When the PR's Stop: How to Mentally Move Past the First Stage of CrossFit

When you are just starting out in CrossFit, PR’s rain from the sky – gifts from above that reward you every time you correct the tiniest of flaws in your technique. Every day is a new personal record – your first pullups, your first RX workout – then a bit later, your first muscle-up or handstand pushup. PR’s are just something you experience because it’s a Tuesday and you came to the gym.

This is one of the great things about CrossFit – and one of the biggest reasons people keep coming back during that first year or two. You work hard and you are rewarded with that high, the rush of standing up that weight. Your first strength cycles are completed to the tune of massive PR’s on your squat, clean, snatch – if it has a barbell in it – you are PR’ing – until you aren’t.

The last time I PR'd a lift - 305# Clean on New Year's Day.

I can remember the third squat cycle I finished about a year into CrossFit. I had ended the first two with +25# PR’s. I put in the work. I never missed a day during those 12 weeks. I came in on test day ready to go – a full night’s sleep, good breakfast, good music blaring in the background. I got under the bar and got buried by what would have been a measly 10# PR. Over and over again. I didn’t know what was happening. How could this be a thing? I’d done the work – now I was owed the new 1rm.

Luckily, at that time, I still had clean PR’s, snatch PR’s, movements to conquer – so I didn’t get too down about the missed squat weight. The next year was unicorns and rainbows – bro sessions, constant new 1rm weights – I couldn’t even keep track of how many Saturdays in a row I would PR my Olympic lifts – until I didn’t.

Eventually, if you stick with it long enough – you will reach a stage where tiny corrections in your technique, strength cycles and coaching…may not get you a PR – for months, gasp, even years. This is when you have to understand and appreciate the mindset of a 1rm “for today.”

During the “rainbow and unicorn” stage of your CrossFit experience – a 1rm on the board might as well say “PR”. But when you get to this later stage, which I’ll call “dark skies, frustration, anger, rage and throwing shit” – you have to get to where you understand that “for today.”

If you keep coming in and expecting to PR, the dark skies just keep getting darker – the frustration just keeps mounting. You are not going to get better as an athlete if this is your mindset.

Yesterday we worked up to what the whiteboard said was a “heavy” two position clean. “Heavy? Sounds like I’m PRing my two position clean today,” says the lucky bastard who has been coming to the gym for about 6 months. “Heavy? Guess I’ll probably miss whatever weight I think I should be able to hit,” says the frustrated, “dark skies” lifter who hasn’t come to grips with the fact he isn’t gonna be PR’ing every day anymore. “Heavy? Let’s go see what I have in the tank today,” says the elevated lifter who has passed on to this third stage – the “wise man who knows unicorns and weekly PR’s only exist in fairy tales.”

I worked up to 255, then took one last shot at 260 and got it. It felt good. My 1rm clean is 305, so I hit 85% for a two position. Not bad in my book. It was heavy – for the day. I came away from that session feeling good. I have hit 270 before on that same complex – but that was another day – that was heavy for that day. If I had come in chomping at the bit that I was gonna PR, and I didn’t – a good session would have been wasted – with nothing but frustration to show for my time under the barbell.

When I used to read about guys PR’ing their snatch for the first time in 11 months – I would shake my head and think “what a bum – get your shit together.” I snatched 230 in July of 2015. I have not hit 220 since. Granted there was a shoulder injury thrown in there that ate up some of that time – but there was also a lot of mental issues – frustration, anger etc. that played a much bigger role in why I was failing.

This year, I have taken a much more “elevated” mental approach to my lifting. I snatched 215 at a competition this summer – and I called it what it was – a 2016 PR. It was the most I’d snatched in about a year and it felt great. I could have said “215, fuck – still not a PR,” and been bummed out. Instead, I finished the Snatch and C&J event with a 4th place finish and, more importantly, a good attitude about where my lifts were on that day.

The other term I used to hear that was foreign to me was “Lifetime PR” – no fucking shit it’s a lifetime PR – it’s a PR isn’t. Ah yes, young, dumb unicorn lifter – the “Blue Flame Special” of CrossFitters. This person (and this person was me) has never suffered an injury that lasted more than a day or two – they don’t know what the term “plateau” even means. When you go months or years between a PR – you start to understand why people throw the word “lifetime” in there.

If you are one of these blue-flamer (if you don’t get this reference, go watch Point Break – the real Point Break, not the Red Bull Commercial that came out last year) unicorn lifters – enjoy it. Enjoy every single moment of it – because it will come to an end. I wish you understood this – but you don’t. You can’t possibly comprehend how rare and joyous your experience is right now – but you will, soon enough. My advice to anyone at this stage is, as I said, enjoy it – but more importantly – be prepared for the dark skies coming. Do your best to limit how long you spend in that world – because the “wise man” stage is a much better place to spend your time and energy.

Here’s to PR’s – they may not come as often – but when they do, they taste a whole lot sweeter.