If you've incorporated strength training into your exercise regimen, congratulations! You're cultivating a healthy habit that will help make you better at, well, pretty much everything. But just like other aspects of a healthy lifestyle, strength-training progress can be unpredictable. Try as you might, after several weeks (or months) of steady progress, you might reach a wall where you just can't seem to get any stronger. However, don't throw in the towel (or throw down the weights) just yet. Strength training involves a lot of complex elements that have to work in sync to deliver significant results. Here are a few common culprits that could be sapping your strength gains--and how to fix them.
You're Not Resting Enough
In order for your muscles to repair themselves, you should value recovery just as much as your workouts. Always rest your muscles for 24-48 hours after strength training to give them ample time to rebuild and recover. Your body as a whole may need more rest, too; sleep is an often overlooked (but crucial) component of any solid training and recovery plan. Getting less than 7-9 hours of shut-eye each night is asking for some serious chronic fatigue that will set you up for impeded performance and slower muscle recovery.
You're Not Eating Enough Calories
To improve performance and get stronger, you need to fuel your body correctly throughout the training process. If you are restricting your calories too much, it might be difficult to put on muscle, as your body usually needs extra calories and nutrients to rebuild and repair tissue. Strength training while eating at a reduced-calorie diet can help you minimize muscle loss as you lose body fat, but many people might not be able to build significant muscle using this strategy.
To ensure that you're eating enough to support your muscle-building goals, first calculate how many calories your body needs to maintain your current weight. (You can find this information here.) If you currently use an online fitness and nutrition plan such as SparkPeople, make sure your weight and activity levels are up to date and accurate to get your maintenance calorie number. Eat at this maintenance level while sticking to the top of your carbohydrate and protein ranges during your training, and see if that jump-starts your strength gains.
There is no exact science to figuring out exactly how many calories your body needs to put on muscle. Some people may need more, and some may need less in order to see results, depending on many indivnindual factors. This balance might take a bit of trial and error on your part. Just make sure you're eating at or slightly above maintenance, and keep in mind that your progress will likely be much slower if you're cutting calories for weight loss while you're trying to build muscle.
You're Not Eating the Right Foods
In order to get the best results from your diet, focus on high-quality calories. If you're eating unhealthy foods that have very little nutritional value, your energy levels will suffer during your workouts, and your muscles will not be able to recover, repair and become stronger. Choose lean meats, plant-based protein sources, eggs, milk and yogurt, along with plenty of fresh veggies and fruits, healthy fats and whole grains to fuel your workouts and support muscle recovery. (Learn more about protein needs for exercisers.)
You're Using Improper Form
Proper form is crucial for maximum safety and effectiveness in the weight room. When your form is sloppy, your results will be inconsistent and slow since you're not engaging your muscles correctly throughout the movement--not to mention that your risk of injury goes through the roof. When you're performing a new strength move for the first time, study the correct form and be sure that you fully understand the move from start to finish before attempting it. (SparkPeople's Exercise Demos are a great place to start!) Before adding resistance, practice each movement several times until you feel confident enough to add weight—and make sure not to add too much weight, too fast. If you feel your form start to suffer in the middle of a set (especially if you have to use momentum to complete the exercise), it's time to lower your reps or take off some of the weight.
You're Not Pushing Yourself Enough
It's easy to get trapped in your comfort zone in the weight room. Putting more plates on the bar or picking up a heavier dumbbell can be scary, but you'll never see improvements in your strength if you aren't progressively overloading your muscles on a consistent basis. In other words, if you can perform more than 15 repetitions of any given exercise without feeling fatigued by the end of your set, it's time to up your weight by about 5%. Make sure that your last rep of each set is very challenging, but still possible to complete with good form. For maximum strength gains, lifting to "failure" at the end of each set is crucial.
You're Stuck in a Routine Rut
If you continue to do the same exercises day in and day out, your body is going to adapt to the movements—which means you'll stall out on getting stronger. It's important to work your muscle groups in as many different ways as you can to keep challenging your body and forcing it to adapt to outside resistance. Try varying the exercises in your program every 6-8 weeks to keep things fresh. For example, try an incline press instead of a traditional chest press to recruit different muscle fibers in your pectorals that you might not already be hitting. You can also try varying your set and rep schemes to keep your muscles guessing.
You're Doing the Wrong Number of Sets and Reps
If building strength is your goal, lifting fewer reps of heavier weights is the way to go. Lifting lighter weights at higher rep schemes will help you build muscular endurance, but it's not the strategy to use if you want to focus on muscular strength. If you're lifting 20 reps without breaking a sweat, you aren't going to be building much strength any time soon.
The way you structure your sets and reps for strength-building is up to you, and it might take some trial and error to figure out what your body responds to and what works for your schedule. Most people see significant strength gains by doing 2-3 sets of 8-10 repetitions at a weight that completely fatigues the muscles by the last rep of the set. As you get stronger, you can experiment with lowering the reps while upping the weight. As long as you are consistently exhausting your muscles by the last rep of your set, you will continue to see improvements.
You're Training Inconsistently
You can't expect to strength train one time a week and see results. To reap significant strength gains, you need to be working all of your major muscle groups 2-3 times per week. To help make your workouts a bigger priority, schedule them just like you would any other appointment, and try not to go more than three days between strength sessions if you can help it.
You're Not Training All Your Muscle Groups Evenly
In order to build full-body strength, it's important to make sure you're giving the same amount of attention to all of your major muscle groups. If you work certain muscle groups more while neglecting others, you up your risk for injury. Plus, your strength will be disproportionate. At minimum, make sure you're working your arms, shoulders, legs, core, chest and back with equal intensity and frequency to gain strength all over.
Hopefully, these tweaks will help you bust through your strength plateau and start making steady gains again in no time.