The aim of this article is to touch upon some of what I consider to be the more common and damaging "mistakes" used in strength training. Having personally programmed more individual athletes than I care to remember (actually, I don't bother to count), I've gained an insight into why training often stagnates.
There may be many reasons for lack of progress, and I'm a strong believer in the individualization of training. That is, the most accurate program design or troubleshooting will only occur when the individual's variables are known. So I can't say with absolute certainty that if you're making any of the following "mistakes" it's having a negative effect on your progress. However, generally speaking, it probably is.
Let's be honest—where, in the last 30 years, have most people gleaned the bulk of their training information/misinformation? Where do they learn how to train themselves, or to train others? Without a doubt, the single biggest influence has been the bodybuilding magazines. And when you consider the trash that most mainstream bodybuilding magazines present, it's no wonder that the readers have been left floundering!
Fortunately, there's some hope when magazines such as Testosterone are prepared to break the mold and print information that's actually effective.
It's as simple as that—overtraining. Overtraining can be caused by many factors. I'll keep it brief, however, and present three key ways to avoid overtraining:
Do only 10-20 work sets per workout.
For most people, most of the time, I recommend a range of sets per workout (not per muscle group) of 10-20 sets. That's all. You say you can do more? Great. What is this, a competition to see how many sets you can do, or an attempt to determine the optimal number for your progress? In fact, 5-15 sets may be an even better range.
Never train continuously for longer than 12 weeks.
I feel that 12 weeks of continuous training is as far as you should take it. Then you should take a full recovery week and avoid strength training. You can, however, participate in other activities—as long as you don't turn the week into some kind of boot camp. Twelve weeks is the uppermost limit of the range, though. For most, I'd recommend shorter training periods of 3, 4, 6, 8, and 9 weeks.
Avoid assuming that all exercises or muscle groups require equal attention in volume.
Have you ever seen a program that gave equal attention, such as the number of sets, to each exercise? I call this program a "standard sets" approach—multiple sets, usually at the same load. (You're probably doing one at the moment!) Whenever I see the old 3x12 or similar (3-5x12, 3-5x10, or 3-5x8), I see a historical mistake being repeated—a blatant acceptance of tradition without any questioning or thought applied. Devoting three or more sets to every exercise in the workout is a surefire guarantee of overtraining.
2) Ignoring the Weakness
The quickest way to improve in virtually any endeavor is to work the weakest link. If you're pursuing an increase in size or strength, find the most neglected muscle group (no matter how small it is!) and work it. Most know and understand this concept, but what most fail to do is put it first in the workout and first in the week.
Here's an exercise I do during my initial design interview with a new client. It's so simple that you may wish to give it a go. First, I ask them to list their muscle groups in order from weakest (that is, least developed relative to the other muscle groups) to strongest.
Then, I ask them to make a second list based on their current or dominant training method. List the muscle groups under each of your training days, in the order that you train them. For example, if you use a three-day cycle, you'll use three columns.
Now, compare your two lists. Does the order appear similar or different? If your current or dominant program is to reflect the prioritization of your weaknesses, then the muscle groups that appeared high on the list should appear either early in the training cycle (on day one) or early in each training session, or both.
3) Failing to Vary Training Priorities
From what I have told you above, the muscle groups that receive attention first in the training week and first on the training day are the ones that will probably show the most improvement. Consequently, I recommend that you work weak muscle groups first, but equally important is to never use the same muscle group sequence endlessly. Doing so will do two things: reinforce inevitable muscle imbalances that result from any given sequence, and contribute to the stagnation of the neglected muscle groups.
Here's another pen exercise for you. You may have listed in the above writing exercise the muscle group allocation to training days, and the sequencing of these muscle groups within each training day. Now, do the same thing for the program you did before the recent program. And do it again for the program before that, and the program before that. If you see a pattern—if you seem to always be prioritizing the same muscle groups by placing them first in the week and first in the training session—you can spur further growth by doing it differently in your next program!
4) Creating Injury Potential
How would you feel if I told you that most of what you do in your training program is going to cause more damage than good? Pretty pissed off, right? I thought so. Well, most of what I see does just that—cause more damage than good, damage in the form of injuries. When you're forced to sit out your training for a few weeks (from muscle strain, at best) or a few months (complete muscle tear, at worst), you take little consolation in knowing that you were in great shape for a few weeks just prior to your injury. More likely, you're worried about how fast you're losing your hard-fought gains!
There are many ways to reduce the likelihood of this happening to you. Most of these preventative measures come from the areas of muscle balance and joint stability. Now, I wouldn't expect you to become an expert in this overnight, but I'll give some insights into avoiding one of the most common strength-training injuries—shoulder joint pain.
This example will be based on the simple concept that posterior shoulder strength (such as the ability to pull back in a horizontal plane perpendicular to the body, like you might do in rowing movements) should be similar to the anterior shoulder strength (such as the ability to push away in a horizontal plane perpendicular to the long axis of the trunk, like you might do in a bench press). I call this horizontal pulling and pushing, and every exercise in this plane of movement, be it a single- or double-joint movement, is placed in one of these two categories.
Now count how many exercises and sets you do for pulling and pushing in each training week or microcycle. Are the numbers equal? If not, which dominates? If you're doing more pushing than pulling movements, you're headed toward trouble. Secondly, consider the sequence of these exercises—does the pushing or pulling appear earlier in the training week or training day?
