If you’re like most people, you gained a reasonable amount of strength and muscle in your first year or two of training, regardless of how consistent or “optimal” your training was.
The reason individuals are able to make progress using a suboptimal training program their first 12-24 months of training is due to the fact that their bodies are hyper-responsive to resistance training.
It’s a novel stimulus and, as such, the body will grow pretty much doing just about anything.
However, there comes a point where we all tap out of the “newbie gains” phase and reach the early intermediate plateau.
It’s at this point that many people experience frustration since it seems they can’t make progress doing what they used to.
And, it’s also here where the really serious trainees are separated from the casual fitness enthusiast.
The truth is that if you’re serious about gaining strength and getting real, tangible results from your training, you need to buckle down and attack your training with a more targeted, nuanced approach.
Today, we discuss the top 7 reasons you’re not getting stronger.
Top 7 Reasons You’re Not Getting Stronger
#1 Inconsistent Training
All of us at one point or another have suffered from the plague that is incessant program hopping.
We start a new training program, and within 2-3 weeks of running it, we come across another program that we either see on social media or one that our friend is running.
Out of fear and insecurity that we might not be using the “perfect” training program, we jump to the other program. And in another 2-3 weeks the same scenario repeats itself and you again find yourself changing programs, still on the search for the one that will make you gain tremendous amounts of strength overnight.
But, here’s the sad truth -- there is no such thing as the perfect program.
You could have the most meticulously designed resistance training program that has you training as “optimally” as possible for your body.
But, if you don’t enjoy the program, you won’t be consistent in your training, which means you’ll constantly be on the “grass is always greener” bandwagon and program hopping for the rest of your lifting life.
The “best” resistance training programs (just like the “best” diets) are ones that are sustainable.
Even a crappy program executed with consistency and determination will lead to better gains in strength than an “optimally” designed program that is done sporadically.
To gain strength, you need to be consistent in your training, i.e. performing the same exercises each week.
Since strength is primarily driven by CNS adaptations, you need to repeat the same movements over and over again in order to gain movement proficiency and efficiency.
Only once your body understands how to execute an exercise efficiently can true gains in strength be achieved.
This will never happen (or happen much slower) if you’re constantly changing exercises or hopping from one program to another every other week.
In other words, find a program (any program) that appeals to you and is based around the basic compound movements and work it to death. Consistency, grit, and hard work will lead to phenomenal gains in strength and muscle.
#2 No Plan for Progressive Overload
The fundamental principle of gaining strength and building muscle is progressive overload.
Basically, progressive overload holds that in order for a muscle to grow bigger and/or stronger it must be forced to do more work than it previously has.
Now, progressive load can take many forms in your training program.
For instance, progressive overload could be:
- Completing more reps with the same weight
- Lifting more weight for the same amount of reps
- Reducing rest time between sets while completing the same number of reps
- Increasing the number of working sets on an exercise
- Increasing training frequency
- Increasing time under tension (slowing down the lifting/lowering tempo)
Depending on what specific goal you’re chasing (muscle building, fat loss, strength gain), some types of progressive overload are more appropriate than others.
Since the focus of this article is on getting stronger, the main methods of progressive overload you should be focused on are adding weight to the bar and completing more reps.
Without a plan for progression, you will never get bigger or stronger.
That means every workout, you should try to add another rep or add a bit of weight.
You may not always be able to do so, but the intention should always be there in your mind to beat your previous performance in the gym.
#3 Not Tracking Your Workouts
Building off of the previous point, the only way to know with any reasonable degree of certainty that you are indeed progressively overloading your muscles is to track your workouts and record your performance in a log book or smartphone app.
Write down which exercises you did, how many sets and reps you completed, what weight you used, and how long you rest between sets.
Having this information written down is vital to understanding what you need to do the next time you hit the gym to make sure you’re pushing for progression.
Yes, we know that some of you have great memories, but lots of things happen during the week and you might forget how many reps you actually did on a certain exercise from one week to the next.
Having a record of what you’ve done (either in a logbook or smartphone app) eliminates the guesswork. You can look and see what you have accomplished and then know what you need to do to beat your previous efforts in the gym.
#4 Not Sleeping Enough
We’ve said it 100 times before and we’ll continue to say it -- if you want to make real progress in your fitness journey, be it muscle gain, fat loss, or winning a transformation challenge, then you NEED to take sleep seriously.
Sleep is absolutely vital to your ability to recover from training (as well as all the other stressors of daily living). It is when we sleep that our bodies do the vast majority of the repair, recovery, and growth.
This includes repairing damaged muscle fibers as well as replenishing ATP and glycogen stores that will be used in subsequent training sessions.
