By Jason Morrison
“I have not hit a PR in forever.”
I have heard this countless times. I have said this countless times. While a PR in a specific lift should never be the sole measurement of success and forward progress, they sure are nice when they happen and give us fuel to keep going.
What happens when you feel like you have been stuck in a rut for what seems like forever and that there is really no hope of ever hitting a PR ever again?
Trust me when I say that I have been in this exact situation. When I was preparing for the last weightlifting meet I competed in, I had very specific numbers that I was working toward. Every training session was another step toward reaching those goals. I was more prepared for that meet than I have been in any other competition. However, one aspect I was not ready for was what happens after the competition. I had no goals beyond that meet and when I got back into the gym to train, it was extremely difficult for me mentally since I knew what it took to get to the numbers I did.
Maybe that is you. Or perhaps you have just been in the gym for a while now and would love more than anything to see some forward progress in a lift. When I took a step back to try and figure out what to do post-meet, here are some areas that I tried to focus on as well as some tips on how to take a different approach and possibly hit that magical PR.
- Proper goal setting: To begin, it is always helpful to have a number to chase. It is also helpful to make that something reasonable. Sure, squatting 500lbs would be amazing. But if you weigh 100lbs and have never squatted anything over 200lbs, then perhaps you should take a look at your goals. Consider the type of movement you are wanting to focus on. Technically complex lifts such as the snatch and clean & jerk will see much smaller increases as your training age goes up. You should factor in how long you have been training. More experienced and efficient lifters might not expect big PRs.
- Complexes: When I wanted to really work on the Olympic lifts, I knew that maxing them out on a regular basis would not get me where I wanted to go. I had also heard plenty of times from a variety of sources online, “If you want to lift big, you got to lift big.” While I think there is some truth in your body understanding what heavy loading feels like and how you respond to it, I know from experience that your body cannot handle training maximally on a continuous basis. One way for me to simulate that was to work with complexes. For example, I was tired of missing the jerk after a heavy clean. I worked complexes that would tax my pull and legs so that when it came to the jerk, it required extra focus and attention to be efficient. It felt like a maximal weight without being a max.
- Try different percentages: If you are someone who can recite their training percentages on command and has always worked the same percentages in class, then change it up! If your 75% is 100lbs and you are always lifting 100lbs, then change it. Try 78%. Mixing it up will give you different stimulus and help push you toward your goal by being more comfortable working with heavier weights in training. Additionally, trying different percentages when working up a max can help a great deal. You might be making too many attempts and tiring out.
- Overcoming a weight that is mental: I have talked to quite a few athletes who have “that weight” in their head. Any time the bar is loaded with “that weight” it becomes more mental than physical and starts to psych them out. Let’s say that weight is a 225lb clean and jerk and just seeing the two 45lb plates on the bar starts letting the doubt creep into your head. The best approach then is to never put 225lbs on the bar. Lift just under and just over it. Sometimes just trying a different plate combination can be enough to get beyond that mental barrier. Lifting a little under 225lbs, or over, enough times can build the confidence in your strength and technique. Once that confidence is there, go back and load the bar with 225lbs just to prove to yourself that it is no longer in your head.
- Video your lifts: There are a lot of athletes who do not like to record themselves. However, having a video is extremely helpful in analyzing where the lift broke down. There have been numerous times, when reviewing a video, that I did not realize just how high I pulled the bar. Even though it was a miss, seeing how high the bar got gave me enough drive to make another attempt. Watching the video frame by frame can give you valuable insight into where the inefficiencies are and what to address. Any coach at the gym would be more than happy to break down the video with you.
- Stop trying for a max and work on where the lift is breaking down: Always working up to a 1RM and failing can build the wrong muscle memory. It can also train you, without you realizing it, that when you get close to a specific weight that a fail is right around the corner. So, stop doing it. Find out where your lift is breaking down and work on that specific area. Just because Wodify says “15 minutes to establish a 1RM”, that does not mean maxing out is written in stone somewhere. What that really means is that you have 15 minutes to attack that lift in a manner that best fits your goals and abilities.
- Don’t neglect the accessory work: A few years ago, I was working on a heavy clean and took a shot at a new PR. I got under the bar but dumped it forward. I remember Coach Madison telling me that essentially my back and core were weak. That really ticked me off. I do not know anyone that likes hearing they are weak in a certain area. It made me even more mad because she was right. All I did was work on heavy reps and skipped the accessory work. It should not have surprised me that my core and back were too weak to support a heavy weight given that I never did anything to strengthen those areas.
- Train with someone new: You might be locked into a specific class time because of your schedule but changing up who you train with can go a long way. They might see something you have missed or be able to say something new to get you motivated. They might have a different approach you have not considered.
- Drop weight, then go back up: This has worked for me quite often and there are times when it seems so obvious that I do not even consider it. If you are attempting a lift at 100lbs and miss it, you should have a good idea if it was due to strength or just being slightly out of position. If it is something you can change, drop the weight a bit, take another attempt, and then go back up. Getting the confidence back after making a heavy attempt can be enough to push you a little further.
- Take a break: This should be obvious, but there is no rule at the gym that says you have to PR your lift by a certain time or your membership is canceled. If that were the case, I would have been gone a long time ago! Avoiding burnout is critical and taking a break from maxing out is perfectly acceptable. This should go hand-in-hand with goal setting as well. Look at the numbers you want to hit and give yourself several months to work on targeted areas. When you feel you have improved there, evaluate where you are, as well as your goals, and then think about when you want to try taking a shot at a new PR.
The bottom line is if you feel that you are stuck in a rut, work yourself out by trying a different approach. Above all else, do not let these barriers creep into your head and stop you from enjoying what you are doing.