No matter what your individual fitness goals are, everyone wants to get stronger. Whether you’re looking to crack a 150-pound snatch or you just want to be able to effectively back squat below parallel, there’s some element of improved strength in every person’s fitness journey.
But if you find yourself training day in and day out but don’t see your PRs climbing in the way you want them to, you may be wondering what you’re doing wrong. After all, lifting weights repeatedly means that you’ll get stronger, right?
This is a big one, especially for newer lifters or those who have been injured in the past.
A lot of lifting is mind over matter, with your brain telling your muscles they really can hoist that barbell up and over your head with all those plates stacked on it. But if you get too in your own head during your training sessions, you can easily sabotage yourself.
While it can be difficult to not focus on the number on your bar, thinking only about the technical aspects of the lift is one of the best things you can do to overcome fear in lifting.
Just step up to the bar, take a deep breath, and lift!
One of the most overlooked keys to success in lifting and training in general is the quality and quantity of sleep.
When we sleep, our bodies have a chance to repair and rebuild our muscles, regulate our hormones, and do all sorts of necessary things for good health and improved fitness. But if we don’t get enough sleep - or don’t get enough goodsleep - all our hard work in the gym can be for naught.
For optimal recovery and stress-reduction properties, it’s best to aim for eight solid hours of sleep per night. If this number isn’t realistic for your lifestyle due to kids, work schedules, or other factors, aim for at least seven hours per night.
If you’re struggling to reach this number, try increasing your time in bed by ten minutes every night until you reach the amount of sleep you want to achieve. That will mean turning off your phone earlier, or shutting down your computer and quitting work a little bit earlier each day.
While this can seem like a bad idea, especially if you’re a night owl, the benefits you’ll experience by increasing your sleep will pay off. Your training will improve, you will be less likely to get injured, and your productivity at work during the day will increase.
If your coach is anything like, well, every coach out there, one of the first questions they ask when you mention you’re struggling with your training is, “How’s your nutrition?”
Making sure you’ve got the right balance of macronutrients - protein, fat, and carbohydrates - in your diet to support your fitness goals is essential. If you’re eating too much of the wrong thing, your training will suffer. And if you’re under-eating, your muscles won’t have enough fuel to build new mass and get progressively stronger.
Take some time to evaluate your overall diet, looking carefully at how often you eat processed foods and sugars, and whether you’re eating too much of a specific macronutrient. Keep a list of easy, macro-friendly meals you can prepare quickly and, if you’re short on time, meal prep once or twice a week and keep the food in pre-portioned containers.
And, if you’re really struggling with accountability or how much of each macro to consume, there’s no shame in hiring a nutrition coach to help you out. If you’re really committed to becoming stronger, your coach is another investment in you reaching your goals just like your gym membership and lifting program costs are.
Having confidence in your abilities to lift heavy things is important to being able to execute lifts, but too much confidence can be a bad thing.
If you’re overly confident about your abilities, you can easily add too much weight to the bar and injure yourself, setting you back a few days or even weeks in your training.
Also, if you worry too much about what others think of you while you’re training, you may be less likely to add more weight for fear of missing a lift. But getting stronger and improving on your lifts isn’t always about the lifts you do hit; sometimes you need to fail a lift to learn important things about your mindset or your technique that will serve you well going forward.
Focusing on your own training - not what others in the gym are doing - and being realistic about your abilities while also pushing your limits is a key part of training yourself to lift heavier.
In lifting, technique is everything. Sure, you may be able to squat a heavier weight with the bar resting on your neck than in its proper position, but that lapse in technique can hurt you over time.
Incorrectly executing your lifts can hold you back from being able to progress beyond your current maxes, leading to frustration and difficulty with adding weight to your bar.
If you suspect that incorrect form may be an issue, schedule a one-on-one session with a coach to check your form. And, as difficult as it may be to do, drop the weight on your bar to really light weights - or the empty barbell if necessary - to fix any flaws in your form. Once you’ve got your form down, you can add weight back on while keeping proper form.
Too many lifting programs, especially those you find free online, focus on high rep schemes at lighter weights. While these programs are great for beginners or those who aren’t focused so much on the amount of weight they can lift, they’re not going to do you any real favors in your quest to get stronger.
Instead, you need to be utilizing set and rep schemes such as 5 sets of 5 reps or powerlifting rep protocols such as 5-3-1. These schemes will help you get the intended stimulus and intensity to build strength and move you to heavier loads.
If possible and you’re really serious about getting stronger, consider having a coach write a program just for you with your personal goals in mind. An individualized program that can be tweaked along the way is going to be much better than one that is supposed to be one-size-fits-all and downloaded from a website.
You remember those newbie gains, right? The little muscles that started popping out in your first months of strength training, or the fact that you were consistently smashing your 1RM on lifts in your first year?
Those gains don’t last for long, especially if you’re doing the same training program over and over again.
Over time, your body becomes accommodated to certain patterns of movement, and if you do the exact same leg day exercises every single leg day, your body will resist getting stronger and instead just fall into the familiar pattern of movement.
Recovery is more than just how much sleep you get per night or what foods you eat. If you’re not taking the time to stretch, drinking enough water, and taking proper rest days, you’re going to find that your body isn’t going to respond as well to training.
For a lot of athletes, taking rest days and focusing on recovery seems counter-intuitive. You should spend your time and energy focusing on the things you know are going to make you stronger, like your training, so why waste time on things that seem to go against all that, right?
If this is you, you may need to take the same programmatic approach to your recovery as you do to your training. Write your planned rest days down on your calendar and stick to them, track your daily water intake, and schedule stretching and mobility sessions in your day just as you schedule your gym time.
The more you focus on recovery along with your training, the better your progress will be inside the gym.
“Lifting more” isn’t a reasonable goal to set. How do you measure your progress? Will you know when you’ve reached “stronger,” or will you always be chasing that goal?
Setting goals in the gym is just like setting goals in your personal and professional life. They have to be reasonable, and you have to be able to track your progress.
Walking into a training session without a specific goal in mind means you’re just there to workout. Sure, it’s great that you showed up and any work you’re going to do is going to be somewhat beneficial, but it isn’t going to propel you forward in the same way that a goal-focused training session will.
One way to set goals that you can achieve is to use the SMART method of goal-setting, and to meet with a coach or accountability buddy to look them over. The SMART method means you set your goals using five factors: specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, and time-related. This framework helps you break down bigger goals into smaller chunks, and gives you a time frame for achieving them.
If you’re really committed to reaching your goals, you can break those bigger goals, such as “Deadlift 300 pounds by December 15” into smaller benchmarks and specific tasks, including programming your weekly training sessions to help you achieve that goal.
Being committed to your goals is essential to helping you achieve them, but being so relentlessly focused on them can lead to overtraining and burnout.
If you’re always training at or near your 1RM on a lift, you’re going to fatigue your muscles too much and risk injury. Instead, you need to find a program that programs in de-loading weeks, progressive overload, rest days, and a variety of movements to keep you engaged in your training without overtaxing specific muscles.
Not getting stronger while lifting weights is about much more than not training your muscles; if you’re not paying attention to how you treat your body and your mind during the hours you’re not at the gym, you won’t make progress. Do you struggle with feeling as if you’re not getting stronger in your lifts?
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