When Good Workouts Go Bad: 5 Damage Control Tactics

by tffitness on August 16, 2016

IMG_3669I often remark that effective training is a lot like the game of golf — a sport where you’re only as good as your worst shot, not your best. Similarly, when it comes to successful resistance training for strength and/or body composition objectives, you’re only as good as your worst workouts.

Look — we all have great workouts here and there, but we also have lots of sessions that end up being complete clusterf**ks (incidentally my friend and colleague Bret Contreras speculates that 1/3 of your workouts will be epic, 1/3 will be standard-issue, unremarkable events, and the final 1/3 will be abject disasters).

So if you accept that opening premise, we need to find ways to make our worst workouts just a little bit better. With that in mind, below are what I consider to be the 5 most common types of workout fails, followed by my proposed work-arounds. Enjoy!

One: You’ll Get To The Gym, But Not Enough Time To Complete Your Planned Session

This is one of the most commonly-experienced problems from my experience. Whether it’s lack of energy, motivation, and/or time, you just can’t complete what you had planned for the day.

In this case, there are two primary tactics that you can employ:

1) Focus on the most important exercises, and skip the rest. When I write programs for my clients, the most important exercise comes first, followed by the next important, and so on. Your workouts probably work the same way. So depending on how much time and energy you’ve got, start with exercise one, and then simply complete as many of that day’s planned exercises as you can.

2) This second recommendation can be used independently, or in concert with the first suggestion: Perform every planned exercise, but do fewer sets than planned. This is a truly effective form of damage control, and you can thank the 80/20 rule for that: If you’ve got 4 working sets planned for a particular exercise, but only complete 2 of them, you’ll probably receive 80-85% as much benefit as you would had you done all of the assigned sets. In other words, you receive the most benefit from set 1, less for set 2, and so on. I’d guess, just based on my experience, in a 4-set workout, the first hard work set provides 50% of the total benefit. The second set might bring you up to 80%. The third set brings you up to perhaps 95%, and the last set adds the final 5%. So try your best to do all planned sets, but if it’s not possible, it’s certainly worth your while to just bang out 1-2 hard sets.

Two: You’re Going To Need To Skip Tonight’s Session Altogether

Hey, life happens sometimes. Unexpected emergencies, car problems, work, family … it’s not a matter of if these unexpected workout-killers will crop up, but when.

Here’s the best way to handle this: let’s assume that you train on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. On Thursday morning, something comes up and it’s clear that you’re going to miss that night’s workout. Here’s what to do:

Strategically synthesize the “best” elements of both workouts into a single session that you’ll do on Friday. So in other words, you won’t simply do both workouts rolled into one, but rather, take the most important halves of both sessions. As you might imagine, there are two possible ways that you might do this:

1) Do all planned exercises for both workouts, but only do ½ of the scheduled work sets for each exercise. Or (and probably this option is even better)..

2) Perform roughly half the exercises from each workout, selecting the most important exercises from both.

Three: You’re Not Sure If That Nagging Injury Is Gonna Flare Up

This scenario is super-common, and also super frustrating. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started a squat or a bench press session with lots of enthusiasm, only to quickly realize that a chronic nagging injury is pretty much going to cancel the entire workout. Several years ago however, I came up with what I think is a pretty smart save: whenever I have a potentially problematic injury that might effect my planned exercise(s), I’ll program in a “Plan B” exercise for that workout.

As a simple example, if I’m not sure if my shoulder will allow me to bench heavy without pain, I might schedule close-grip benches or dumbbell benches (exercises that shouldn’t aggravate my shoulder) as a back-up, just in case my shoulder flips me the bird when I try to bench. By having a “Plan B” movement already in cue, I’ll be less likely to impulsively 86 my whole session out of frustration.

Next time you’re dealing with some type of injury, give this strategy a shot — it requires the ability to abandon “all or nothing” thinking, and that’s also a good habit to adopt. After all, a slightly modified workout is far preferable to a workout that never happens.

Four: You’re Sick — Train Anyway, Or Rest?

FullSizeRenderAn old coaching rule of thumb regarding illness and training is that “if you’re sick above the neck, go ahead and train, but if you’re sick below the neck, stay home and rest.”

I pretty much agree with that, with the understanding that you shouldn’t go to a commercial gym if you’ve got something contagious. But with that said, a case can be made for resting up any time you’re not feeling 100%. If you’re not sure which way to go, use your waking heart-rate as a way to assess your readiness to train — on any given day, if your waking pulse is significantly higher than normal, it’s a sign that your system is fighting something off, and you might be better off resting than training.

Finally, factor in your personality type when making the decision to train or not — if you’re a Type A, hard-charging alpha type, maybe err toward getting some rest. On the other hand, if you’re a bit more “relaxed” shall we say (hey, some of us are a little lazy, OK?), maybe suck it up and hit the gym.

Five: You Can’t Hit Your Frikkin’ Numbers

What else is new, right? We all do our best to forecast the numbers we’d like to hit for our upcoming workouts, but doing so is an inexact science at best.

Now “hitting your numbers” usually boils down to either one of two different things: you can hit your goal weights, but not for the sets and reps you’d like, or, you can’t hit your planned weights for the desired sets and reps.

Neither of these things are really “problems” in my mind honestly — they’re just things that inevitably happen from time to time. So let’s talk a bit about what you should do when they do happen. The best approach to take when you can’t hit your planned numbers depends mostly on what phase of training you’re in — in other words, what is the primary goal of your current training?

