The First Rep

Your body knows what it needs far better than your brain does. I suggest you start paying attention to the subtle cues it leaves as you move from session to session.

My fellow lover of the iron; the lifters you see in the gym day in, and day out; the ones not just there in January, but at 6 PM in the middle of July — they’re a unique breed, few and far between, mixed amongst your typical gym-goers.

They live to play in the iron jungle, clanging and banging to their hearts content. Said diehard lifters are born of a special ilk. They want to push, push, push, then push some more. When they’re finished pushing? You guessed it. Right back to pushing onward.

It’s an admirable, yet foolhardy trait that over the years, leaves precious gains on the table. Don’t get me wrong; this is a tremendous mentality to possess, and is quite often an indicator for success down the road when it comes to crushing the bodybuilding game and building a powerful, healthy physique. Possessing such an ironclad mindset speaks to powerful intrinsic motivation, an unrelenting will and a nigh-unbreakable mind that would seem to be forged in the hellish heat and magma of Mordor.

RECENT: Mixing Macros — How to Use Macronutrient Combinations to Improve Your Physique

But even the strongest of minds cannot pick up the slack when your body inevitably cracks, splinters and breaks.

The Warning Signs

Thankfully, if you know where to look and what to pay attention for, there are plentiful warning signs, clues and tells that your body is in need of rest and focus on restoration.

  • You feel a new twinge in your elbow while performing EZ bar extensions or any movement involving your elbow flexors/extensors. This is a sure sign your joints are becoming inflamed, angered and overworked.
  • A few days per week you notice you don’t have your usual appetite upon waking. This is often a result of Ghrelin (the hunger hormone that supposedly informs you when you’re hungry or full) being suppressed by high, circulating levels of cortisol.
  • “I could press 80-pound dumbbells for 12 reps last week. Why was seven reps a struggle today?” This happens ALL the time. Your mitochondria aren’t producing enough ATP to sustain your usual loads.
  • "It’s 3PM and I feel a bit sleepy...MORE COFFEE." Back to cortisol; your circadian rhythm, and the natural rise and fall of cortisol throughout the day, has become skewed. Coffee, in this sense, will not help. If anything, it may dig you into a deeper hole.
  • You can’t seem to contract your muscles quite like you could a few weeks ago. You’re becoming depleted of key nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. Salt, potassium, hydration — you need these in your life as soon as possible.

first rep

The Ill Effects

Once you’ve hit this stage, it’s too late for preventative measure. Now we’re deep in the sticks, dealing with playing damage control and aggressively aiding restoration.

  • Your once ravenous appetite has disappeared, seemingly overnight. This is often one of the first and easiest signs to spot.
  • Your once happy joints and connective tissue begins to cry out in a stage of inflamed rage, making the simplest of tasks excruciating. You KNOW you’ve gone too far when warmup sets of rope pressdowns cause pangs in your elbows.
  • Your morning alarm, which usually has you leaping out of bed, becomes a poor joke. After hitting the snooze button six times, you finally manage to roll out of bed.
  • Your morning wood has gradually shifted into a morning noodle. For men, this is a huge red flag that something is amiss. Besides, limp noodles aren’t of much benefit to anyone these days.
  • Your 10RM back squat has regressed to a 3RM. Honestly, if NOTHING else stands out at you, this should be a slap in the face. Acute, sudden drops in strength like this are a sure sign that you’re in a state of overreaching.
  • That old injury you thought you’d left behind years ago? It’s making it’s presence known. When long-past injuries begin to show signs of returning, or familiar symptoms arise, you need to aggressively work towards healing the joint or muscle in question.
  • Your once skin-splitting pumps are barely noticeable. This plays into the damaging eco-system of not enjoying your workouts, thus not working as hard, then not seeing results…and the cycle continues. The best course of action here may be to a take a few days away from the gym.
  • Suddenly, your morning coffee routine calls for a Masters degree in biomechanics to make your first of five cups for the day.

So long as you’re able to be aware of the hole you’ve placed yourself in, you CAN dig yourself out of it.

bench press JL

The Solutions

Fortunately, as there are warning signs and pitfalls, we also have solutions. Apply these solutions over seven to 14 days, depending on how deep in the shit you are, and I can all but guarantee that you’ll come out of your slump recharged, restored, and ready to push onward once more.


  • Take your current training volume and cut it by 40-50%.
  • Cut out intensification methods. That means no drop sets, no sets to failure, no partials, no iso-holds, and certainly no forced or assisted reps.
  • Maintain minimal strength work. If you’re hellbent on strength work, three sets of 3-5 with 70% of 1RM is a safe zone to train in.
  • Do what you can to establish max blood flow. This will help your joints, your recovery via nutrient rich blood flow, and your ego.


Within the context of your nutrition, you want to do what you can to aid recovery, improve blood flow, and provide your body with some extra nutrients in which to funnel towards recovery.

  • I’d achieve this by adding 75-150g of carbs to your diet for the duration of your backing off phase.
  • Cut back protein ever so slightly. With the extra calories from added carbs and fats, coupled with less volume and intensity, you can afford to eat a little less steak for a week or two.
  • For the sake of your joint integrity, cardiovascular health, skin, hair, nails and countless bodily process, I also suggest slightly upping your fat intake. Try to use sources such as fish oil, palm oil, MCT’s or EVOO.
  • Many an article has been written on the importance of hydration. Drink 4-5 liters water per day. Just do it.

RELATED: The Mandatory Deload

Recovery Measures:

  • Take naps when you feel that mid afternoon slump (if you’re able).
  • Go to bed an hour earlier, wake up an hour later, and actually spend time sleeping…not just being in bed.
  • Take gentle walks to calm your mind, spend time in nature, and relax across your body.
  • Use epsom salt baths for magnesium absorption, muscle and joint aches, and overall relaxation.

The Final Rep

As much as you may want to believe that you’re invincible, you’re not. None of us are. If long-term success in building your physique is important to you, it becomes crucial to develop an acute awareness for when your mind oversteps the limits of your body.

That said, it’s inevitable that you will experience this “wall” from time to time, regardless of your best interests. However, you CAN learn from it, and use the signs along the way to better prepare yourself and adapt as you move forward.

As you move from day-to-day, navigating the path to move closer to your ideal physique, your body is going to leave you clues. Clues on when to push the envelope, and more importantly, clues on when to let off the gas. Your success lies in those clues.

Alex is a self-proclaimed anti-meathead and part-time nerd. When he's not working towards Greek God status in the gym or learning how to better serve his clients, he can be found exploring how to further crush life, perfect his flair in the kitchen, or pulling the perfect shot of espresso. You can learn what he's all about at MASSthetics