1. Testing strength too frequently instead of trying to build it
One of the quickest ways to ensure that you won’t get bigger or stronger is to constantly test your strength. The bench press is the most common example. Say you walk in on Monday, and hit 135×10, 185×6, then squeak out 225×1. In true bro fashion, you then have your boy spot you for an attempt at 245, which promptly staples you to the bench, but he deadlifts it off your chest and claims that it “was all you bro.
That’s 16-17 total reps on the bench at best in a training session, and if we are using 225 as this hypothetical bro’s true 1RM, then he’s only getting 7 true reps in above 80% of his max.
When it comes to building strength, that’s just not enough. Just look at any of the traditional set and rep schemes of the tried and true programs: 5×5 (25 total reps), 6×4 (24 total), 8×3 (24 total), 4×6 (24 total), 3×8 (24 total).
Typically, shooting for around 25 total reps of a main lift is going to be the sweet spot to get bigger and stronger. Unfortunately, most people miss the mark on this and endlessly circle the drain without making any appreciable progress, get disenfranchised, and decide that they’d rather sit at the bar after work than train.
Sitting at the bar after work is a blast, don’t get me wrong, but being frail and weak and sitting at the bar sucks. Get your reps in, then go to the bar, but with a swell on.
2. Too much time spent on isolation exercises and not enough on the big rocks
This brings me to the next most common mistake: spending too much time on isolation exercises and machines and not enough on the big lifts that move the needle. The fact of the matter is, presses, chin ups, rows, squats, and deadlifts are what make you strong and build muscle. Cable lateral raises and concentration curls can’t hold the jock of any of the aforementioned lifts.
Show me someone who squats 315×10 and I’ll show you a dude with a lot of muscle. The ability to load these compound lifts is what triggers strength and muscle gain, and this can’t be replicated the same way with isolation exercises. Placing too much emphasis on the small lifts just saps energy that could be used for lifts that give you a bigger bang for your buck.
Is there a time and a place for isolation work? Sure. But a general rule of thumb I use is if you can’t do 10 perfect chin ups, then doing bicep curls is going to be a pretty silly use of time.
Hammer the big stuff, then sprinkle in the little stuff when you’ve built some strength and muscle.
Our bodies are really just stacks of joints, and muscles contract around those joints to make them move. Joint position dictates muscle recruitment. If we don’t have our joints stacked up properly, i.e. not keep perfect technique, then we are not going to be putting the right muscles in the right position at the right time to optimally perform the lift.
Let’s use the bench again as an example. If we have the bar across the hand a bit too high, it’s going to make our wrists extend backwards a bit as the weight on the bar goes up.
This is going to cause a loss of force generated through the wrist into the bar, and make the bar drift up on the chest towards the face too much instead of a straight line up and down. When this happens, the elbows get lower than the bar rather than under them.
Now we’re placing unnecessary stress on the shoulders, elbows, and wrists, and certainly not putting as much force into the bar as we would be capable of if we had a straight wrist, with elbows directly underneath, packed shoulder blades, and a tight position on the bench.
Best case scenario, we leave strength gains on the table because we aren’t at our strongest, worst case is that we compensate so much to work around our technique flaws and get hurt. Maybe it’s not an explosive injury today, but over time, these things add up to small, nagging injuries that keep us from progressing and doing the stuff we enjoy outside of them gym.
Perfect technique is imperative to maximizing your efforts and training longevity. Training to absolute failure is a quick way to smoke your system and let your form go to hell, so stop a rep or 2 short, right before your form is about to break down. This is training to technical failure, and it’s the key to getting stronger without sacrificing your body.
Besides, nobody ever got strong by having someone else lift the weight for them after they got buried by it.
Training shouldn’t be rocket science. Most of the time, the simpler, the better. Pick 3-4 big lifts that you want to use as your indicator lifts: a push, a pull, a deadlift variation, and a squat variation. Then pick some dumbbell and bodyweight exercises to supplement those. Shoot for 10-25 reps total on the main exercises and 25-50 (maybe 50-100 on some bodyweight exercises). Make sure to hit a number of different rep ranges: 3-8, 8-12, and 15+. Keep a log and look to get better from one week, month, and year to the next.
Begin with some jumps and medicine ball throws, sprint a few times a week, and you’ve got yourself a really solid training regimen.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: good training isn’t sexy. You need to stick to a plan, get enough training volume in with sufficient effort in multiple rep ranges, and do it all with perfect technique. Rinse, repeat, get jacked and tan.