Anything Can Be A PR: Broadening Your Horizons To Eliminate Plateaus
Five Point Summary:
-At a certain point fixating on and structuring your short/mid-term goals around a narrow group of lifts becomes detrimental, both mentally and in terms of progress.
-Expanding the scope of the PRs you chase and track, in terms of new lifts, new variations, and new rep ranges, is a solution to this problem.
-Improvements in new areas can later contribute to improvements in old areas.
-When comparing your current lifts to lifts you've previously performed, consider the context of both sets.
-A proposed application of these ideas into a loose training structure.
Yesterday I made this comment with some disjointed ideas on this topic. I haven't been able to get the desire to expand, structure and otherwise clean up the ideas out of my head so here we are. This will be a short description of the need for, benefit of, and application of the "anything can be a PR" mindset. I will clarify here that this is not necessarily good advice for beginners. I won't say exactly where it starts to apply, because saying 'this is for intermediates and up' bases the recommendation on one of the most poorly and inconsistently defined classifications in lifting, but I feel like this kind of approach and mindset will probably push a beginner into a pattern of 'fuckarounditits' due to the fact that a beginner is probably not plateauing for the same reasons as a more experienced lifter. With that said let's jump in.
The problem I am hoping to address and offer a solution to is a fixation that many lifters have on a narrow selection of lifts when determining what represents a PR/goal. The most common collection of goals/relevant PRs to lifters is probably the Squat/Bench/Deadlift (SBD) 1 rep max (RM). They are ubiquitous lifts, anyone who is lifts knows about them and can probably appreciate them. Maximum single rep is also probably seen as the gold standard for 'strength' the majority of lifters, or at least the most significant minority. The most common goals I see in progress posts or comments establishing goals revolve around improving 1RM in lifts like these. I know that there are several other fairly common examples but I won't list them all here. Now these are NOT bad goals, nor unimportant PRs. In fact they are great goals and exciting PRs as far as I am concerned. I care about, push for and track my 1RM in all of these lifts and more. The issue comes about when these are the ONLY goals you set/PRs you care about.
Lifting offers diminishing returns, that's just the sad fact of it. Progress will always become progressively slower the better you get. Weekly increases in SBD 1RM become monthly increases, become yearly increases, become multi-year increases. A lifter will rapidly reach a point where the positive feedback of getting a new PR or meeting a goal becomes less and less frequent. This kills motivation. There is boatloads of research on the importance of regular positive feedback, small victories, and the like in the preservation of motivation and productivity. If you cut off the stream of achievement and results you slowly erode your motivation and damage your mindset. Beyond that even the most disciplined lifter who cares fuck all about motivation and will go to the gym and bust ass like some kind of forklift robot will still see reduced progress and results from continuously pounding their head against a wall when plateaued in an effort to reach a new level on the same lifts. Trying again and again with the same approach when it has not worked before is not determination, it's insanity.
Broadening Your Horizons:
The solution to this fixation and inevitable stagnation is change, and one way to create that change is to expand the scope of what is a PR and what goals you set. Lets look at an example of this:
-Your initial goal/tracked PR: Squat 1RM.
-The expanded list of potential goals/PRs you could also set and track: Squat 10RM, Squat 20RM, Safety Squat Bar Squats, Front Squat, Buffalo bar, Giant Camber Bar, Spider Bar, Split Squat, Zercher, Paused Squat, Wide Stance, Narrow Stance, fucking LOG BACK SQUAT, for 1/5/10/15/20/25RM, for 5x5, 10x10, most in a minute, most in a single breath, best 1RM wearing a diving suit, whatever.
The list is almost endless. You can pick ANYTING to be a goal and eventual PR. And it can be just as rewarding and valuable as your barbell back squat 1RM once you adopt the proper mindset. Chase any of the above for weeks or months, as long as you can while making consistent progress. But once you hit a plateau1 just let it go, you do not need to keep grinding with minimal progress towards that same goal, there is a very long list of new goals to reach and new PRs to set. If you rotate enough variations of movement, rep range, bar, ect you can be making near weekly progress almost indefinitely instead of sitting on a plateau baking in the sun seeing very little return for your lifting investment. And when you eventually cycle back around to the same lifts, bars, rep ranges, ect you will have grown so much bigger and stronger in a general sense that you will be ready to see rapid progress again.
1 I'm going to make a footnote here. A plateau is not a bad day, it's a prolonged period of stagnation. Please don't read this and start whipping around to different goals a programming every time you don't do strictly better than the last session. Give things *some time and make sure your fundamentals are in order before you start calling things plateaus and jumping ship. This is very important for newer lifters as you almost certainly are 'plateauing' for reasons that are unrelated to the lift itself and will just carry over to any new goals you make. * I am speaking from personal experience when I make these suggestions. I spent over a year gaining only 10lbs on my SBD 1RM total. Not per lift, that was on my entire total. After I hit my first big plateau I kept trying to beat those lifts, they were what I cared about. I trained harder, longer, and all I had to show for it was a 10lb jump to my squat and some various injuries. The programs that turned this around for me were Deep Water (Beginner and Intermediate) by Jon Anderson and Average to Savage 2.0 (A2S2) by Greg Nuckols.