If pushing movements receive equal prioritization, however, chalk up another item on the list of things you're doing right.
5) Misinterpreting "Training Hard"
During my first interview with a new client, I'll pick up very quickly on their work ethic and their interpretation of "hard work." And when I hear things like "I really work hard" or "I can really tolerate a lot of work," I sense an immediate and easy opportunity for advancement. How? By teaching them not to focus on working hard! Confused? Let me explain.
Strength training for size and strength should be used as an anaerobic activity: do a work set, rest; do a work set, rest. At the end of the workout, you should only feel smashed some of the time, not all of the time! Strength training, if used correctly, is one of the few sporting activities with significant anabolic potential. Used otherwise, it can be as catabolic as any other type of training.
The key to this is the well-known but rarely understood relationship between volume and intensity. If the total work time exceeds a certain critical point, the anabolic potential follows the intensity potential...downward. You might as well be out at the local uni doing a track session. Even that has some short-term anabolic properties!
So what is that critical volume, the one you should avoid exceeding? Realistically, I can't predict that without knowing more about you. But if you read my generalized guidelines on volume earlier in this article, you'll get a good idea of my perspective on this.
So, instead of feeling the need to totally smash yourself every workout, consider the following tip to ensure that you don't overstep the mark in a standard three-week training cycle:
Week 1 Workouts
Never miss a rep, don't lift at your limits, focus on the quality of your technique, and walk out of the gym after each workout feeling very fresh, even underworked.
Week 2 Workouts
Work closer to your known limits, still with no intent of missing a rep; at the end of the workout you'll still have some reserve, but you'll know you just finished a workout.
Week 3 Workouts
Look for new personal bests in the exercises you're doing, but still be realistic. You may miss some reps, but don't attempt to lift a weight unless you have a strong belief that you'll get all the reps. At the end of the workout, you may feel a high degree of fatigue.
The above may seem conservative, but remember this: it's not about how much you can do in a workout, but rather what amount of effort will give the greatest rate of return!
6) Lacking Intensity
I just finished telling you to back off. Now I am going to tell you that most strength training is conducted with inadequate intensity. Contradictory? No. Mistake number 5 referred primarily to excessive volume. Now I'm talking about inadequate intensity. What I recommend is a low number of sets and a short time in the gym, but with a high level of focus. I believe that, in strength training, intensity is more important than volume.
Remember this—effort is relative to perception. If you attempt what you might normally use in one of your early work sets but do it without first doing any warm-up sets, the set will no doubt feel heavy. Likewise, if you're sitting on the bench press you just used, chatting about your last sexual encounter, and then lie down and immediately commence a set, it will feel heavy and you will probably be lifting way down from your true potential. You may even fail to do a single rep.
However, with a change in approach, you'll succeed in lifting a lot heavier weights.
These are some of the techniques I use and recommend to raise the focus and intensity of your training session (and get better results!):
• Never sit or stand on or near the device you're using. Instead, sit or stand a few meters away. Develop the subconscious awareness that once you enter that area, you will have a higher level of focus or aggression (the less complex the lift, the more your aggression will work).
• Take at least 30 seconds prior to approaching the device or area for a work set to rehearse the lift. Focus on the end result and develop a higher level of arousal, urgency, and aggression.
• Even during extended rest periods, never allow your focus (this includes conversation) to deviate far from the reason you're in the gym—it will jeopardize your ability to return to the desired level of intensity.
• Throw a towel over your shoulders during the rest periods. This will maintain body temperature. Take it off immediately prior to the work set. The sudden exposure to a lower room temperature will cause a fight or flight response, aiding your ability to raise your arousal level.
7) Lifting to Impress
Ever been asked to spot a person, say, on the bench press? You look at them—then at the weight on the bar—and shake your head. You ask them how many reps they plan on doing, and they say eight. Sure! They do one, and you upright row the remaining seven! (Before I go on, I'll give you an antidote to that common problem: give very little help in the first assisted rep. This rep may eventually take 20 seconds to complete. By then, they'll have turned purple and fear is clearly plastered on their face. Their protruding eyeballs will indicate that they want to rack the bar then and there. It takes less time out of your workout, and they'll never bother you again for a spot!)
I would say that most load selection in strength training is based upon what impact it will have on those watching, not what impact it will have on the body. Think about it—30 seconds of glory. It's too bad that, while walking on the beach and seeing someone they want to impress, these same muttonheads can't pull the same weights out of their pocket and impress in the same way. These are the same guys who wear T-shirts that say "Yesterday I benched xxx pounds." Ever wonder why so many want to tell you how much they lifted? Because you could never tell by just looking at them!
I really don't care what weight you can take out of the rack and quarter rep. If you were more serious about your body than your short-term ego, you'd take off 75% of the load and perform the movement in a manner that had some lasting impact on your body! Ever walk into the gym and see a considerable load on the squat bar? Then you see the lifter. Straight away you know you're going to see a set of very limited range movements, no doubt done with more bounce than Pamela Anderson on a trampoline!
Lifting heavy is great—if it makes a difference! The key is to learn how to make a difference to the body with a slow and controlled movement, and then progressively add resistance!
I could easily think of another seven, ten, or fifty common training mistakes, but let's focus on eliminating the seven that I've listed here. Oh, and stop picking up your training routines from the conventional bodybuilding magazines!