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).


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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{ 67 comments… read them below or add one }

ahm May 18, 2009 at 10:41 pm

you gotta read that, hilarious, not surprising but hilarious

JE Gonzalez May 18, 2009 at 10:42 pm

I don’t think trained muscles look soft at a low body fat, ever, but otherwise great article. I have one question about the way you train. Do you not risk injury by avoiding deadlifts?

Sytri May 18, 2009 at 10:44 pm

So, I know with strength training, one lifts for low reps and low sets, but do you lift with heavy weights or light weights?


VACoder May 18, 2009 at 10:44 pm

Hi Rusty,
I was introduced to your site by a friend, and have been following the basic principles for last 4 months.
I am happy to report that I have lost 15 pounds. (5’11, 145 Pounds)(Btw- What should be my ideal weight?)
Now, I am starting on a more serious strength building routine.
But to further define my goals, I need to understand what is the basic difference between muscle definition v/s muscle tone? If you can clarify, that would be great.

Thanks & glad to see a those pics back!

Yash May 18, 2009 at 11:00 pm

Great post once again Rusty. I saw a few mistakes on here that I’m guilty of making. Strict strength training is so different from bodybuilding type training that at times, the bar is the only thing the two have in common. Its easy to forget that and let little things from hypertrophy type training sneak into strength training.
Is your first point of training to failure referring to high rep hypertrophy failure or low rep strength training? I ask because I use progressive overload in my training, and when you increase weight every workout, you reach sticking points and for example, using a 5×5 model, you may have workouts where you only complete 3 or 4 reps for the last few sets. I never thought this was bad, and I haven’t read about it being bad in regards to strength training, since failure in hypertrophy and failure in strength training are different [muscular vs neural]. Any insight would help. Thanks again!

Venkat May 18, 2009 at 11:47 pm

The only weight movement I perform is as many heavy singles as possible of hang clean and presses once a week for about 15 mins. The rest of the week I perform body weight and tabata circuits. Since the hang cleans are an explosive high velocity movement, should I stop doing them? Great post !

BurritoKid May 19, 2009 at 12:46 am

cool advice here Rust. since you posted that stretching article, i havent looked back. I like the time it saves.

Do you ever work your lower pecs on the decline bench? i noticed it want in your routine.

DownSouth May 19, 2009 at 2:17 am

The one thing I just can’t agree with is not training explosively. True, it targets the fast twitch fibers and those grow the fastest, and you obviously don’t exhibit as much “control” over, or as you say, you don’t so much “master” the weight, but for a site that often preaches “functional strength” and athleticism, how can explosive lifting be so bad? Every aspect of pretty much every athletic endeavor is explosive, and you have to train that way to perform optimally. You train slow, you are slow.
I understand that slow reps and time under tension would apply well for less “real world” lifts like curls and what have you, but for a movement like a bench press or overhead press, that mimic real life planes, why would you not at least every so often train to push or pull with force? I’m sure you have your reasons, I’m just curious as to what they are if and when you take this idea into account.

And Venkat, I’m not trying to take Rusty’s place or try to be someone for you to rely on, but hang cleans and other olympic lifts are FANTASTIC tools for building a strong overall body and building athleticism. The fact of the matter is they HAVE to be performed explosively to even work. And going back to what I was saying earlier, I may have just answered the question I aimed toward Rusty. For a movement that involves such a chain of muscles like the clean does, maybe this (and its varients) is the particular movement that he would prescribe when taking into account athletic enhancement. I remember a post he made on this movement not too long ago, but he didn’t use those words, but maybe that’s what he was thinking? But regardless, I still train the clean and the snatch (which is BIG favorite of mine. Mind you, I hate the jerk and I think I need to stop avoiding it here pretty soon, lol), and I recommend them to anyone who lifts weights. They’re such a bang for your buck, they’re fun to do and they make you feel like an athlete (big lol there). Plus you can always tell who trains these lifts from their upper back development. It’s not so much a size thing but I can always tell who trains these by a certain “shape” or look their upper backs have. It’s a good thing to have to, lol. Happy training.

Methuselah - Train Now Live Later May 19, 2009 at 3:09 am

Rusty – lots to think about here. So many ways to skin the weightlifting cat 😉 I absolutely share your goal of increased strength without necessarily increased mass. I think I will try a few of these ideas – if I am guilty of any, it would be not enough rest between sets. The trouble is, I try to keep my workouts sub-30 minute and do around 2 per week – would you recommend simply sticking with a small number of compound exercises?

chuck May 19, 2009 at 3:12 am

but i am following edt (2 antagonistic exercise, 2 PR of 15mins )…. will I become –> 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……

P.S the second day i am not sore is that normal?(you said the muscle should fibre would break down if aiming for mass…..

