7 Reasons You’re Not Getting Stronger (and How to Fix Them)

How often do you feel like your progress is slowing, or should be moving faster than it is? In a majority of the cases, you’re probably improving in the gym at a fine pace, but then again, maybe you’re slowing yourself down. Progressing in the gym and getting strong is a balancing act. The factors that go into it are as individual and complex, as they are simple.

By that I mean: Everyone’s strength will benefit from similar factors, and there’s no way around them. These factors include progressive overload, adequate recovery, eating enough, and this list goes on. The complexity and individual characteristics come into play when one is building their perfect plan of attack. I’m not advocating over complication of your current program, but maybe you could be doing something slightly better.

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This article will look at seven possible reasons your strength progress is either slowing or completely stalled. Will they all be relevant to you? No, most likely not. Yet, if there’s one area you could easily change for increased improvement, wouldn’t it be worth trying?

1. Program Hopping

The point of program hopping has been beat to death in the strength world, but it’s worth opening up with because it’s very relevant. The way a body gets stronger is through progressive overload, and the adaptation/re-building to adequate stress frequently applied to it. Workout programs (well, most) are setup to overload the body in a calculated way.

Do you find yourself changing programs frequently, or before they’re officially finished? If so, then there’s a good chance that this is one of the big reasons you’re not getting stronger. Programs, which will entail different forms of periodization, are like workout road maps. A good program isn’t just thrown together for the sake of moving the body; they’re put together to stress the muscular and neural system enough for a calculated adaptation without leading to burnout.

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The best lifters aren’t always crazy gifted athletes, but they’re always consistent. This variable is overlooked most by newbie lifters who see the next best thing, and immediately hop to it. We’ve all done it at one point or another, it comes with loving the gym and wanting to try everything. But the next time you start prematurely straying try these tips.

  • Write down your goals on your program: Sometimes seeing what you’re trying to accomplish with the work you’ve already put in can act as a reminder to keep you from wandering.
  • Find accountability: This one is huge for me, and many others. Find a buddy, coach, or program that holds you accountable. If you’re obligated to something for someone else it adds a level of depth to your current program.
  • Take a mini break: What’s making you want to jump from your program? Take a day, or some time for a mini workout and do it, then return to your program. Obviously, don’t go max out, but let’s say you want to do a different workout for a day (like a bodybuilding or functional fitness day), then do it – get it out of your system, and come back fresh.

2. Poorly Planned Progressive Overload

This point is similar to program hopping, but goes a step further. These are the variables within a program that are producing the overload, and stress on the body. Maybe you’re not getting stronger because the way you’re progressively overloading isn’t ideal for your body, current training state, or you’re trying to change too many variables at once.

Sometimes a lifter can try to change too much at one time, as opposed to choosing one type of overload and sticking to it. Progressive overload can come in many forms, and the rate an athlete overloads and what they try to overload will vary depending on their sport, goals, and training history. Below are six ways you can progressively overload the body.

  • Intensity: Weight lifted in relation to 1-RM
  • Sets: How many sets you’re performing
  • Reps: How many reps per set
  • Rest: Time between sets, exercises, and workouts
  • Frequency: How often you’re working something
  • Tempo: Changes within exercises for specific adaptation

There’s no one quick fix with this point, but it’s worth looking at. These six will all benefit different training adaptations. For example, if your goal is working sticking points, then tempo could be useful to look at. Need to improve your muscular endurance? Rest, frequency, and reps may be worth analyzing.

3. Inadequate Sleep

Out of every variable that involves getting stronger, it could be argued that sleep should always be number one. Without it, all of the stress and work you’re putting in the gym isn’t being optimized/used properly. Sleep directly and indirectly influences almost every factor in our life: Hormone levels, circadian rhythm, energy levels, stress levels, and much more.

[Workout late at night? Here are 5 tips to achieve a restful night’s sleep after!]

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Are you achieving enough sleep for proper recovery? Research suggests that athletes who achieve less than eight hours are at an increased risk of injury. And this point isn’t for those who have an off night here or there, but the chronic lack of sleep population. If you’re reading this thinking: When was the last time I felt fully rested and ready to perform the next day, then starting with these eight questions is a great way to get back on track.

4. Inconsistent Workout Times

Believe it, or not, the time of day you’re working out could be a reason your progress is slow. Is there a perfect time of day to work out? Not necessarily, but research has pointed to a few times for certain goals. For example, this research from 2014 suggested that morning workouts led to better sleep. So if your goal is to improve sleep, then morning workouts could be better suited for you.

