Personal Records

by Jim Moser | September 15, 2021

lifter locking out a deadlift

If you want to set more personal records in your barbell training program, or if you want to be successful at your next weightlifting contest, this article is for you. Early in your training PRs come every workout. As your body adapts to barbell training and your weights begin to stall, personal records become less and less frequent. At the other end of the spectrum the competitive weightlifter may struggle months, even years, to add a couple pounds onto his lifts. As we get older, we always seem to be chasing the weights we lifted when we were younger. For the most part the laws of nature will not allow this to happen.

Living in Maui, Hawaii, I have visitors from all over the world stop by to train, chat, and share weightlifting stories. For the most part these visits are enjoyable. One of them sparked me to write this article. I received a call from an online “coach” who had worked for a friend of mine. He dropped my friends name often and was persistent. I agreed to meet him for lunch to discuss his online training business and share some old weightlifting stories with him. It normally takes me about five minutes to determine how much someone knows about getting stronger, weightlifting, or strength coaching. I always ask people I have never met before to tell me about themselves, and this method has never failed.

For the most part people’s favorite topic to discuss is themselves. This fellow spent the next 15 minutes talking about himself and all the non-important things he had accomplished. He was a legend in his own mind. I stopped him when he said online coaching was all about resetting weights for his online athletes. For some reason this grabbed my attention. He went on to explain that whenever his clients would hit a sticking point, he would lower their weights 25% then have them progress again and start setting PRs again.

I interrupted him and asked him to clarify what he considered a PR to be. He quickly said that what he meant was a PR during the reset. I said, “You mean at the end of the reset?” “No,” he said, “when they start improving again. When the weights start to progress from week 1 to week 2 after the reset, they are improving again, so that is a PR.” I replied, “How can that be a PR if they had just done that weight a few weeks ago?” At this point he got slightly defensive and said, “To my clients it is a PR.” Rather than argue with him about what a “Personal Record” means, I thanked him for stopping by and went back to the gym to help athletes with actual PRs.

I get it – as we age, our understanding of a PR changes. A PR at 20 is very different than a PR for a person in their 60s, 70s, 80s and yes, even in their 90s. I knew one lifter who had PRs for different colors of clothing, one of the most extreme cases I knew of.

I am guilty of the PR phenomenon. My PR in the deadlift is 715 lb, when I was a 28-year-old Olympic Weightlifter. Now that I am old and just had a hip replaced, I now have “PRs after hip replacement.” Is this silly? Of course – most things in life are. Most people take their PRs seriously: they are our World Championships or the Olympics.

I often get asked if a lifter should set a PR in competition. The answer is a resounding “No!” PRs should be set in training. If you are setting PRs in competition you simply are not training hard enough and heavy enough. In training we control the environment, we are lifting on a familiar bar, the surroundings are familiar, we are hopefully on our favorite platform, and we perform at our own pace. For the most part, at competitions things are the opposite – strange surroundings, foreign equipment, timing set by other lifters, and stupid judges. These judges may or may not be in a good mood, or they simply may not like the way you look. The best thing a coach can say to his athlete at a competition is, “You have successfully done this weight many times in training.” This makes the job as a coach easier and less nerve-racking.

The ideal meet situation is when the lifter handles the weights with ease. I make sure my athletes do enough in training to win, and that I pick their attempts accurately and correctly, otherwise the competition event is pointless. Missing attempts by chasing PRs at a meet costs you total. If you are not First Place, you are in the group of all the other people who did not win. I love the dog sled racing analogy: if you are not in first place the view never changes.

Many coaches leave out how to prepare for a PR. Sadly, all they expect from their athletes or clients is to show up on time and try an attempt at their pre-planned program. The night before you are planning on setting a PR is not the time to be up all night. Ideally you should schedule yourself for two good night’s sleep leading into your PR day. Keep your diet normal and eat what you are used to eating. Remember the less the change in your diet the better off you are. Two days before your PR session is not the time to start eating healthy, unhealthy, or trying the latest greatest diet fad.

We want your body 100% focused on your heavy training session. We know the human body is an amazing machine. Two days before a heavy PR training session, ideally you want to keep things as close to your normal routine as possible. Make sure you have your training gear out the night before, looking for your lifting shoes or favorite belt the day of your heavy PR session can be extremely frustrating and a waste of nervous energy. Confidence is the key – you want to enter the gym with an air of calm confidence, reflecting on the hard work you have put in. Visualize how good you will feel after you make your PRs. Begin the day with the end in mind.

When you walk in the gym you want to feel normal at the least and great at best. Preparation is a key component to your success. The final wrench that may come flying your way is when you are totally prepared – your sleep, diet, and rest are all on point, and yet even the most experienced lifters will inevitably encounter an occurrence on PR day that will test your resolve. You will walk in the gym confident, and your first set of warmups feel like crap. Now what?

I have to handle this situation often with new trainees, when you are prepared and your body still feels bad. There is only one answer, “Your body is lying to you.” This is where mental toughness comes into play. You need to regroup and start pumping yourself up. Each person is motivated differently and motivates themselves differently. The key here is you must be prepared. Remember that, for the most part, we write our own movie, so make sure when you are writing your movie you play the good guy, the hero, the character that is invincible. Pull yourself up, rub some dirt on your hands, and picture yourself setting that PR. Do whatever it takes to get you motivated – this is gut check time, and failure is not an option. Proceed to maximum.

When your preparation is on point, and you still fail your PR, you are not training heavy enough, doing enough work in your training leading up to the PR attempt, and not doing what it takes to recover. At this point we all face that moment of truth: how important is the PR to you, and are you willing to do what it takes to succeed? Doing what it takes to succeed involves hard work, commitment, and dedication. If you find yourself routinely not hitting your PRs and stalling, there are two options:

1. Stay where you are, or get weaker.

2. Work harder and lift heavier weights in training, and get stronger.

Getting stronger by doing less is a dream, not a plan. We all know the problem with dreams is that eventually you wake up. A good coach is invaluable, and it is your job to hold your coach and yourself accountable. Setting PRs and winning gold medals takes a team effort. A great coach gets just as excited when a 5-year-old sets a PR as when his elite athlete sets an American record. No matter what age the athlete or level of training advancement, the sole job of your coach is to get you stronger. All things in life are easier when you are stronger.

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