Dave | The Intelligent Workout May 19, 2009 at 4:45 am

Great advice about not going to failure. In high school our coaches would condone every set going to failure or requiring a partner. Once I realized how ridiculous that was and left 2-3 reps in my gas tank my body responded much faster.

Yavor May 19, 2009 at 5:04 am

LOL that vid is crazy. Anyway – some great tips there buddy. #2 and #3 are very valuable. Actually all of them are valuable on second glance.



leftfield May 19, 2009 at 7:08 am

i found this article that on the topic

(from Rusty…my blog wouldn’t post this link…weird stuff)

i think nutrition is a factor, ie regardless of rep ranges you’re not going to get bulked & huge if you’re on a maintenance diet, ie it takes lots of excess calories to build size, my protocol at the moment is 3 sets of 3, increasing to 3 sets of 4, then 5,6,7,8 when i can do 3 sets of 8 increase the weight & go back to 3 sets of 3, so progressive overload within the 3-8 range for strength with some hypertrophy. What do you think Rusty? i guess you would stick within 3-5, but you must also use progressive overload in some format? ie you’re lifts must get heavier as you get stronger?

Jules May 19, 2009 at 7:55 am

Hey Rusty,

I too am trying to evolve to training for strength. I’m surprised at how different it is from bodybuilding and now I’m questioning all I knew.

1) If strength training doesn’t break down your muscles, do you still need to eat as much protein as when bodybuilding?
2) Can you strength train on a deficit?

michael May 19, 2009 at 8:33 am

Rusty, I know that you encourage strenght training but from what I see it does’nt seem to be the best way to get a defined body. Strongmen who strenght train have very undesirable physique, large but undefined muscle whereas fitness rolemodels such as Brad Pitt do 15 reps. Also my friends who are in good shape muscular without being to big do reps of beteen 10 and 12 breaking the muscle down. When I reduced my reps on the bicep curl from about 20 to 5 I did not notice any improvements but they were aching enough to interfere with other excercise such as back training.

Rahul May 19, 2009 at 9:30 am


hahahahaha, thanks ahm………..

Rusty, apart from ur posts I must say I love reading the readers comments as well. That’s a great link he’s sent…….

Leilani May 19, 2009 at 10:04 am

Hi Rusty.

I’ve got good tone in my arms, core and legs from a long history of lifting weights hard and being super athletic. I’d like to drop the BS and get lean and feminine now, I no longer need the big muscles for anything. I’ve stopped lifting any weights at all, and focus solely on simple core exercise (planks, balancing exercises), cardio, HIIT, and a few yoga exercises (the five tibetans).
Is there anything else you would recommend? I wouldn’t mind lifting light weights, but I put on muscle like a pro and I just don’t need the mass. Seriously, I think about weights or biking and I get bulky. I have great genetics for it. But I’m a 23 year old girl, 5’5″, 118 lbs, and I just want to be lean and hot, you know? Not outstandingly muscular. Any advice?

John May 19, 2009 at 10:52 am

Hmmm . . . my comment is about the naked girl. I saw her walk by an outdoor restaurant. Sorry, but I don’t want to see anyone’s naked ass while eating . . . even if it’s a nice ass.

Food and asses just don’t go together. LOL

Wolfman May 19, 2009 at 11:00 am

I happened upon your site a couple of months back and I’m glad that I did. I’ve learned more about health and fitness from your site than from any other source. I believe I have read all of your posts (some a few times) and the quality information you provide has completely changed how I work out. Even in the short amount of time that I have been using these methods, I have already seen great results. I was happy to see that after using your site for a few months, that I am no longer making any of the mistakes that you list in this post. It feels great to be training with purpose. I no longer question whether I am going at it the right way; now I know that I am. Thank you again for all that you do.

On another note, I do have a question for you. I also suffer from low back pain (disc herniation), as well as shoulder pain, stemming from an auto accident. I wanted to incorporate jumping rope into my routine, however, it seems like this is a bad idea. Is there a way that I can get some of the same benefits of jumping rope without putting all of that pressure on my back?

