I recently had an experience that is rare for me in the gym. I picked up a pair of the heaviest dumbbells that I knew I could lift in an incline bench press. I pressed the weight for five repetitions with no trembling or stalling. What happened next totally puzzled me. After a minute of rest, I picked up the same weight, lay back on the bench...and froze. I was completely motionless and totally unable to press the weight! My first thought was, "So this is what temporary paralysis feels like!" I carefully put the weights down and lunged for the next dumb bells down the rack (5 pounds lighter) and...same thing. Again, I put the weights down and grabbed the next lighter weights...finally a shaky, quivering five repetitions. Ugh!
What happened here? My mind knew that I could lift the weights. I had just pressed the heaviest set for 5 repetitions. I had spent the last few weeks pressing the weight that was 5 pounds lighter. And I knew for certain that the final set of dumb bells should have been easy, but why did I have such a hard time convincing my body of that fact? There is only one answer -- fatigue!
Often when we're pushing ourselves to make big gains on a consistent basis, whether it's muscle growth, weight loss, athletic skills, increased speed or endurance, or even advances in our education, mental focus or patience, we hit a wall. This wall is often triggered by fatigue. Your body knows its limits...often better than we do. While there is a ton of literature out there about exceeding your limits, pushing through weakness, etc., that's not what I'm talking about here. That kind of pep talk is for the person who often lacks the motivation or confidence to push themselves to the next level. I'm certainly not that guy. When I hit the wall (and I think of lot of Type A personalities have this problem) it's not due to lack of motivation or confidence. It's actually a warning sign that should be heeded, not ignored.
How did I handle it? Well, I took what I like to call the "one step back, two steps forward" approach. In this case, I backed off the weight on all my exercises that day. I mean I went REALLY light. This is an important first step. It sets up a base level of reassurance that sends your body the positive feedback that it is strong and healthy (not struggling and maxed out). Then, I took the next two days off. No exercise, lots of sleep, extra naps, no fasting, low stress. I even upped my carb intake a bit to make sure that my body could absorb all the nutrients and energy it needed to heal and recover (even at the risk of gaining a few pounds). For a few days, I purposely forgot all about my goals. I met friends for St. Patrick's Day and drank too many beers while eating a big plate of corned beef and cabbage with mashed potatoes and gravy. Yum! I basically cut loose...for a moment. I could do this because I know that I'm not going to "fall of the wagon." I'm just not whipping the steeds for a bit!
The result...HUGE gains! I returned to the gym after my hiatus and smashed my previous plateau. My measurements showed some weight gain, but I also gained a few inches in some muscle groups that had been stalled. I lifted heavier weights than I ever have before. Best of all, I felt strong and light, and capable of doing anything I set my mind to. So, next time you find yourself hitting a wall try backing off a bit, relaxing, and come back with a vengeance!