"Strength train," they said. "It will be fun," they said.|
Plus, they promised, it could provide the missing piece of the weight-loss puzzle. They said pumping iron would tone your muscles, boost your metabolism, strengthen your bones and perhaps even give you Hulk-worthy superpowers. (Okay, maybe that’s a stretch, but you never know.)
So, you took their advice. You drank the proverbial Kool-Aid and started using weights for something other than propping open doors and holding down papers. You’ve been consistently doing strength-training exercises for a matter of weeks now, maybe even months. You’re now on a first-name basis with your glutes, quads, triceps and biceps, and they kindly remind you of all your hard work every time you climb the stairs or lift a bag of groceries.
But when you check your progress—whether it’s by stepping on the scale, looking in the mirror or pulling on a pair of your "goal size” pants—you’re not seeing anything different than before you started lifting. What gives? Why does your co-worker, cousin or gym buddy get near-immediate results after just a few sets, while your physique remains stubbornly unchanged?
To help solve this weighty mystery, there are a myriad of factors to consider. So before you get frustrated and give up your dumbbells for good, educate yourself on strength training's best practices and common errors. A small tweak here and readjustment there may be all you need to get back on muscle-building track.
Mistake #1: Getting Stuck in a Rut
If you’re devotedly hitting the gym three times a week but doing the exact same routine every time, your muscles have probably gotten wise to your game plan and adapted to what you’re asking of them. Personal trainer Dani Singer strongly believes in the power of “muscle confusion” to keep them guessing and constantly changing (i.e. getting stronger).
“The idea is that your body adapts to whatever you throw at it,” he says. “So if you've stopped making progress and you've been following the exact same weightlifting routine for 20 years, maybe it's time to learn a new exercise.”
Fitness trainer Sarah Bright agrees, calling comfort the enemy of change. “If you do exactly the same exercises with the same weight, the same reps and the same rest periods week after week, you'll definitely stop getting results,” she says. “Plus, doing the same exercises repeatedly can lead to overuse injuries.”
If you like the workout you’re doing, you don’t necessarily have to abandon it completely for a whole new set of exercises. Bright says it’s easier than you might think to mix up your routine. “Another easy way to keep progressing is to simply add reps, then add weight and drop reps, build the reps back up and then up the weight again,” she suggests.
Mistake #2: Mixing It Up Too Much
While it’s important to steer clear of that rut, you also don’t want to change things so frequently that your muscles never get the chance to benefit from all those new moves. If you take the muscle confusion concept to the extreme, it could backfire.
“While it is important to introduce your body to new stimuli by varying your workouts, if you make changes too frequently, you'll never give your body a chance to learn,” Singer cautions. He recommends only changing your workout once you feel like you've mastered it, or when it stops producing the desired results.
“If you’re constantly jumping from class to class or program to program, chances are you're going to see mediocre results at best,” says Tyler Spraul, trainer with Exercise.com. “Try sticking with something for a solid four to six weeks in order to see the best results.”
Mistake #3: Not Using Proper Form
For beginners who don’t have personal trainers monitoring their movements, using improper form is a common mistake that not only limits results, but can also cause injury.
Michael Blauner, personal trainer and fitness expert, sees a lot of people swinging weights instead of using slow, controlled movements. “You should always be able to control the weight and not let it control you,” he says.
Spraul stresses the importance of keeping the entire body tight and engaged in the movement. “Remember that your body is connected from top to bottom, and if you're doing ‘accessory’ exercises (smaller exercises that complement the main movements) without staying strong through your core, you're leaking strength and opening yourself up to injury,” he points out.
Proper form will vary depending on your specific exercises and goals. If you’re just starting out, it’s a good idea to get some guidance from a seasoned weight trainer or fitness instructor to ensure that you’re performing each movement correctly.