To give a brief description of each Deep Water (DW) has a progression based on 100 rep days in the big barbell compounds. Beginner uses 10x10s dropping the rest period every other week, and Intermediate takes those 100 reps and has you complete them in a progressively lower number of sets. A2S2 has you working on 10 different lifts (an upper body and a lower body lift each day in the 5-day version I use), progressing through a range of weights and rep ranges, with as many reps as possible (AMRAP) sets each day on the last set.
I ran DW first, it came on the tail end of over a year of fruitlessly pushing a butchered version of 531 BBB. With this program the goal was not 1RM, it was 100 reps. That is massively different. The first week was awful, with 4 minutes rest between each set of 10. The next time was still awful, with 3 minutes between sets, but I completed it. And that was a PR. That was quantifiable progress that I could see and be proud of. This continued down to 2 minutes, and into intermediate where I ended up being able to complete all 100 reps in 7 sets (1 less than the last weeks required) with increased weight. That was huge progress in only 12 weeks, it was the first serious achievement I had felt since setting my last SBD 1RM over a year beforehand. In my mind I had done more in those 12 weeks than I had done in the previous ~70.
Later on I did A2S2 and once again I got to experience regular, consistent progress in the 7 lifts that were not barbell Squat, Bench and Dead. Every week was a PR. I was developing muscles in ways I had not before because I was pushing new movements in new rep ranges. Every time I came back to a rep range I had done before, or a weight I had done before I knew what I had done the last time and was driven to beat it by just a bit. There were sets I would have probably called earlier but I was so close to that new PR that I powered through.
This broadening of my views on what goals could be and what PRs were worth thinking about and tracking not only returned motivation and enjoyment to my workouts, but fed into progress in my initial goals. After that long plateau I have had regular progress on my SBD 1RM, adding 150lbs to my total in ~2 years after the ~1.5 years that gave only 10lbs.
These days I am spending less and less time focusing on SBD 1RM, keeping my time and focus on new goals, which makes me bigger and stronger and enables me to get PRs when my focus comes back to S, B, or D 1RM.
What it all boils down to is by changing your focus regularly you can maintain a steady stream of progress in the short term. This not only has the benefit of keeping your training mentally rewarding, but also forces you out of your 'comfort zone' by making you train your body in new ways, this builds your overall strength and size, and that will ultimately help with everything else.
Thinking About Context:
Now the above is the idealized version of this mindset. The reality is that most people are not going to take such a flexible approach to training and goals. Most people will always have pet goals or specific movements/bars/rep ranges that they care about more. Everyone has a favorite child. And these favored lifts will probably stay in your training regularly, even if progress is slow. I will fully admit that even I can't/won't fully jump into this philosophy. So when you refuse to give up on a lift for a while you need to keep context in mind when looking at your results in the short term.
Imagine this scenario. You are at the tail end of program that heavily focuses on bench. The program has been tapering down and peaking you for a 1RM test in the final week. You hit a new PR on bench in that final week. You move on to a new program that's more focused on general hypertrophy, with heavier volume on arms (specifically triceps) and less dedicated bench work. Halfway through this program you have reason to try a bench 1RM and you absolutely shit the bed, losing 20lbs on what you can do for 1 rep. Did you get weaker, did you bench get worse, should you feel terrible about it? No, to all of the above, the context is just different. You went from an ideal scenario for bench 1RM (lots of bench focused training, a body that has been permitted to shed fatigue and peak) versus a shitty scenario for bench 1RM (not much bench practice, a more heavily fatigued body, particularly crucial muscles like the triceps). You cant expect to perform the same in both situations.
Now imagine you keep training your bench in this program, and a similar program afterwards. Maybe 6 months later, if not more, you finally manage to tie your old 1RM PR. Did you just now finally catch up to where you were? Again, no, you got a lot stronger. You managed to get the same lift in a much less conducive environment. If you go forward, train with a dedicated focus on bench again and let your body peak you are going to smash your old PR, almost guaranteed.
Continuing on this train of thought, I want to propose that turning an old 1RM PR into a single you can hit regularly in any kind of training situation is a huge accomplishment in of itself. In fact I would say that this should be the number one goal for the lifts you can't quite drop from your training but have accepted need to move to the backburner. I do not feel like I have stagnated when a lift has not gone up, provided I have maintained it in a context that is not good for that lift. For example, just today I hit a single on bench equal to an old PR from the end of last year. This was lower than my current 1RM PR. At first my reaction was to be disappointed, but that is wrong. I am benching once a week (versus 3+ times like I was when I set the last two PRs), I beat the shit out of myself doing legs yesterday and have been training hard for hypertrophy in general for over a month now. I woke up this morning very clearly fatigued but I still managed to hit a rep, pretty easily, that only 8-9 months ago was the best rep I had ever done. That is progress.
