A PR, for those of you who don’t know, stands for personal record. It’s just a little way to say, “Hey, I have achieved a thing for the first time!”
PRs are almost universally good, even when they’re modest; an inch here or a half-kilo there. They’re stepping stones on the way to great things.
Yes, PRs are most conventionally centred around things like weight lifted and speed attained. That’s just the culture they come from. In reality, there is no limit to what they can be. With so many potential options in front of you, it stands to reason that some PRs might be better to focus on than others. So that’s what we’re going to talk about.
Let’s say you’re performing 40 minutes of sprint training. If you used to need five minutes of rest before being able to repeat your performance but now you need 4:30, you’ve improved! Simple. Speed will stay consistent but you might begin to find yourself squeaking out one or two more runs per training session.
On the other end of the spectrum, density can be used to build muscle or buffering abilities. To approach things this way you might choose two of your favourite (non-competing) exercises, put 15 minutes on the clock and go to work! At the end, count your total reps for each exercise. When you can get more done in the same amount of time than ever before (all other things being equal), you can chalk up a PR and file it under density.
Density-based training is pretty broad in application. In the first example, speed standards are adhered to. In the second, a fixed weight would be used. In both, a fixed timeframe is involved but the amount of work done is open-ended.
The limits here fall on both sides of the continuum. In the first example, full recovery may not allow for enough overall work to be completed in a training session. Either performance or training load (a good kind of stress) will have to be compromised. In the second example, strength won’t be developed by most people past the beginner stage. Choose wisely.
The perennial favourite, “How much do ya lift?” It’s not about endurance, it’s not about speed. It’s not even necessarily about textbook form. How much weight did you move from Point A to Point B one time?
It’s a question that’s asked of competitive weightlifters and answered in competition. Beyond these rarefied scenarios, this number is useful to the person writing your programs and to your ego (notably, not always your amigo). Especially when jumps in weight aren’t based on consistent numbers or, you know, reality.
If you’re stronger than you realize, testing things out (under supervision) might show you some things you didn’t know about yourself. If you’re not as strong as you think (or simply unsure) you may be playing with fire by putting it all on the line for a single, maximal effort rep. In this case, the load for multiple reps (3–5 works quite well) is a safer, more practical way to answer your question.
Never mind how fast it was, never mind putting a beautiful bow on it; did you move more weight than ever before? That’s a PR!
Like load, this isn’t about repeatability. It’s about getting from Point A to Point B. The only difference is that this time you’ll do it with as little external load as possible, not as much. Everything covered above pretty much applies.
Risks are lower but still present. And like load, speed is built on a foundation of consistent practice. Without that foundation even Herculean effort will only take you so far (so fast).
In our world volume isn’t about how loud someone is playing Viking metal (this is a thing, by the way). Volume is the total amount of work performed.
Setting a volume PR can be as simple as performing as many reps as possible within a single set. Simple. For something more structured, we’d look at performance across multiple sets. For example, pick a weight you can squat 10 times. Now squat it five times. That will feel relatively easy. This is an illusion. Wait one minute and do it again. Less easy. Rinse and repeat until you can no longer hit five reps with good form. Count up your total sets, go home, drink a gallon of milk and rest.
As you progress, you’ll see more and more sets completed. Unlike density-based training, there is no time limit. Total reps completed will be your metric.
Volume-based training can be helpful as foundational work when performed at lower intensities (AKA lighter weights). It can also be used for more strength-intensive work than most density-based approaches. This is because it allows for full recovery without a fixed timeframe. Of course, you will at some point have to go home – even if it’s just to feed the cat.
When everything else (weight, rest periods, etc.) has remained the same and you’ve gotten more done, congratulations, you’ve hit a PR in volume!
How can you tell quality movement apart from everything else? It’s like that saying about coming across a unicorn: you’ll know it when you see it. Quality movement is smooth and natural. It demonstrates exactly as much tension as necessary but no more. It is largely free from the obstreperous tugging of your conscious mind.
Quality comes from a combination of dedicated practice and presence. Unless you’ve got a panel of Russian judges seated nearby, it doesn’t lend itself very well to measurement. No surprises here. Quality is used to contrast quantity, after all. Yet there are aspects of quality movement that you can break down into tiny, elegant PRs. Perhaps it’s greater control. Perhaps it’s demonstrating more comfort in a previously uncomfortable place. Perhaps it’s exploration; asking questions of the movement and finding answers. It might even be a sudden flash of insight, where creativity takes hold and you make a quantum leap forward.
People tend to think that the harder something is, the better. That’s where North American culture has really mucked things up. Think of your favourite athletes at the height of their powers. Imagine them in the zone, making clutch shots, inspired runs or uncanny changes of direction. In your mind’s eye are their faces contorted? Their neck tendons jagged? Their movements laboured?
When is it not advisable to seek a PR in quality? The opportunity cost of quality is different than that of other PRs. It doesn’t require the same trade-off that others do. While quality may break down as you push the limits of strength or speed or fatigue, it can only stray so far before mechanics are negatively impacted. In other words, movement quality may not be your top priority in competition but it should be the first PR to search for in training, where it should be stretched but never broken.
Not a unicorn.
Setting a PR in consistency is pretty much where this discussion begins. It is what makes every PR above possible.
Consistency can be as broad as a morning routine or as narrow as how you approach the barbell. It is the accumulation of little things done consistently well and adds up to great things over time. While the drive might be to accomplish an externally visible goal, it is consistent application that makes that possible.
Consistency is for anyone with a clear goal. It is laudable all on its own. Trained three days a week without missing a session for six months? That could be a PR. Had enough sleep to ensure you’re at your best every time you step into the gym? That could be a PR. If you’re not sure what your PR should be or how to get there, consistency should be the first thing on your checklist.
Finally, stepping into broader territory, we come to a simple question: have you ever done this before? Do you get stronger by visiting a new country, running naked through the park* or eating durian for the first time? Who cares? Your PR is in expanding the boundaries of your world. Taking a moment to enjoy something new is the point of all of this.
Skydiving with a dog? That’s a PR. Photo credit Tech. Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez, U.S. Air Force
*One time, not every Tuesday, ok?