Women who fail to achieve results from strength training usually fit into one of five categories. Pay attention to these common mistakes and discover where you may fall, and the corrections to make.
The “I’m going to do ALL THE THINGS” trainee
Here’s how a conversation with this type of trainee usually goes. She says something like, “The program isn’t working because I’m not getting stronger,” to which I respond: “Tell me all the activity you’ve done for the past three weeks.”
A response I’ve received is, “I’m doing the three strength training workouts each week from the Minimalist Weight Training Routine but added some extra exercises, HIIT, or barbell complexes at the end to burn more calories. And I decided to start training for a 5k two weeks ago, so I’m running a few days per week. I occasionally go to the local CrossFit gym for the WODs. Oh, and I love to push the Prowler too.”
The program most certainly isn’t the problem. It’s the surplus of intense activity being piled on top of it and the trainee is not recovering. That is why she’s not making progress.
These email interactions used to make me want to plant my face into my keyboard, but now I’m used to it. Many women find a program, declare to follow it as written while adding things to the workouts or engaging in loads of additional strenuous activity (I’ll explain why many do this in a moment). Then they wonder why in the hell they stagnated, or even regressed. Blaming the program may be the simplest choice, but it’s incorrect.
If your goal is to get stronger with big barbell lifts and you’re piling on a high workload of additional intense activity, your strength results will be suboptimal. You can’t say “I want to get really strong” and then tack on “But I also want to lose fat, improve my conditioning, and win the 5k race taking place in a few months.”
Training works best when you focus on one goal at a time. This isn’t to say you can only lift weights and not do anything else. It means, for example, if you want to get stronger at the squat, deadlift, and press then that’s where your energy needs to go. You can do other activities too, but they shouldn’t be too taxing, or in great quantity. It’s not practical to think you can squat and pull heavy every week and keep adding weight to the bar if you’re also running frequently, performing multiple bouts of interval training, and engaging in copious amounts of strenuous activity on top of it.
(Note: if you want to be mediocre at multiple activities, fine. This information isn’t for you. Lift occasionally, run, do all the WODs, and anything else you desire. But if you want maximum results from strength training and want to reach advanced levels of strength, pay attention.)
Train with purpose, and do what’s necessary to support that goal. If you want to get stronger, you damn well better make sleep and good nutrition a priority. If you declare, “My goal is to deadlift at least 1.5 times my bodyweight,” then you better not be piling a bunch of HIIT and other intense exercise on to your training regimen if you want to reach that goal quickly, and safely.
A favorite, effective template for trainees wanting to get strong: perform three total body workouts per week and move your body in enjoyable, low-ish intensity ways for 30-60 minutes on days you don’t lift. The stubborn trainee demanding some type of intense activity can add a few intervals (I prefer a stationary or airdyne bike) at the end of one or two strength training sessions. (By “a few” I mean something like sprinting on the bike for 20 seconds, recovering for 90 seconds — repeat for a total of 5-7 intervals.)
This “I’m going to do ALL OF THE THINGS” mindset is partly to blame on marketing gimmicks that promise you’ll burn a thousand calories with their revolutionary training systems (most of these claims are grossly exaggerated). There’s too much focus on trying to work off the calories you consume. This has led women to think they need a ton of activity every day and it’s turned exercise into punishment.
The women who fall into this trainee-category typically have a “more is better” attitude with exercise. They think if they don’t engage in a lot of activity that they’ll get fat, or doing a ton of activity will produce quicker results. Some even think eating 1,800 calories per day means they must burn off 1,800 calories per day with exercise. All these beliefs are self-defeating. It’s also bullshit.
Bottom line: if this sounds like you, don’t be afraid to reduce the amount of activity you perform. Put every bit of focus and energy you have into strength training and move your body in less stressful ways on days you don’t lift. You may be amazed at what happens.
The “I’m advanced” trainee
If excess activity isn’t the reason someone is failing to make progress with a proper strength training program, there’s another potential culprit: not working hard enough. A better way to say that is not challenging yourself according to your ability.
There are scads of women who’ve been working out for years, even decades; they may perform some exercises with dumbbells and machines and maybe even dabble with a few barbell lifts. Many mistakenly think this history of exercise makes them “advanced.”
I’ve received emails from women stating they’re not beginners — they want me to design an advanced training program for them. When I ask a few questions regarding their most recent training numbers I’ve heard, for example, she deadlifts 95 pounds and goblet squats with a 20-pound dumbbell.
Those are beginner numbers, period (unless you’re a 90-year-old trainee). Now, if you’re a beginner those are good numbers to start with, but if you’ve been strength training for months and don’t have an injury holding you back, you should be lifting more than that. (Note: me calling a 95-pound deadlift “beginner numbers” is not an insult. If that’s where you are, that’s great. Keep going and continue to get stronger.)
Most women are stronger than those numbers, but they’re not pushing themselves. Too many do a set of eight reps with a weight they could easily lift for 12 or more reps. The reasons for using such a light weight could be (a) they’re intimidated to lift heavier, (b) the feeling of straining due to a heavier load is foreign and uncomfortable, (c) they think they don’t need to go heavier to get results, or (d) they change exercises too frequently and never build strength in a few key lifts.
It’s possible to be an “advanced” exerciser but still be a beginner strength trainee. The prescription, in this case, is a steady, consistent dose of a few basic exercises with a focus on adding more weight when possible.
Are you holding yourself back and not using challenging loads you can confidently handle with proper form? Call yourself out on this, and then inch forward. You don’t need to slap a lot of weight on the bar the next workout, but be mindful of the fact you’re holding yourself back and slowly add more weight to the bar. Build your confidence with every increase. If your form is solid and you know you could handle more weight, put a little on there, and then crush it.
