Clearly, this means you.
Top 11 mistakes that limit strength gains:
1. Poor exercise selection
Curls and bench all the time. Awesome, right? No. Not right. The most fruitful, productive work that can be undertaken in a gym is applying barbells and, on occasion, dumbbells to full-body compound motions. But.. but… but nothing. That’s it. I say it all over this blog–that means all types of barbell squats, all types of deadlifts, row variations and press variations (like bench and overhead). A little assistance work is ok (like biceps curls and triceps extensions), but that’s all. The compound lifts recruit more muscle fiber and hammer the central nervous system like nothing else.
2. Not putting in enough effort
I heard Terry Crews say something very silly on the Ellen show a couple of days ago (he’s the large, very well-muscled guy on Brooklyn 99 and in some Old Spice commercials). He said that just getting to the gym is more important than what you do at the gym. I laughed heartily at that one. If he actually practiced and/ or believed that, I guarantee you he’d have arms and legs like hairs and an eight pack of snowballs. Effort is one of the most important factors that separates the gainers from non-gainers. Man or woman, you need to summon the will of the ox when you’re pulling or pushing the bar. Total focus. Every rep is a mountain. Every set is a mountain range. The goal is to climb it all. You’ve got to hit the muscles hard to grow, to get ripped and stay ripped. But remember, that works out to literally 20 or 25 minutes of focused work during the session and you’re done; you can rest for the remaining 1,400-odd minutes of the day.
3. Not tracking progress
If you don’t know what you lifted the last time you performed a Bulgarian split squat, you won’t know what you’re supposed to lift this time. If you don’t know how many reps you completed last time, you’ve got nothing to shoot for this time. A lifting journal is one of the few physical things that can drastically increase the success potential of a weight training program. Want to get even more out of your journal? Take a few seconds to note how you feel after completing an exercise. It’s totally subjective, but over time, you’ll see a pattern emerge.
4. Poor lift sequencing
This is so important and so outrageously overlooked at both the intra and inter-session scales. Let’s first look at the intra-workout sequence (the lifts you do during a single training session).
Intra-session lift sequencing
I pay attention to the habits/ routines of the strongest people in the gym (men and women) as well as the weakest. The weakest almost always focus on small muscle groups from the start of their workouts to the end. Performing biceps curls, leg extensions, triceps kickbacks, crunches, shoulder raises, calf raises, shrugs, wrist rolls, pec flyes etc etc etc is virtually never a good idea, ever (ever ever) period, but it’s an even worse idea to do them at the beginning of a training session. Even if you’re sticking to mainly the correct handful of compound lifts referred to in point #1 above and just do a little bit of assistance work, if you do the assistance work first (i.e. hit a small muscle group like just the deltoids or biceps or triceps or whatever), you’re gonna screw yourself. Say you hit your biceps hard with barbell curls as your first lift. Then you move on to bent over supine barbell rows (that’s where your palms face away from you). Although it’s a ridiculously efficient back-building lift, how the heck are you going to hit all those muscles as hard as you can (rhomboids, lats, traps, posterior deltoids and erectors to name a few) if your biceps are fatigued? You’ve sabotaged the lift because the biceps also play a major role in pulling the bar. And if you can’t pull the bar… well… duh.
Inter-session lift sequencing
This is another big one. Let’s say you lift Mon, Tues, Wed. Monday is an upper body pulling day, Tuesday is a lower body day, and Wednesday is an upper body pushing day. Let’s also say you’re using all the right compound barbell lifts (Refer to #1. Yes, again.). Let’s say on Monday you do some heavy-ass barbell rows. Even better–Pendlay rows (that’s where your upper body is near parallel with the ground as you’re executing the lift). Not only does this lift hit the upper back nice and juicily, but it’s also heavily engaging the erectors (lower back), glutes and hamstrings, which are all contracting hard isometrically to stabilize and balance your body. Great. The next day is lower body day and you’ve got a whole melange of delicious squats to eat (like maybe front, back, and hack squats). Oooh baby! Just typing that gets me hot. But uh oh. Something’s wrong. You feel like the 250 lbs on your back is 500 pounds. You can’t move the damn weight. What’s going on? A messed up inter-session sequence is what’s wrong. All the prime movers required for those huge squats are tired from your rows the day before. Solution? Flip your push day and pull day so that you’re pulling the day after lower body, rather than before. Now it’s true that your Pendlay rows might suffer a little because you smashed your lower back, glutes and hams the day before with your squat salad, but not all pulling exercises require those muscles the same way squats do. Get what I’m saying? If not, please ask in the comments.
5. Poor form
Poor form can either be the result of the weight being too heavy for your current state of development/ restedness, or it can be the result of laziness. Either way, poor form means that the target muscle groups are not being optimally positioned for the lift to create the appropriate fatigue.
6. Prioritizing the weight moved over strength gains (i.e. not mastering a weight)
This point will be the subject of a more detailed post in the near future, but main idea is that focus should be placed on moving the weight the right way and not just moving weight because you can move it. I can move a bar loaded with 350 lbs, but the quality of the movement would suck. If it’s too heavy, form suffers and the crap described in #5 above happens.
7. Not having a plan
This one goes back to the point (#2) about tracking progress and keeping a journal. Efficiency in the gym boils down to knowing exactly which lifts you will perform, how they will be sequenced, how many sets and reps you’re aiming for, and the loads you’ll be using. This should all be determined before you set foot in the gym for the session.
8. Failing to repeat the same lift with heavier weights
How do professionals — professionals in anything — become professional? For one, they’ve repeated the thing they’re professionals in a sh*tload of times until it becomes second nature. If your goal is to get strong, and keep getting stronger, you have to get better and better at lifting weights. The only way to do that is to lift weights. If you want to develop huge overall full-body strength, you do the deadlift over and over and over adding weight over time. You do front squats. Back squats. Hack squats. Bench presses. Rows. Chinups. Dips. There’s no secret. There’s no glamour. There’s no TreadClimber, P90X, Insanity, CrossFit, Bowflex or whatever other flavor of the month might come along. Get under the damn bar. Move it well. Repeat. It’s the same exact recipe for men and women.
9. Failing to get adequate rest
There are many levels of rest. Without proper rest between sets, you limit your capacity to lift as much as possible and more completely fatigue the muscle. Without adequately resting muscle groups between sessions, you limit your body’s capacity to repair the damage you did, and its ability to adapt to the additional stress with additional muscle (a.k.a. hypertrophy).
10. Failing to eat enough carbohydrates
Carb fear kills strength. I literally need to focus on eating carbohydrates to maintain what I have, let alone to continue to make gains. Think what you want, but I’m telling you that white potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava (yucca), plantains, parsnips and winter squash (all kinds) are the best natural, unrefined sources of carbs. I will not argue with anyone. It’s just the way it is. Refined carbs, including grains are suboptimal. Natural foods are absolutely the best because they’re full of the micronutrients your body craves in a form that is simple for your body to understand. The vitamin B6 added to your Lucky Charms doesn’t count.
11. Having too many goals or not knowing what the goals are
Big, big, big one here. Is your goal to run a marathon, or to get strong and ripped? Is it to do some disastrous bullsh*t CrossFit metabolic training, or is it to keep getting stronger and stronger methodically?