7 Common Strength Training Mistakes. Is Your Workout Making You Weak?

May 18, 2009

I wanted to make a post outlining the most common strength training mistakes I see in the gym on a regular basis. I know that all of us reach sticking points in strength gains, but you could be doing a few things in your workout that are sabotaging your own progress. In my rush to getting stronger in my early days of lifting, I made these same mistakes. Use this post as a checklist next time you get stuck. Strength training is safe and easy when done properly, but can make you weak and sore if done wrong.

strength training

[I was overdue for an odd photo, so this should do the job. As usual, only about 1/2 of the photos on my site have anything to do with the article. This weekend I am going with a few friends to a beach house that has a nice hot tub overlooking the water. I guess this photo relates to that, but hopefully we won't be attacking each other!]

Why I Recommend Strength Training Over Bodybuilding

Before I get into the article, I just wanted to give a quick summary of why I believe strength training is the way to go to look and feel your best. I push the idea of gaining strength without increasing the size of the muscle. This is accomplished by lifting a low amount of sets and reps and getting stronger without breaking down the muscle with fatigue. The more efficient a muscle gets (same size + more strength), the better tone it will display.

Strength Training Is Different From Traditional Gym Routines

Most of the typical routines I see in the gym are “bodybuilding influenced”. What I mean by that is the goal of the workout is to break down and fatigue the muscle. One of the ideas is progressive overload…using heavier weights over time…but since fatigue is involved the result is muscle breakdown. “Breaking down the muscle” is great for building mass, but a terrible strategy if long-term strength gains are your goal. Strength training has a completely different goal. By listing these common strength training mistakes, you will hopefully gain a better understanding of crucial strength training concepts. Let’s do this!

Mistake #1: Training to Failure or Using “Forced Reps”

I don’t even need a spotter anymore. Know why? I have stopped 1-2 reps short of failure for close to 10 years. Training to failure can work for the short term. You can get stronger for a few weeks and possibly even a couple of months, but those strength gains will come to a halt at some point. The problem with training to failure is that it is sending negative feedback to your nervous system. The next time you try to lift the weight, your nerve impulses to your muscles will be weakened a bit. This causes weaker contractions in the future and at some point training to failure will catch up with you. You will actually become weaker in that lift!

Mistake #2: Too Many Reps With Not Enough Tension

The problem with lifting over 5 reps is that you are sending many weak signals to your muscles to contract -vs- sending a few strong impulses. These weak impulses will eventually fatigue the muscle, without generating a lot of muscle tension. The goal of strength training is the opposite….a lot of tension without fatigue. This is accomplished best in 5 reps or less.

Mistake #3: High Rep Warmup Sets

This might be the most common mistake of all. I will see a guy who can bench 275, pumping up a warm up set of 135 pounds like a piston for 10-15 reps. If you plan on benching 275 pounds for 3 reps, then it is best to do your warmup sets with 3 reps. You also want to move the weight of your warmup sets at approximately the same tempo as your work sets. By doing this, you are giving your nervous system positive feedback set after set. By the time the weights get heavy, your nervous system will cooperate by sending a stronger impulse to your muscles than normal. The easy 2-3 warmup sets are used to get those nerve impulses flowing…make the most out of this by “pretending that the weight is heavy”. Squeeze your muscles hard on those sets (without fatiguing them).

(A video intermission. My girlfriend thought it was funny that the people in Paris barely react to the naked women walking down the street. Thanks for e-mailing this to us Brett…catchy tune!)

Mistake #4: Not Resting Enough In Between Sets

There is a way to get ample rest in between sets without having your workouts last too long. On your first 2-3 sets of an exercise, you won’t need that much rest. Save the 2-3 minutes of rest for your tougher “work sets”. With strength training, you don’t want each set to build upon the last set…this is a bodybuilding technique. In bodybuilding you want to hit each set before the muscle is fully recovered, so over time this results in muscle fatigue and it serves to break down the muscle. With strength training, think of each set as a separate entity.

