We’ve all been there before…
the tough workout when you want to stop halfway through and “save it for next time.” Maybe you’re on vacation and not that locked in. Maybe you’re dealing with some nagging injuries. Maybe you’re exhausted from a long day of work, little sleep, or family commitments that keep you up late. The question inevitably arises: “When is it better to just cut the workout short, go home, and regroup? When should I push through?”
I’ve asked myself this many times throughout my training to set Guinness records in pull-ups. Especially this summer, when I was traveling, and when my body was still recovering from a slew of spring pull-ups challenges, I found myself asking The Question and reflecting on some general rules for finishing the workout. Here’s what I came up with:
When to Stop
You injure yourself during the exercise.
By this I mean a muscle tweak/tear that pulls you up short (no pun intended), causing you to drop the weight, get off the bar, or stop the run. If this happens, stop right away, pack your bags, go home, and rest. Don’t even try another rep or lap to see if it will “work its way out.” Not worth it. Chances are, it’ll be what I call a “two-weeker” meaning that in two weeks, you’ll be healed and ready to do that very same exercise again. But if you try to push through, you could set yourself back more.
You exacerbate a long-standing injury.
The difference from the above is that in this case, there’s no sudden event. Instead, there’s a slow creep of pain as your workout progresses. If that’s the case, it’s a good idea to stop. Before making the final call, you can test another rep or two, but be honest with yourself.
Aside from the two cases above, the only other time you should stop your workout is in the event of a family or other emergency.
One exception to this is an extraordinary opportunity. For example, you suddenly hear from your dad that he has World Series tickets. (That actually happened to me mid-workout back in October 2007. My dad had to page me in the gym to reach me, as I never have my phone on while working out. I stopped short that day. Regular season games don’t count.
When to Push Through
You are recovering from a nagging injury, it’s bugging you a bit, but staying the same or improving as the workout goes on.
This was my state of existence for most of the summer. In the wake of my all-out effort, resulting in 90 strict pull-ups in a 4-min Tabata workout, I had tightness/soreness where the lat meets the rear delt. (It was my own fault, as I had rushed back into training a little too soon after such an intense challenge, when I should have taken a week off.) The soreness would be at its worst as I was warming up, and it would gradually subside as the workout went on. Under these circumstances, it’s very important to keep going. The continued effort may actually aid your recovery by loosening up the muscles. Just make sure to keep airtight form on each rep.
You are physically hurting, but not injured.
Your muscles are creaming but in a healthy red-line exertion way, or you’re sucking wind but not literally about to pass out. Pushing through moments like these take you to the next level; and it’s very important to do so.
The problem is, it’s easy to let yourself off the hook when you’re tired. I almost did it yesterday, and I have done it more than I’d like to admit. I was running 800m repeats in the evening with my running club, and I had said to myself in advance that I’d do six. The first and second felt terrible, and by the time I finished the fifth, I almost called it an evening. And I had a totally rational excuse: “I’ve already had a good run. I don’t need to do a sixth 800m repeat, especially when I have an early morning pull-ups workout tomorrow. Save the energy for the morning!” But I somehow summoned the will for a sixth and final interval. It felt like a huge victory. And guess what? The next morning (on only six hours of sleep) and twelve hours since finishing the track workout, I was not only fine but energized as ever.
The lesson I took away is that success builds on itself. “Save it for next time” is the wrong answer
You aren’t hitting the numbers you set out for yourself.
Let’s say that your goal is 5 sets of 10 pull-ups off a minute rest. You get to your third set, and you only hit 7. There are all sorts of reasons, some inexplicable, that we underperform. On those days, it’s all the more important to finish the reps – both physically and psychologically. So here’s what you might do. After the set of 7, get off the bar briefly, shake out your arms, and do singles as fast as you can to 10, then rest for your full minute. Do the same thing for the last two sets, doing as many singles as necessary. After the workout, you can assess whether you need to adjust your program to make it more feasible, or whether you just had an off day.