by Robert Maxwell
Very few people I coach are completely new to training. Some lift for years before seeking my advice. Lack of progress is usually why. Despite lots of gym experience, they don’t enjoy the gains expected. Sometimes no gains at all. Our first conversation always includes a detailed explanation of their routine followed by a frustrated question. “I’m doing everything right, why aren’t I building muscle?” The reason is simple – they’re not doing everything as right as they think. If diet and rest aren’t to blame, I look at their workouts. More often than not simple errors are killing their progress. If you’ve hit a plateau in your training, here are 5 things that might be holding you back.
Skipping the Basics
When it comes to gaining size and strength, nothing beats the barbell squat, deadlift, overhead press and bench press. Trouble is, novice lifters often skip these in favour of exercise machines, which are easier and more modern. They require little technique and don’t threaten to crush you if you go too heavy, as a loaded barbell does. Machines aren’t bad, but they should never replace the barbell as the foundational tool of strength and muscle gain. The reason boils down to how our bodies work. The squat, deadlift, overhead press and bench press are compound movements, requiring several muscle groups to perform. Using more muscles makes us stronger. These lifts force us to fight gravity’s pull on the barbell and our bodies, causing us to move in very natural ways to complete the exercise. Machines take stabilization out of the equation, causing us to move less naturally using fewer muscles. Check out this article on how to perform the main lifts safely.
CHANGING PROGRAMS TOO OFTEN
It’s become fashionable for novice lifters to change programs almost constantly. This accomplishes nothing, and greatly hinders progress. When inexperienced trainees stop improving, they blame their program. They’re often wrong. If your routine includes the 4 barbell movements listed above plus some good accessory lifts and you train 3 or 4 times weekly, your program probably isn’t to blame for stalled progress. You are. Chances are you’re not eating or sleeping enough. There’s no magical formula for the perfect program. Most properly designed workouts work for most trainees, if they’re doing everything else right. Check your habits outside the gym before swapping your program.
Sometimes programs are to blame. If you’re eating and sleeping properly and training hard but seeing no results, it might be time for a different gym routine. One common problem is a lack of periodization. Periodization is a gradual increase in training stress designed to trigger muscle and strength gains. It works because of the body’s adaptive response to training, which is to get bigger and stronger. Without gradually increasing weight and repetitions, muscular improvement can’t happen. I’ve seen guys deadlift 70 kilos for years without adding a single kilogram or rep, wondering why they’ve built no muscle. No periodization means no muscle gain. If your workouts never change, neither will your body.
WRONG ACCESSORY MOVEMENTS
Accessory movements should help with the big 4: squat, deadlift, overhead press and bench press. Choosing correctly from hundreds of exercises might seem daunting, but it’s vital. Otherwise you’ll progress slower in the main lifts and your physique will reflect it. Dips, curls, and pull-ups should be on your list. Other good ones are Romanian deadlift, incline bench press, leg curls and front squats. Each improves strength in a way that complements the big 4. More strength means more muscle. Application to the big 4 is how you decide if an accessory lift is worthwhile. There are lots of options. Just don’t pick silly movements that have no application to overall strength.
NO LONG TERM GOAL
You might have a great lifting program, eat for growth and get plenty of sleep, but without a specific long term goal you won’t improve as much as you could. Goals focus our efforts, giving us something tangible to work towards. They drive us forward when we lack motivation, filling us with purpose until they’re achieved. Training “to get bigger and stronger”, isn’t specific enough. Without a clear destination your fitness will flounder when motivation runs low. Instead of some vague, aimless goal, try setting more measurable milestones. Maybe you want to build up to a 150 kilogram bench press, or have 18 inch biceps at 10 percent body fat. Maybe you’d like to enjoy the many benefits of resistance training. Whatever drives you forward, boil it down to something specific. You’ll thank yourself later.
Robert Maxwell is an online strength and fitness coach and founder of The Man Factory. Are you a man 50 or older? Become your best self at www.manfactorytraining.com/strength-north-of-50