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Weight Training Programs: 5 Reasons You Aren’t Getting Stronger

Written on September 21, 2010 at 4:22 pm, by Eric Cressey

Like just about all lifters, I got a lot bigger and stronger in my first 1-2 years of training in spite of the moronic stuff that I did in my weight training programs.  In hindsight, I was about as informed as a chimp with a barbell – but things worked out nonetheless.  That is, at least, until I hit a big fat plateau where things didn’t budge.

Think I’m joking?  Sadly, I’m not; otherwise, I wouldn’t have spent about 14 months trying to go from a 225-pound bench to 230.  When you’re finished laughing at my past futility (or about how similar it sounds to your own plight), we’ll continue.

Ready?  Good – because self-deprecating writing was never a strong suit of mine.  I have, however, become quite good at picking heavy stuff off the floor – to the tune of a personal-best 660-pound deadlift at a body weight of 188.

ec_660dlMy other numbers aren't too shabby, either, but this article isn't about me; it's about why YOU can't necessarily get strong as fast as you'd like.  Let's look at a few mistakes many people make in their quest to increase strength.  Sadly, I made most of these myself along the way, so hopefully I can save you some frustration.

Reason #1: You're only doing what's fun – and not what you need.

As you could probably tell, deadlifting is a strength of mine – and I enjoy it.  Squatting, on the other hand, never came naturally to me.  I always squatted, but I'd be lying if I didn't say that it took the back seat to pulling heavy.

Eventually, though, I smartened up and took care of the issue – by always putting squatting before deadlifting in all my lower-body weight training sessions (twice a week).

In addition to me dramatically improving my squat, a funny thing happened: I actually started to love to squat.  Whoever said that you can't teach an old dog (or deadlifter) new tricks didn't have the real scoop.

Reason #2: You're not taking deload periods.

One phrase of which I've grown quite fond is "fatigue masks fitness."  As a little frame of reference, my best vertical jump is 37" – but on most days, I won't give you anything over 34.5" or so.  The reason is very simple: most of your training career is going to be spent in some degree of fatigue.  How you manage that fatigue is what's going to dictate your adaptation over the long-term.

On one hand, you want to impose enough fatigue to create supercompensation – so that you'll adapt and come back at a higher level of fitness.  On the other hand, you don't want to impose so much fatigue that you dig yourself a hole you can't get out of without a significant amount of time off.

Good weight training programs implement strategic overreaching follows by deloads – periods of lower training stress – to allow for adaptation to occur.  You can't just go in and hit personal bests in every single training session – and if you try, you're going to wind up exhausted.

art-of-the-deload2

Reason #3: You’re not rotating movements.

It never ceases to amaze me when a guy claims that he just can’t seem to increase strength on his bench press (or any lift, for that matter), and when you ask him what he’s done to work on it of late, and he tells you “bench press.” Specificity is important, folks, but if you aren’t rotating exercises in your strength training program, you’re missing out on a wildly valuable training stimulus: rotating strength exercises.

While there is certainly a place for extended periods of specificity (Smolov squat cycles, for instance), you can’t push this approach indefinitely.  Rotating my heaviest strength exercises was one of the most important lessons I learned along my journey.  In addition to helping to create adaptation, you’re also expanding your “motor program” and avoiding overuse injuries via pattern overload.

I’m not saying that you have to overhaul your entire strength and conditioning program each time you walk into the gym, but there should be some semi-regular fluctuation in exercise selection.  The more experienced you get, the more often you’ll want to rotate your strength exercises (I do it weekly).  We generally rotate assistance exercises every four weeks, though.

Reason #4: You’re inconsistent with your training.

I always tell our clients from all walks of life that the best strength and conditioning programs are ones that are sustainable.  I’ll take a crappy strength training program executed with consistency over a great program that’s only done sporadically.  In my daily practice, this is absolutely huge for professional athletes who need to maximize progress in the off-season; they just can’t afford to have unplanned breaks in training if they want to improve from year to year.

HPH-mainIf a strength and conditioning program isn’t conducive to your goals and lifestyle, then it isn’t a good program.  That’s why I went out of my way to create 2x/week, 3x/week, and 4x/week strength training options – plus five supplemental conditioning options and a host of exercise modifications – when I pulled Show and Go together; I wanted it to be a very versatile resource.

Likewise, I wanted it to be safe; a program isn’t good if it injures you and prevents you from exercising.  Solid programs include targeted efforts to reduce the likelihood of injury via means like mobility warm-ups, supplemental stretching recommendations, specific progressions, fluctuations in training stress, and alternative strength exercises (“plan B”) in case you aren’t quite ready to execute “Plan A.”