Then there’s this study from 2014 that suggested working out in the evening led to increased performance in a 1,000-m cycling test. Regardless what time of day you workout, a consistent time can be beneficial for your strength and progress. The body has an innate way of adapting to consistent times of stress, which include workouts in this scenario. It’s been suggested that 6-weeks are a good time frame for adapting the body to a stress oriented time frame.

Below are factors to keep in mind that have an influence on morning and evening workouts. Depending on your schedule, maybe you should choose a time that coincides with your workout goals.

  • Circadian Rhythm 
  • Hormone Levels
  • Energy Stores
  • Body’s Temperature 
  • Reaction Time (Neural Influence)
  • Stress Levels
  • Time Allotment 

5. Maxing Out Too Often

A properly planned max out day shouldn’t be treated lightly, and lifters (often newer) can fall into the slippery slope of maxing far too often. Hitting true 1-RMs take a lot out of the body, mind, and nervous system, and doing them too often can leave you run down. This can then lead to overtraining, increased chance of injury, and lack of mental motivation.

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In Ben Pollack’s latest article for BarBend, he recommended how testing true 1-rep maxes should be treated similar to meets. Additionally, he advised only doing so 1-2 times a year, as it’s very physically/mentally demanding. He discussed how a lot of lifters get wrapped up in always wanting to max, then end up leading themselves to burnout, or injury. If you think you’re ready to test your 1-RM, or your program is getting ready to call for a true one-rep test, check out Pollack’s advice for hitting PRs like a pro.

6. Not Eating Enough

In terms of strength training, food is fuel. It’s what can help push us to the next level, and provide us with the energy to get through a brutal workout. So now the question remains, are you eating enough? Avid strength athletes typically have their diet in check, and it’s the newer lifters who often need this factor worked on the most. Not eating enough can impact your mentality in the gym, strength, and of course, energy.

  • Fat: Useful for energy and hormone regulation
  • Carbs: Energy, glycogen stores, and recovery
  • Protein: Muscle repair and recovery

If you’re in question of your diet, then asking yourself these eight questions can be a decent starting point. And honestly, outside of eating enough, creating a diet you can adhere to is just as important. This is one of the reasons Brian Shaw is able to eat 12,000 calories a day to match his performance and weight needs. Long story short, think of food as fuel, and if you’re cutting it short on a regular basis, then your performance can suffer.

7. No Clear Goals

Before you roll your eyes at this no-brainer point, give me a shot to justify it. As a society, we tend to spend a ton of time thinking about our career and life goals, so why not do the same for our workouts? When life gets busy and stressful, strength and gym performance can take a major hit. One thing that can help is having an intrinsic clear cut goal.

This is a goal that’s not crazy lofty, and achievable per your training. In my opinion, one’s mentality is more important for performance than actual energy levels. If your head isn’t in it, then everything else will suffer. Think about the last time you pushed ridiculously hard at work on a project when your energy was shot, and you thought there was no way to finish it. My guess is you did, and you were able to do so because your mentality was dead set on getting it done.

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The same concept should apply to your workouts. If your goal is to progress and get stronger, then you need to invest some time into your goals. Below are a few tips for creating goals to further your progress.

  • Process Goals: This is something Ben Pollack recently wrote about, and it entails creating smaller goals focused on constant process improvement, and not only the end point. Achieving frequent attainable goals are one way to stay motivated.
  • Clearly Defined: Dig deep, and ask yourself: Why the fu*k am I training? If you don’t partake in a formal strength sport, then find another reason for pushing in the gym. Maybe it’s to keep up with your kids and friends, improve in a sport, or even live a long healthy life. Regardless the reason, find it.
  • Constant Reminders: One tip I’ve learned from working with multiple athletes/coaches on a regular basis is how important frequently reminding oneself’s of their mission is. Cailer Woolam talked about how we wrote down his deadlift goal and posted it on his mirror to see every day. These daily reminders eventually become subconscious and become intrinsic motivators.

In Closing

Remember, there’s a high chance that you’re progressing at a great rate, and there’s no need to change to what you’re doing. This article is meant to provide a few ideas for those who find themselves frequently spinning their wheels in the gym. In addition, there could be a handful of reasons outside of the above points for slowed progress, and these are only a few of the reasons your strength may be slow.

Feature image screenshot from @BarBend Instagram page, originally shared by @strykebror.

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