means you need to gain some perspective on what you’re doing. Gym lifts don’t mean shit. You’re not in competition, and the numbers you put up in the gym will neither make nor break you. Instead of worrying about a meaningless gym lift, step back and look at the big picture. Why did you miss? Was it because of a technical error? Did you mismanage your training? Did you not get enough sleep? Nothing will ever be perfect, but failing in the gym gives you the opportunity to exercise your psychological “get a grip” muscles to figure out what you’ve been doing wrong.

It also helps to ask yourself whether you’re putting in enough work to justify thinking you can accomplish the goals you’re setting. If you’re consistently training around 70 percent, and someone asks you to take a max, are you mentally strong enough to hit the number you expect to hit? Are you physically strong enough? If all these things don’t add up, you’re playing guessing games in the gym and just hoping for the best—and that’s not good enough.

Make it a Good Day: Quick Tip

If your goal in the gym today is to set a new personal record (PR), but you’re just not feeling it, try something new. Be creative here. Instead of doing a standard back squat, throw some bands and chains on a giant cambered bar and max out doing box squats off a block of foam. If there’s a door that’s normally closed while you train, leave it open. If you typically listen to gangster rap, throw on some heavy metal. Stop at the florist, buy a dozen tulips, and put them next to the squat rack. Change the conditions.

If you’ve never done this exercise with all these variables before, guess what? You’ve just set a lifetime PR, and now you have something to feel great about for the rest of the day.

Who Are You, Really?

Sure, you’re a special little snowflake, but you’re not that fucking special. We all have bad days, but it’s how we act and react during and after those bad days that makes us better. Use your bad days to figure out why you’re having bad days in the first place.

JBDLOver my past two powerlifting meets, I’ve only missed three training lifts, total, within my 8-12 week training cycles. I can still remember each of these lifts, and they still bother me. This is especially true of the last deadlift I missed. I hate it. I just fucking hate it, but the good thing about this miss was that it brought me to a point where I needed to find out why it happened.

I’d convinced myself that day that 854 pounds was the weight I was going to take, and I thought I was going to get it. Ed Coan, the Michael Jordan of powerlifting, was watching me train, and he said I would make it. Missing this lift wasn’t necessarily about what I did that day, though. I made some training mistakes in the weeks leading up to that lift, there were a few mental errors in play, and I jumped up in weight a little too much, a little too fast.

This won’t happen again, and these mistakes are something I’m taking care of right now. I did everything in my power to deadlift 854, but I didn’t get it because “everything in my power” turned out not to be enough. What missing did for me, however, was give me more power. It taught me a valuable lesson, but only because I took the time to notice what it was trying to show me.

Next time? You can expect 854, plus a whole lot more.

The Remedy

The gym can be your mental and physical medicine. There’s definitely something to be said for getting out there, getting yourself moving, and making physical activity your comfort zone—instead of staying in bed under the covers when you feel like shit. Get in, play some loud music, start moving around, and suspend judgment on how you think you’re going to perform until you’re physically present.

Do this often enough, and it’ll get easier. You’ll wake up feeling like shit, but you’ll know this isn’t the final answer. You’ll be able to call upon a while library of experiences where you’ve had days that turned out to be far better than they’d promised to be when you rolled out of bad.

Shit day? Roll the dice and go for it anyway.