Getting stronger comes easier to some than to others. Some of it is training but factors like genetics play a role as well. Elements you might not have considered like muscle length and limb length are factors too. If you have shorter limbs, you’re able to lift more weight than someone with longer ones.
On the other hand, longer muscles, offer an advantage when it comes to developing strength and size. Where your tendons insert to the bone, closer or further from the joint, also impacts how much weight you can lift and strength you can develop.
We all may not have the same potential to build strength since anatomy and genetics are factors. However, each of us is capable of becoming stronger through strength training. But what if you’re training and you’re NOT becoming making strength gains? Here are five possible reasons why.
You’re Not Training Properly for Strength
If strength gains are your main goal, then a significant portion of your training should be high-resistance, low-volume lifts. This means lifting a weight that’s a high percentage of your one-rep max, the maximum amount you can lift for one repetition only.
The ideal formula for building strength is to use a resistance that’s 80% to 90% of your one-rep max and, over time, you should train closer to the 90% end of the spectrum for maximal strength. At this intensity, you should be able to lift the weight no more than three to five times. If you can, you’re not using enough resistance to optimize strength gains.
Of course, you don’t want to train like this every session or you risk overtraining. Alternate periods of max strength training using a high percentage of your one-rep max with periods of deloading where you train using lighter resistance and higher reps. The mistake is not doing training near your one-rep max at all.
Not Seeing Strength Gains: You’re Not Focusing Enough on Compound Movements
Compound lifts give you better returns for the time you spend training. These are exercises that work more than one joint and muscle group at a time. Examples of compound exercises are bench press, barbell rows, pull-ups, chin-ups, push-ups, squats, and deadlifts. These exercises work a variety of muscle groups simultaneously. This is in contrast to isolation exercises, like triceps kickbacks, leg extensions, and biceps curls, that only work a single joint and muscle group. You’ll get more strength by focusing on compound exercises.
Isolation exercises have their place though. They work well for correcting muscle imbalances. For example, your triceps might need a little more work than the rest of your upper body. Focusing on your triceps with an isolation exercise, like triceps kickbacks, may be just what you need to restore balance.
Not Seeing Strength Gains: You’re Doing Isolation Exercises Before Compound Exercises
Compound exercises are the ones that get you stronger the fastest and they should be the first exercises you do. Don’t fatigue your muscles by doing isolation exercises first. Focus on the exercises that count the earliest in your workout. Save the isolation exercises for the second half of your workout. Doing it the opposite way will mean you’re already fatigued when you do the most important strength-building exercises.
Don’t forget, compound exercises also build greater functional strength as well since they replicate some of the movements you do in your daily life. For example, squats and deadlifts are among the best functional strength building exercise there are.
If there are certain exercises you avoid because you hate them, those are likely the ones your body needs most to grow and become stronger. Move those to the beginning of your workout so you can make sure they get done.
Not Seeing Strength Gains: You’re Not Periodizing Your Workouts
Periodization is where you cycle the intensity and volume of your training on a daily or weekly basis so you’re not working at the same volume and intensity every session. The purpose of periodizing is to avoid a plateau and reduce the risk of overtraining. For example, you might lift at a high percentage of your one-rep max for strength during one session and lift lighter the next week or the next session. You can periodize a workout in a number of ways but the key is to vary the amount of stress you place on your body. Most studies show periodized workouts lead to greater gains in strength and muscle size than a non-periodized training approach.
Not Seeing Strength Gains: You’re Not Getting Enough Variety
As mentioned, progressive overload is the foundation upon which strength gains are made, but even if you progressively increase the weight, you may still reach a plateau. That’s when you adjust other training variables to work your muscles in a new way. The key is to give your muscles a stimulus they’re not accustomed to. You have lots of options for manipulating training variables to “surprise” your muscles.
The training variables you can manipulate include:
. Resistance or weight
. Number of reps
. Number of sets
. Exercise order
. Tempo of each rep
. Number of exercises per muscle group
. Rest period between sets
. Training frequency
. Angle at which you work the muscle
It’s Important to Have a Benchmark
How do you know you’re not getting stronger? If your goal is to gain strength, give yourself a strength check every six months. The one-rep max test is the gold standard for measuring strength but it’s easier and safer to use a three-rep max benchmark. To do this, see what weight you’re capable of lifting for three reps and write it down. Choose a compound exercise that uses more than one muscle group, like squats or bench press. If you’re building strength, your three-rep max should go up over time. If it’s not changing, you’re not getting stronger.
The Bottom Line
Don’t forget – nutrition counts too. You won’t be able to train as hard if you’re cutting back too far on your calories. A combination of good nutrition and smart training will help you maximize your strength gains.
Periodization: Latest Studies and Practical Applications by Christopher C. Frankel and Len Kravitz, Ph.D
Exercise Physiology. Fifth Edition. McArdle, Katch, and Katch. 2001.
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