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Why you’re not getting stronger

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I have been inside the gym environment as a group class instructor for about 5 years, and as a coach for about the same amount of time. Throughout essentially a decade of observing people’s lifting habits, philosophies, successes, and failures, I have gained some modest insight into some of the reasons people plateau so often in “efforts” to gain strength. I would like to share some of that insight with you so that you might apply it to yourself in the hopes of achieving higher levels of training intellect and perhaps a bit of ego-checking and self reflecting.

1. You MUST differentiate between training and workout out.

Working out: Go to gym. Sweat. Pant. Fist bump. Repeat.

Training: The act of continually adapting to imposed demands for the purpose of getting stronger, faster, or more powerful.

You have to first ask yourself, “what does strong mean to me?”. Do you want to have improved absolute strength? This would mean getting as strong as possible without regard to gains in lean mass. Do you want to improve relative strength? This would be getting as strong as possible relative to your own bodyweight. Do you want to improve strength endurance? Producing muscle contractions over a certain period of time…CrossFit anyone?

You then have to ask yourself, “what am I doing to make adaptations in the direction of improving this strength?”. Just be honest here. That’s okay! It’s the first step in recognizing you may not be doing the right things.

Finally, ask yourself, “do I workout, or do I train?”. There is no right or wrong answer here; only truth of what your reality is and whether you want to change it!


2. You’re not exactly sure HOW to train.

Perhaps you asked yourself all the right questions, and thought, “well, I just like coming to the gym, getting a sweat on, fist bumping my coach, getting a pat on the back, and going home”. There is nothing wrong with that. You just don’t have to continue to read further if you don’t want to!

Maybe though, you asked those questions and thought, “I want to get strong, I thought working out WAS training, maybe I don’t know how to train after all!” That’s great, now you have an opportunity to learn and get better. Sadly, this article isn’t about how to train, but about bringing awareness to the fact that not many people have an understanding of what goes into it. SO…admitting there is a bit of a disconnect in what your goals are versus what you’re actually doing is a healthy first step; so take heart. You’re now that much closer to improving the time you spend at the gym.


3. You “workout” too much.

If fitness came in a prescription bottle, on the side it might say: “risk of dependency”. It is not uncommon for people to believe that the more you workout, the stronger and better you will get. Like everything else, it comes down to intricate balance. The takeaway is- strength is derived from OVERLOADING the body (not in a sense of full capacity, i.e. testing), and then RECOVERING from that overload. It is the the yin and the yang. I would expand more on yin and yang but I have no education on Eastern Philosophy. I heard someone say it once and it sounded cool. Anyway- you MUST balance the demands you place on your body with intentional, restorative recovery. It is during these times that the body is getting stronger. If you continue to demand effort from your body, it will eventually stop making adaptations favorably, and just adapt to being tired all the time…aka diminishing returns…aka…putting a lot of work in and getting little out of it (just sweat and fist bumps). Do not become DEPENDENT on working out.

Signs you are dependent on working out:

  • You hate “off days”

  • You feel tired if you don’t workout

  • You don’t feel good UNLESS you workout

  • You’re tired going INTO working out

  • You’re not getting faster YET working out a lot

  • You’re not getting stronger YET working out a lot

  • You’re putting on body fat YET working out a lot

  • You have restless or fragmented sleep

  • You feel tired in the morning

  • You crave sugar and salt


4. Your lifestyle is not ideal.

John Smith is forty years old, he is married, he has two kids, and a job in the city. He goes to sleep at midnight and wakes up at 5am. He goes to the gym fasted, and does his favorite workout…21-15-9 thrusters and pull ups for time. It takes him 15 minutes with 65lb. Then, for breakfast he eats an energy bar and a banana with his vente triple espresso w/ 3 packs of sweet and low plus heavy cream because he heard it’s healthy. He drives forty-five minutes to work, sits for eight hours, forgets to eat because he is stressed and “too busy”. The afternoon lull hits him and he goes for another coffee, plus a piece of cake leftover from Jane’s birthday last week. John gets home from work, then sits on the couch eating pasta while watching ESPN. This is the highlight of his day. When John looks at himself in the mirror before taking a shower, he still sees a former shell of himself. He isn’t getting stronger, he isn’t losing weight.