(Still a beginner and need a program to get you on the right track? Check out The Women’s Beginner Strength Training Guide.)
The “I’m just listening to my body” trainee
You should listen to your body and pay attention to its feedback — but some people take this too far.
Scenario 1: Today’s workout has deadlifts as the main exercise, but your back feels terrible. You go through the warm-up as usual to assess the situation, but no change. You recall straining your back at work a few days ago and it still feels “off.” You decide to give it a couple days to heal before deadlifting so you swap out deadlifts for goblet squats and perform the remainder of the workout that called for bench presses and dumbbell rows. You had a nice training session and your back wasn’t aggravated. In fact, the movement felt great.
This is a successful example of “listening to your body.”
Scenario 2: Your workout calls for front squats as the main exercise. You recall the work sets felt a bit heavy last week and decide to use the same weight again, and perform the same number of sets and reps. You think it’s a good idea to “listen to your body” and stick with this weight until it feels light.
Hold on to your butt because I’ve got shocking news: as you get stronger, weights will feel heavy. If you can perform the exercise and maintain proper form, then you can, and should, add weight when possible (or do an extra rep with the same weight via the Double-Progression Method). Yes, it will feel more challenging, but if your form is solid, you’re doing the right thing. This is strength training and the best way to get stronger is to lift more weight.
That was an unsuccessful example of “listening to your body.” Proper, progressive strength training is often uncomfortable. You’ll have to put energy and focus into every rep of every set. If you dominated 85 pounds for a set of five reps with squats last week, you can likely bump up the weight to 90 pounds next time.
Another common unsuccessful example of “listening to your body”: skipping today’s workout because you’re kind of tired and just don’t feel like it. There will be days when you’re completely drained, and that may warrant skipping your training session. But if you skip a workout every time you “don’t feel like it,” then before you know it you’re missing more workouts than you’re performing.
In my experience, a trainee does not become efficient at “listening to her body” until she’s quite strong (e.g., deadlifting at least 1.5 times her bodyweight) and spent at least a year with a progressively heavier barbell in her hands.
Another example to drill this point in: the trainee who says she’s “listening to her body” and swaps out push-ups, because they’re too challenging, for triceps kick-backs. If you fear effort, proper strength training isn’t for you. (Or you simply need to commit to toughening up; I encourage this option because strength training has many overlooked benefits, and you absolutely should do it.)
The “I must work all muscles directly” trainee
This type of trainee is usually misinformed. She either follows bodybuilding-type splits that are too advanced or, heaven forbid, some person who declares women must fear building muscle has convinced her to only perform a few isolation exercises with light weights.
There’s a time and place for isolation exercises (i.e., those that work a single joint like curls, extensions, lateral raises, etc.). But for the average trainee who wants to get stronger and build a better body, they shouldn’t be introduced at the beginning of a training career; this time is reserved for large compound exercises so she can master basic movements and build strength. Once you’ve built a proper strength base, you can sprinkle in isolation exercises so they complement the main exercises that build strength.
A strength training program that includes mostly isolation exercises like leg extensions and leg curls in lieu of a better exercise, like squats, is a mistake. Or triceps kick-backs and dumbbell curls instead of push-up and pull-up variations.
Unless you’re an advanced trainee (we already addressed what this really means) or a physique or bodybuilding competitor, you don’t need many (if any) isolation exercises.
The “I’m not pushing too hard — you don’t push hard enough!” trainee
Of the five trainee types that lead to suboptimal results, this is the least common. Whereas some women don’t like to increase the weight on the bar, some women love getting stronger. They thrive on seeing the number on the barbell go up. (These women have a special place in my heart.) But, they can become impatient and put weight on the bar too quickly.
As an example, a trainee crushed her last squat workout performing four sets of five reps with 95 pounds (4x5x95). She’s salivating at the thought of squatting 135 pounds because putting a 45 on each sleeve of the bar is an awesome milestone. (Weightlifting math for those who aren’t familiar: standard Olympic barbells weigh 45 pounds.)
Next workout she increases the weight 10 pounds and performs four sets of five reps with 105 pounds. This was harder than she expected and the fifth rep on the last two sets wasn’t very pretty and her form started to break down. The following workout she thinks, “Hell, I increased the weight 10 pounds last time — let’s put 115 on the bar!” She either manages to get three reps instead of five on most sets or her form breaks down even further and the squats look more like good mornings (hips shoot up before her shoulders rise when coming up out of the bottom) when she forces herself to complete five reps.
A better progression would’ve been to go from 95 to 100 pounds instead of 105. To her it may “only” be a five-pound increase, but it’s an increase. (Squatting 95 pounds for a set of five reps is a workload of 475 pounds; squatting 100 pounds for five reps is a workload of 500 pounds. That’s a 25-pound workload increase from a single set; it’s a 100-pound increase with four sets. Doesn’t look so small anymore, does it?)
The following workout she could likely bump it up another five pounds (from 100 to 105), and so on for several weeks. She may want to squat 135 pounds as soon as possible, but she must squat 100 correctly, then 105, 110, 115, etc.
Getting strong is damn awesome, and feels incredible. But don’t get greedy; strength training should be a lifelong activity. You must own every extra pound you put on the bar. Don’t let your admirable enthusiasm to “LIFT ALL THE WEIGHTS” undermine intelligent progression.
If your results from strength training have been less than stellar, hopefully now know why, and how to correct your course of action going forward.
Recommended Reading: Achieving Goals is Hard and Most People Fail. Here’s How to (Finally) Succeed.
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