For me personally, I attribute a lot of my progress to the fact that at one point, I actually went over eight years without missing a planned lift.  It’s a bit extreme, I know, but there’s a lesson to be learned.

Reason #5: You’re using the wrong rep schemes.

Beginners can make strength gains on as little as 40% of their one-rep max.  Past that initial period, the number moves to 70% – which is roughly a 12-rep max for most folks.  Later, I’d say that the number creeps up to about 85% – which would be about a 5-rep max for an intermediate lifter.  This last range is where you’ll find most people who head to the internet for strength training information.

What they don’t realize is that 85% isn’t going to get the job done for very long, either.  My experience is that in advanced lifters, the fastest way to build strength is to perform singles at or above 90% of one-rep max with regularity.  As long as exercises are rotated and deloading periods are included, this is a strategy that can be employed for an extended period of time.  In fact, it was probably the single (no pun intended) most valuable discovery I made in my quest to get strong.

I’m not saying that you should be attempting one-rep maxes each time you enter the gym, but I do think they’ll “just happen” if you employ this technique.

To take the guesswork out of all this and try some programming that considers all these crucial factors (and a whole lot more), check out my resource, The High Performance Handbook.

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27 Responses to “Weight Training Programs: 5 Reasons You Aren’t Getting Stronger”

  1. John Costello Says:

    Eric,
    Great information. When I read the “Art of the Deload” the light came on. Prior to that “deload” meant laying off a week. Also, since I am a bit older than most of your readers, I have found that less is more. I only lift heavy,for me, once a week so that I can come back and keep to my schedule. Otherwise it takes too long to recover.
    I am really pumped about Show and Go. I was thinking about getting another trainer just to check me on my form. I am hoping now that I can see the movement with the cues you give that I will not need to spend the bucks for another trainer.
    Thanks for all the great info.
    John

  2. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, John! I think you’ll find that videoing yourself is the single-best way to see what you’re doing incorrectly so that you can start to fix it. Highly recommended!

  3. Shaun Says:

    Great info and videos u been putting out prior to the release of Show and Tell, Eric. Makes me really pumped up abt ur new work. Btw, what should be the recommended set/rest period protocol for heavy singles?

  4. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Shaun. I generally recommend about three minutes – although bigger guys will need a bit longer than smaller guys. The stronger you are, the longer you need!

  5. Brian Says:

    Eric,

    Great content as usual!

    You said that you always start your lower body training sessions with squats before deadlifts. I am trying to raise my squat and deadlift currently (looking to hopefully pull 600 soon), so I am rotating squats first one week, and deadlift first the following week. This allows me to maximize the weight used on each. I then do an assistance deadlift movement on squat days ( higher volume), and on deadlift days an assistance squat movement (higher volume). I train legs heavy once per week. What do you think of this approach?

    In Strength,

    Brian

  6. DANIEL RAMSAY Says:

    Eric, great post..you hit on the golden rods of productive training …I run Bergen County CrossFit and that is why we write all our own programs to keep the basic keys to progress in the programming…its become the new rage of late to just kill the clients and call it intense training… thanks again Daniel

  7. Ed Marriott Says:

    Eric

    Do you have any view on the effectiveness of all this ‘activation training’ stuff that people like Christian Thibideau at t-nation are encouraging?

    I.e that the nervous system’s ability to produce force is increased by building up to the max weight in several sets of low reps, all at high speed?

    thanks

  8. Fredrik Gyllensten Says:

    Great post Eric, many great tips :)

  9. Scott Umberger Says:

    I think of lot of average men get confused with the mirror and scale very much like woman get crazy about their jeans and scale. I had to update a video testimonial of one of my 48 year Fusion Workout clients who thought he looked horrible. In the new one we did this morning showed his “gut” was clearly smaller(almost non existent) and his arms looked better overall and his shoulders were broader. The scale didn’t tell him that he looked way better. He’s always trained with personal trainers who have done typical bodybuilding body part splits. “National Chest Day is always Monday”. I train our Fusion Workout clients like athletes just with less rest and less focus on maximal weight.
    I have a 6’5″ ex D1 lineman training with me that’s now 245 and looking great for the “stand in” work that he’s doing now in movies. I coached him in high school at 185 and as one of his S&C coaches in college when he was 320. One thing that he and everyone else is having a hard time understand is that he had a shit ton of muscle mass at 320. Sure he was fat because he had to be.
    He “drank” the bodybuilding punch for 6 weeks and is now realizing that those workouts didn’t make him look better. He achieved the muscle mass from training like an athlete and getting strong as hell(700 lb drug free raw squat in college). His diet and HIIT work have helped him lean out his already muscular physiche(I can’t believe I used that word).
    Eric’s “Show and Go Workouts” are a “look under the hood” of what great athletes do for performance. The added benefit for the athletes is that they wind up “jacked and swoll”. It’s all about “chicks” anyway, right? Look at a 100m sprinter or a D back/WR in football. They are lean and muscular. A completely obtainable and livable look for the average guy.

