Great Expectations and Failure

At some point in their life, anyone who ever tries to do anything worthwhile will fail. Specific to powerlifting, at some point you’re going to walk into the gym for a training session or a meet, and the shit is going to hit the fan. Maybe you go 3 or 4 for 9 (or bomb), maybe you miss a PR that should have been easy pickings… whatever, it doesn’t matter. At some point you have high expectations, and you fail to meet them. How do you bounce back from that? How do you take a loss and use it as a learning experience? It would be so easy to storm out of a meet after your squats going badly (“Fuck powerlifting, it’s a stupid sport anyway!” etc.), or to fall into a slump.

We’ve all seen the motivation quotes on Instagram (“I’ve found a thousand ways that didn’t work, what they see vs. behind the scenes, blah blah blah”) as captions to photos of some Instagram model in a bikini, but how do you really turn it around?

Goal Setting

To quote Jean-Luc Picard, “it is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not failure, that is life.” If you go to a meet, go 9/9, set three PRs in every lift, a total PR, a wilks PR, and have a great day, but you walk home with the silver (or no hardware at all), but your only goal was to take home the gold, then in your own mind you are a failure. It sounds riculous to me even writing this, but there are plenty of people who think that way.

At the risk of sounding like one of those “S.M.A.R.T. Goals” posters you probably saw in high school, goals need to be things that are under your control. I’m about two weeks out from a meet now – is it appropriate for my only goal to be to win? Of course not. A better goal might be “total 580 kg.” If that brings me a podium finish, then that’s great. If it doesn’t, its still a huge competition PR for me, and that’s always a win.

One other idea I heard recently on The Canadian Powerlifting Podcast was using a tiered goal setting system. I think this is a great idea – there’s almost always something good you can take away, even from a shitty meet or a terrible training cycle. Here’s an example I’ve just whipped up for my own upcoming meet, with Tier 1 being my top goal downwards.

  1. Silver Medal. There’s a guy nominated way ahead of me, the only way I can beat him is if he bombs.Myself and one other lifter look tight for second place, but there is one more lifter close behind us. So top goal? Bring home the silver (in saying that, if there’s even an outside chance of finishing first, I’m taking the shot.)
  2. 580 kg total. This would be a big competition PR, would give me about a 370 wilks, and would require (modest) PRs on all lifts to be realistic.
  3. Go 9/9. Not missing any lifts would be a big achievement for me.
  4. PR on squats. Squats are my bugbear lift (for now; I’m going to fix this for nationals) so even a modest PR would make the entire day a win for me.
  5. PR on bench and/or deadlifts. Any PR is a good PR when you live life 2.5 kg at a time.

So there is my 5 tiers of goals. Good goal setting is step one to having realistic expectations of yourself, and not letting yourself down.

What’s really important?

Why do you lift, why do you compete, what is your why? You don’t lift for fame or money, there isn’t either of those in powerlifting. I doubt you lift for your family, they probably don’t even understand what powerlifting is. Maybe you lift for your team mates, or maybe for yourself. Either way, it helps to step back and ask yourself what is important. Are you less of a person if you fail your last squat attempt? Will you lose your job, will your significant other leave you? Probably not. Although I strongly encourage everyone to treat themselves as an athlete, powerlifting is, at the end of the day, a hobby sport. There’s no money, no university scholarships, no Olympic medals (yet.) It can’t be your everything, it can’t (totally) rule your life.

The really important thing in powerlifting is personal progress. There’s no way to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced, but the greatest feeling on Earth is to set a goal and work, maybe slowly, but surely, towards it. I love competing, but even if I could never compete again I would still set goals and work towards them. I think that mental aspect is one of the best things about our sport. Its hard, but over time you can learn to shape yourself and your environment, and that things worth having take time to earn.

So, when you fail to meet a goal, and you feel bad about yourself, sit down and think about what’s really important. (Especially if the failed goal was squats. You still have two more lifts, and the really important thing now is not letting one shitty lift ruin your entire day.) 

