Exercise is supposed to be a stress relievier, not something that creates more tension in your life. But stress and frustration are exactly what happens when strength gains and size gains begin to sputter. And without utilizing trial and error and critical thinking in your training, the road back to continual success can be long and intimidating.
If you’ve already considered the obvious causes for your stalled progress—namely, you’re inconsistent with how your train, eat, and rest—one of these seven reasons might be the real thing that’s holding you back.
1. Your Mechanics Are Off
When you’ve hit a wall there’s no better time to take a step back and rethink the way in which your body is moving compared to how it should be moving during specific exercises.
“The brain is a sophisticated thing that—if you allow it—will try to find the most efficient way to move through space while using the least amount of resistance,” says Dr. Paul Juris, Executive Director of the Cybex Research Institute. “So in many cases what people do is find solutions that limit the loading of the joints and therefore the muscle, and that’s not necessarily creating the best opportunity to make the system work harder. Take an overhead press with a cable as an example. If the cable is aligned straight through the center of the shoulder joint, biomechanically that’s not placing the load on the shoulder. So those muscles around the shoulder aren’t going to work very hard despite the fact that you’re moving in a way that it looks like you’re doing the exerciseproperly. Finding the right source to help you iron out kinks isn’t always an easy task. Unfortunately biomechanics isn’t something that’s taught very much in the fitness industry, but finding someone who knows it would be very helpful to you.”
2. You’re Switching Things Up Too Often
Yes, your body is an adaptive organism that’ll stop responding if you fail to increase demands. But changing every aspect of every workout on a daily basis isn’t necessary, according to Dr. Juris. “Repeated stimulus over a 30-day period can help you get comfortable, confident, and learn the task more effectively,” he says. “However, there is value to changing the loading schemes. So, on some days work with higher loads and fewer reps, or lighter loads and more reps. I also like to throw in a speed day with lighter loads and fast reps.”
3. You Might Have Hit Your Strength Ceiling
We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there is going to come a point where you simply can’t get any stronger. If that weren’t the case, gyms would be overcrowded with Incredible Hulks curling Smart cars.
“As human beings we all have our own genetic ceiling,” says Dr. Juris. “So there’s only so much we can do without getting into some unsavory things.”
4. You Only Do What You Enjoy
Often, instead of embracing what pushes our bodies to grow—maybe it’s performing Olympic lifts or running the rack—we find something less demanding, intense, or time consuming takes its place.
“I believe people have a tendency to do what they’re good at or enjoy,” says NASM-certified personal trainer Mike Giliotti. “So when I train my clients, I do the exact opposite. You don’t like squats? Well we start them. You don’t like deadlifts? Now we will do extra sets. When I see a weakness, I go right at it. Face your fear and break your wall. I really find this to be effective both mentally and physically.
5. Your Ego Is In The Way
Weightlifting can be an amorphous term. It’s your responsibility to figure out the necessary principals and methods needed to achieve your specific objective. So if you have not defined an end game, there’s no way you can accomplish your goal.
“’Powerlifting’ is lifting the most weight possible and has no concern with body composition, conditioning or the way the physique looks,” explains John Rowley, certified personal trainer and author of The Power of Positive Fitness. “So when you look at it from this perspective you can see why people don’t make gains in the gym. They avoid the bench press or other movements because they think they should be doing these big lifts. So if they can’t do 325 lbs. they skip the exercise when they should really be focusing on what the weight can do for their muscle—not the weight on the bar.”
6. You Have No Idea What ‘Supramaximal Training’ Is
Supramaximal effort, defined as something that exceeds what is considered maximal, can make the body adapt by exposing it to a higher set of demands.
“While time under tension (TUT) is important for both strength and hypertrophy goals, it is the relationship of TUT to the resistance used that is truly important,” explains NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist Brian Durbin, owner of Fitness Together of Mt. Pleasant, S.C. “An important note for those looking to increase muscle strength and hypertrophy is the TUT as a result from supramaximal training using eccentric (when the muscles lengthen) loading. The TUT component of eccentric loading days can be an excellent plateau-breaking tool and can also be invaluable for pushing the muscles and the nervous system to a new level of performance.”
Durbin suggests incorporating two days of eccentric supramaximal training for a two-week cycle. “It can completely revolutionize a training program and catapult results forward,” he adds.
7. You’re Putting In Too Much O.T.
This especially applies to newcomers, but can be also become an issue when gym vets’ see their lifts flatline; they begin to overcompensate by adding more sets or reps.
“Putting muscle on requires you to lift weight correctly and with efficiency,” explains Rowley. “The key is get in, get the job done and get out. Newbies can confuse gains with time in the gym because it makes sense to them; however, I like to use the common analogy of the marathon runner versus the sprinter. You can train easy and long or hard and short. Hard and short adds muscle, but a long and hard session doesn’t do much for muscle gains.”