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Opinion

8 Strength Training Mistakes I See Way More Than I Should

Don't let your ego get in the way of progress.

You’ve been lifting for a while and you still enjoy training, but there are times when your gains have slowed and you become frustrated by your lack of results. You think there is something wrong with your program and making some sort of change will get you back on track.

Before you adopt a completely different training split or shift your goals — take a hard look at how you’ve been training. There’s a chance that your program and exercise selection isn’t the problem. You may be the problem, and that’s ok. 

The truth is, I, too, have made many training mistake. I’ve decided to share what those mistakes were and what to do to correct them. This way, you can correct them if you are currently making similar mistakes, or help you be cognizant enough to avoid making them in the future.

Being in the gym trenches for over 30 years and training clients for over a dozen more is surely enough time for me to have made plenty of mistakes. Mistakes are not inherently bad as they can be an effective way to learn (hopefully without incurring any injuries for your trouble). While making mistakes may be part of the learning process, reducing them while you’re under the bar will help keep you safe, more efficiently hit your goals, and minimize your medical bills.

Let my pain be your gain. Learning from your mistakes is good, learning from mine is better. Here are eight mistakes I still see far too often, and what to do instead.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

1. Program Hopping

It’s natural for lifters to think the grass is always greener on the other side — especially after eight weeks on the same program. After all, this digital-first world saturates us constantly with the newest trends, exercises, and diet. Even if you know staying the course is the right move, novel option look better when your current program doesn’t seem to be doing squat.

Training mistakes pullup
UfaBizPhoto/Shutterstock

That’s not to say you shouldn’t change programs ever. Change is needed when you’ve plateaued, or your routine has become stale. But too much program hopping doesn’t give your body a chance to adapt to your current program because results take time. It’s a fine line.

What To Do Instead 

My rule of thumb is to finish the program first and then evaluate whether it worked or not. Honestly assess whether your loss of body fat, tightened your waist, built bigger muscles, or increased your strength.

If you’ve really seen no changes after six weeks — and you’re eating enough and getting plenty of sleep  then it might be acceptable to try a new program.  Which brings me to the next point.

2. Not Measuring Progress

How do you know if a program is working when you’re not tracking progress? 

Measuring Progress
WeHaveEverything/Shutterstock

If you fail to record your sets, reps, weight lifted, body part measurements or body fat levels during and after your program, you’re guessing and not assessing. Going by what you see in the mirror and the scale shouldn’t be your only measurement of progress.

What To Do Instead

Buy a journal (or make a Google sheet you can access on your phone) and record sets, reps, and total volume to see if you’re making progress from week to week. Invest in a tape measure or a body fat tester and record your results. Plus, occasionally testing your one-rep max — provided you’re fresh, and you recover properly — can be helpful as well so you know where your strength stands. 

3. Not Prioritizing Strength

No matter your goals are, all goals are easier by being stronger in the core lifts: 

  • Squats
  • Hinges
  • Carries
  • Presses
  • Pulls
Train strength for results
BLACKDAY/Shutterstock

[Related: 3 ways to test your 1-rep max for beginner, intermediate, and advanced lifters]

Getting stronger means you’ll have more gas in the tank, the ability to train more without burning yourself out. While there’s a bunch of strength standards in cyberspace, all you really need to worry about is adding weight to the bar or doing more reps with the same weight.

What To Do Instead 

No matter what program you’re doing, you need to include lifts in the two to six rep range for cycles of between four to six weeks in the core lifts. Then you’ll be headed in the right direction.  

4. Not Asking For Help

The idea of “perfect form” can be nebulous, given we’re all put together differently — your squat will look slightly different from my squat. You can take a deep dive on YouTube to find out how to do certain lifts correctly but this will only take you so far.

Not asking for help
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The point is: nothing beats a trained professional to pick up on any major technique issues. For years I deadlifted incorrectly, and I ended up herniating three discs. If I’d swallowed my pride and asked for help sooner, I may have saved myself a lot of pain, money, and hardship.

What To Do Instead

If you’re training at a gym and you’re not able to hire a coach, politely ask a trainer to watch your form for any glitches. Be open to any advice they give you. If in-person training is out of reach for you, then record your lifts and send it to a coach who offers video technique services online.

Seriously — if you’re unsure about a lift, please ask for help. It will save you from trouble further down the road.

5. Ignoring Pain

I’ve hear people complain about hurt shoulders, achey knees, and sore lower backs — yet, they still hit the bench press, squat rack, and deadlift platform.

Don't ignore pain
TORWAISTUDIO/Shutterstock

There are times when certain lifts hurt, and you feel the need to push through it because you feel you’ll be left behind, or you’ll lose strength. However, ignoring pain and exercising through (and not around) it over a long period never leads to anything good.