Mistake #4: Using the Wrong Weight
The biggest mistake fitness trainer Julia Buckley sees her clients make is using weights that are too light for too many repetitions. “As a general principle, if you want your muscles to grow bigger, you should be using a weight that you can lift for no more than 12 reps before you can do any more without your technique going south,” she says. “If you're more interested in gaining strength than seeing bigger muscles on your body, lift a little heavier and for fewer reps, more in the range of six to eight reps. Generally, if you can do more than 10 to 12 reps with a weight, it's time to go heavier.”
Mistake #5: Not Recovering As Much As You Train
If you’re hitting the 5 a.m. boot camp class, lifting some more after work and getting only a few hours of sleep at night, chances are you’ll have a hard time making progress. “While everyone's sleep needs vary a bit, a bare minimum of six hours is required, and I'd recommend more like seven or eight hours of quality sleep time to make sure you're fresh and ready to bring 100 percent to your next workout,” says Spraul.
In addition to getting the requisite forty winks, proper recovery also involves nutrition and hydration. “If you're giving 100 percent in the gym, make sure you're just as committed to recovery in your diet and drinking habits as well, otherwise you'll slowly be breaking yourself down over time instead of getting stronger,” says Spraul.
Bright points out that muscles aren’t built in the gym—they’re rebuilt when you are resting after a workout. If you keep breaking the muscles down but don’t allow them ample recovery time, they'll never have a chance to grow.
Mistake #6: Not Eating for Strength
As any trainer or dietitian will confirm, you can’t out-lift a bad diet. “A diet of wholesome, healthy foods is optimal for strength gains,” says Buckley. “If you eat the wrong foods, the body will simply not have the right materials with which to build and strengthen your muscle fibers.”
She says protein is especially important, as it comprises the building blocks of muscles. “If you don't eat enough of it, the body can't get stronger,” she warns. “In fact, if you're training hard and not nourishing your body correctly, you could actually end up weaker as the body breaks down muscle tissue to fuel your activity.”
Mistake #7: Adding Too Much Weight Too Soon
When you’re anxious to get results, it might seem like a good idea to fast-track your weight to the maximum you can handle—but for beginners, this common mistake can bog down your goals.
“When adding too much weight too soon, it can cause trouble because people have to make up for the lack of strength by compensating in some way, usually with bad form,” says Spraul. “This compensation means that you're probably not activating all the intended muscles correctly, hampering your progress. Also, your connective tissues might not be able to handle the stress of heavier weights if you try to progress too fast.”
For the ideal combination of safety and results, Spraul recommends keeping the weight where you can control it 100 percent on the way down. This might mean the results come a bit slower, but it will give you a strong foundation for long-term lifting while avoiding injury.
Mistake #8: Not Doing Enough Cardio
Out of all the pieces of the fitness puzzle, Blauner says one of the most important is to strike the right balance between strength and cardio. For beginners who aren’t yet weight-training at a very high level, he recommends including a generous amount of cardio in between weight training sessions. He says an ideal weekly program would include two full-body strength workouts and two high-level cardio workouts.
“The cardio will develop your cardiovascular system and then allow you to pick up the pace of your weight training, and [eventually] all of your workouts will be [faster paced and] cardio-based,” he says. “I always find that my clients who do cardio on their own adapt much quicker to our workouts together. You get back what you put in!”
SparkCoach Jen is also an advocate of cross-training with cardio. “By striking a balance between cardio and strength training, you improve your overall fitness level, not just one specific aspect of fitness,” she says. “You’re challenging your body in different ways, strengthening your heart and increasing endurance through cardio exercise, which then carries over to improved performance in strength training and other activities.”
Mistake #9: Comparing Your Results to Others
While it may seem like you’re not getting results, the reality may be that they’re just not coming as quickly as you’d like—or as quickly as what your workout buddy is experiencing. Blauner is a firm believer that weight training works for everyone, although not always at the same pace.
“Only pay attention to how your efforts affect you,” he suggests. “Never compare your results to anyone else's. Each body is different, and each person’s genetic makeup is totally unique. What matters most is how you feel, and if it’s done properly, training with weights will be a lifelong gift to your body.”