What is the answer to John’s problem? Doing 21-15-9 thrusters and pull-ups for time at the asscrack of dawn…but this time with 95lb!

Not so fast.

John is already stressed. Adding an additional component (working out) to his already completely drained system is only going to make things worse. What should be blaringly obvious here, is that it’s not working out that John needs to get stronger and fitter…it’s more sleep, better nutrition, and less stress. His capacity is full and overflowing even WITHOUT working out. The best fix for John is to probably STOP working out and add one hour of sleep, increasing protein intake in the morning, and meditating for ten minutes per day and taking a walk.

You CANNOT get stronger and fitter long-term if your lifestyle outside the gym is in opposition to what is necessary to facilitate rest and recovery.


5. You care too much about form

That’s right. There IS such a thing as caring too much about form and mechanics. Listen, I am not talking about sloppy CrossFit repetitions people do in competitions to win money or have the fastest time on the sacred whiteboard. I am talking about forsaking form 10% of the time in an effort to grind out some reps that look less than ideal for the purpose of making gains. People sometimes fear injury so much that they expect perfection from themselves within every rep or they refuse to go up in weight.

Here’s the truth about it:

To get stronger you have to be lifting within 85-100% of your 1 repetition training maximum. If you have perfect form while training at these percentage…you aren’t truly training at these percentages. Make sense? Essentially, you won’t grow or improve if your fear is having your knees wobble a bit on the way up from a squat, or your back round out a bit during a deadlift. You must be willing to accept the reality that pushing yourself means suffering a bit and doing some really hard work. This means things aren’t always going to be pretty. Training is a grind. So grind.


6. You fear you’re going to get big and bulky

Maybe getting strong isn’t for you. Not only that, but it takes some serious work and dedication to LOOK the way you’re saying you don’t want to look. Yes, for some, genetics will determine how strength training makes your body look…but that’s probably not the case for you as far as “looking big and bulky”. People who have this fear typically haven’t touched a weight in their life BASED on this fear…so it’s very safe to say, that doing deadlifts, squats, and overhead pressing isn’t going to turn you into this guy. You cannot assume that people who look “big and bulky”  magically got that way by taking CrossFit classes or learning how to lift. It just doesn’t work that way and you probably don’t have the testosterone to do it, anyhow. This is not a reason to not lift heavy.


7. You might not be training enough.

I cannot stress enough: Consistency is the answer to everything. If you want to do something right, if you want to get better at something, you have to do it with frequency. Not only frequency, but with consistent frequency. I would put my money on strength gains for a person who came to the gym twice per week for 25 weeks, than a person who came to the gym 5 times per week for 10 weeks and dropped off for the next 15 weeks. Success is built upon consistency over LONG PERIODS OF TIME. Not bouts of consistency and then drop-off.

You cannot expect to get stronger with spotty attendance. Create sustainability within your presence at the gym…do not overcommit.


8. You do the things you like to do, too much.

This is a good one. When someone finally gets one kipping pull up, they will come into the gym and practice kipping pull ups for the next year until their shoulders fall off. Humans are biased towards doing things we are good at. It makes us feel good. When you have identified that you are good at something, great. Continue to hone that skill, keep it in the grill, but on the back burner. Cook up your weaknesses, not your strengths.

What does all this really mean in the end? Strength is the foundation for everything we do. Your strength is an indicator of performance in sport and longevity in life. It is a truth that reveals what is possible and what is in need of improvement. If it’s not addressed or focused on, it’s hard to move forward with all the potential we have as movers. Strength should be a priority, and it should be important to you.

So, where do you sit on your current levels of strength? Do you find that it’s lacking? Has it been some time since you set any personal records for yourself? Did some of these discussion points resonate with you? Take some time to investigate this for yourself, and reflect on your behaviors and practices. And as always feel free to ask a coach for guidance and help towards achieving your goals.