Guy May 19, 2009 at 12:13 pm


I concur w/ everything you said in this peice, I am about to turn 42 the 15th of next month and I have more definition, muscles are firmer, closer to the skin, and I am stronger than I have been in a long time, using strenghth tng methods from Pavel Tstsouline (Good example of Myofibular Hypertrophy)instead of mainstream bodybuilding techniques. (Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy).
You pretty much mirror what Pavel says, with the exception of the subject of isolation which Pavel calls “The Myth of Isolation”. I usually only do heavy compund drills for multiple sets of 3-5 reps, as A gentleman named Brett Jones likes to say ” More than 6 reps is bodybuilding.” I’ve quoted a few RKC’s so far so one more might not hurt lol ” It’s good to be as strong as you look, maybe even stronger.
As always great site, and a wonderful example of an alternative workouts for people to use. Especially in these days of the barage of “cookie cutter workouts” “Mainstream bodybuilding” and “Infomercial machine assault”.
Guy Spears

Jason G May 19, 2009 at 2:31 pm

Rusty I pride myself in being able to make my own conclusions based on all information presented. I have to say that your site has influenced my workout routine more than any other source of information. In the last four months I have got really cut do to a combination of strength training and a low calorie diet.

That being said I am still a big fan of keeping your muscles guessing as opposed to the keep with it mentality. Like DownSouth I started using explosive movements and high reps to mix things up. I never understood why we should only use HIIT type exercises for our legs. Creating endurance in all muscle groups, like DownSouth stated, is required by athletes like lean boxers and they look great. I am not a competing athlete and if I could only work out one way I would use strength training because I believe it provides the greatest physical appearance.

However I am having more fun mixing things up. I do strength training one week and then endurance training (20 to 30 reps w/ about 15 seconds of rest in between sets) the next week. I do HIIT training twice a week in the forest with my Vibram five fingers. I actually believe that endurance training with explosive power in the 20 to 30 rep range is not dangerous because the weights are more manageable. Furthermore a person who trains in this way will have their muscles adapt for this form of training. The reality is that with our new comfortable society the average person does not need muscle endurance in their arms and back, but I like to train in this way because it gets me in touch with my primal side.

Kane May 19, 2009 at 3:30 pm

Hey Rusty! Sorry I didnt comment last post, I’ve been finding it hard to have time to sit and get at the computer, but dont worry, your site is always the first I visit when i log on!

Your post comes at an excellent time for me (as usual actually) as I feel I need to completley re-vamp my strength training routine. I may change exercises, or weight or number of sets and reps.

I currently do a split.

Monday – Bi, Tri, Shoulders.
Tuesday – Chest, Back, Abs.
Wednesday – Hardcore HIIT
Thursday – Hardcore HIIT
Friday – Bi, Tri, Shoulders.
Saturday – Chest, Back, Abs.
Sunday – Active rest.

I do a 5×5 scheme. 2 exercises for each bodypart. These are usually one bodyweight, and one dumbell.

I seem to have have lost energy in my strength training. Perhaps Ive just stuck at this routine for too long. My gains arent comming along like they were, but i feel I have lots more left in me!

I wanted to ask about training more than once in the same day. I know you dont recomend it, but sometimes I find i need to for time. Will it be harmful to do my cardio in the morning on an empty stomach, and my weights last thing at night?

Thanks for all your help! Im so nearly there! And its all thanks to that Cam Gigandet post, you got me inspired!


The Spaniard May 19, 2009 at 4:25 pm

What can I say about the video…I don’ think anyone in Spain, Italy, o any latino country would have had no reaction seeing the naked ladies pass by. By the way, only the second one looked decent. The blond was ugly and the first one needs to eat, a lot, period.
I would like to tell VACoder that I think you are under weight. If I am not mistaken, your ideal weight (with muscles and everything) should be somewhere around 176 pounds. Even if you wanted to be, let’s say, 22 pounds lighter than your height, you still would need to weight around 154 pounds (and I think that is way too much). I am trying to imagine your height with your actual weight and all it comes to my mind is Christian Bale in “The Machinist”.

admin May 19, 2009 at 5:39 pm


Funny stuff. Yeah…that happens!


At a low body fat level, there will be muscle definition no matter what…but when those muscles become stronger there is a harder more angular look to them. Some people call it muscle density. It does make a difference in the look of the muscle. I haven’t done deadlifts or squats in years and my back feels better than ever. I seem to get enough work in the lower back and hams from rows, hanging cleans, etc.


Lift heavy most of the time, but back off on the weight if your body feels like you need it. When you do lift light, pretend the weight is heavy and use it as an opportunity to to practice contracting the muscle hard. This is a way to improve strength in the muscle with lighter weights.


