Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like the fitness industry has come a long way in the past few years.
Gone are the days of people trying to ‘run fat off’ and starve themselves half to death. Nowadays, the trendy thing seems to be getting stronger, feeling empowered and fuelling the body.
It’s a fantastic paradigm shift and one I’m delighted to be at the forefront of.
Pretty much everything we do at Improve Glasgow revolves around helping people get stronger and more athletic. And I’m glad to say that when I pop my head into other gyms – whether they’re commercial or independents – I see similar things happening.
That said, I also see a lot of mistakes being made. Most of these mistakes are simple ones and very easy to fix, with a bit of education and understanding and I’m hoping that this article can do just that for some people.
Without further ado, here’s a few mistakes I see people making whilst trying to get stronger, along with what I recommend doing instead:
1. Going too heavy too soon
I get it…
You’re a big lump of a boy and expect to be shifting heavy poundage straight away. Or you’re a fit girl and your pals who don’t look as fit as you are lifting more than you.
You want to push on and you’re not too bothered about it hurting a little. ‘No pain, no gain’, right?!
The problem is that whilst you may be able to lift the weight – on a deadlift, for example – but that doesn’t mean the muscles that should be working are working.
Most commonly, people will ‘deadlift’ a bar from the floor to their hips using a combination of their lower and upper back. The lift will be ‘complete’ but the body won’t actually have done what you wanted it to do when you decided you were going to deadlift.
Deadlifts should be initiated with the quads (the muscles on the front of your things between your knees and your hips), the hamstrings (the back of your legs from your knees to your hips) should then take over and your glutes (yo’ butt) should finish the job. Your abs (stomach), lower back and upper back…along with pretty much every other muscle in your body…should be working the whole time too.
But you just felt it in your lower back.
That’s a frustrating thing to happen. And, guess what? As soon as you up the weight (which we both know you will the next time you deadlift) your lower back will flare up again.
This time it’s even more frustrating than it was the last time. You’ll feel weak, or you’ll meatheadedly push through and really do some damage to yourself.
Either way, it’s not going to end well for yourself.
“What should I do instead?”
You should aim to learn a little bit more about the lifts that you’re doing in the gym and figure out what muscles you should be working and where you should be ‘feeling it’.
Whether that’s hiring a coach short-term to help you with the basics of technique or just spending some time on YouTube watching tutorials from guys like myself, it’s important you have at least a basic understanding of what should be happening when you’re training beyond “this feels sore, but it should feel sore so I’m doing good”.
2. Choosing the wrong exercises
Kind of following on from the previous point, sometimes it’s not necessarily the weight that you’re lifting but the movement itself.
For example, a barbell bent over row is a great exercise for developing the upper back, core strength and even getting some action into your hamstrings too – if your technique is super good.
But for someone who has limited core strength and an inability to hip hinge, the barbell bent over row is going to be a surefire way to flare up the lower back, get zero out of the upper back (which you’re supposed to be targeting) and essentially just feel like you’re wasting time.
A dumbbell prone row on an incline bench is going to be a far more beneficial exercise for you if you are this individual. You’ll be able to perform the exercise with a high level of competency and you’ll ‘feel’ the muscles working that you’re trying to work.
Another example of this would be a barbell squat.
For some people squatting is easy and they’re strong enough to get a 20kg bar on their back straight away. Others can walk into a gym, get some weight on the bar and squat away like nothing’s the matter.
Others will put a bar on their back, squat and experience a catalogue of technical issues.
The bar might annoy the bone at the top of your spine because it’s sitting too high on your back. Your heels might come off the ground straight away because you’re not comfortable keeping your weight on your heels or because the muscles on the back of your body aren’t developed enough to take the load or you just feel like you’re going to fall backwards as soon as you start descending into the squat.
Maybe everything feels good but you can only squat a few inches before every muscle on your body tightens up and basically stops you going any further?
If that’s you, you should look to grab a kettlebell, keep it infant of your body and squat down onto a bench/box to get used to the movement and develop the muscles you need to be able to back squat effectively.
You should never look at this as a step backwards, always as a step forwards because you’ll be getting far more bang for your buck out of doing a an exercise that’s easier on paper well than doing an exercise that’s harder on paper poorly.
“What should I do instead?”
Play around in the gym with different exercises and basically figure out what you find easy and what you struggle with. Then look to get better at the stuff you find easy by doing it for longer, adding more weight to the exercise and doing more sets/reps. This process could take a few weeks, a few months or a few years. Either way, you’ll be progressing the whole time so you should view it as a positive process.
Once you’ve gotten stronger through the exercises you originally found easy, you can try the exercises you struggled with again and you’ll most likely get a lot more joy out of them.
3. Expecting to continually get stronger every time you train
When you first start training, particularly if you’ve got a good understanding of fitness or are training with people who do, you’ll get stronger at a startling rate.