Mistake #5: Not Adding a Slight Pause in Between Reps

A common bodybuilding technique is to perform non-stop reps without a pause at the top or bottom. This is a great way to fatigue the muscle, it also is a great way to get “the pump”. When performing a strength training set, try to pause just for a brief moment to allow your nervous system to reset and “charge up” a bit. This pause can be really short (a second or less), but try to include this to allow for maximum strength output. Each rep is almost, but not quite, separate from the other reps.

Mistake #6: Stretching Before Sets and In Between Sets

Stretching before your workout makes you weaker as does stretching in between sets. I have a detailed post on the subject: Hate to Stretch? Don’t Have Time to Stretch? I Have Good News! Really, just make sure you are doing a few lighter sets of the same movement and you will be fine. No need to go through a long stretching ritual…it will do more harm than good.

Mistake #7: High Velocity Lifting

I was hesitant to include this as a “strength training mistake”, but I will explain why I think it is a poor approach. Lifting a weight at high speeds takes advantage of the stretch in the muscle and tendons to contribute to the force generated. In my opinion this is “fool’s gold” and not true strength…as far as “increasing the efficiency of your nervous system”. What happens is that strength gains can come quickly using this method and then to an abrupt halt (as soon as your tendons have been worked to the max). This way of lifting is also asking for a bad muscle tear. Slow and steady wins the race in the long run. I have a detailed post on this exact subject: The Strength Training Rep Dissected and Explained

Note: Gaining strength in a muscle without adding size is in my opinion the quickest route to looking lean and defined. If you put on mass at the same rate you gain strength, you will just have a bigger looking version of the same soft looking muscle. Muscle efficiency at a reasonably low body fat percentage creates an amazing look.

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Rusty Moore

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{ 67 comments… read them below or add one }

Liam | Fitness Trainer May 21, 2009 at 7:39 am

The points 1 to 4 made in this post go against conventional hypertrophy training, but I guess that this is about strength and not muscle gain. I definitely agree with points 5, 6 & 7.

michael May 21, 2009 at 12:20 pm

thanks for responding to my comment,I found this site a couple of weeks ago and was surprised by the advice on muscle definition because I have also been told different. I wanted to hear from you because I am planning to start strenght training myself and when I asked a few people about it they said your advice was completely wrong,one even said that I would damage my body because strenght training puts so much strain on it.

Fit Jerk May 21, 2009 at 1:09 pm

Hurrah! Yep I love strength training… but one other thing you need to mention is the TEMPO of the lift during strength training.

A strength training tempo is SLOW… very slow. 4 seconds kind of slow. Anything faster than 4 seconds and slower than 1 second is working hypertrophy.

Jason G May 21, 2009 at 1:53 pm

Yash,

Thanks for your comment. I actually have not tried running on concrete with the Vibram Five Fingers. I am worried that running naturally/bare foot on unnatural surfaces like concrete and even asphalt might result in some unforeseen injuries down the line. However this is based on speculation and I have not researched the issue mainly because trail running is more for me. However doing sprints down a peer sounds just as rewarding.

Justin from GymJunkies May 21, 2009 at 6:40 pm

Preach on brother!!!

I like how there has been a huge shift in fitness blogs and websites from bodybuilding -> strength training.

It really shows that were not ALL ABOUT looks and actually do care about the health benefits of our workout.

Why do I need to buy a fitness magazine when I have FBB ;)

- Justin

Studio Element Personal Training May 21, 2009 at 9:28 pm

Good post! I’m constantly trying to get my clients to understand some of these mistakes. Well, I guess it’s good for business.

Ariel May 22, 2009 at 12:49 pm

Great post Rusty!!

I was wondering if you could do a post on Jessica Alba’s Body sometime, specifically for girls… I really love her body and I think it is the perfect mix of lean muscle tone! Perhaps you could include diet tips to get as lean as her, and then maintenance tips too! I want to be as lean as her but I don’t want to have to eat super low calories for the rest of my life!

Just an idea! Have a great one Rusty!

craig May 22, 2009 at 12:50 pm

Hey Rusty,

I just wanted to comment about VAcoder’s/The Spaniard’s discussion. 145 lbs at 5’11 is thin, but it’s not TOO thin. Cam Gigandet (sp?) or of course Brad Pitt are around this height, and have looked great while staying in the 150lb range. This is exactly where I’m at. Now, probably like VAcoder, I’m just trying to gain a little size in my arms and shoulders.