Growth vs. Fixed Mindset

I read a book recently called Mindset, by Carol Dweck. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you add it to your reading list, its fantastic. The author postulates that there are two broad ways to view yourself and others – as either fixed or changeable entities. When you view yourself, or some characteristic of yourself as being fixed, the habit is to only display it when you know you’re going to do well. You’ve probably heard someone say “I’m not going to compete until I’m sure I can win” before; that’s an example of a fixed mindset. Its hiding yourself from the risk of failure and potential embarrassment. People with this fixed mindset at the people who walk away from lifting the first time they have a bad meet, or when they miss a PR they’re sure they’re good for. Missed a 180 kg squat (or whatever)? “Powerlifting is fucking stupid anyway, I’m going to do something else instead.” Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but you see it all the time.

By contrast, people with a growth mindset use these same failures as a chance to develop. They realise that people aren’t judging them (people only care about themselves anyway), so they can use their bad experience to improve themselves. That same person fails a 180 kg squat, and asks why. Did some aspect of their form break down? Is there some muscle holding them back? Identifying that weakness then means that they can improve in the future.

It sounds cliche, but no-one remembers the guy who quit, everyone remember the guy who came in first. The classic powerlifting example is probably Layne Norton. The story goes that Layne was an aspiring natural body builder with twig legs. The fixed mindset person would say that they have small legs, they can’t be a body builder or a powerlifter. Maybe knitting would be more appropriate. The growth mindset person (Layne) said that no-one who can squat 500 lbs has small legs, so he set out to do just that, despite his awful proportions for squatting (Layne’s femurs are like 28% of his total height, which is part of why he has so much forward lean when he squats). Now, he has the world u93 kg IPF squat record – 303 kg.

Wrap Up

Everyone fails to meet their own expectations at some point. The first step to bouncing back from those failures is to have properly set goals from the outset. When you do fail, use that failure as an opportunity to grow. After all, how strong can you really be (mentally or physically) if you fall at the first hurdle?

I hope everyone got something out of this. Maybe its helped you set some goals of your own, maybe you saw a damn good world record squat, or maybe you just realised that Rory thinks way too much!

I hope everyone’s training is going well, see you on the platform!

What (Functional) Overreaching Feels Like

This week I have really struggled to adult, and that is, in part, because I’m going through a part of my training at the moment called “overreaching,” which is an important and thoroughly unpleasant thing to do. I realised sometime in the middle of the week that most people never experience this at all, so decided to write a little something on it. If you’re a competitive powerlifter you’ve probably done this a number of times before (and probably seen more than a few others sitting in the corner with dead eyes between sets), and hopefully this resonates with you. If you’re not a powerlifter, or are just getting started, maybe you’ll gain a bit of an understanding of what exactly we’re going through!

What is Overreaching?

If you have some sport science background, you can probably skip ahead a couple of sections. 

You have a limited capacity to recover. That capacity can change over time, and it depends on a huge number of variables, (age, training age, sleep habits, eating habits, passive recovery habits to name a few). The amount you can effectively recover from on a microcycle-to-microcycle can be referred to as a Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV, good but long video here). This is true for all athletes, runners might express it as kilometres/mile per week, ball sport athletes probably express it in terms of hours of training per week and so on. In powerlifting, it can be expressed in terms of tonnage, reps per week, hard sets per week, or any similar variable (e.g.I can do 6 sets of squats at 80%, twice per week and recover in time to repeat it the next week – that’s my MRV for squats.) The important bit here is recover. Most moderately well trained people have a work capacity that exceeds their MRV, that is to say they can do more squats in a week than they can recover from (this is probably untrue for unfit people/novices. To follow on from my last example, I could probably do 8 or 10 hard sets of squats in a single session, but there is no way I could do it twice a week and still be okay for the following week.)

Briefly exceeding your MRV can and should happen regularly, about one week a month for competitive strength athletes. When planned properly, this could be called functional overreaching. You can also end up over reaching because your MRV goes down (you get sick, you start getting insomnia, you’re stressed at work or whatever), which is non-functional overreaching. This second kind should be avoided if possible! After a period of functional overreaching an athlete typically goes through a deload or taper, before continuing training or competing.

Why Would You Want to Overreach?

The human body is a huge homeostatic system, which you can influence using external factors, like your training and diet. If you push a properly damped homeostatic system in one direction, negative feedback loops force it to bounce back in the other direction (think a pendulum, pull it one way and it swings back the other before settling down), before eventually returning to the original state (the human body is a very well damped system!) This “bounce back” is called super compensation. We can view this on an SRA Curve (Stimulus Recovery Adaption). Here’s an example of an SRA curve I stole borrowed from Strictly speaking, this curve doesn’t show overreaching, but this same principal applies to all time frames – in an overreaching case, instead of one training stimulus before allowing supercompensation, you might perform a second, a third, fourth etc before allowing yourself to recover!  Properly planned overreaching periods, fitted within a well periodised program, result in good long term performance.




