The Top 5 Reasons You’re Still Lifting The Same Amount Of Weight, And Still Looking The Same
Written by Ryan Faehnle
The nuts and bolts of what you need to know…
- You can’t chase more than one rabbit at a time
- Just because your body can do it, doesn’t always mean that you should
- Just because something is logical, doesn’t mean it’s effective
- Execution is everything – even the best plan can’t outdo poor performance
- You’ve got to be honest with yourself
How Many Rabbits Can You Chase And Expect To Catch At One Time?
“Hey Vince, I want to get bigger, and stronger, and leaner, all at once – what can ya do for me?” You’d be surprised how many times I get this question. It is unbelievable how many people want everything, and they want it yesterday. In a perfect world, you’d already be big, and strong, and lean, and you wouldn’t even have a question like that for me, but we don’t live in a perfect world, and thus, I’m faced with such ridiculous questions.
Most of you likely have jobs, and most of you likely had to narrow your focus at some point in your life in order to excel in one specific line of work so that you could make a living – just as I did. But let me ask you this – how successful do you think you’d be, or anyone for that matter, if you tried to be a doctor, lawyer, chartered accountant, CEO of a Fortune 500 company, etc? Do you think you’d get very far? Do you think anyone would? This isn’t to say that one opportunity can’t be used as a stepping stone for another, but rather that if your focus is divided amongst many things, how many of those things are you likely to excel at? See where I’m going here?
While most would say “that’s crazy Vince, no one can be a doctor, lawyer, chartered accountant, Fortune 500 CEO – everyone knows that the guy who chases two rabbits end up with none,” and my response to them is, “if you believe that, then why do you believe that it’s possible to chase more than one rabbit in other walks of life – like physical fitness?” And this segues into the top 5 reasons why you’re still lifting the same amount of weight, and why you look as if you’ve been lifting the same amount of weight for quite some time.
If you’re still set on trying to chase two goals (like building muscle and losing fat), watch this:
Reason #1 – Jack Of All Trades, Master Of NONE
Is it really that surprising after that intro that this is the number one reason why people fail to make strength and size gains? Trying to accomplish too many things is not only physically, and mentally exhausting, but it’s one of the best ways to accomplish nothing, but kill time. Time that you’ll never get back, at that. If you are serious about making strength gains, you’ve got to be willing to sacrifice EVERYTHING that will not directly contribute to maximizing the process.
This begs the question, “what are you willing to sacrifice?” Are you willing to sacrifice what you are, for what you want to become? Will you sacrifice the bodybuilding oriented training that isn’t working for the pursuit of increased strength? You can’t be a jack of all trades, and expect to make positive strides in any avenue in life, none more evident than strength training.
If you want to get stronger, you will have to sacrifice the majority, if not all, of the cardio, abs, arms, and calves work that you’re doing, because all of that is hacking away at your body’s recovery reserves that are better spent on getting stronger.
Even though the purpose of training to increase strength, a side effect of getting stronger will be muscular growth (1) – it’s almost impossible to gain a tremendous amount of strength and not gain at least a little bit of size, after all, all things being equal, a larger muscle is a stronger muscle, therefore a stronger muscle will only increase your capacity to build larger muscles.
Reason #2 – Overworking Your Brains Capacity To Recover
Strength training is very, VERY, demanding on the nervous system, as it is the nervous system that is responsible for recruiting the muscles to produce the force to do the movement. The greater demand there is on the nervous system to recruit, and coordinate the motor pattern, to provide the necessary force to lift heavy weights, the more time that is needed to recover.
This is difficult for most people to grasp initially, especially those who are used to more bodybuilding oriented training, because even though your muscles may feel like they can do more, doing so may in fact dramatically impair the recovery of the nervous system. This is turn can negatively affect future performance (2), and the cycle can begin to just feed itself – you’re nervous system isn’t recovered so your ability to lift heavy is compromised, but you try anyway, which only further beats the nervous system into the ground, and thus a virtuous cycle takes on a life of its own.
You are what you can recover from, and if you can’t recover from the work that you’ve done, you will lose out on opportunities to get better because you’ll be too busy recovering when you could’ve been training. You must be able to put the brakes on you own training and avoid the temptation to constantly go 100 miles an hour.
Lifts above 90% of max for upper body movements, and above 80% for lower body movements are highly stressful, and the ones that are the most taxing on the nervous system – these numbers exclude the Olympic lifts, and their variations, as those lifts are extremely demanding due to the high velocity, and high coordination components. Generally such lifts are absent in a bodybuilding oriented program, or strength programs that lifters with a background in bodybuilding oriented programs, due to the lengthy learning curve associated with such movements.
Will the Olympic lifts, and their variants, be effective in increasing the capacity to build muscle? Yes. Are they necessary to gain strength, which will increase the capacity to build muscle? No. Is it a worthwhile investment of time to learn them? Depends on your goal, but in my opinion, it is not necessary – after all, how many bodybuilders practice the Olympic lifts, or any of their variations, and how much time out of their own training do they devote to the Olympic lifts, and their variants?
Reason #3 – Doing Something Because It Is “Logical”
One comes before two. Two comes before three. Three comes before four. Logically this makes sense, and by most accounts, people organize their training in such a manner, referred to as “linear” periodization. Phases with lighter weights are performed at the onset of the program, followed by phases in which heavier weights are used, and this continues until peaking in the final phase, using the heaviest weights for the lowest reps. Logically, this makes sense as well, but the problem here is that results are not linear. Progress is not linear. Life is not linear.