Every time you walk through the doors of the gym you’ll be lifting more weight than you did the week before. You’ll be progressing onto new exercises that you wouldn’t have been able to do weeks and months previously.
But the more you train, the more time you put in and the harder you work, the slower this progress is going to become.
You’ll go from adding 10kg to your deadlift every week to adding 2.5kg to it every month…if you’re lucky…and that can be a frustrating place (again).
Life also gets in the way and there’s going to be days you under eat, nights you don’t sleep well, days when work is more stressful than usual or just times you’re not in the mood to train. It’s going to be very hard to break records on days like these, but that doesn’t mean training is pointless.
Every time you train you’re re-affirming a movement to your brain. You’re perfecting your technique. You’re burning calories and you’re sweating. You’re also relieving stress and promoting the release of positive endorphins that are going to induce a sense of happiness.
“What should I do instead?”
Accept the fact that your strength progress is going to slow down eventually and look at this point as a place of almost technical mastery as opposed to a place of failure. This is when you’re reaching your potential, when you’ve gotten all from your body that you’re going to be able to get from it. And now it’s time to embrace the process and the long haul.
It’s not sexy but one of the best quotes/pieces of advice I’ve ever heard in relation to strength training came from an unknown source when asked what was the best way to get better at squatting.
The dude said:
“Squat every week for ten years.”
4. Under eating
Most of the time people stumble into strength training after starting exercise t
o lose weight.
People join a gym because they want to improve their body composition (lose fat, build muscle) and they end up stumbling into resistance/weight training after advice from an instructor, a trainer or after reading an article online/in a magazine.
When they first start out they’re dieting whilst they’re training because they’re trying to lose weight, and it’s pretty hard to lose weight without eating less calories…unless you don’t believe in science or are just fucking deluded.
So when you find strength training you want to get your numbers up, because you find it a far more rewarding pursuit than staring at the scales day after day, week after week seeing little to no change.
The problem is that in order for you to lift more weight, you need to fuel your body appropriately and build some muscle.
But that process usually involves eating more food than you’re used to and making sure you’re consistent with it too.
Say you squatted 100kg for 3 reps last week and the program says you’re squatting 100kg for 5 reps the following week. You ain’t getting those reps if you’re underfed. Your energy levels won’t be there and even if they are for the first set you’re going to want to die on the second, third, fourth…however many you’re programmed to do.
“What should I do instead?”
You should re-evaluate your nutritional approach (aka. your diet) anytime your goals change. What you need to eat to lose a stone and what you need to eat to add 50kg to your deadlift in a year are massively different.
Well, maybe not massively different, but different enough to ruin your chances of success if you don’t change the goalposts for yourself (or have someone else who understands the process better change ‘em for you).
5. Taking advice from someone who doesn’t know what he/she is talking about
One of the biggest problems the fitness industry is faced with is the fact that everyone and their granny has an opinion on what you should be doing.
This is probably more the case in the weight loss field than the strength field, but the problem is still present.
I see it when I go into commercial gyms to train.
Dude 1 telling Dude 2 what to do. Giving useless coaching points like: “squat deeper” when it’s clear Dude 2 doesn’t have the mobility or strength to squat any deeper without putting themselves at an unnecessarily high risk of injury.
Or Dude 1 putting weight on the bar and telling Dude 2 to lift the same, despite the fact that Dude 1 has clearly been training a whilst and it’s clearly Dude 2’s fist time (or second, or whatever) time in the weights room.
I know why this happens…it’s a kind of dick swinging/“I’m the alpha male”/he’s gonna really understand how strong I am when he tries to lift that type of mindset/attitude. But it’s dangerous, douchey and I really don’t like it.
Sometimes I’ll give people the benefit of the doubt in that I think they think their mate will be cool lifting the same weight as them because they’re the same size/weight or are maybe even bigger. But size/weight does not equal strength, particularly in the beginning when technique and mastery are simply not present.
“What should I do instead?”
I kind of fee like I’m repeating myself here, but you should aim to ease yourself into strength training gently. Figure out what you can and can’t do at a really low intensity and slowly aim to improve at the things you can do.
Don’t try to keep up with your mate. He might know more than you or have been training longer than you. Let him lift more, because he’s stronger than you. That doesn’t make you less of a man, but hobbling down the street like a cripple after you pop your hip joint trying to deadlift a weight you’ve got no right lifting certainly will.
And, again, if you can educate yourself via YouTube videos, going to seminars, listening to podcasts, reading blogs/articles or hiring someone to teach you the basics then you’ll be speeding up your process, reducing your risk of injury/failure and increasing your knowledge and understanding at a speed that’ll be lightyears faster than training with your mate who knows hee haw or going it alone and pissing in the wind.
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