It sounds like you are right in the ideal range for your height (if you are ripped and have a small frame). Now just focus on gaining strength and staying around that same body weight. It is possible that you may wind up adding 10-15 more pounds of muscle over the next few years, but that is fine. For someone with a small frame at 5’11”, I would say 150-165 range is ideal. Guys with larger frames will be heavier. Muscle definition and muscle tone are interchangeable terms for the most part.


When you do 5 sets of 5 reps, it is to be expected that you won’t always reach 5 reps the last 2 sets. It is fine to only do 3 or 4 reps, but stop at 3-4 reps on your own without going for that 4 or 5th rep that you can’t get up on your own. I hope that makes sense. Once you get 5 sets of 5 reps on each set you can do it one more week at the same weight, or increase the weight (and you will most likely have to stop at 3-4 reps on the final two sets).


I’m glad you asked this question, since I failed to address it in this post. I consider Olympic type movements a whole different animal. You have to do these explosively and it is fine to do so. I do explosive hanging cleans.


I don’t do any decline presses at all, and I don’t recommend doing them. Flat bench already builds your lower pecs at a faster rate than your upper pecs. A lot of people even need to avoid flat benching and focus on inclines until they create the balanced “square pec” look. Decline presses enforce a common imbalance in most guy’s pecs, so it is best to avoid doing these.


I did say I was “hesitant” to include it as a mistake because it does work. I won’t do it myself because of injury potential and that is the same reason I recommend that people avoid it (most of the time). I just have seen too many nasty injuries from this type of strength training to recommend it for the majority of people. That being said, on an occasional basis to take a break from the norm, it wouldn’t hurt to include it in your routine for 6-8 weeks at a time (with caution). Thanks for answering Venkat’s question…that is a great answer…they have to be performed in that manner and work very well.


There are so many ways to get strong and conditioned that work well. Heck, I spent all winter doing body weight circuits in my apartment and not even going to a gym…it was a good break from my normal routine and was a huge time saver (back then I was working 60-70 hours per week at my job & running this busy blog…I simply needed the time). I would probably recommend sticking with a small number of compound movements and getting strong with those. You stay lean with your paleo diet, so getting stronger in the basics will make your body defined all over.


EDT works well and you will become more defined. Your muscles will beome efficient at a much quicker rate then they will grow…so they will look great. As far as being sore, this is just an indicator of muscle breakdown…it can still break down without much soreness and individuals vary greatly in this regard.


I got the clue to not go to failure by doing heavy squats (back when I used to do them). I always stopped a rep or two short of failure on squats (because who wants to fail with heavy weight on your back)…I never reached a sticking point in squats because of this. I worked up to 4-5 sets of 6 reps of 405 (deep squats). Conversely, on bench I would do forced reps, negatives and had to fight for every pound. Once I started lifting my bench like I used to do squats I became strong in bench as well (not super strong, since it is my weakest lift…but I made consistent gains again).


I’d say tip #3 is one of my favorites and people can implement this even if they train explosively. The main thing is to not fatigue the muscle in the previous sets and instead use them as a way to prep the nervous system. The best way to do this is to use the exact same rep range and “groove” as the heavy sets.


Nutrition plays a huge role for sure. If you stay in a calorie deficit you have less to worry about when it comes to adding mass. I still think the lower rep ranges create better looking muscles. Your progression strategy looks solid. I have done a similar method and it works well. What I do now is just lift sets of 3-5 until that rep range feels really easy with the weight…then I add weight the next workout and stick with that and master that weight…then move on to the next weight. The key is to not rush a weight increase and just master your ability to generate tension in the target muscle group. What you doing does look like a good approach.


I encourage strength training in a calorie deficit and you can easily gain strength while losing body fat. This is the quickest way to transform your body and you will feel more athletic as a result. I like to think of it as increasing the horsepower of a car while making the body of the car lighter…a Porsche 911 Turbo and a Ford pickup truck can have the same horsepower…but the Porsche will toast the truck on a race track. You can get by on less protein and less calories when strength training. In fact, even people who are bodybuilding are eating way too much protein, for the most part.