If you’re in a hypertrophy (muscle-building) cycle, volume should be prioritized over intensity when push comes to shove. So if you can’t manage the weights you’d like, don’t sacrifice the total number of reps you do just to put more weight on the bar. Instead, if you’ve planned (for example) 5 sets of 8 reps with 255 pounds, and it’s just not gonna happen that day, use a lighter weight for the same sets and reps, and perhaps add an additional set to compensate for the volume you’ll lose by using less weight on your work sets.

On the other hand, if you’re training for strength, bar weight must take precedence over volume. So if you’re scheduled to hit 275 for 5 sets of 3, and you can’t pull that off for whatever reason, if possible, I’d recommend staying with 275, even if it means doing sets of 1 or 2.

One last point to keep in mind when you’re not able to hit your planned weights: Assuming you’re working as hard as you can, you’ll still derive the intended training benefit of that workout. If this only happens here and there. It’s likely an acute recovery issue — a bad night’s sleep or not enough carbs that day. If it happens for 2-3 session in a row however, it’s probably time for a deload.

I hope this article provided some useful solutions to your most common training issues, but if there’s something I’ve missed, please post it in the comments below and I’ll give it my best shot.

This Week’s Training

Training Volume: 49,225 Pounds (Last Week: 76,200 Pounds)


• High Bar Squat 275×6

• Medium-Grip Bench Press: 215×5

• Deadlift: 390×5

Well speaking of bad workouts, I had a few of them this week — Monday through Wednesday went well, but them Thursday I had some gastro-intestinal issues (ate something bad maybe?) that made deadlifting, shall we say … “inadvisable.” Then on Friday, my left shoulder all but prevented flat dumbbell benches, but I had a “Plan B” ready to go (barbell bench press) and that went just fine.

Next week I start a 5-week strength block, which will be followed by a 4-week peaking cycle, and then competing on October 16th.

That’s all for this week — thanks for stopping by!

Monday, August 8, 2016

Bodyweight: 198 Pounds

Volume: 24,920 Pounds

Goblet Squat

Set 1: 10 lb × 10

High Bar Squat

Set 1: 45 lb × 10

Set 2: 95 lb × 8

Set 3: 135 lb × 6

Set 4: 185 lb × 6

Set 5: 225 lb × 1

Set 6: 275 lb × 6

Set 7: 225 lb × 8

Set 8: 225 lb × 8


Set 1: 135 lb × 5

Set 2: 225 lb × 5

Set 3: 315 lb × 3

Set 4: 350 lb × 3

Set 5: 370 lb × 3

Set 6: 390 lb × 5 (Video Below)

Standing Calf Raise

Set 1: 220 lb × 8

Set 2: 220 lb × 8

Set 3: 220 lb × 8

Set 4: 220 lb × 8

Seated Leg Curl

Set 1: 145 lb × 8

Set 2: 145 lb × 8

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Bodyweight: 198.4 Pounds

Volume: 18,690 Pounds

Med-Grip Bench

Set 1: 45 lb × 10

Set 2: 95 lb × 8

Set 3: 135 lb × 6

Set 4: 165 lb × 6

Set 5: 185 lb × 4

Set 6: 205 lb × 1

Set 7: 215 lb × 5

Set 8: 225 lb × 3

Set 9: 205 lb × 5

Seated Row

Set 1: 150 lb × 8

Set 2: 165 lb × 8

Set 3: 180 lb × 8

Set 4: 180 lb × 8

EZ Bar Curl

Set 1: 45 lb × 8

Set 2: 65 lb × 8

Set 3: 75 lb × 8

Set 4: 75 lb × 8

Tricep Pushdowns

Set 1: 140 lb × 8

Set 2: 140 lb × 8

Set 3: 140 lb × 8

Set 4: 140 lb × 8

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Bodyweight: 197 Pounds


Set 1: 5.6 mi | 20 min

Notes: 75RPM

HR: 130

Level: 10

Friday, August 12, 2016

Bodyweight: 198.6 Pounds

Volume: 5615 Pounds

Bench Press (Dumbbell)

Set 1: 100 lb × 6

Med-Grip Bench

Set 1: 45 lb × 6

Set 2: 95 lb × 6

Set 3: 135 lb × 6

Set 4: 165 lb × 4

Set 5: 185 lb × 2

Set 6: 205 lb × 1

Set 7: 225 lb × 1

Set 8: 240 lb × 1

Set 9: 225 lb × 1

Chin Up

Set 1: 1 rep

Set 2: 2 reps

Set 3: 3 reps

Set 4: 4 reps

Set 5: 5 reps

Bicep Curl (Dumbbell)

Set 1: 50 lb × 8

Set 2: 60 lb × 8

Set 3: 70 lb × 8

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Bodyweight: 196.8 Pounds


Set 1: 5.6 mi | 20 min

Workout Notes: Level 10

Max pulse 126

Leave a Comment

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Luke H


I’ve noted that your bodyweight has not moved much at all in the past couple years that I’ve been reading your posts. Do you change your diet for different workout cycles? For instance, do you increase your calories when you are in a hypertrophy phase?



Hey Luke! So I eat more calories during hypertrophy cycles, not because I think I’ll gain muscle (probably not in the cards for me at this stage) but because my volume is higher, and by extension, so are my energy requirements.


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