It's time for some tough love. If you're not making progress in the gym, you only have yourself to blame. Sure, you're probably trying hard, but you're accidentally shooting yourself in the foot.
How? By making one or more of the following mistakes. Don't worry, you can fix them, turn back on the gains, and reach your goals.
1 – Adding more work when progress is already good
We've all been there, present company included. You're in a good training groove, and you're progressing nicely. Strength is up, you look more muscular, and you're recovered and motivated. So you decide to add more stuff. You add more sets, more intensification methods, or throw in that cool new exercise you saw on the 'gram.
Invariably, you start to feel worse. Your muscle tone slowly decreases and your strength gains stop. Your strong lifts now feel hard. Your motivation goes down the drain, and you start looking for a new program.
You were doing an effective program. You WERE progressing. But you screwed it all up by wanting even more. Adding stuff to an already good plan is something many instinctively do. It's like the gambler who just can't quit when he's ahead.
Adding more work will kill your progression by putting too much training stress on your body. For strength or size, there's a limit to how fast you can progress. That limit is set by your level of experience and your own physiology.
For muscle mass, a beginner might be able to add 1.5 to 2 pounds of muscle per month. An intermediate drops down to 1.0 to 1.5 pounds per month. An advanced lifter might be limited to 0.5 to 1 pound per month. Once you're very advanced, your rate of possible progression is even slower.
For strength, progression also depends on various factors like experience level, genetics, and training focus. But a normal rate of progression on an exercise is 0.5 to 2% per week. The extremely advanced lifters might even be closer to 0.25%.
"Yeah, but Thib, sometimes I can add 10 pounds to my bench in a week!" Sure, but this is usually because you left a few reps in the tank the previous week, and this week you went all out. That can give you the illusion of gaining 5% or more while, in reality, you still only progressed by 1-2%.
You have to realize that those rates of progression can give you the impression of NOT progressing. For example, if you benched 200 x 6 reps and this leads to a 1-2% strength gain, it would mean being able to bench 202 to 204 pounds x 6 reps. Even adding 2.5 pounds per side would exceed your rate of progression.
The moral of the story? If you're able to gradually add weight or reps to the bar, the program is working. You're likely progressing close to your maximum possible rate of progression. You can't force your body to stop obeying its own physiology and progress faster by doing more volume or more stressful training.
Gaining strength and size requires patience.
2 – Not having a plan: exercising, not training
It still amazes me when someone walks into the gym without a plan and decides on the fly what he'll do that day. That's not training; that's exercising. (Hat tip to Rippetoe.)
Training is a planned stress designed to stimulate a certain adaptation to improve your body's capacities. Furthermore, training has to be progressive to keep working. You must gradually challenge your body a bit more.
If you change what you do all the time and don't follow a structure, how can you know if what you're doing is providing a higher training stress than last time? Or adding too much training stress?
You absolutely can adjust the plan depending on how you're feeling and performing during the workout, but you at least need to have a structured plan and a pre-determined progression system. It doesn't matter if you use a double progression, triple progression, a 5/3/1 model, a percentage-based progression, or anything else. Just have a structured way to progress.
3 – Ramping up training volume when trying to lose fat
Someone decides to get lean. He reduces calories, which means less food, fewer nutrients, and, more importantly, less energy. It's a common mistake.
Food is what allows you to recover from your workouts. It also fuels those sessions. Does it make sense to train more when you're eating less? Does it make sense to train more when your capacity to recover is lower?
It makes exactly zero sense. It's a great way to burn out, fail to repair the muscle damage caused by your workout (leading to muscle loss), and be short on fuel, leading to poor workout performances.
And don't forget, the more you train, the more you raise cortisol. And the less you eat, the more you raise cortisol. Combining low calories with a lot of training will lead to very high cortisol levels, which will cause all sorts of bad things: muscle loss, lower libido, less sleep, bad moods, and, eventually, a harder time losing fat.
I'm all for increasing activity level when dieting down, but do it with a non-stressful activity like walking, not by doing more and more hard lifting.
Keep training hard to maintain or even slightly increase your muscle mass, but don't add more volume. It's smarter to decrease volume while upping the intensity.
4 – Training too often
You've heard it a million times: You don't get bigger or stronger in the gym. You grow when you eat and recover. So why are you training five to seven days a week?
While it's possible to train that frequently if the volume is super low – like in The Best Workout Plan for Natural Lifters – with a more "traditional" training approach, lifting too often is the fastest way to hit the wall.
Rest days are important not only to allow for recovery and growth to occur, but also to maximize performance at every workout. If you train five to seven days a week, you're bound to train three or more days in a row. Systemic fatigue builds up, and performance will slowly decrease throughout the week.
Bad workouts are counterproductive to progression. They cause more fatigue without contributing much to progress. It's a lot more effective to have fewer weekly workouts, but make them high-quality, high-performance workouts.
A ton of elite strength athletes and bodybuilders train four days per week or less, even those using steroids. If you're a normal human with a job, responsibilities, and life stress, I recommend a one-day on, one-day off approach. This is basically training every other day. (Try the EOD Program here.)
You could also train Monday/Wednesday/Friday/Saturday with Saturday being an easy workout where you do mostly isolation work for lagging muscles.
If you train hard, it's very unlikely that you'll under-train. But it's very easy to do too much and reduce progression because of it.
5 – Abusing stimulants when you're too tired to train
Pre-workout stimulants are the most poorly-used supplements in the world. I'm not against the occasional use of these products, like when you're testing your max or competing, but be smart about it.
Yes, physiologically, they can lead to issues if used all the time, but that's not even the biggest problem. The problem is that people use stimulants to be able to train when they have no business training.
If you're too run down to train, the workout is going to be a waste because you have no drive and no energy. The smart thing to do? Take the day off, then figure out why you're too pooped to train.
Is it improper programming? Not enough rest days? Too much training stress? Not enough food? Not enough sleep?
Once you figure out what the problem is, you can fix it. This will not only help you train hard again, but it'll keep things more effective in the future.
But if you take stimulants to give you fake energy to train instead of finding out what the issue is, you're just digging a bigger hole. The stimulant doesn't fix the lack of recovery. It temporarily masks it. The stress from that workout adds to the residual fatigue, making it even harder to recover in time for your next session. It can become a vicious cycle.
Also, stimulants themselves can contribute to systemic fatigue by over-stimulating the beta-adrenergic receptors, which can make them resistant to your own adrenaline. When that happens, your strength, power, endurance, and drive go down the drain.
Use stimulants wisely. Remember, every time you use them it's like taking a loan at the bank: you have more money to spend, but you have to pay it back with interest. Never let stimulants become a crutch for poor programming or nutrition.
NOTE: There's a difference between stimulants and nootropics like caffeine-free Brain Candy® and Power Drive®. Nootropics don't get you hyper; they get you more focused, more motivated, and in a better mood. This helps with performance, but it doesn't mask fatigue as stimulants do.
Probably, because most of these mistakes are due to too much passion and drive. Even if it feels counterintuitive, if you avoid these mistakes you'll not only progress more, your progress will be sustainable, and you'll feel better. What's it gonna be?