I spend a lot of time in the gym with a lot of people who work out. Social media shows me countless others who also work out, train others, etc. I don’t have a Kinesiology degree but I know what I’m talking about. I preface with this because some of you are not going to like what I’m going to say next.
The two most common mistakes I see people make with strength training are:
- People train like a powerlifter, with powerlifter goals, even though that’s not or should not be their goal.
- People train continuously without taking any proactive, conscious training breaks.
Why are these problems?
Powerlifting is a specific type of weight training with a specific goal, yet this approach to strength training is universally applied to far too many people whose goals don’t match.
Powerlifting is a sport where the specific objective is to lift as much weight as possible in a defined weighted lift. These lifts are often standard, common compound lifts such as a barbell squat, a barbell bench press, and a barbell deadlift. The lifts I mentioned in fact are called The Big Three. These are lifts most weightlifters are taught to do and practice from day one.
On a basic level, teaching a novice to powerlift as their strength training can help them with their current functional and personal goals. Most start strength training to get in better shape, get stronger, augment their other physical disciplines (e.g. people who play other competitive sports, those in physical professions like firefighters and the military, etc). From a beginner and novice perspective, just about any strength training approach will help you produce improvement in strength, body composition and performance.
That said, the law of diminishing returns does kick in after a few months, and the smart approach is to refine your training to more specifically reflect the goals you are pursuing.
Most people don’t do this. Whether taught to do so or by habit, they become fixated on maxing out their key lifts. And they stick with this goal whenever they strength train, regardless of whether or not it’s benefitting their main goals and objectives.
If you’re a powerlifter, this is totally fine. Maxing out your key lifts is your specific, primary objective. So yes, keep training in this fashion.
However, if your goal is bodybuilding, or improving athletic fitness for team sports, or getting in better overall shape, or improving muscular endurance for endurance sports… powerlifting, however helpful it can be, is either not as productive a form of strength training as a different approach, or it can actually be counter-productive to your primary growth objectives.
Consider if you play a sport, and your body is already absorbing the demand of continuous load and movement to engage in that sport. Adding the substantial load and demand of lifting a very heavy weight from a compromised-by-design physical position in a separate workout not only induces excess wear and tear on your bones, joints, muscles and organs… but you cut into valuable recovery time, while adding more damage your body needs to recover from on top of your training.
And sure, you can argue this will happen with any kind of strength training. But the issue with training like a powerlifter is that it is a max-effort form of training, unlike many others. Your body has a finite capacity for recovery from physical exercise. Powerlifting as a strength training practice demands a lot of recovery. If you’re already facing recovery from a run workout or a two hour basketball or football practice, you’re probably doing more damage than benefit trying to max out compound lifts.
On top of that, powerlifting is fundamentally risky to your spine and joints, as the loads being lifted typically go far beyond your comfortable capacity. Even though ideally you use your muscles to bear the full weight, often a powerlifter’s bones and joints are forced to handle some of the weight out of necessity (this is actually why so many wear belts and braces when lifting).
Again, this makes sense if powerlifting is your primary goal… (and this is key…) at the expense of any other training objective. Meaning, things like excelling at a sport or bulding muscle size or having more energy from exercise… are not as important to you as lifting as much as you possibly can.
Powerlifting is one approach to strength training out of many. Too often, it’s the only approach people are taught to employ with strength training. That’s not smart, and in many cases that’s not healthy. A legion of joint/muscle/spinal-disc injuries in gyms worldwide can back that up. If not for performance enhancing drugs and discouraged people quitting, there would probably be many more.
What other approaches are there?
As many personal training certification organizations will tell you, there are various stages and approaches to fitness training.
Most should start with the goal of simple muscular stability and endurance: Mastering the ability to capably lift a challenging but not close to maximum weight for a reasonably high number of repetitions, within various compound and isolated exercises.
Once in better shape and a bit experienced, you can progress to other goals:
- Muscular endurance: Higher but still sub-maximal weight, probably more sets. Typically sought by athletes who need to perform with their bodies in tough circumstances for long periods of time during competition.
- Hypertrophy aka bigger muscles aka Bodybuilding: Even higher but still sub-max weight, 3-5 sets, more specific and isolated muscle workouts as goals evolve towards making certain muscles bigger.
- Max strength aka Powerlifting: The familiar pursuit of max weight, with fewer but highly focused reps.
- Max power: Fewer, focused workouts, lower weight with focus on moving the weight quickly under control. Athletes in high impact sports will perform these workouts at times (typically the offseason) to improve relevant in-sport performance.
- You can also just stick to 1st level stabilization, to keep the body generally fit and reduce any physical imbalances… aka, just staying in shape. Many people who don’t take the powerlifter’s red pill already train this way… and while many diehards may scoff at such people, it’s actually a fairly sound approach for most.
Powerlifting is not only one goal of many possible goals, but it’s a later progression goal, one you should only pursue after working on and developing other early-level objectives. For example, in NASM Personal Training, Max Strength is a Phase 4 goal. In their system, you should work on stabilization first, then strength endurance, and possibly (depending on your needs) hypertrophy before progressing to max strength as a goal.
Much like Crossfit, one of the perils of conventional powerlifting training is that it starts beginners in an advanced form of training instead of first building other fundamental strength, fitness and skills needed to safely, fully benefit from the max power stage.
