Who doesn’t want to be stronger? The way to accomplish that goal is to challenge your muscles to work harder than they’re accustomed to. To meet the added demands on your muscles in response to strength training, they must adapt and become stronger. One way they do this is by laying down new contractile elements within the muscle fiber in response to strength training.
Why is this important? More contractile elements allow muscles to generate more force. Also, strength training teaches your nervous system to communicate better with your muscles and that synergy enhances strength. Consistent training is what you need to maximize gains, but there are some common mistakes that can slow your gains. Here are five you should know about and how to correct them.
Not Resting Enough Between Sets
As much as you need consistent training to become stronger, rest is part of the equation too. When you strength train, it creates tiny tears in muscle fibers that must be mended. It’s during the repair of these tears that the muscle fiber thickens and can generate more force. Muscles repair during the rest period between strength training sessions. If you skimp on rest, your muscles won’t repair and recover enough between sessions and your gains will suffer.
Sleep matters too. It’s during the deep stages of sleep that most muscle repair occurs. You also need rest between sessions to “reboot” mentally. Fitness experts recommend not training the same muscle group more than every 48 hours, and if you train intensely, your muscles may need even longer to recover.
Not Focusing Enough on Compound Exercises
Compound exercises are the real strength builders. These are exercises that work more than one muscle group at a time and involve the movement of more than one joint at the same time. They’re the workhorse exercises for building strength and muscle size. Think squats, lunges, push-ups, pull-ups, deadlifts, triceps dips, bench press, and bent-over rows. These exercises work multiple muscles with one exercise.
In contrast, biceps curls and triceps extensions only work a single muscle group. They’re good for “fine-tuning” but they aren’t as efficient at building strength, and they don’t build functional strength in the same way compound exercises do. Are you doing enough of them? At least 75% of the exercises you do should be compound movements if you want your workouts to be efficient.
Concentrating on Weight Over Form
It’s tempting to work with the heaviest weight you can lift right out of the gate, but you may pay for it with injuries and bad habits that are hard to break. Everyone wants fast gains, but you won’t get them unless you do the exercise correctly. You’ll make the most gains if you use a full range of motion, slow down, and keep the muscle under tension throughout the full range of the movement.
Sometimes people grab a heavy weight they can’t handle and “toss” the weight up and use momentum to do the exercise. This increases the risk of injury, reinforces sloppy training habits, and reduces strength gains. Don’t be afraid to start with a lighter weight and do the exercise the right way using a full range-of-motion. Some exercises, like squats and deadlifts, are difficult to do correctly at first, and using a heavy weight can lead to injury and frustration. Start slow.
Not Using Progressive Overload
Progressive overload is the foundation of strength training and involves gradually increasing the stress you place on the targeted muscles to force them to adapt, grow, and become stronger. You do this by increasing the weight, the number of reps or number of sets, changing the tempo or frequency of training, altering the rest period between sets, or changing the exercises you do.
Many people get stuck in a comfort zone when they train. They keep using the same weight and do the same number of repetitions each time and call it a workout. If you do this, you’ll only maintain muscle, not build new muscle or gain greater strength. Once you can do 8 to 10 repetitions and your muscles aren’t thoroughly fatigued, it’s time to increase the weight, do more reps, or otherwise add to the challenge.
Not Adding Variety
Doing the same exercises over and over is a safe approach, but it won’t maximize your strength or hypertrophy gains. Repetition of the same exercises will only take you so far, and it’s important to work your muscles from different angles and change the stress you place on them. One way to do that is to add new exercises, but you can also change the way you do your current exercises. For example, change your grip on the barbell, space your hands closer or further apart when you do exercises, or change the angle at which you work a muscle.
Minor changes like these stimulate the muscles you’re working in an alternative way and can spark fresh growth. Don’t let your workouts get stale or repetitive. Add new challenges! It will help you stay motivated too.
The Bottom Line
Building strength through strength training is exciting because you’re building a fitter, healthier you. But make sure you’re not making these common mistakes that can slow your gains. Look beyond how you’re training to your lifestyle as a whole, too. Your gains will be slower if you don’t get enough sleep or eat a nutrient-dense diet that contains enough calories and protein. Have effective strategies for managing stress, too. If your cortisol level is high because of lack of sleep or stress, it creates a catabolic environment that breaks down muscle. Think of the big picture and keep training!
- Asian J Sports Med. 2015 Jun; 6 (2): e24057. Published online 2015 Jun 22. doi: 10.5812/asjsm.24057.
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- Wernbom M, Augustsson J, Thomeé R. The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans. Sport Med. 2007;37(3):225-264. doi:10.2165/00007256-200737030-00004