Wow, overreaching sounds great. Why is Rory whining so much?

What Overreaching Feels Like

Honestly, kind of like you’re dying.

This mesocycle (which is going generally well, by the way) I mistimed my overreach – instead of starting on the Monday of week four, I ended up exceeding my MRV around the Wednesday of week three. I went from 5 days of overreaching to 10, so I reserve my right to whine more than usual. (Lesson learnt.)

This mesocycle I have had some of the worst triceps tendinitis I have ever experienced – in both elbows simultaneously. On the Friday of last week my arms (elbows and shoulders by referral) felt like they were on fire in between sets. I probably would have gone to the hospital if I didn’t understand what was happening. I dropped my pressing volume this week in an effort to survive the mesocycle, but my left elbow is still pretty bad. (My knees and hips hurt too, but not as acutely.)

Small things heal more slowly. You ripped out a callous? Sucks to be you, that’s not healing until you take some down time. My skin ends up getting quite bad, like it isn’t recovering well either.

I generally feel flat all the time. Your body goes into this kind of long term fatigue state (vs. acute fatigue, like at the end of a training) where every spare bit of energy goes into surviving. Your NEAT (non-exercise activity thermo-genesis) drops; it becomes hard to focus, you might doze off or end up day dreaming more often than usual. Small day-to-day tasks end up leaving you very tired. I’ve barely cooked all week because just the thought of making some rice and putting some mince in a frying pan leaves me tired. I don’t know when I last shaved, but I certainly haven’t been bothered recently. Libido drops, the desire to socialise drops (I’m introverted anyway). When you might normally feel fine after 7 or 8 hours sleep, now you need 9 just to feel moderately human-like. Coffee doesn’t do shit any more. I feel snappy all the time (apologies to anyone I have been short with in the past 10 days. I’ve felt like a zombie. I’m working on it, but please be patient with me.)

Oddly, one of the symptoms of overreaching (I haven’t had this one this week, but I’ve had it quite badly before) is that your appetite disappears. I’ve had days where the thought of eating makes me feel physically sick. I don’t know why this happens, it doesn’t seem to make much sense from a natural selection standpoint (maybe to encourage you lying down and sleeping instead of going out searching for food?) but I’ve heard plenty of people complain about it.

Other common symptoms are pain in joints you didn’t even know could hurt (SI joint is a common one) or swollen joints. Retention of water seems to happen sometimes, complaints of “sticky” feeling joints (shoulder especially), starting to catch colds, forgetting basic and/or important things… If you’ve ever heard of Sheiko flu, or “the dark days” in Bulgarian training, these are noth referring to overreaching. It can feel like your body is giving up on you.

Tips to Surviving Overreaching

  • Don’t stop eating, even if your appetite disappears. Loosing weight will only make things worse. Try to keep some micronutrient dense food in there, but sometimes downing an entire pizza (or two) will do you some good too.
  • Try keep your sleep habits good.
  • Drink plenty of water. I feel like this helps, though I have no idea why.
  • Don’t make commitments you don’t need to make. Don’t feel like going to that party? Don’t go. If they’re your friends, they’ll understand that you need some time to yourself for a bit.
  • Stick to the plan. If you’re overreaching on purpose, don’t stop/cut back training unless you’re at risk of hurting yourself. If you have a coach, you should tell them when you start overreaching, because its important information for them. If you do your own programming, make a note of what is maintainable for you etc.
  • Let people you’re close with know. Your partner/flatmate/parents/friends will likely be more understanding if they understand you’re feeling beat up from training!
  • Focus on what counts. Think about why you’re doing it. Spend some time on your own, or quality time with your family or significant other.


Well, that’s the end of my whinge session (wow, that was cathartic!) Hopefully some of this rings true for experienced athletes, and for those who have never overreached, hopefully you’ve gained something of an appreciation for what it feel like to be getting ready for a big event. Time for me to take a bit of an easy week, then my peaking block for Auckland Championships begins. Train hard guys!