This is actually a key reason both Crossfit and typical powerlifting-style strength training see so many injuries. Those you see excelling at either without branching out are typically survivors of a flawed approach to training, rather than proof that the approach is reliable and sound.
That’s a lot to say on point #1, and hopefully I’ve made myself clear. Be wary of any trainer or training approach recommending you start with heavy barbell lifts or similar, complicated high-weight training. Move towards those who give you an accessible, reliable approach to build your fitness and, if desired, build up to those approaches.
Point #2. People train continuously without taking any proactive, conscious training breaks.
Most avid gym-goers go to the gym every week, which generally is healthy and a positive habit. It’s better than quitting or finding excuses not to go and getting lazy. It also typically means you’re not injured or sick, and that’s a good sign.
But after training for a while, improvements slow down, and this is accepted as a fact of life.
What if I told you the reason your gains and growth slowed to a crawl was because you keep going to the gym without an extended break?
Yes, the very thing that produced those initial gains is now actually the very thing preventing you from seeing more than minimal improvement. And here is why:
Consider that a distance runner who trains for a goal race, after completing that goal race, typically takes an extended break. Why does said runner not continue training to run during their offseason or break before starting training for the next goal race?
It’s because their body has been so beaten from all the training, not to mention the race itself, that it needs an extended period to decompress and regenerate from all that work before said runner returns to training. Otherwise, their training improvement will also flatline once they begin training for the next race. Presuming they don’t burnout or get injured (a very real possibility in months of continuous uninterrupted hard training), they will likely see no better than little to no improvement in their next race… if not a regression and worse performance in that race. They need a break.
This also is why competitive sports also has an offseason. Football and basketball players can’t go hard year round or they will regress, get hurt (even more than they do now), burn out and so on. The quality of play will tank without a break. Their bodies need to recharge and recover. Even the players who train hard during the offseason can take advantage of doing so without the constant travel, practice and in-game demands of the season, and take all the recovery time they need between workouts.
Yet people who lift weights at the gym never take a break unless they have to, whether it’s life obligations, an (obviously unplanned) injury, a work or family emergency, a trip to prison, etc.
It’s very rare for a regular trainee at the gym to decide, every few weeks or months, to take a week or more off from training to recover. A handful of personal trainers and gurus recommend it (many call it a “de-load week”), but most just keep trainees going indefinitely.
And then everyone assumes it’s a fact of life that gains plateau after a few weeks or months, and you should just accept it while running yourself into the ground week after week doing 5RM squats under a barbell (often while blocking out strangely persistent knee and back pain)… unless you’re willing to use performance enhancing drugs (which in turn is why so many turn to PED’s).
But it’s during recovery that the body grows stronger, not necessarily during the actual training. Yes, the actual training is the key stimulus to producing your gains and growth. But those gains and growth can only happen during recovery. And there comes a point where a day or two off between workouts isn’t enough downtime for that recovery to fully manifest. After a few weeks or months, you need more like a week or two away from training to let your body catch up.
This applies not just to gym-bros or gym-bunnies, but to endurance athletes, competitive sports players, anyone who trains hard with a fitness goal. It’s the idea behind dietary “maintenance weeks” and even dangerous yet useful “cheat days”. Every so often, you and your body need a break.
Take some recovery time every so often.
A solid general approach would be to train hard and focused for 12 weeks, then take the next week off or easy as a “de-load week” before doing another 12 weeks, then another de-load week off, repeat. During this week, eat “to maintenance”, aka eat enough to maintain your current weight. Don’t feel you need to starve or fast yourself because you’re training less. Eat healthy, sure, but let your body metabolically re-load.
That de-load week off will re-charge you, and once you hit the gym again the next week, you probably will be excited to hit the weights again. And (while I recommend you take it easy on the first couple workouts to ease back in) you may be surprised at how the rate of your gains pick back up again.
You may see more improvement in two 12-1 training cycles than you would have had you just gone to the gym every week for 26 weeks straight. And you might feel better overall as well, more energy, less lingering soreness, probably fewer nagging injuries.
You can actually do this “12-1” cycle exactly four times in a year: The 12 training weeks and 1 de-load week makes 13 weeks, and 13 times 4 is 52… exactly the number of weeks in a Western calendar year. This can be a sustainable training cycle for anyone.
If desired, you can even plan the de-load week around key holidays or events, and mess with the schedule a bit: If one cycle has to be 10 weeks and another 14 because Christmas is here and a friend’s wedding in Aruba is there, that’s fine.
If you just can’t handle not going to the gym during a de-load week, show up anyway but just do a lot less than you usually do. Relax and treat it like a working vacation, but at the gym. Do a few sets of your typical exercises at a rather light weight to keep up the habit. Or (if it doesn’t bore you) do some easy cardio. Or even experiment with some different strength exercises to see if they can fit your rotation when you get back on the horse next week. This is also a great opportunity to evolve your training goals and focus for when you get serious again next week.
And that’s just one approach to a regular training break. You could take a 2 week break every 6 months, decide that once a month you’re only going to the gym once that week, switch to some other kind of exercise every 3 months and (maybe) come back to regular training after 2-3 weeks, etc.
The key here is that it’s best for your training to proactively decide to take a break every so (defined) often, and let your body absorb all those weeks of training in a recovery phase before going back and attacking your training like before. You will in the long run feel better and see better improvement than if you just went every day or week without a break.
Train the right way for your needs, and make sure to plan breaks in your training.