Please remember the adage ‘if it hurts bad, don’t do it’.  

What To Do Instead

When an exercise hurts, you don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. A great example of this is the bench press, which can cause lifters undue shoulder and wrist pain. Yet, when some people perform neutral-grip dumbbell presses, the pain is no more. Before you swear of a movement, look at the different tools you can use and regressions and variations you can try. Even if those changes help, you should be sure to see a physician if you’re experiencing pain.

6. Testing Strength Rather Than Building Strength

This is often-called ego lifting. If you’ve been lifting for a while, you’ve likely done it, encouraged it, and seen it. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with hard training on a consistent basis, not every session should be one-rep max fest.

There’s nothing wrong with getting the reps in, making steady progress, and being more concerned with form and technique rather than weight. Although chasing numbers is good, doing it at the expense of your body and ability to recover from training invites injury.

1RM
oleksboiko/Shutterstock

[Related: Olympic Rowers Reveal the Mistakes They See CrossFitters Make]

Only you can be the judge of whether you can and should attempt a new max — not your friends, other lifters, or that person at the gym you’re trying to impress. They will not suffer the repercussions if something goes wrong; only you will.

What To Do Instead

Dr.Travis Pollen, owner of 3M Athletic Performance explains a better way to encourage hard training, but not at the cost of form and recovery.

Have a broader definition of progress. Many lifters tend to focus on their one-rep max. They test it often, and as soon as it stops increasing, they jump to a new training program.

For me, my target rep range is five to ten reps, but you should feel free to choose whatever your favorite rep range is. Each session, I do a bunch of warm-up sets on my way to my test weight for the day. Depending on how I’m feeling, some days I’ll go for a new lower-rep PR (five to seven reps).

On other days I’ll shoot for a new higher-rep PR (eight to 10 reps). After the PR, I’ll do a couple of back-off sets as I’m warming up for the next exercise.

The freedom to go heavier or lighter depending on the day affords me the auto-regulation I need to make progress every session, which is incredibly rewarding.”

7. Chasing Too Many Goals At Once

This goes hand in hand with program hopping. You want fat loss. Hang on, you want hypertrophy. No, screw that, you want to get strong. But wait what about athleticism? 

For the longest time, I was chasing the pump while trying to break my deadlift record. Although it’s possible, my training age combined with my injury history conspired against me and I ended neither more pumped or any stronger. I did, however, end up having to foot some nasty medical bills.

Squat
Pressmaster/Shutterstock

You can chase more than one goal at once (like fat loss and hypertrophy), but achieving this takes more time, effort, and patience. It’s easier and more efficient to focus your efforts on one goal. Then, once you achieve it, focus all your efforts on the next goal. 

What To Do Instead

Break your training up into phases where you focus on one goal. For example, do strength training for six weeks, then taper off or perform a deload week, and then move on to a fat loss or hypertrophy phase. Doing so keeps variety in your training and keeps the overuse injuries at bay.

8. Not Working Hard Enough

 You’ve heard of the fairy tale “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” One porridge is too hot to eat, the other too cold to eat, and the other bowl of porridge is just right. Do you see where I’m going here?

There’s a sweet spot in the middle between doing too much and doing too little. If you’re spending too much time at either extreme, your progress will likely suffer. Here’s a personal example:

While coaching my son and training with him, I noticed the way he wills and pushes himself through discomfort — the great effort and consistency he shows in the weight room. Mind you, the “discomfort” was because the training was challenging, not beyond what he was capable of. I realized I wasn’t doing the same thing. I was on cruise control and my progress was nonexistent because of it.  

I was doing okay, but he showed me that I needed to be better. A little friendly competition can keep you from going astray. 

What To Do Instead

If your progress has slowed and needs a spark, there are two roads you should go down:

  • Train with a partner or in a community like Crossfit that can push you and keep you accountable.
  • Hire a coach.

A coach can either write your programs or train you in person or online. A coach will help you keep the foot on the gas and guide you as to when to take it off. Having another set of eyes on your training with your best interests in mind can make sure your progress is just right.

Wrapping Up

Mistakes happen when you’ve been in the lifting game for a while. But learning from them and limiting them will help you progress in the safest possible way without ending up on the physical therapist’s table.

Featured image via Ajan Alen/Shutterstock

6 thoughts on “8 Strength Training Mistakes I See Way More Than I Should”

  1. I love your take on this Shane. I’m so thrilled you mentioned personal trainers.

    Time and time again I’ve had clients tell me they can do it themselves while they pack on pounds unmotivated and unhappy.

    Sad how stubbornness and ego gets in the way of health. Thanks for your article!

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