If you’re really ripped, low body weight sounds lighter than it actually is – especially if you like a slender look.

Ariel May 22, 2009 at 12:56 pm

Here is the lean Jessica Alba Body I want!

http://cache.daylife.com/imageserve/0a9bgpOe8X1al/340x.jpg

admin May 22, 2009 at 2:39 pm

Sam,

I need to get some low carb tortillas. My thoughts are that they sound like a good thing! 6 grams of carbs is next to nothing…I miss breakfast burritos and fajitas. You will probably still want to have the ocassional super-low carb days if you are trying to get lean in max time, but this is a good thing to have on the other days. Thanks for the comment…I never realized that they would be so low carb.

Connie,

I set the incline at 2.0, because that supposedly works the muscles in a similar way to natural running. I’ll do incline for a fast walk for 15-20 minutes after a hard HIIT session every once in a while. It is a way to keep the metabolism rolling along.

Scott N,

Olympic Lifting is different. Those lifts have to be done like that. When I’m talking about strength training, I’m not referring to the quick, Olympic style lifts.

Helder,

You are right…I love doing sets of 3 reps. It feels like about the ideal amount to really build hard, defined muscles. As far as explosive lifting goes….I just hate recommending it, because of the damage it does to the joints over time.

Matt,

Thanks for the reply…and you are exactly right!

The Spaniard,

Honestly, I’d have to see a person before making that judgment. I have seen exceptionally toned guys within that range who look outstanding. It is so hard to say without seeing a person.

gus,

Brad Pitt acheived his look more from a strict diet than anything else. It is simpler than what most people make it out to be, but not easy. You have to create a strong calorie deficit from eating low-cal for a period of 1-2 weeks, take a couple of days where you add a few more calories and then back to a tough diet for 1-2 weeks…and continue the process. It is easier said thn done because you will get hungry. The muscle tone he displayed is largely due to having low body fat. There are several training method that would create that physique. What I would recommend is low rep strength training, because that insures the least amount of muscle loss under extreme calorie deficits…add in a bit of HIIT and Bodyweight circuits and you are good.

Jason G,

Good call on not wearing those to a gym…they do look kind of geeky (but cool for trails or the beach). It sounds fun running through thew woods in nature wearing these.

Yash,

I could use a bit more calf development and definition. I think I may incorporate running with these. I love sprinting on the beach barefoot, but this gives me many options.

Jason G,

Great answer. To be ultra low in body fat percentage it is more about rough diet than anything else. He wasn’t able to hold it that low for very long…but people really don’t need to be that low anyway.

Liam,

Yeah…the main focus of my site is getting lean and strong without adding excess muscle. If someone was working for mass they would want to go to failure to induce damage to the muscles.

Michael,

The type of strength training I recommend is safer than the typical high rep to failure type of lifting. You can concentrate better and do perfect reps in the 3-5 rep range than you can doing 10-15 reps. Also…since you avoid failure there is much less damage done compared to the high rep way of working out. The people you spoke to are following out-dated methods. While they can aceive a decent look with their approach, my approach will give them an “extra sharp” look without all of the excess muscle soreness and fatigue. Also…my approach will make you stronger and conserve muscle mass under a strict diet…the high-rep stuff will just make you weaker over a period of time. The choice is yours. One more thing…90% of personal trainers in most of the gyms are trained under a system that hasn’t evolved in over 25 years…95% of the people in your free weight room are following that same system as well.

Fit Jerk,

I certainly like to take it slow, because I get longer lasting results that way and it feels better on my body.

Justin,

Thanks for the kind words. Your site is phenomenal as well. I wish they had the Internet when I first began training. I spent a lot of money on bad bodybuilding magazines back in the 80′s.

Studio Element,

There is a HUGE need for good personal trainers who really help people reach their goals and are not afraid to go against the grain a bit.

Ariel,

Well Jessica probably goes pretty low cal from time to time. I will do a specific post for women soon.