Strength and size gains happen in spurts, much the way that getting taller happens in spurts during adolescence. Strength and size gains are not linear in any way. Hell, even weight loss is not linear. No one loses one pound a day, for 50 straight days, and ends up 50 lbs. lighter. Generally a bunch of weight comes off seemingly overnight, then nothing happens for a while, and then a bunch more falls off.
So why then follow a form of linear periodization? In fact, the major downfall with such an approach is that by the time you’re peaking, all the gains made at the onset of the program have begun to dissipate – thus constituting one of the biggest wastes of time and energy possible. For example, let’s say a program designed to increase strength by gradually increasing the loads used began with sets of 8-10 reps. After a month of so, the rep bracket was reduced to 6-8. A month later the rep bracket is further reduced to 4-6. In the final month, the rep bracket is reduced to 1-3, indicating that the loads used became heavier and heavier over time.
Because the physiological response from performing sets of 8-10 is dramatically different than performing sets of 1-3, there’s no wonder that the gains made in the beginning don’t stick. In the end, you’re training should not be planned in a linear way just because it looks like it makes sense on paper.
Reason #4 – Failing To Execute
The best game plan in the world is worthless if you’re unable to execute it. Execution is everything, and this transfers to all walks of life. If you can’t practically apply what you know, you’re just as useless as someone who doesn’t know better in the first place.
As it relates to training for strength, it’s important to lift with as much force as humanly possible, every time you get under the bar. The goal should never be to lift with just enough force to overcome the resistance. The goal MUST be to absolutely blow right through the resistance. The intent to lift with maximal force the catalyst to maximizing motor unit recruitment. While you can’t selectively choose to activate individual muscle fibers, you can consciously decide to lift forcefully, and in turn, the nervous system will recruit as many muscle fibers as it feels is necessary to complete the job at hand.
This mistake is made primarily by those who come from bodybuilding oriented training, as that type of training is completely different than true strength training. With bodybuilding oriented training, the goal is to focus on the muscles involved instead of executing the movement, whereas with strength training, the goal is to focus on the movement and allow the nervous system to coordinate which muscles are used.
Reason #5 – Fooling Yourself (Because You Ain’t Foolin’ Me)
One of the most common obstacles lifters face when following a strength program is that they eventually get to a point in the program where they can’t perform the workout with the weights that they should be able to use. Now, we all have our days, and some days you may not be feeling as strong as others, and I get that. When this happens, simply chalk it up as a learning experience, try to figure out what you did differently, so that you can prevent this from happening in the future, and making it a regular thing.
But more often than not, it’s not a bad day that is the cause for poor performance. Generally it’s that the bar was set too high, and the bar was set too high because you weren’t being honest with yourself. Strength programs, for the most part, are very percentage based – meaning that the weights that are prescribed are based off of what your 1 rep max was prior to the program.
The one rep max, to which all sets and reps are based off, MUST BE A TRUE REFLECTION OF WHAT YOUR CURRENT ONE REP MAX IS! It is not based off “that one time,” that you performed a lift with atrocious form, and a spotter helping you the whole way. Hell, it’s not even based off of your all-time best. It’s based off of what you know you can perform for one, full range rep, without a spotter, or the use of ergogenic aids, ON ANY GIVEN DAY! If you are unsure that if you can perform a rep with a certain amount of weight, IT IS NOT YOUR ONE REP MAX!
This is the biggest program killer there is, and the worst thing about it is, you don’t find out that your program was doomed from the get go until later in the program, when you reach a day that calls for a certain amount of weight, and you’re left thinking, “shit! Why can’t I do this?” Then you begin to question the quality of the programming, never once looking at the fact that you are the one who shot yourself in the foot. It is of paramount importance to be honest with yourself at the beginning of the program, so that the weights used can have the positive effect that they are intended to have.
One of the reasons that this lie is able to survive for so long is because most strength programs call for submaximal weights at the onset of the program, and even with an exaggerated one rep max, the weights used in the beginning can still feel light. This helps conceal the fact that you’ve overestimated your one rep max until it’s too late.
On the flip side, those who actually do use an accurate one rep max are inclined to increase the amount of weight used in the beginning stages of a program, because the weights feel too light – never realizing that maybe they are supposed to be light for a reason!
So there you have it. These are the top 5 reasons why people can’t get strong, which some of you already are aware of, as this was one of the main topics of conversation with World renowned strength coach Ryan Faehnle last week on my podcast. Feel free to comment below on whether or not you’ve fallen to victim to these reasons in the past, and what brought you to realization that you were committing one, or more, of these flaws. Upon realizing what was holding you back, what strategy did you take to overcome it, and were you successful? Lookin’ forward to hearing your responses!
P.S. be sure to come back next week for Part 2 of our series.
Which one of these have you fallen victim to?
Popov, DV et al. “Influence of Resistance Exercise Intensity and Metabolic Stress on Anabolic Signaling and Expression of Myogenic Genes in Skeletal Muscle.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2015. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.
Johnson, Mary Black, and Steven M. Thiese. “A Review of Overtraining Syndrome—Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms.” Journal of Athletic Training. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1992. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.
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