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.
[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.