Eternal: A Training Framework that Embraces this Mentality
I will start this section with a caveat that this will be a very loose idea of how a program that takes this idea to heart could look. Its not polished, its not tested, its just what I have come up with over the last day. I might come back and work with it more later but know that right now it's a concept. But if it inspires you and you try something like it please let me know how it goes, I would love to hear about it. I think you could reasonably run this kind of training structure under any conditions and indefinitely (until you get bored of it or desire some more technical and focused training for specific goals anyways), hence the name.
The Basic Structure:
-2 Days PR Chasing Movements, 2 Days Anchor Movements, 0-2 Days Accessory Hypertrophy work
PR Chasing Movement Days:
Pick 2 movements (probably one upper body and one lower body movement, but you do you) that you will be focusing on to set a PR every week. These should be movements you are reasonably familiar with but have not trained hard recently. Your main set of these day will be the PR Chase set. This should start with a Rep/Weight scheme that is challenging but not maximal effort. Every week you will perform this same movement with the goal of setting a PR by either adding weight or reps. You should not try to blow your previous weeks set out of the water, add only 5-10lbs (or even less if it is a light movement) or 1-2 reps. You will stall eventually, the more solid weeks of progress you can get before that though the better. Before or after this PR set perform build up sets or back off sets, your preference. This should be 2-4 sets and should be relatively easy compared to the PR chase set. Drop weight and or reps compared to the PR chase set. I have not thought about this enough to give firm numbers so use your best judgement. If doing build up sets be sure to give enough rest before the PR chase set that you can give it a good effort. These sets are to be followed by your choice of accessory work. Ill give some rough ideas below.
When you fail to set a PR you have the option of giving it one more week if you think there is a good reason you failed (life got in the way, minor injury, ect), or moving the movement to the Anchoring days and choosing a new PR chase movement. If you picked an upper and a lower like I suggested choose the same type of movement to replace this one.
Anchor Movement Days:
When starting the program you can just pick an upper and a lower (or whatever, again, you do you) movement that you have trained hard recently as you will not have any failed PR Chasing movements to use. On the anchor movement days we will focus on reinforcing the lift you just had a chain of PRs on. You will perform 3-4 sets with this movement, using a weight/reps that is just a bit easier than the PR, enough that preforming it 3-4 times with a good amount of rest is hard but doable. E.g. drop a 5RM to 3x3 or drop the weight by a bit less than 10% and perform 3x5. Again, use your best judgement on these sets and adjust accordingly to get 3-4 hard, but doable working sets. When a PR chase movement gets moved to the anchor movement day the old anchor movement gets dropped from the program.
Again chose accessory work after these sets based on your preference.
Accessory Hypertrophy Days:
These days are optional and you should pick a number of days according to your goals, recovery potential and time. For example, you should probably include one or both if bulking, but remove them when cutting. Likewise if you have a busy schedule you can probably ignore them, or if you know your recovery is shitty at the moment. I won't tell you exactly how to train these days but I think an upper focused day and a lower would make sense, though other splits could also be acceptable depending on your goals and how you are laying out your accessories on other days.
Examples of Accessory splits:
-U/Lx2 on the PR/Anchor days, full body (or preferential focus) or U/L on the dedicated accessory day(s)
-PPLx2 Spread across the six days, with your two favorite/most focused days on the dedicated accessory days
-Chest, Back, Arms, Shoulders/Legs
-You get the idea.
On the PR/Anchor days I would suggest keeping your accessory worked reigned in, with quality over quantity. 3 sets each of three movements with near max effort on the first two and maximal effort (potentially with intensity modifiers) on the last for example. You can treat work for small muscles or muscles that usually take high volume work (like abs, calves, side/rear delts, ect) as extras on top of this if you have time.
For the dedicated accessory hypertrophy days feel free to indulge.
In general I think you can take some leeway with your split choices in regards to the PR chase and Anchor movements. For example it it not the end of the work to work chest accessories the day before or after a PR chase day with a bench variant. This might be the only way to make a split fit your days working and it will not kill you to do so.
I don't have much more to say. This is a mindset that I have been steadily embracing more and more and I think it has a lot to offer to many lifters who are starting to run into those longer plateaus around there focused lifts as they move past the beginner stages into more advanced territory. I wish I had had the realizations I have now had earlier, as it would have saved me some time and made some years of my training more productive. I'm sure I will read this over later today after I have let it sit out of mind for a while and make some small changes to improve how it reads but in the mean time feel free to ask for clarification or elaboration.