Help! I haven’t PR’d in years! What should I do?

As coaches, whether it’s in CrossFit, Powerlifting, or Olympic Weightlifting, nothing makes us happier than hearing athletes ring the PR bell and record their new personal bests on the board. Over the last few months, thanks to some brilliant programming and the hard work put in by all our athletes, I’ve heard that bell ring more times than I can count, and I’ve seen that board overflow with new PRs to the point where we have started to run out of space. For that, we couldn’t be more proud! However, there may be some among you who find yourselves in the totally opposite situation…
You’ve put in the work. You come to the gym day-in and day-out. You follow the program, whether Rx or scaled, and you watch from the side as your friends add pounds to their lifts and more reps to their movements while you’re stuck at some really pesky numbers that you just can’t seem to break no matter what. Like damn, even that dude that just finished Foundations last week is starting to catch up!
This doesn’t mean you’re working any less hard than anyone else. In all likelihood, you’re probably working even harder than most. And for those of you who have been riding the PR train, you will inevitably find yourselves in this position too, I guarantee it. Take it from me, someone who understands this frustration only too well. My last real PR in the Olympic lifts was in the snatch on July 1, 2016. My last back squat PR was October 7, 2016. Why do I know these dates? Because they marked the last time my training saw absolute improvement, and since those days, my numbers have not even come close. So, what does this mean? How can you break out of this rut? Luckily, I have compiled a list of do’s and don’ts to help you overcome this training barrier.
DO:

1. Be mindful of your recovery

In my mind, this is the greatest barrier to progress in your numbers and one of the main reasons people fail to see the expected results.

We all spend countless hours at the gym, hammering and beating our bodies down, but what are we doing for the remainder of the 20 some hours outside of it? Are you properly nourishing your body or smashing McDonald’s (I am guilty for this)? Are you getting enough sleep? Are you doing the suggested stretching and mobility like we harp on at the gym over and over again ad nauseam?

But, recovery is not just about stretching enough, it is also about controlling training volume and intensity. To this end, sometimes I see athletes do multiple workouts a day where they go all out at each individual training session. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong about doing this (after all, hybrid programming can be executed effectively, but I am saving this topic for another blog post), just be aware that you may be over-taxing the different energy systems in your body in an inefficient way, such that your central nervous system is having a difficult time achieving neuro-muscular adaptation. In a nutshell, even God rested on the seventh day. So, you deserve it too.

2. Ask yourself, am I taking good care of myself in other aspects of my life?

This is related to the above point. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we are not professional athletes. Most of us have another career and we have to also juggle relationships and hobbies. Stress from another part of your life will inevitably impact athletic and physical performance. After all, our bodies recognize stress as stress, and it will inundate your body with cortisol in response to any stress stimuli. So if another area of your life is very stressful, it may have a huge impact on your athletic results. Maybe you’ve just switch jobs, moved to a new neighborhood, are grieving the loss of a loved one, or are struggling in school. In any case, you must exercise self-care in that aspect of your life:

  • Take great care of yourself, and do your best to ensure you are eating and sleeping well (even though I know full well those are the first things to go when life hits us hard, which makes this doubly important to maintain).
  • Be patient with yourself at the gym, don’t be harsh and judge yourself. If you are stressed out in other aspects of your life, the gym should be somewhere you can go to let that go, rather than another point of struggle and frustration in your life. Otherwise, your performance may suffer and spiral downwards from there.

3. Experiment with your programming in consultation with a coach

Sometimes, training plateaus occur because of something called General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). This is something experienced powerlifters and weightlifters will be intimately familiar with. This is when your body adapts to the training stimuli and progressive overload begins to slow down and even flat out come to a half. To overcome GAS, coaches will practice periodization in the programming. This is when the coach adjusts the relative volume and intensity, exercises, as well as frequency in order to force the body to adapt to a different set of training stimuli so that progressive overload can continue. This occurs in cyclic patterns, and that’s why you hear programs being referred to commonly as training cycles.

Now, for most of our CrossFit athletes, periodization is already built into your programming, particularly if you recall the email you received earlier in the summer regarding the strength focus of your skill sessions. This – in no small way – contributes to the waves of PRs we’ve seen at the gym lately. For the powerlifters and weightlifters, periodization will have to occur on an individual basis depending on an athletes current goals and needs. For instance, I have an athlete right now that has broken his plateau by switching to working in hypertrophy ranges because his body is now having to adapt to a new training stimuli. Bottom line is, if you would like to experiment with this, ensure you talk to a coach first to make sure that this is something that is appropriate for you.

