Name: Todd Bumgardner, MS, CSCS
Occupation: Co-founder of Beyond Strength Performance. Strength and conditioning coach and manual therapist at Ranfone Training Systems.
Every training career goes through highs, lows, and middling lulls. Not only is this normal, I believe it's a necessary process in order create lasting habits. If you're on a downswing, though, it can feel like you'll be stuck there forever.
Trust me: You won't. There are multiple reasons why your training has derailed, but the truth is that there's not one answer. What you were doing before simply wasn't working; what you do next is the real test.
Each of these strategies has helped me to get back on track in times like these. Approach them with an open mind, and a few minutes from now, you'll own the tools to reinvigorate your physical life.
Take A Week Off
Let's start with the advice no avid lifter wants to hear: Downtime is the first step to overcoming dead-end training. A stale mind is often the result of an overstimulated body. The first sign of overtraining in motivated iron athletes is a lack of drive to train. Rest is necessary before you refocus and push forward again, and one rest day isn't going to cut it.
Training exists on a continuum which begins from stress and progresses to recovery. Let this idea settle in, and something profound becomes apparent: rest and recovery are training, as much and maybe more than anything you do in the gym. Hold that perspective, and it's easy to accept how a week of rest fits into your program. You're still teaching your body to adapt to all the stress you've inflicted on it up to this point, and will continue to in the future.
If training seems like a chore, get out of the gym. Accelerate your adaptation with low-level aerobic activities like long walks and extended mobility routines. Bike rides, hikes, and shooting hoops are all great for physical rejuvenation and clearing the mind. Throw yourself into activities that you enjoy—and perhaps haven't done in a while—at a different intensity than you're used to.
Examine Your Goals
If you don't have a defined goal, your program will lack direction. Without direction, staleness is inevitable.
But even if you have a goal, ask yourself this: What does it mean to you? Why are you chasing it? If you don't have good answers for those questions, you've still got some thinking to do. Some folks aren't great goal-setters—that's fine. A simple question I recommend you ask yourself to set goals is: "What do I suck at?" It shouldn't be too hard to find something!
Once you determine your weaknesses, embrace the project of changing them and set a goal to put your weaknesses on par with your strengths. When you achieve that goal, reevaluate by asking the tough questions again. Set a new goal, and attack it.
Issue Yourself Challenges
I often remind the children I coach that life isn't supposed to be easy or comfortable. The sooner you can accept that, the quicker you'll make progress.
Training problems happen when we familiarize ourselves with a program and become complacent. Challenges introduce struggle, and struggle introduces us to ourselves. Staleness can't thrive in a challenge-laden environment.
The process is simple: Take on one challenge per week that scares you. You've no doubt heard the saying "do one thing every day that scares you," but one each week is more sustainable and may allow you to think bigger. Systematically make yourself uncomfortable.
Each day is still an opportunity for growth and change. There are always ways to improve your form, mindset, and execution. Pick one of these per day and hammer it until you undeniably improve. Combine daily small challenges with larger weekly conquests, and your training will be filled with purpose.
Need a challenge to get started? Build up to doing 100 kettlebell swings with the heaviest weight you can swing with good form in five minutes. This is harder than it sounds, and it'll test your ideas of what "strength" and "endurance" mean.
Master New Skills
We live in a fascinating training era with a wealth of ideas, implements, and practices. Bodyweight strength work is undergoing a fascinating revival. Kettlebells and the Russian philosophies that spawned them litter gyms from Indonesia to Indiana. Olympic lifting has surged in popularity, and powerlifting and bodybuilding remain steadfast. You're not starved for training options and skills waiting to be mastered.
There's nothing wrong with being a renaissance man or woman, but weighing too many options will leave you sitting on your ass rather than taking action. Find a novel interest and explore it with intense passion!
If the old way of doing things is feeling old, devote yourself fully to a style of training with a different purpose. If powerlifting is wearing out its welcome, attack the clean and snatch. If you're sick of worrying about aesthetics, switch it up and master all that kettlebells have to offer. What's the risk? You can always go back!
Competition nurtures focus. There's nothing like pitting yourself against your peers to reinvigorate your training intensity.
The type of competition is irrelevant. Powerlifting, strongman, 5ks, and bodybuilding shows all accomplish the same foundational goal. It's the preparation that matters. Make the commitment, and know that every training session brings you one step closer to standing toe to toe with other athletes who want to beat you.
There's a special type of freedom and mental acuity that accompany a pre-competition program, no matter how you end up placing on game day. You work hard and focus just as hard, confident that everything you're doing is leading to something greater.
There's no definitive measure to determine when you're ready to compete, but that's part of the fun. First, find a competition 3-6 months away. Then, hire a coach or find the simplest training program you can follow. Then get after it! All of a sudden, the physiological changes that accompany your training—more strength, better movement, better physique—are just an added bonus.
For many of us, training is a big part of our lives. It's the heart of our physical development and a staple of our personal growth. But the world outside is much larger than iron, sets, and reps.
There are people who will never use their legs again. Others are terminally ill. Some people don't have the financial means to train and work three jobs to feed their children. Take a global view, and you'll see that merely being able to enrich your days with physical training is a rare privilege.
Spend this precious time wisely. Use it to grow and to enhance your life, and don't waste your energy making mountains out of molehills. There's no definitive approach, just like there's no definitive physique. Invest in yourself, challenge yourself, and restore your lifting life force!