Why You’re Not Getting Stronger

Here is a scenario that I get quite often: “I’m running the such and such program, and it isn’t working, why not?” While there can be a great many reasons for your program not working, today I’d like to look at 3 of the most common scenarios we see.

Reason #1: Inadequate Rest Between Sets

As I’ve said many times, most of the folks that come to us, have never engaged in a formal strength training program prior. As such, it’s likely they will come in with expectations that aren’t necessarily accurate with what we’re trying to accomplish. Many folks come in with a background in aerobic exercise and/or some sort of conditioning-style exercise like bootcamps and circuit training. Perhaps they’ve taken a class at their local community center?

In any event, lifting “heavy” barbells will require longer rest between sets than they are (likely) accustomed to. It’s perfectly natural to think rest periods should be shorter as less rest = more work being done. Most folks have been conditioned (pun intended) to think that being out of breath = more effective exercise and that’s simply not true when it comes to getting stronger. More weight lifted over time = better strength training.

Our general recommendation would be to rest 3-5 min between bouts of (sets) of strength work. Better conditioned folks will likely be closer to the 3 min mark while those that are less conditioned will need closer to 5 minutes. Why not make the less conditioned folks work off 3 minute rest periods? It’s likely their performance and/or quality of work would suffer. Additionally, IF we are looking for a metabolic adaptation (i.e., to get in better shape), we would probably opt for a modality that doesn’t require a heavy weight on their back. Perhaps something more like a sled drag or fan bike. We sometimes use isolation accessories for circuit style work too… but there’s an obvious difference in technical demands when comparing a 315lb back squat and machine-leg curls.

Reason #2: Poor Programming

This isn’t going to be a rant of silly BS that we often see being pedaled in many gyms. Instead, if folks are exercising, we think that’s great! Keep going. That being said, if one of your goals is to get stronger (i.e., increase force production), you’re going to need to define your terms (how are you testing your force production increases) and then execute a program that calls for regular work/practice with said term(s).

You can’t run a 9-week bike riding program and then expect your squat to go up. Similarly, you can’t go to a general fitness class 3 days per week at your local community center, perform all manner of DB exercises and calisthenics and then be disappointed when you and your buddy walk into the gym and squat.

You may have very well been “putting in the work” but the work wasn’t specific enough to drive the desired adaptation. Strength is specific to the:

  • speed of contraction
  • joint angle
  • exercise / modality
  • rep range

A quality “strength” program will have you doing a good amount of work in the 65-95% intensity range with the test exercise and/or it’s close variations. Sure, it’s completely reasonable to incorporate other exercises / modalities into the program as well (particularly for general population folks) but you must do some amount of “generally acceptable” work in the the modality you’re going to be testing. If I were aiming go increase my S/B/D performance, I’d run a program that had me doing those lifts + close variations in the specified ranges (previously discussed). Additionally, I’d want a program that had me doing some singles in the 90+ zone periodically. Lastly, I’d supplement those modalities with some general aerobic exercise that was easy on my joints + sustainable.

Reason #3: Your Nutrition is Trash

There has been a long-standing belief that one cannot get stronger whilst aiming for weight loss. Anecdotally, I have seen the opposite, assuming we’re not talking about an egregious caloric deficit. The big problem with a big cut is that you will run into eating less-than desirable amounts of lean protein and carbohydrates.

I know many might prefer a diet that is relatively high in protein and fat… I get it, those are the tasty foods for sure but if one is aiming to maximize muscular strength and hypertrophy, they would benefit from a diet that allows for 1.6g of lean protein per 1kg of bodyweight AND roughly 3g of carbohydrate per 1kg of bodyweight. The obvious problem here is a crash-dieting approach to nutrition leaves little room to hit such numbers.

What about general health? Sure, that’s what we’re all after. Rest assured, you can greatly improve your health eating a diet that is relatively high in fat or carbohydrates… or evenly split for that matter. Macronutrient blend is far less important when the goal is to improve health markers (blood pressure, cholesterol, weight, BMI, body fat percent, etc.).

Practically speaking, most folks should simply follow the macronutrient breakdown that suits them / they’ll stick too, which brings me back to my original point. Don’t crash diet! Statistically, we already know you’ll gain all the weight back, you won’t get stronger, and will generally feel like s**t.

What is reasonable? If aiming for weight loss, I’d focus on a small caloric deficit (likely about 250 calories per day), at least 1.6g of lean protein per 1kg of bodyweight, 25 to 30g of fiber per day, and a makeup of carbs/fats to my choosing. If aiming for weight gain, I’d similarly use a small manipulation of caloric intake. I’d aim for approximately 250 additional calories per day, whilst still aiming for my protein and fiber intake goals. Again, I’d use a makeup of carbs/fats that was preferrable for me.

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Talk soon,