4. More ac(6s)ory work

This one is seemingly obvious, but for some reason it always falls off the rails. Everyone’s got their favorite exercise, which they’re probably the best at. But my guess is that it’s usually always a compound exercise or major lift, rather than an isolation or unilateral movement. In fact, it’s fairly common that when a workout is long (and goes longer than expected), accessory work is the first to go. But it’s in the tedium where we get stronger as a whole. After all, we are only as strong as our weakest part.

For years I neglected accessory work, thinking that if I wanted to get better at the snatch and clean and jerk, I’ll just snatch and clean and jerk more. Then, I hyperextended my left elbow in competition, and later had an even worse hyperextension on my right, which almost resulted in a dislocation. What happened? The muscles in my arms were too weak to provide the additional structural support they needed in certain positions. After seeing our great new athletic therapist, Melissa, I also recently learned that I don’t know how to engage my core. She’s given me some accessory work that I will freely admit to be some of the most difficult exercises I have ever performed in my life – even though all I’m using is a rubber band.

Accessory work will keep you injury free longer, and help you lift better. All it takes is for one small thing to fall out of place for the entire unit to be ruined. Refer to the toilet seat covers in our bathroom for further evidence.

5. Redefine your metric for what progress consists of

Look, I get it. Numbers are numbers. The weight on the bar is absolute; the number of pull ups or double unders is absolute. Those are indisputably metrics for progress. But progress can occur in many different forms. For my weightlifters, I care much more about consistency as a metric for progress than what numbers they’re hitting. Why? Because a great athlete is built over tens of thousands of repetitions. Your one rep max is ONE repetition out of tens of thousands. If there is no consistency at the ranges where you’re doing most of the work, it would be patently absurd to believe that you’ve hit a PR at high ranges.

So what does progress in this area look like? Well, how does your lift look and feel at the 80-85% intensity levels? Ask my athlete Whitney, and she’ll tell you that she can now hit her 85% snatch for sets of 4 no problem. When I see that, I am ecstatic. Because every rep looks exactly the same. And that to me is her progressing by leaps and bounds. What are some other metrics for progress? Look towards your technique. Maybe you’re able to drop down under that bar faster in a snatch, maybe your torso isn’t leaning forward anymore. Maybe you can do that muscle up with less kip than before, saving yourself more energy to pump out more reps. Rep QUALITY, technical proficiency, and consistency is one of the best metrics for relative progress that we often neglect because we are so fixated on hard numbers.

DON’T:

1. Blame the coach/programming/gym

​Unfortunately, I have encountered so many of these athletes in my time coaching. Fortunately, none of those people are my athletes any longer. There is no greater barrier to athletic performance than attitude and mentality. If one possesses a mentality where ownership for your own performance is abjured, then the likelihood of your performance increase will actually go down. Remember, we are here to help you meet your objectives, we have just as much of an interest in seeing your progress as you do. To put it another way, if everyone around you seems to be PR’ing and you are not, ask yourself, could it be the coaches, program, or gym’s fault? Could it be possible that everyone else is wrong and you are right?

2. Be so hard on yourself and give up

​Remember, once again, it’s all about attitude. Your body will do everything it can to adapt to stress, and you are battling hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary biology. If you are truly in that GAS stage, you may very well need to put in TEN times the amount of work just to see a ten percent increase in performance. To put that into perspectives, if you are a long-distance runner, this means you literally need to put in ten times the amount of mileage just to shave 10% off your time. This is a process that will take time, and once again, everyone here at 6S is here to help you along the way. Show up, put in the work, talk to us, and together we will figure something out.

Human beings are complicated; life is complicated. Between 2014 and 2016, my weightlifting total increased by 40 kilos (88 pounds); between 2016 and 2018, it went down by an amount that still depresses me to recount. What happened? Between several debilitating injuries from jumping out of planes, going on deployment, moving to a new province, quitting the military, trying to stay afloat in this PhD, life happened. But now my numbers are slowly starting to recover.

There are just too many factors at play that we can’t account for all the time. But what we can do is mitigate as much of the chaos as we can with what we have. At CrossFit 6S, the depth of knowledge that exists between the coaches and therapists is unmatched. Between all of us and the team, we will help you earn your 6S!

Now go forth and dominate, just don’t forget to rest.

Coach Cheng

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