You’re strength training but you’ve stopped gaining strength or you simply haven’t gotten stronger over the last six months or so. Sound familiar? It’s a frustrating problem to have and one that’s quite common. You might be tempted to blame it on your genetics but don’t be too quick to point the finger your DNA. Chances are you’re making some common training mistakes that keep you from maximizing your strength gains. Here are five of the most common.
Strength Gains: You’re Not Lifting with Enough Intensity
If your main goal is to build muscle size, you should be using a weight that exhausts your muscles within 8 to 12 reps. You should also be doing enough volume, 3 or more sets. If you’re focused mainly on strength and are less concerned about increasing muscle size, at least some of your sets should use a weight you can lift no more than 5 or 6 times. That would be around 80 to 90% of your one-rep max.
The mistake many women make is to use a light weight that doesn’t exhaust the muscles they’re working after 8 reps or so. They expect to get stronger or more defined just because they’re lifting ANY weight and are surprised when change doesn’t follow. You might make strength gains, in the beginning, using this approach but you’ll quickly reach a strength plateau. Intensity matters when you’re trying to get stronger. Muscles grow in response to progressive overload, exercise that forces them to gradually work harder over time. If you’re not increasing the weight you use over time or the number of reps/sets, your muscles will adapt and stop growing and becoming stronger.
Strength Gains: You’re Using Sloppy Form
How’s your form? If it’s not up to par, your risk of injury is higher, but your strength gains will also be slower. When you use bad form, you engage fewer fast-twitch muscle fibers, the ones you’re trying to target. One of the biggest weight training mistakes is using momentum. When you swing or jerk a weight, you make it easier on your muscles and don’t force them to maintain tension throughout the movement. The solution? Slow down the speed of your reps and lift in a controlled manner. Force yourself to focus on your form rather than letting your mind wander. Lift with intention rather than a distraction. You’ll engage the most muscle fibers that way and maximize the time under tension.
Strength Gains: You’re Doing Too Much Cardio
Cardiovascular exercise has its place, but the adaptations to moderate-intensity cardio are different than how your body adapts to strength training. If you overdo the cardio, you send your body into a catabolic state rather than the anabolic state you need for strength gains and muscle growth. How much time are you spending on aerobic exercise? If you’re doing more than an hour of cardio most days, that’s may be too much, especially if you’re trying to gain strength. You might be doing cardio to lose body fat but overdoing it can actually make your body so efficient that fat burning slows. High-intensity resistance training helps you burn more fat in the long term because it builds metabolically active muscle tissue. What kind of cardio SHOULD you do? A few high-intensity interval training workouts a work (30 minutes or under) is all that you need for cardiovascular benefits.
Strength Gains: You’re Stuck in a Rut
If the workout you were doing in the beginning worked, you might be tempted to do the same thing every workout. After all, it worked for you then, why change? The problem is your muscles have already adapted to accommodate the stress you placed on them. If you’ve been doing the same routine for 12 weeks, you’ve probably reached a point of diminishing returns. In fact, you can reach a plateau in as little as 6 weeks.
How can you shake things up? You don’t have to throw your whole routine out the window. Periodizing your workouts so that you work endurance, hypertrophy, and strength during different phases of a bigger cycle will help you avoid reaching a plateau. If you’re not periodizing your workouts, it’s time to add some variety. You’re probably already aware of all the training variables you can change, such as resistance, the number of reps, the number of sets, rep tempo, training frequency, exercise order, rest period between sets, and types of exercises you do. Tweaking these variables alters the stimulus on your muscles and forces new adaptations. For example, changing the tempo of your reps, slow training, increases the time your muscles are under tension. That can jumpstart growth. Here are some other ways to add variety to your workout:
· Instead of doing a set number of reps, use time intervals. See how many reps you can do in 30 seconds.
· Alter your foot placement and grip on exercises or do different variations of exercise you currently do. Think about how many modifications there are of exercises like squats, lunges, and push-ups.
· Pyramid your sets in an ascending or descending manner. For building strength, descending pyramids work best.
· Do more compound and bodyweight exercises, like squats, push-ups, and deadlifts and fewer isolation exercises.
· Use drop sets to challenge your muscles more. When you can’t do any more reps with the current load, drop the weight and do another set. Drop the weight two or three times until your muscles are spent.
· Do giant sets – three or more sets in a row with no rest in-between.
With strength training, change, over time, is good.
Strength Gains: You’re Not Eating Enough Calories
If you’re trying to get stronger and build muscle size, a calorie deficit works against you. You might like the idea of losing body fat while you gain muscle but it’s not easy to do. Plus, your strength-training performance can suffer when you’re not well fueled. If you go too far with calorie restriction, you’ll sabotage muscle and strength gains by increasing your cortisol level. In fact, you will likely need a small calorie excess over maintenance requirements to get your muscles to grow. The key is to choose whole, nutrient-rich, unprocessed foods and keep processed carbs, sugar, and other “junk” out of your diet. Make sure you’re getting enough protein as well. If you’re not sure whether you’re getting enough protein/calories, keep a food journal.
The Bottom Line
Hopefully, you’re continuing to make strength gains, but if you’re not, make sure you’re not committing one of these common, strength-building mistakes.
Bret Contreras. The Glute Guy “The Ten Rules of Progressive Overload”
J Strength Cond Res. 2012 May;26(5):1389-95. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318231a659.
Rejuvenation Res. 2008 Jun; 11(3): 605–609. doi: 10.1089/rej.2007.0622
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