Sick of giving it your all and getting nowhere? Don't spin your wheels in the gym any longer. Even if you've been training for a while, there are always ways to improve and get stronger. Once you move beyond beginner gains, where strength seems to have a linear trajectory (trending up!), you have to be a little wiser to make sure you get the results you deserve.
Not enough calories (and protein)
It seems evident that you need proper nutrition to fuel your performance and muscle gains, yet many people, even experienced lifters, seem to fall short in this area. It goes without saying that if you're not eating enough calories, you're either going plateau or worse, get weaker if the calories are low enough. Don't neglect the time-old wisdom of good nutrition – you need to eat to make gains!
You don't need to do a dirty bulk (or just a huge calorie surplus) to get stronger, you can still make strength progress eating at maintenance calories or in a slight surplus. To minimise fat gain, don't increase your calories in a huge jump. How fast you should bring them up depends on your individual circumstance, but the slower you go, the less likely you are to gain excess fat. If you've been in a severe calorie deficit for a long time, a larger bump up to maintenance calories can help restore hormonal health and strength quicker.
It's wise to aim to include healthy amounts of all macronutrients. Protein is essential in helping you repair and build muscle. Carbohydrates fill your glycogen stores, give you an excellent energy boost for the gym and also help with recovery. Finally, having fats in your diet is crucial for healthy hormones and also make a delicious, dense energy source!
Though the amount of protein athletes need is hotly debated. With athletes thriving on both low and higher ends of the spectrum, you can't go wrong by abiding by the consensus. If you're looking to gain strength and size, protein is your friend. Protein is also crucial to help preserve muscle when dieting. If you're an active individual, aim for approximately 1.6-2.2g per kg.
Why do some lifters not eat enough? Unfortunately, there can be so many factors; it depends on your situation. Some may struggle to consume enough calories because they fear getting fat, or perhaps they have a speedy metabolism, and it seems that no matter how much they eat, the weight never seems to pile on. If the latter is you, and you're struggling to get your calories up, consider one of our weight gainer proteins. You can also check out our recipes section for some delicious ways to get your macros met!
Not enough rest:
Are you guilty of rushing between exercises, not giving yourself enough time to rest and recover before the next lift? If so, you could be undoing your hard efforts. Obviously, this is dependant on the exercise. If you're going for an intense lift like maxing out on barbell squats, you're going to need to rest in between sets longer than when going high-rep (repetition) bodyweight squats. Keep track of how long you're resting between sets.
If you're looking for strength, a common amount of time to wait is 2-5 minutes.
How many of you are always running around, with a million 'to do's waiting for you? Stress, whether it's physical stress caused by training or the mental stress that can build up daily, it all impacts your ability to recover. Don't feel guilty about taking a rest day – strength is solidified when you're recovering. If you don't let your body and mind recover, how do you expect to get stronger? If you're worried about feeling 'lazy' or like you're not doing enough, there's plenty of ways to keep active that won't fry your system. You can go for a long walk, try some yoga or even get dancing! Whatever you do, don't do activities that will be sure to hamper your next session.
Training longer and harder doesn't always mean better results in the gym. If you're overdoing it, you could start going backwards! Have you ever trained so hard that you were too sore from training that same body part again? If you're trying to max out all the time, you're leaving yourself more susceptible to unfavourable wear and tear. Aside from trying to max out on lifts every time, you could simply be doing too much volume. Getting pumped for a huge HIIT session won't do you any favours when you have to hit legs the next day.
Amount and quality of sleep also profoundly impact your training results. Remember to prioritse those Zzz's!
Doing the same old program:
When you're trying to gain muscle, the ultimate goal should be to ensure some progressive overload. There are several ways to achieve progressive overload, not just adding more weight to the bar.
There are many potential forms of progress, but for simplicity, let's consider these:
- You lifted more weight (intensity)
- You completed more reps, sets or exercises for that muscle group (volume)
- You trained that muscle group more frequently (training frequency)
- You lifted the same amount of weight with less rest between sets (decreased rest)
- You did a slower tempo (Increased tension)
If you've been doing the same program for the last six months, you've probably reached a point of diminishing returns (and perhaps bored out of your mind too?). As you become more experienced with your lifts, your body adapts, and you need to make the calculated efforts to keep overcoming this.
On the flip side, I'm also looking at you if you're guilty of program hopping – how do you know if you're getting stronger if you're doing a 5 x 5 program one week and the latest 'killer strength' program from a muscle mag the next?
Points to keep in mind:
- Standardise your technique – meaning, do the lift the same way every time. How do you know if you got stronger if one week you're always changing the tempo, depth of movement and technique?
- Don't cheat yourself to make gains by changing your range of motion, using different (wrong) muscles or even training through pain.
- Change one training variable at a time and go slow do you don't fry your system.
- Listen to your body!
- Write down your lifts so you can see where you're progressing, and where your weak points are. It's also a motivating way to keep you pumped to get back to the iron!
Your technique needs tweaking:
Even if you have all the drive and motivation in the world, sheer will can only take you so far (without injuring yourself too). To break your strength plateau, look to where you're experiencing your weakest link.
You may need to go back and clean up your technique or work on some mobility before you can get back to it with better form.
- Is your posture off? Not only are you leaving yourself open to injury, you're probably hampering your strength efforts.
- Perfect your form! By using excellent technique, you're moving more efficiently, which translates to better strength gains! Not only will it mean less trips to your physiotherapist, it'll show that you're serious about making progress. As you progress, you'll never forget to practice the fundamentals.
- Consider using exercises that supplement your bigger lifts, so you come back bigger and better! Accessory exercises can be a valuable assest to your overall training program.
- Work on your weak points: Don't just do the exercises you love all the time! By challenging yourself to do the harder ones you struggle with, you're helping to correct imbalances you have, and make yourself a well rounded athlete.
Consider as well how much intensity you're putting into your workouts – are you just going through the motions? When you don't have a clear goal or purpose, it can be easy to feel like you're showing up, doing the work, when you're only pushing yourself until it gets uncomfortable. Sometimes you need to embrace the grind and get on with it!
Analyse and then execute:
By looking at where you're struggling at the moment, you can pinpoint what you need to do to start getting stronger again. Don't let the days, weeks and years go by, lifting the same old weight! You are capable of more than what you might think.