Ah…I used to think the same thing. The myth of high reps “defining” the muscle was a myth I bought into for my first 7-8 years of lifting. The good thing about high rep lifting is that it does burn calories. It can help contribute to overall fat loss, but even so…it isn’t even that effective when it comes to burning body fat. Another thing that high-reps do is create a “pump” in the muscle…this is what I call temporary muscle tone. The muscle looks good in pumped state, but then looks flat and softer the rest of the time (even at a low body fat level). A permanent eay to increase muscle tone is to gain strength in the muscle with low reps but WITHOUT gaining size or just gaining a little size. The quickest method to looking ripped is to gain strength while actually dropping weight. I could write about this subject for days, but if you want to know where I began learning about this stuff checkout “Power to the People” by Pavel Tsatsouline. He was a Soviet Special Forces “master trainer” and taught these guys how to get ultra strong while staying lean. A side benefit was that these guys wound up looking ripped. Also…type in the term “muscle tone” into the search bar on the upper right hand side of my page…I have close to a dozen articles on this subject. I hope this helps, because this makes a big difference.


I think my posts just introduce the topic and give some good points, but the real gold is in the comment section. I hope people take the time to read the comment section. I have one post with over 1,000 comments. Kind of crazy!


I think that some women can back away from lifting…especially if they tend to put on muscle too easily (this is probably not a majority). You would probably do well with “body weight circuits”. If you go to the top of my site you can get a link to a body weight routine I did for close to 3 months this winter. The link should be “Body Weight Training for Fat Loss”…anyway at the end of these 3 months I was slightly smaller and toned than when I was lifting in the gym. My guess is that over the course of 6-12 months your body would lighten up from these while being slightly toned…kind of like a Jessica Alba look. My girlfriend does a body weight routine and looks great. She used to lift when she was younger and is in the same boat as you.


I like the comment, but some people enjoy nudity even when eating. For me…I’m cool with it if it is far away from my food. There was a hot-springs I went to and a guy by the name of “The Naked Gourmet” would make food for everyone (he did wear a chef’s hat). I don’t want naked people cooking my food. I just don’t.


It always feels great to hear that my site is making a difference. It would be a lonely thing if nobody ever commented and told me that this stuff was working well for them. I know these techniques work well, but I really enjoy hearing how they have helped people. Thank you for that! Back pain sucks…you would probably do best to avoid jumping rope altogether. You will do best with low impact HIIT…do you have access to a StepMill machine (the stair stepper with real stairs that rotate)? I have been loving (and hating) that piece of equipment these past 4-5 months. No impact, but will make you sweat like mad. Try the “interval” setting for 10-15 minutes.


Thanks for the compliment. I am just a little younger than you and have been doing this strength training approach to get defined for around 10 years. I can’t stress at how much better I look and feel. I really hope people give this a shot. Feeling strong and light while being extremely defined is just a great feeling. I will never ever go back to that pumped, bulky, and sluggish body I had in my early 20’s!

Jason G,

Totally cool, to follow some advice from my site and discard other techniques…I fully expect it. In fact, I don’t agree 100% with any trainer. My hope is that guys and girls reading this take the “shopping cart” approach. Some of these tips will help and some just won’t fit well depending upon how different people respond to exercise. I need to get a pair of those Vibram Five Finger shoes by the way. Are they easy to get used to?


You can split cardio in the morning and lifting at night. I typically don’t recommend it because it doesn’t seem like the best time efficient workout…but it does work. One recommendation would be active rest on Thursday as well. If your gains come to a halt mix up the routine. A slight tweak you could do now would be to do your back and chest routine on Mon & Fri and Shoulders and arms on Tues and Wed.

The Spaniard,

Well VACoder certainly isn’t Machinist level weight. Christian Bale was 120 pounds and an inch taller. So VACoder outweighs him by 25 pounds…closer to 30 if you take into account height differences. Most likely VACoder is probably a guy with a small frame and would do well in the 150-160 range. I’ll have to wait until he replies. That video was funny…people could care less about the 3 naked women walking down the street.


sam May 19, 2009 at 6:09 pm


I have been following your advice on lifting, by lifting heavy with low reps and focusing on the muscle contraction. I am happy to say that I have been able to maintain my strength even though I am in the process of losing weight. I also have been able to cut down on the amount of days I lift from 5-6 a week to 3-4 days a week. I also had a question regarding one of your previous posts on dieting to get lean. What are your thoughts on low carb tortillas. I have been eating whole wheat low carb tortillas as the last part of my evening meal on the WD. They only have 6 grams of carbs per tortilla and provide me with a ton of dietary fiber. Are these alright to have when I am trying to get lean? I ultimately am still focusing on creating a daily calorie deficit as the main emphases for losing weight and fat. Thanks for all your help.



Connie May 19, 2009 at 8:16 pm

Hey Rusty,

Do you ever use an incline when running on the treadmill?