Whether you realize it or not, sleep directly and indirectly affects virtually every facet in our life, including:
- Physical performance
- Stress levels
- Hunger and satiety signals
- Hormone levels
Research indicates that athletes who sleep less than eight hours a night are at an increased risk of injury.
If you need help getting to sleep each night, try instituting a bedtime routine:
- Limit blue light exposure (TV, laptop, smartphone, tablet, etc.) 2 hours before bed
- Avoid reading stressful emails, DMs, text messages, or news reports
- Do some light stretching
- Take a hot shower or warm bath
- Drink a cup of non-caffeinated herbal tea
- Do some light stretching or easy yoga
- Read a relaxing book
#5 Not Taking Deload Weeks
It can be tempting to constantly push yourself in the gym and take pride in being a member of “Team No Days Off,” but the best athletes in the world know the importance of taking it easy every now and then.
Now, we’re not talking about completely shirking your diet and training and going on an all out food and drink bender for a month.
We’re talking about taking a structured and planned week off from training, otherwise known as a deload week.
Deload weeks can come in many forms from simply reducing volume or intensity to doing purely active recovery modalities (hiking, walking, yoga, etc.).
For the strength-focused athlete, deload weeks usually entail a reduction in volume as well as a slight decrease in weight on the bar.
The reason for this is that over the many weeks of hard training, your body accumulates fatigue, and this fatigue is actually masking the gains you’re making in strength.
Taking a deload week allows for “super compensation” such that your body adapts to the cumulative stresses that have been imposed on it from heavy training and comes back at a higher level of fitness (e.g. you’re stronger).
All successful athletes, training programs, and coaches implement strategic overreaching, followed by deload weeks to allow for this supercompensation to occur.
You simply can't just go in day after day and hit new PRs every single training session. You need to give the body time to completely recover and then improve.
#6 Testing Your 1-Rep Max Too Often
As motivating as it can be to set a new 1-rep max on an exercise, doing it too often can actually hinder your ability to get stronger.
This is something many lifters (usually newer ones) have a habit of doing.
Hitting a true 1-rep max on an exercise takes a lot out of the body, mind, and central nervous system.
Doing it too often can leave you feeling run down and eventually lead to overtraining, lack of motivation to train, and decreased performance. Not to mention a significantly increased chance of injury.
Many top tier strength athletes advise treating a 1-rep max test like you would a powerlifting meet.
It’s something that is meticulously planned and worked towards, and it’s also something you only do a couple times per year -- not once a week or even once a month.
Remember 1-RM testing is incredibly stressful to the entire body and mind.
It’s tempting to get caught up in always chasing a new 1-RM, but doing so can lead to burnout and/or injury.
You can still gain strength without constantly testing your 1-rep max. Adding a rep here and there or increasing your working weight on an exercise by as little as 2.5-5lbs are other telltale signs that you are gaining strength.
#7 Not Eating Enough Food
Earlier we mentioned that gaining strength is primarily based on CNS adaptations.
However, we cannot forget the importance of food and total calorie intake when it comes to performing to the best of your abilities and getting stronger.
When it comes to gaining strength, building muscle, or optimizing athletic performance, food is fuel.
It’s what allows you to push your mind and body to the next level and make it through a daunting workout.
Serious lifters know the importance that nutrition plays in achieving their performance goals, but it’s the newer or more recreational lifters that need a reminder that food is just as important to performance as sleep and consistency are.
In other words, not eating enough food can severely hamper your focus, performance, and stamina.
If you need help getting your diet in order, we offer a customized nutrition plan with every entry into our transformation challenge.
You can also check out the Nutrition section of our blog where we have tons of articles on how to set up your diet for success, no matter what your goals are.
We all deal with challenges in the gym.
For some it’s movement execution, others it’s consistency, and still other struggle with strength plateaus.
Regardless of what your own personal struggle is, remember that getting in there and doing something is almost always better than sitting around and doing nothing (save if you’re seriously injured or sick, that is.)
This article gives several pointers to help you break past plateaus in your training and help you get stronger.
Try one or two of them out and see if that can’t get things moving in the right direction again.
Remember, there are no shortcuts to building muscle or strength in the gym, or losing body fat for that matter.
It all comes back to dedication, desire, and commitment. With those three things, you can accomplish any and every goal you set your mind to in the gym and in life!
- Milewski MD, Skaggs DL, Bishop GA, et al. Chronic lack of sleep is associated with increased sports injuries in adolescent athletes. J Pediatr Orthop. 2014;34(2):129‐133. doi:10.1097/BPO.0000000000000151