You must have experienced one of those days where you drag yourself to the gym after a long day of work, only for your session to absolutely suck … well, we won’t spell it out, but these emojis should tell you the rest of it: ⚽🎾
Um, so, yes, those are balls—back to our topic now.
Obviously, physical exhaustion (e.g., climbing twenty flights of stairs to reach the gym) would hurt your ability to lift weights.
But what about when fatigue affects your brain? 🧠 Could mental tiredness truly impact your workout performance, or are you simply finding excuses for yourself?
A new 2022 study published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise gives us several valuable insights.
Beyond simply illuminating the relationship between mental tiredness and workout performance, the researchers also outlined several valuable strategies you could use to up-level your training sessions in the gym.
🚨 In other words: don't skip reading this article!
Tell me about the study
The researchers recruited 63 healthy sport and exercise science college students (27 women and 36 men) who were not currently participating in upper body resistance training.
All participants were asked to complete a 5-minute handgrip muscle endurance task, with effort-based rating of perceived exertion (RPE) measured each minute. The results served as their “pre-test”—a "baseline" measurement to be compared against after.
“After”? After what, though? Well, after the handgrip pre-test, the participants were randomly assigned into 3 groups:
2️⃣ No feedback group: Performed a 20-minute cognitive test but did not receive performance feedback during the handgrip post-test (i.e., they did not know how they were doing throughout the 5-minute duration).
3️⃣ Control group: Watched a 20-minute documentary (instead of performing a cognitive test) and received no feedback during the post-test.
Can you guess who performed the best in the handgrip post-test?
That’s right. The answer shouldn’t surprise you: it’s the control group.
That said, the researchers did find something interesting and somewhat unexpected.
While the feedback group (20-minute cognitive test + visual performance feedback) experienced a decline in performance—more so than the control group—the change was not large enough to be statistically significant.
On the other hand, those in the no-feedback group (20-minute cognitive test + no visual performance feedback) experienced a significant decrease in handgrip test performance.
So … should you still workout if you’re tired?
Wow, that was a whole bunch of words.
So what does it all mean to you? Should you still workout if you’re already mentally tired from a full day of cross-referencing Excel sheets, drafting endless emails, and hunting down colleagues for due deliverables?
TL; DR? You could ✅
Just expect that you may not be able to lift as heavy or go as hard as you’re used to in that session (yep, it’s not all in your head!)
But what if you aren’t keen on going easy in the gym?
After all, you’re already physically there—why give yourself slack when you could accumulate volume that’ll help with those much-desired muscle gains?
Good news: there are 2 strategies you could use to counteract the adverse effects of being mentally tired on your workout performance.
#1: Give yourself at least 2 hours to rest in-between
Why so specific? This duration is based on a 2019 study published in The Journal of Psychology.
The researchers found that participants’ mental fatigue levels were still elevated 60 minutes after completing a 45-minute cognitive test.
They thus concluded that more than an hour is needed for mental fatigue to return to baseline following prolonged cognitive activity.
#2: Seek external motivators
Let’s be honest. Two hours is a long time.
Let’s say you knock off at 7 pm; you can only start working out at 9 pm
Factor in the time you take to workout, shower, head home, and prepare dinner—you’ll likely and ironically end up way more tired than if you headed to the gym immediately after work.
Psst: check out the following articles for easy, time-saving, and delicious meal plans:
But don’t worry. You don’t simply have to accept a poorer performance at the gym.
Instead, remember what participants in group 2 did in the 2022 study? They received external feedback, and that attenuated their decline in workout performance.
So, that’s what you could do, too.
You could either employ the help of a training partner or listen to your favorite music. Both would help tremendously.
A word of advice: learn to listen to your body
When you’re desperately chasing gains, trying to shed stubborn fat around your belly, or attempting to lose weight in general, it can be tempting to push through your workout sessions despite being mentally tired.
No pain, no gain, and all that jazz, right?
🙅 That’s a toxic mindset. As we’ve mentioned multiple times, consistency is key in fitness.
Occasionally lightening your training volume could help you better stick to your routine. Push, push, push when you’re tired through your workout, and you run the risk of overtraining—taking you out of the game for extended periods. And we all know how difficult it is to get back on track once you’ve missed a couple of sessions (ugh).
So do apply flexibility to your training.
Don’t listen to your ego; listen to your body instead.
Let GymStreak take workout planning off your headspace
Work is a large, undeniable contributor to your mental fatigue. But it’s far from the only one. (Here are a few more reasons you’re exhausted—like, all the time.)
Workout programming, too, can be a major headache.
How do you ensure you hit all muscle groups with sufficient volume while ensuring adequate recovery between sessions (find out how many sets and reps you need to build muscle here)? And what if it’s a particularly busy day at the gym, and all your planned machines are taken?
That’s where GymStreak comes in.
In addition to planning all your workout sessions for you, this smart, AI-powered personal trainer app also teaches you how to adapt your training plan to whatever equipment availability (or unavailability) you’re currently dealing with. Neat, right?
Catch it in action below:
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Ballmann, C. G., Favre, M. L., Phillips, M. T., Rogers, R. R., Pederson, J. A., & Williams, T. D. (2021). Effect of Pre-Exercise Music on Bench Press Power, Velocity, and Repetition Volume. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 128(3), 1183–1196. https://doi.org/10.1177/00315125211002406
Dallaway, N., Leo, S., & Ring, C. (2022). How am I doing? Performance feedback mitigates the effects of mental fatigue on endurance exercise performance. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 62, 102210. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2022.102210
Smith, M. R., Chai, R., Nguyen, H. T., Marcora, S. M., & Coutts, A. J. (2019). Comparing the Effects of Three Cognitive Tasks on Indicators of Mental Fatigue. The Journal of Psychology, 153(8), 759–783. https://doi.org/10.1080/00223980.2019.1611530