  10. Carlos Mendez Leo Says:

    Thanks for the great info.

    I would like to add another crucial point for getting strong:

    Work hard and buy a house with a backyard. Then buy a barbell with a lot of weights and place it in your backyard. Now you have a gym where you will actually get strong. If you want to get fancy you can buy a squat rack but before this you should learn to clean the weight in order to squat.

    It’s a “bit” antisocial but it works well when you can train like an animal.

    It’s sad to think about how strength-limiting commercial gyms can be. Modern & popular training environments resemble the average modern physique.

    Have luck getting strong,
    Carlos

  11. wrestler strength Says:

    eric, i remember speaking with you briefly at the wonderful dinosaur bbq in syracuse after your first big presentation at an elite conference. i’ve been seeing a lot of guest posts done by you on other blogs (ferrugia, mccombs, etc.) and decided to finally search yours out today. let me tell you man, this is by far one of the most well done blogs i’ve seen and it’s chocked full of great content. expect lots of future hits and comments from me. thanks as always for all of your great contributions to the industry!

  12. Harrison Says:

    What about eating enough? Doesn’t that play a big role in getting stronger?

  13. Ben N Says:

    For a strength gaining program, how many work sets to you recommend using singles at 90%?

  14. Carsten Knuffmann Says:

    Excellent fundamental Post! Thumbs up!

    Deloading has given me some very nice boosts in performance when I firsted implemented them!

  15. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Carsten! Definitely valuable implementations.

  16. Constantine Says:

    Hey Eric,

    With regards to the deload, there is one thing I’m somewhat confused about after reading the Art of Deload.

    You mention a few times in the minibook “Assistance exercises follow a different template” or “do some assistance work but don’t go crazy”–as far as I can see I can’t find the different template you mentioned for assistance exercises. When you are cutting back on intensity with your main lifts, do you want to keep the sets/reps on your assistance work more or less constant? (For example in method 2 of the art of deload.)

  17. Jason Thorpe Says:

    Great article, resembles very much my own insights. Wish I had had them sooner, but better late than never.

  18. Adrian Daisy Day Says:

    Great article fella. A lot of people I see train are doing the same exercises and the same rep range for months., not to mention never spending time to de load or understand the exercises.

  19. Troy @ Formulated Fitness Says:

    I couldn’t agree more with the 1st one. In fact that is probably the number one reason most people don’t get stronger.

    Most people focus on the muscles that are already developed and strong. You need to do weak point training!

  20. Eric Cressey Says:

    Constantine,

    We’ll usually drop the number of sets only on the assistance work. Fewer sets takes care of the drop in volume we’re looking for. Intensity usually remains high, unless we’re talking about an experienced lifter who needs the reduction in intensity, too.

  21. muscle mass Says:

    would your recommend alternating between the conventional and sumo style deadlift each week or run a cycle of each one before switching to the other?

  22. Eric Cressey Says:

    In beginners and intermediate lifters, I think it’s best to keep one in for 3-4 weeks before rotating on a regular basis.

    Once folks get more advanced, they can cycle in different variations week to week (rotating max effort exercises).

  23. Derek Says:

    Eric, first off, love everything you write. Thank you for all the knowledge and experience you share freely with everyone.

    In regards to #3 and #4, would love to hear your take on Ivan Abadjiev’s methods and the Bulgarian training model in general. While they obviously had doping issues, so did the rest of the world at the time (the Russians, Iranians, Israelis, Americans, East Germans etc.), and they consistently dominated weightlifting for over two decades despite a population roughly the size of Massachusetts.

    Two central tenants of their system were working up to a daily max every single day (with really no deloads whatsoever, except for a small taper before a meet) and never rotating exercises. This flies in the face of points #3 and #4 above — which are also points I’ve read from several other highly respected strength coaches.

  24. Heidi Says:

    Eric,

    What are your thoughts on Wendler’s 5/3/1 program? It cycles in deload weeks…..you reminded me that it is good to take them. I think obviously luck and timing has a lot to do with it too. Sometimes when I go on a saturday a little bit later, not dreading going to work after more sleep I am much stronger. Thanks for the info! Heidi

  25. Tony O'Neill Says:

    Fantastic read thanks mate :)

  26. Eric Cressey Says:

    Heidi,

    It’s another great program!

  27. Eric Cressey Says:

    Derek,

    Just a thought: who is to say that the other groups using AAS couldn’t have trained at that same intensity/frequency and recovered, too?

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