| August 4, 2021

Salvaging a Poor Workout

Sometimes you prepare yourself with all the best intentions to give it your all in a workout. But then all of a sudden, your energy feels low, you’re breathing harder than usual, and generally just “out of it” before you even really begin.

By Trevor Mah

Read time: 6 min.

Sometimes you prepare yourself with all the best intentions to give it your all in a workout. But then all of a sudden, your energy feels low, you’re breathing harder than usual, and generally just “out of it” before you even really begin. We’ve all likely been in a situation where you have to rely on willpower to motor your way through and it becomes a mental challenge just as much as it is physical.

If you are certain that it’s just simply a general sluggishness, then here are some ways to get through your workout instead of just hopefully going through the motions.

Stop & Just Go Home

First off, if you really feel bad, then there’s a chance you may be getting sick. Working out hard might make things worse as your body begins to shift its focus on trying to prepare itself for an oncoming illness. Take a moment to assess your situation. Have you been getting enough rest to begin with? Are you overworking every session and stressing your nervous system? Dealing with a lot of stress?

Being in the fitness industry, it’s common for people to have this mindset where you have to power through adversity in order to reach some delusion of grandeur and praise. But sensibly speaking, this does not help out in the long run if you end up weaker as a result. Remember that training should make you more resilient, not beat you up. If you find yourself overly exhausted, the damage to your nervous system will be something that will take much longer to fix.

The best way to deal with these times of exhaustion and/or overtraining? Assess parts of your lifestyle that you can immediately address (i.e. get more rest, sleep, better nutrition) and let your body naturally get back into the swing of things. This leads me to...

Perform A Recovery Based Workout Instead

If you are overtrained (technically, being actually overtrained is an extreme and most people are more often overreaching instead), then recovery is crucial to ensure you can get the most from your work. Remember that results and your gains come during your recovery period and the quality of your rest has a significant impact. If you don’t want to give up on your habit of being active everyday or don’t enjoy “complete” rest days, then recovery based workouts can help address potential gaps in your training while allowing you to feel better at the same time.


Examples include performing your workout with intentionally reduced load or volume, a thorough mobility routine to address deficiencies in your movements (or just what feels good), meditation, yoga, or even light cardio. Balance is key as the more often you have hard training sessions, the more recovery you will need to truly benefit from them.

Concentric Only Workout

Soreness is a common reason why people have trouble getting through a workout. You may feel like you shouldn’t skip a day because of it, but you can’t necessarily perform some exercises to the best of your ability. In fact, eccentric movements (the typical lowering phase of a lift where the muscle lengthens) are usually the main reason behind soreness (as long as you are properly lifting) as those movements do more damage to the muscle. Conversely, concentric movements (the contraction part of the lift where the muscle shortens) can help with soreness as it does not damage the muscle as much.

The focus on concentric exclusive workouts can indirectly modify and reduce your volume naturally as you won’t be able to perform your usual weights. It can be a bit high maintenance to completely exclude the eccentric motions, but going lighter can help with really feeling the contraction and even improve your form on these “off” days. Another alternative is to perform sled pushes (which are 100% concentric), incline/hill sprints, rowing machine work, or other moderate cardio work.

Go All Out, But Cut It Short

On the other hand, salvaging a workout can mean pushing through it despite what your inner voice wants you to do by quitting (a little more on this at the end). But physically, you have a sense that time is going to move very slowly and you won’t last the full hour you normally would. One thing to ask yourself is “what makes sense for the amount of time remaining in my workout?” This is where doing one (or two) quick max effort exercises can help.

Whether this means performing a Tabata round for 4 minutes, an all out sprint for as long as possible, or even a short circuit round, going all out and truly giving your best effort can make the most out of the energy you have left. If your program involves a lot of lifting with multi-joint exercises, putting all your effort into one of them can also give you a little bit of progress. Even a little bit is better than nothing at all in some cases. Who knows? Maybe this can even wake you up and give you the jumpstart you need to get the rest of your workout going after all.

Go Do Something (Else) Fun

Going to the gym is a mental stress relief for many; however, it can indirectly be a place where stress can develop. For example, it is common where you can end up placing too much pressure on yourself to perform. Of course, it’s all with good intentions, but you may not be allowing yourself the flexibility to ease up when things go sideways. You have to go to the gym. You have to do this lift. You have to put in 100% of your effort.

Allowing yourself the leeway to do something else while still adhering to positive active behavior can help fill your gaps when you just don’t want to do something. A simple goal can boil down to just doing something active every day. This can mean playing some pickup sports with friends, going for a walk, or even cleaning your home.

Mentally, knowing when you need to take a break is just as important. Sometimes it is better for your mentality to relax, watch TV, read a book, or play video games and get your mind off of the pressure from the gym. Unless you have very specific time sensitive goals, you probably do not need to rush things.

Just Deal With It

If you are certain that there is nothing wrong physically, then pushing through your workout from time to time can help you develop resilience over time. You only have a certain amount of willpower every day, and it gets more difficult to draw from it the more often you do. But some days it is just worth it to force yourself, use that stress as a motivator, and go through everything as planned one rep at a time. Many people attribute their perseverance in life from their determination and focus from their training. So this can definitely be a way to simply do the work and live to train another day.

Lastly, tracking your bad workouts is just as important and recording your good ones. Having this information at hand may help you down the road in identifying factors that have led you to this “bad” workout in the first place. Perhaps your prior training days were too intensive, your sleep patterns were erratic, or your diet wasn’t quite up to par. Being mindful of your habits and knowing where adjustments can be made can help you avoid these moments from creeping up on you.

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