I get it. It's January. If your last few weeks of December were anything like mine - filled with food and drink and very little exercise - you want to hit the gym hard. After all, there's no time like the present to #getyourchanningback.
But how hard we should push ourselves in the gym? Is it possible to do too much? Should we hit a new personal record each visit? What's a realistic expectation to avoid burning out before February?
It's complicated. But first, an anecdote.
Back when I was pitching, I wanted to throw a no-hitter every time I took the mound. Expect perfection and be satisfied with greatness, right? If nothing else, it sounds inspiring and very John Wooden-esque.
In hindsight, that was quite the unrealistic expectation! It left me overconfident when I pitched well, yet overly frustrated - and yelling at umpires - when I didn't. These wild swings in emotions took an unnecessary toll on my psyche and my mood hinged how I had pitched the previous week. It was silly since my starts over a season always took a very familiar twist. It was so familiar that I came up with percentages to explain how I'd perform.
And the funny part? They were spot on:
-20% of the time I'd be absolutely horrible. Everything I threw got hit for a double and I'd do my best to chuck and duck. No other game summarizes this 20% better than my second to last college start, when we were out of relief pitchers and I ended up being the "sacrificial lamb" - coach's words, not mine.
-20% of the time the stars would align and I'd actually get guys out. They would be my best games of the season and I'd fall asleep those nights wondering why a Division III college pitcher - who threw slower than they drive on the Mass Pike - hadn't yet received a call from the Yankees.
-The other 60% of the time I'd be smack in the middle. Not great, but not horrible either. This 60% determined what type of season I had.
I've thought about these percentages over the years and got the wild idea to compare them to my own training logs. I quickly realized that these percentages neatly summarized my experiences in the gym. Even better? They've also been applicable to the people I work with.
So with that said, expect the following when you get to the gym:
-20% of the time you're going to be an absolute mess. Weights will feel heavy and you may have dragged yourself to the gym out of guilt - yes, these days happen to your local fitness professionals too. When it's a bad 20% day something is better than nothing and don't get (too) frustrated at how you feel. You're not losing progress, it's just not your day. Chalk it up as part of the bad 20%.
-20% of the time you're going to absolutely kill it. Breaking multiple personal records in a day is perfectly normal and exercises will feel easy. These are the days that keep you coming back and remember to push hard. After all, they only come around one-fifth of the time. ;)
-The other 60% of the time is what Dan John calls "punch the clock" workouts. It's exactly what it sounds like: you show up, do your work, punch the clock, and go home. There's nothing sexy - like breaking a personal deadlift record - and for those that don't enjoy the process these workouts will seem boring. But these workouts are the bulk of your training and building a bigger base allows you to reach a higher peak when the "good 20%" comes back around.
How can you tell what type of day it's going to be? You can't be surprised by my suggestion of using grip strength as a objective measure. Originally used with Olympic weightlifters in the Eastern Bloc, grip strength is a great indicator of recovery and neural drive. On days that you have great grip strength be assured that it's a "good 20%" day. The days when it's terrible? You guessed it - a "bad 20%" day.
Regardless of the day, remember that your training sessions should give you more than they take out of you. Don't think of your trips to the gym as "workouts." Instead, think of them as "practice." Other expectations quickly become unsustainable.