Scott N May 20, 2009 at 12:21 am

Hey Rusty

I dunno about the speed of the lift as being a mistake. Look at powerlifters


a lot are really strong. But some are fat though, strong nonetheless.

chuck May 20, 2009 at 5:57 am

YAHOO thx rusty for busting my original thought.. i tot it is the ice massage that do the trick… i still like it though.. nice and cooling… P.S add some salt into the water before you make the ice!(why, ask your frekin teacher)

Helder May 20, 2009 at 8:43 am

Nice post, i agree with you “except” in mistake number 7, i don’t totally disagree with you, i believe that explosive training has its place to gain strength, and i believe explosive strength is pure strength, but i also believe that if you over do it, it will become dangerous to your joints and muscles, even if you’re an experienced lifter.

To a newbie i would really never recommend fast lifts, and i always remind people that, lifting fast is NOT throwing the weights out of control, the form has to be correct, you should always control the weight.

On all the rest i agree with you Rusty, i haven’t been using forced reps or any of the other mistakes you mention, unless someone wants to gain a bit of mass, avoid fatigue.

Warm up sets are really a waste of time, pure and simple, if you do your first set slowly you’re warmed up, even if you want to lift fast in the next sets.

One of my best option to get really really toned is 3×3 it seems that i was sculpted, carved in stone, it’s really good.

Matt May 20, 2009 at 11:25 am

@ Scott N:
You talk about powerlifter and than post a video from a olympic weightlifter.

Powerliter perform the squat, the bench press and the deadlift.
Olympic weightlifter perform the celan & jear and the snatch.

Powerlifts are normaly slow, oly-lifts are fast.

The Spaniard May 20, 2009 at 11:54 am

Rusty, my father in law was 5’4″ tall and weighed 140 pounds (and was in shape). When I was a rugby player I weighed around 167 pounds ( I had to be strong but fast because I played fly half) and I am 5’10”. I still think 145 pounds for a guy who is 5’11” is way too much (the example of Christian Bale was a metaphor), even if you have a small frame. You substract 22 pounds to his height (skinny look) and you still get 154 pounds.

gus May 20, 2009 at 2:40 pm

hi rusty, this question is perhaps a bit of thopic, butt it`s a question i have been wondering about for some time.

in the movie fight club, what is the main thing or the most important thing i would have to do to achive the physick of tyler durden ( brad pitt) , he looks really good conditoned.

is there someting u can say about how much and wich type of cardio he did?
and what about his diet?,, how many calories do u think i eat per day max.


Jason G May 20, 2009 at 2:56 pm


The first day I got the Vibram Five Fingers I did a six mile hike and they felt good. The next time I went out I was able to run full speed on the trails (I didn’t try the first time because I was with a friend and I didn’t want him to feel abandoned). I would say that the Vibram Five Fingers are not ideal for running on any kind of pavement. I am also a little too vain to wear them to the gym and use them on the stair master.

However for outdoor running/training, like Erwan Le Corre, they are amazing. I honestly think that any person who is prone to hiking and/or trail running needs to try these. I love them and will most likely include them in my training routine for the rest of my life. I can just fly over trails and my feet swiftly maneuver around large rocks and tree branches. I feel like a Native American on a hunt when I dart along the trail at full speed. My current routine involves hiking for a few minutes and then bursting into one minute sprints at full speed. In conclusion within two uses you should be able to run on a treadmill and/or trail at full speed with no discomfort.

Yash May 21, 2009 at 1:45 am

Jason G,
The Vibrams are really amazing. It takes a little bit of time to adjust, but after some time you should be able to run on pavement. If you really have trouble with it, the asphalt on the street can be a little more forgiving than the concrete sidewalks. Another way around it is to run on the thin strip of lawn on the street side of the sidewalk. This way you only run on concrete when it breaks for driveways.

If you’ve never tried them before, get ready for some ridiculous calf soreness/development. Running barefoot/with Vibrams really makes you use your the ball of your foot like a lever to cushion your stride, which means your calf is basically activing as a spring for every step. Go get a pair and start sprinting down those awesome piers you’ve got by you!

Jason G May 21, 2009 at 3:27 am

My guess is that Brad Pitt starved himself to five percent body fat and probably did not have to put on much muscle. Here’s a site that talks about it specifically:

Scott N May 21, 2009 at 3:33 am

@ Matt

Yea my bad, Olympic is what I meant.

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


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!


admin May 22, 2009 at 2:39 pm


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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


Mike May 23, 2009 at 12:12 pm

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

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.


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?


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.


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



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


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


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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