I remember the first time I laid down to bench, me and my friend using his dad’s home bench in the basement after reading some muscle magazines.
The moment is vivid – we tossed on 25s on each side, I laid down, ready to add a pound of muscle with each rep, grabbed the bar and my friend helped me unrack it. Then I bent my elbows, and the bar flew to my chest and I got crushed by 95 pounds – because why would you start with an empty barbell – and my friend had to help pick it up and rack to not kill me.
Within a month, that weight that crushed me was something I was throwing around for regular sets.
In the matter of a year I went from being demolished by that weight to doing sets with almost double it.
For the next couple of years I continued to make pretty steady progress – though it slowed down – without a drastic change in what I was doing.
I eventually got to benching 225 pounds for reps and felt like I was champ.
Then, I stopped seeing progress.
Each workout I’d try to put more weight on the bar, and it wouldn’t budge.
It brought me back to that first workout each time, feeling like I had no idea what I was doing – which I really didn’t.
When you first start training, progress comes easy.
It’s almost like you only have to think about lifting a weight and you get stronger.
Then after time it gradually dwindles and it appears like no matter what you do you can’t get more weight on that bar.
That’s how I felt, and what I’ve heard from so many trainees.
In the beginning we see fast progress because of primarily neurological factors like learning how to express force, general motor learning, etc.
Over time we do build muscle, but it’s not what drives the huge increase that we see very early on with lifting.
As we keep up the activity and ensure we provide sufficient stimulus and fuel, we build muscle and can keep progress rolling.
Then progress stops and we start spinning our wheels.
Having been there and progressed past it, and helped a lot of people conquer the stall and get back to the gainz train, I wanted to share the top reasons you’re not getting stronger.
These come from having worked with thousands of men & women in the gym and helping them get stronger.
1.Lack of consistency
During undergraduate school, I trained 5 days a week without question. I had my group of friends who were all lifters and it was pretty much a guarantee we would get a few sessions together per week. During this time I made huge progress in my strength, hitting over 500 in the squat, nearing 600 in the deadlift, and benching in the mid 300s.
When I went to graduate school, I found myself moved away from my friends, in with people who didn’t train, and having less consistency. I still made my way to the gym, but it was not nearly as regular as it had been. During that time, I did not see nearly as much progress and heavily stalled off.
After a while I was able to get things back in the right direction and began to see progress again – but it took me getting back to my regular routine.
Whether you’re someone who trains 2 days a week or 5 days a week, consistency is king. When you’ve set out to train 5 days, got goals for 5 days, a program in place for 5 days, etc. but do 2 days here, 3 days there, and 5 days occasionally – you’re gonna get frustrated and burnt out.
For some this might mean stepping back and re-evaluating if you have the right training frequency plan, for others it’s going to mean holding yourself more accountable to train.
2. Avoiding what you need to be doing
When I first got into lifting, I didn’t know what a squat was. I trained out of my high school weight room and the squat rack was just where we benched. By the time I was a senior, I had been introduced to Crossfit and got a rudimentary lesson on squatting.
After that I spent the next few years training mixed martial arts and not taking lifting quite as serious. During that time, I never got that into squatting. I’d do it, but I sucked at it and often avoided it. I had excuses – my femurs are long, my hips are retroverted, my ankles are limited, etc.
When I finished fighting, I got into strongman and powerlifting and found the squat my nemesis. I read about this program called squat every day and decided to do. Doing that program I got a huge increase in my squat relatively quickly. Turned out, I just needed to squat more often.
Most people have a tendency to shy away from what is hard, what they feel they suck at, etc. We favor the things we are good at and enjoy – totally understandable. Problem is, sometimes what we are avoiding is what we really need.
3. No program/Bouncing goals
One of my favorite sayings in rehab is:
The best exercise is the one that gets done.
This transfers over to getting stronger really well, but I’d make a small shift:
The best program is the one that gets followed
Today I want to get a bigger squat; tomorrow I want to get a 6 pack; the day after I want to have better endurance; the day after I’m frustrated I haven’t made progress.
Someone may be consistent with training, getting in their total workouts per week, but constantly changes them and their goals. This person is just spinning in circles and may make forward motion, but it’s going to be very slow.
In most cases, we need to emphasize one component of fitness at a time to make the most forward motion. We can train multiple factors, but we should have them tiered in importance.
We plan out a year of programming and set out when we are going to emphasize different qualities like strength, power, speed, hypertrophy, etc. and then set it in motion to build off each other.
All year long we work on each of them to some degree, but we pick one or two to focus on each month.
4. Not changing what you’re doing
Almost reverse of the last point, you can’t keep doing the same plan or workout forever and expect the same progress.
Our bodies thrive on having a steady progressive overload to adapt to, but there comes a point when the stimulus is not as demanding for it and we need to shift gears.
5. Effort Mismatch
This is one I see often where people are either going to too high of an effort too often – Who remembers when YOLO was popular? Man, oh man, crazy times.- or people who tend to shy on the side of not going challenging enough.
We want to have a good balance in our efforts where we get a mix of the occasional volume close to failure, but with the majority of our work being done in the 1-3 reps short of failure range.
If you’re the person who tends to feel beat up all the time and often dealing with injuries, and you tend to max out or fail frequently, you need to cut back a bit and make more of your efforts a bit lower intensity.
The flip side, those people out there who tend to shy away from failure, not wanting to be anywhere near it hold themselves back from maximal muscle growth and strength gains. After working with a lot of people, I can confidently say most people have little to no idea how strong they actually are or how to push to true failure. Most of the time people give up – not fail – a set. Challenging yourself on the occasional last set to do an AMRAP (as many reps as possible) is really beneficial to teaching yourself what you can do and if you’re training at a sufficiently challenging level.
This video breaks down some aspects of the discussion on training to failure.
If you’ve found yourself struggling in getting stronger, consider these 5 reasons and address any that might be holding you back!