Craig,

Great point. I have friends named Tom and Gerry (not kidding)…they are twins. When I met them in my fraternity about 20 years ago, they were around 140-145 and looked great. Both of them were lifeguards at the time and they had a lean build. Over the years of being active and training they are now closer to 160-165. I think they jsut slowly filled out a bit from growing a bit older. They look great at both weights and didn’t look exceptionally skinny at 145…they were both just ripped from being active lifeguards.

Ariel,

I will do a post on the approach I would recommend to get that look.

Rusty

Mike May 23, 2009 at 12:12 pm

I like this idea. So 5 reps but how many sets?
Thanks!

Anthony May 23, 2009 at 5:52 pm

Simply put, phenomenal post. The reiteration of these things helps us remember to workout the right way.
Thanks for this Rusty.

Brandon B. May 24, 2009 at 9:35 am

I’ll keep it short and say, good post!

a student May 24, 2009 at 10:31 am

Hi Rusty,

I know that you usually like to workout in a fasted state to lose fat – but I’ve often heard that eating carbs before can help to burn MORE fat. Here’s an example: http://www.realage.com/ct/tips/7682

I also have a question about strength training in general: I usually use free weights because I think that its better for using all the stabilizing muscles and this translates to real life strength. I’m currently doing 3 set of 8 reps with two 25lb dumbells (so 50lbs total) benchpressing. (I used to do 12 reps with 15lb dumbells but I’ve slowly been trying to cut down the # of reps after reading through your site). Anyways, I would like to benchpress using heavier weights, but I don’t think that I will be able to lift the weights into the position to benchpress – (I sit on the bench with the weights on my knees and then lean back while holding the weights to their position by my shoulders). My question is if I want to get stronger should I switch to using the machine or should I just try to work on my core/biceps so I can lean back with all the weight while “pretending” the weight is ‘heavy’ when I benchpress it.

Thanks

a student May 24, 2009 at 10:31 am

I also have a question about strength training in general: I usually use free weights because I think that its better for using all the stabilizing muscles and this translates to real life strength. I’m currently doing 3 set of 8 reps with two 25lb dumbells (so 50lbs total) benchpressing. (I used to do 12 reps with 15lb dumbells but I’ve slowly been trying to cut down the # of reps after reading through your site). Anyways, I would like to benchpress using heavier weights, but I don’t think that I will be able to lift the weights into the position to benchpress – (I sit on the bench with the weights on my knees and then lean back while holding the weights to their position by my shoulders). My question is if I want to get stronger should I switch to using the machine or should I just try to work on my core/biceps so I can lean back with all the weight while “pretending” the weight is ‘heavy’ when I benchpress it.

Jared May 25, 2009 at 1:52 am

This is a great post, just the thing i have been looking for! What would be the best approach in using this method, like reps, sets and number of exercises per bodypart? thank you very much!

Kieran May 25, 2009 at 6:38 pm

Hi Rusty, great post! Just one question: can you get lean and toned with just bodyweight exercises? And if so, how many reps and intensity would you recommend for a nice slim toned look?

Yash May 26, 2009 at 12:07 am

@a student:
It sounds like you have access to a gym, so you should use the barbell and the bench. Barbells let you use more weight than dumbbells since there’s less balance involved for the individual sides.

Ganio May 28, 2009 at 12:16 am

I just wanted to say that I’ve been following your blog for about a month now, and from a chemist/biochemist background, all I have to say is that I am glad that I have found such an amazing site as yours. We get so caught up in the media hype that we forget that “fitness” is individual based and much easier than we think. Keep up the amazing info!!

Mindbodygoal May 28, 2009 at 9:12 am

I think the thing to remember is that speed does play a crucial role in terms of strength training and for optimal strength, some work should be done working on speed.

When I say speed, I do NOT mean high velocity reps, I refer to high speed concentric contraction only.

For example, when looking to increase bench strength, sets for working speed should see the bar lowered slowly to the chest and paused for at least a second THEN exploded off with power.

Typically weights of 50% max are used within the powerlifting community.

