Not Everything Needs to Be a PR

Maximum effort is expensive so, don’t waste it on technique drills and accessory movements.

Allow me to break the fourth wall for a moment, and take you inside what it means to be a coach and a writer. When I first started writing, I thought it was my job to take the thoughts that were inside my head and commit them to paper, to let you know what I was thinking. Likewise, when I began to coach, I thought my job was to impart what I knew about movement onto my athletes.

But that isn’t what works. Instead, my job as a writer and a coach is to get inside your head, recognize the reality that exists there, and work to reshape it in a way that moves you closer to what you want to be. The magic doesn’t happen with what I give you, but what you do with it inside yourself. This means that the vast majority of the time I spend on writing doesn’t involve my fingers tapping madly away on a keyboard. Nor does the lion’s share of my coaching involves giving cues, talking to athletes, or demonstrating techniques.

It involves intense, persistent observation. The empathic connection between writers and readers, and coaches and athletes cannot be created any other way. It’s easy to skip this step and write finger-wagging articles telling you to do this or stop doing that. I’ve written a few of those pieces myself, but they aren’t the work I’m most proud of. The most profound writers and talented coaches meet their subjects where they are, and lead them in a direction; they don’t stand in the pulpit and rain down fire and brimstone.

It’s with all that in mind that I’ve spent the past couple years shaping the following piece of advice:

Stop. PRing. Everything.

Now let’s dig into what that means, and why it should matter to you.

The PR Arms Race

My observation started with the #PReveryday crowd. Their enthusiasm is matched by their creativity in the number of different things they’re willing to call a PR. Know somebody with a 3-rep-no-belt-snatch-grip-deadlift-from-low-blocks-in-Nano-6s PR? I bet you do. They seemed to be mostly CrossFitters, and mostly under a year of experience. It’s fairly simple to PR every day when every workout is different and you’re riding that wave of newbie gains. But when the honeymoon is over, what then?

At first, I thought this was a phenomenon exclusive to the CrossFit crowd. That is, until I sat down to watch the Rio Olympics, and counted the number of events in the pool and on the track. CrossFitters may have taken the “PR everything” mindset to new heights, but I’d argue it was born with swimmers and runners. The PR addiction has infected the weightlifting community as well, as my Instagram feed is littered with videos of people PRing every manner of assistance lift, technique drill, and minor variation.

There are even more specific PRs. You can have a comeback PR, a post-injury PR, an annual PR, or an event or course PR. You can PR benchmark workouts (what’s your Fran time?), Strava segments, or even your diet (I PR’d my macros, brah!). If it can be measured, it can be PR’d, and we do love to ring that bell.

Hell, I might be chief among sinners. I’m a runner, cyclist, weightlifter, and CrossFitter. I have an entire spreadsheet full of PRs, with entries for running distances (100m, 400m, 800m, 1 mile, 5km, 5mi, 10k, 15k, half and full marathons), power lifts (overhead press, deadlift, front and back squats), Olympic lifts (snatch, clean and jerk), and a smattering of bike distances (longest ride, longest climb, 10mi TT). I generally don’t track my benchmark WOD PRs, but that’s mostly because I forget to write them down at the gym, and there’s not a results page to look them up on later.

The Semantic Danger of the PR

As Dr. Andy Galpin points out, the issue is not the data, it’s what you do with it. So the problem isn’t the proliferation of PRs per se or PR in the noun form. The issue is with PR as a verb and its influence on the way you approach your training.

The trouble with trying to PR everything, all the time is fourfold:

  1. How exactly are you going to PR your rest days? You are taking rest days, right?
  2. How contrived are you willing to make something and still call it a PR?
  3. What effect does that mindset have in your training?
  4. What happens when the PRs stop coming?

I get it. Most of us don’t go to the gym to just move around a bit and get sweaty. We go there to make progress, and the best way to see progress is to track what you do. I think logging workouts is a very useful practice that can help us stay on track and serve as a reality check against some of the stories we tell ourselves about our fitness.

The turnover from useful tool to detrimental obsession happens when our pursuit of the PR causes our workouts morph from a means to an end, to an end unto itself. When we’re trying to PR something, the mental risk/reward calculus changes, and we start to take risks we don’t need to. We’re more likely to compromise our technique to hit one more rep, to sprint into Zone 5 when we were supposed to be on a recovery ride or to bury ourselves in the pain cave again when we could barely drag ourselves out of bed after our last workout.

PRs are Expensive

Progress is addictive, and intensity can become a drug. I’m a recovering addict myself, as my wife (the most wonderful woman in the world and my personal sports psychologist) will tell you. I was one of those guys who would drive himself until he was injured, then grit my teeth and drive a little further. To this day, if I haven’t had a hit from that PR pipe in a while, I get grouchy.

The thing I’ve come to understand as I’ve matured as an athlete is that a PR often comes at a high physiological and psychological price. Maximum effort, especially if you’re a seasoned athlete, takes a toll on muscle fibers, mental resolve, your nervous and endocrine systems, and your overall wellbeing. It’s not unusual for a PR attempt to cost me two nights of sleep: one the night before, because I’m nervous, and then the night after because I’m so destroyed that I can’t get comfortable.

How often are you willing to pull that trigger? If you do it too often, you end up compromising the stimulus you worked out to achieve. If you can’t squat heavy for 10 days because your back is wrecked from your spur-of-the-moment 3RM attempt at what was your 1RM two weeks ago, did you do yourself any good? Conversely, when everything you do is a PR, how do you harness that next-level intensity when it really matters?

Curb Your PR Obsession

I propose that we negotiate a new relationship with our PRs. I can’t tell you what to track, and I’m certainly in no position to set a number of things you should count as a PR, but the following guidelines might help you bring your PR obsession under control.

Write down your primary goals. They should be counted as PRs, and anything that is one standard deviation from them can be, as well. For instance, if I have a goal for my clean and jerk 1RM, I can track a PR for my front squat. But only choose one PR for that accessory, whether that’s a 1RM or a 3RM, based on your coach’s training philosophy for you.

If you set several goals, prioritize them to give yourself space to move more quickly in one area than another. For instance, if you want to improve your deadlift and your 5k time in the same year, it’s totally fine to work on both at the same time. But recognize that while you’re doing 800m tempo repeats and speed work every week in your 5k program, you may not have the gas left to annihilate a heavy deadlift session. It’s useful in this case to adopt the concept of seasonal fitness.

You can still log and track everything else, but be cautious about applying that PR label. If a PR happens during the course of your training, that’s great! But it should only be something you aim toward occasionally, and only when it is one of your primary goals. If you’re the type who can’t track data without it burning in the back of your mind during your workouts, then stop tracking data. I promise, the training will work anyway, even if you don’t write down every detail of it. Instead, record qualitative details of your workout (i.e., heavy triples on squats today, hips achy, bar moved fast though).

Last, never allow a PR attempt to compromise your best mechanics. As Kevin Moore and I discussed on this week’s podcast A Unified Theory Of Human Movement, bad things happen when we allow our enthusiasm to outstrip our ability and control. If you aren’t getting paid to do it, or aren’t in contention for a national or international medal, you don’t have a good reason to lay your own body on the altar of the great and powerful PR goddess. Bail the barbell, shut down the workout, and live to fight another day. Take it from somebody who’s learned the hard way, over and over again: no PR is worth months of not training.

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