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Never skip a PR

Take care of the pennies, and the pounds will take care of themselves

Whatever your goal is in the gym, eventually it revolves around increasing your output. Be it becoming stronger, leaner, or more enduring; doing more work is what will get you there. I therefore teach all my clients the importance of breaking their personal records (PRs). More weight, more reps, maybe less rest - and on all intensity levels. While this premise is rather simple, I find that many struggle with deciding on the right increments when it comes to breaking their records - often overestimating themselves and ending up with poor technique and a high risk of injury. 'Never skip a PR', is therefore a maxim that I like to abide by.

photo by @wearebru

As a trainer, I've been in countless situations that went something like this: my client is on a new program, and the first exercise is some deadlift variation at which she is making great progress. Week one, a set with 80kg. Week two, a set with 90kg. Nice! Week three, my client comes into the gym and informs me that '100kg is going up today'. I brush it off with a smile and a compliment for her hard work, but also give a 'we'll see about that' look, thinking that I'll let the quality of the warmup sets dictate what weight shall be lifted today.

We go through the warmups and arrive at 85kg, just below last week's 90kg. It's a solid set, but noticeably heavy, and my client's sticking point starts to show. My gut tells me there is about 10% more in the tank - maybe 92.5kg - and that anything beyond that would require divine intervention. 'Let's go for a hundred!', she exclamates. Time to introduce my maxim.

"You only know how much you can lift after you have tried it, the rest is just wishful thinking."

The thing with progress is, it feels good, and we all love to extrapolate our abilities in anticipation of even more goodness. 80kg last week, 90kg this week, so next week must be 100kg. And I love to agree, because the whole premise of training is - as I mentioned before - rooted in having the balls to demand more and one-up last week's performance. Unfortunately, once you're somewhat adapted to any movement, there is a rapid diminishing of returns. So there’s never a guarantee as to what weights you will be able to lift. You only know how much you can lift after the fact, and the rest is just wishful thinking.

Anything over that previously lifted 90kg is an increase in output, and therefore sufficient to honor the concept of increased output. The problem with greedy overshooting is that with any rep or set you're doing, you're not only straining your tissues, but also reinforcing a movement habit. Failure to complete a technically sound lift then doesn't just put you at increased risk for injury (technical failure often makes an exercise unsafe long before you're actually unable to move the weight), it also reinforces this shitty habit of technical failure and inability to complete a repetition. This is how people end up never properly finishing their deadlifts and messing up their backs.

Technical failure often makes an exercise unsafe long before you're actually unable to move the weight.

What kind of incremental increases do I then look for, from workout to workout? Usually about 2.5kg (or 5%) when talking complex barbell exercise. Maybe 5kg (or 10%) if my client just blasted their previous set through the roof, but I also don't mind going as low as 1kg if last set was a struggle. I've seen too many people grind out (or failing) horrendous looking sets or lifts, just because they wanted to live up to a certain expectation that they had of their progress, while a more conservative increase would have already been progress, without unnecessarily increasing injury risk or engraining shitty movement patterns. Hence, I arrive at the moral of the story: never skip a PR.

Bryan Wolters

MSc. Human Movement Sciences, former powerlifter, and current trainer at Vondelgym Amsterdam.

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