Be Well

Aely June 2, 2009 at 11:31 am

Hey, I came across your site a few days ago. I’ve been reading around. I have a couple questions. I am just beginning to work out. I have about 15-20 pounds I want to lose. My goal is to get lean and toned. As a female though I am worried about strength training because I don’t wanna get bulky, I however do want to gain strength. I have heard before that if you do not want to get bulkier you should lift higher reps with less weight. Im reading on here though that higher weight should be lifted to do lower reps. Would that not cause me to get bulky if I add more weight and do less reps.

Troy June 8, 2009 at 8:39 am

Hi there,

Quick question, I’m a naturally small guy whos never really been to the gym, but always been slim and fit from sport, but I was looking at trying to “bulk up” (By this I mean get a nice Brad Pitt look rather than string bean arms!) But I’ve been reading and it seems your program will maintain the same muscle size and strip body fat of which I have little anyway. Are maximal contractons the way to go for me?

Thanks!

Adrian June 8, 2009 at 9:18 am

From what you write, you make people think that you aren’t gaining size when strength training. You still gain size, the two too are connected. Of course the size gains aren’t as big in strength training as in size training (8-10 reps). Adding some size isn’t bad either. Not necessary to look like Ronnie Coleman but no need to stay skinny too. Esp. for those ectomorphs who want to add mass and strength!

Best of luck

Terry June 8, 2009 at 12:32 pm

Love the nudes in Paris!Too good.

I missed this post somehow. Glad I caught up with it. More good training info. Less reps, a good thing.

wolverine June 16, 2009 at 5:14 pm

Hey Rusty is there a real difference btw doing 3 reps of 5 sets performing 2 exercises per body part, or doing 3 reps of 10 sets performing one exercise per body part, i sort of prefer doing 10 sets and avoiding failure, thanks

Craig July 30, 2009 at 5:45 am

Hi Rusty
I wanted to compliment you on the site and this post specifically.
Have you posted an actual ‘workout plan’ anywhere on this site that one can follow other than just your recommendations you make in posts. I think it would be good to have some kind of structured routine to follow with selected exercises and how many per bodypart, set/rep, cardio for each day.

HGH Talk October 3, 2009 at 5:57 am

@ Craig (above)

Structured routines don’t work the same for everyone. I did post before on my routine, on my site, but I doubt it will be followed strictly by anyone.

I mainly do calisthenics and some weight lifting, but nothing too heavy; my main goal is mainly to keep a certain level of fitness and health…not for bodybuilding.

Ben T February 9, 2010 at 9:52 pm

Dear Rusty,

I recently wrestled with my friend, and i tried to squat him and i couldn’t , he’s 180 something and 6’2 , im 5’8 and 162 pounds, im fit i have some stomatch fat but not a lot (in the right angle you can see my abs lol) I am on week 3 of the visual impact plan, currently sacroplasmic hyperthropy, and i know you mention that deadlifts and squats build mass on your legs, i dont want that, i have pretty big legs thats how i was born, i mean they’re well defined and muscular. I want to increase strength in my legs and body, what do you recommend to increase strength.

p.s.

what would be an ideal place to ask you questions, are blogs ok, or is there a special email or place on the site

thanks for all your help and awesome advice

sincerely,

Ben

Niko - noeXcusefitness February 3, 2012 at 9:23 pm

Some good advice. I am guilty of making more than one of those mistakes over the years. Not anymore, check out all my training at

http://www.noexcusefitness.com.au/category/nikos-training/

If you have any questions about aspect of my training message me.

Niko

James November 14, 2012 at 4:34 pm

Hey I’m haveing a problem gaining strength. I used to be pretty strong for my age and weight, doing 255 on bench and only weighing 152 and 16. But now working out the same exact way I can’t even get close to what I was doing. I’m haveing trouble repping 175 8 times. I just can’t do anything but my body look Prietty big and I’m weighing the same weight but I’m 17 instead. I thought it might be like my shoulders are really weak and my back as we’ll. but I really have no clue I need help!

David June 12, 2013 at 3:03 pm

I’m most surprised by point #6: No Stretching. This will be the most difficult habit to break.

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