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Why You’re Not Getting Stronger

Around here, the kids are all back in school and they have the whole year ahead of them.

There’s tons of excitement as they look forward to the many possibilities and potential for the year.

I still remember my Senior year, when I said I was going to not play basketball (which I pretty much hated) and just concentrate on baseball.

I wanted to go into the school weight room three days a week and put on some serious muscle, because I was 6-feet tall and about 200-lbs, but thought for sure with hard work I could put on some muscle and show up for my Freshman Year in college looking like Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire.

While I never ended up looking like Mark or Barry, I did end up putting on some muscle and planting the seeds that would grow into a life-long interest in weight training.

Unfortunately, at the time, I didn’t realize some of the things these guys were doing and taking in order to get so freakish. I also didn’t realize that there was a difference between training for size and for training with strength. I just went in there and did what I read about in bodybuilding magazines and didn’t understand the importance of proper loading and rep schemes in order to get stronger. If finding a balance between muscle gains and improvements in strength levels is something that you struggle with, then today’s article is perfect for you.

Today’s post comes from Eric Cressey. Eric is probably best known for his work with professional baseball players at his facility in Connecticut, Cressey Performance, but he is also know for his work in the arena of fitness and especially the field of strength & conditioning. His knowledge blows me away and he is one of the few professionals in the field I subscribe to. Every article, video and product he puts out is GOLD. Possibly his most well-recognized work, Show and Go: High Performance Training to Look Feel and Move Better is on sale for this week only for $50 off the regular price.

Enjoy today’s post from this world class author, speaker coach, and lifter.

5 Reasons You’re Not Getting Stronger

By: Eric Cressey

Like most lifters, I gained a lot of size and strength in my first 1-2 years of training in spite of the moronic stuff that I did. Looking back, I was about as informed as a chimp with a barbell – but things somehow worked out nonetheless. That is, however, until I hit a big fat plateau where things didn’t budge.

Truthfully, “big fat plateau” doesn’t even begin to do my shortcomings justice. No exaggeration: I spent 14 months trying to go from a 225-pound bench to 230. Take a moment and laugh at my past futility (or about how similar it sounds to your own plight), and we’ll continue.

All set? Good – because self-deprecating writing was never one of my strengths. I have, however, become quite good at picking heavy stuff off the floor – to the tune of a personal-best 660-pound deadlift at a body weight of 188.


Eric Cressey, 660-lb Deadlift

My other numbers aren’t too shabby, either, but this article isn’t about me; it’s about why YOU aren’t necessarily getting strong as fast as you’d like. To that end, I’d like to take a look at a few mistakes people commonly make in the quest to gain strength. Sadly, I’ve made most of these myself at some point, so hopefully I can save you some frustration.

Mistake #1: Only doing what’s fun and not what you need.

As you could probably tell, deadlifting is a strength of mine – and I enjoy it. Squatting, on the other hand, never came naturally to me. I always squatted, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it took the back seat to pulling heavy.

Eventually, though, I smartened up and took care of the issue – by always putting squatting before deadlifting in all my lower-body training sessions (twice a week). I eventually wound up with a Powerlifting USA Top 100 Squat in my weight class.

More interestingly, though, in addition to me dramatically improving my squat, a funny thing happened: I actually started to enjoy squatting. Whoever said that you can’t teach an old dog (or deadlifter) new tricks didn’t have the real scoop.

Mistake #2: Not taking deload periods.

One phrase of which I’ve grown quite fond is “fatigue masks fitness.” As a little frame of reference, my best vertical jump is 37.3” – but on most days, I won’t give you anything over 34” or so. The reason is very simple: most of your training career is going to be spent in some degree of fatigue. How you manage that fatigue is what dictates your adaptation over the long- term.

On one hand, you want to impose enough fatigue to create supercompensation – so that you’ll adapt and come back at a higher level of fitness. On the other hand, you don’t want to impose so much fatigue that you dig yourself a hole you can’t get out of without a significant amount of time off.

Good programs implement strategic overreaching follows by periods of lighter training stress to allow for adaptation to occur. You can’t just go in and hit personal bests in every single training session.

Mistake #3: Not rotating movements.

It never ceases to amaze me when a guy claims that he just can’t seem to add to his bench press (or any lift, for that matter), and when you ask him what he’s done to work on it of late, and he tells you “bench press.” Specificity is important, but if you aren’t rotating exercises, you’re missing out on an incredibly valuable training stimulus: rotating exercises.

While there is certainly a place for extended periods of specificity (Smolov squat cycles, for instance), you can’t push this approach indefinitely. Rotating my heaviest movements was one of the most important lessons I learned along my journey. In addition to helping to create adaptation, you’re also expanding your “motor program” and avoiding overuse injuries via pattern overload.

I’m not saying that you should overhaul your entire program with each trip to the gym, but there should be some semi-regular fluctuation in exercise selection. The more experienced you get, the more often you’ll want to rotate your exercises (I do it weekly). Assistance exercises ecan be shuffled every four weeks, though.

Mistake #4: Inconsistency in training.

I tell our clients from all walks of life that the best strength and conditioning programs are ones that are sustainable. I’ll take a terrible program executed with consistency over a great program that’s only done sporadically. This is absolutely huge for professional athletes who need to maximize progress in the off-season; they just can’t afford to have unplanned breaks in training if they want to improve from year to year. However, it’s equally important for general fitness folks who don’t have an extensive training background to fall back on, unlike the professional athletes.

If a program isn’t conducive to your goals and lifestyle, then it isn’t a good program. That’s why I went out of my way to create 2x/week, 3x/week, and 4x/week strength training options – plus five supplemental conditioning options and a host of exercise modifications – when I pulled Show and Go together; I wanted it to be a very versatile resource.

Likewise, I wanted it to be safe; a program isn’t good if it injures you and prevents you from exercising. Solid programs include targeted efforts to reduce the likelihood of injury via means like mobility warm-ups, supplemental stretching recommendations, specific progressions, fluctuations in training stress, and alternative exercises (“plan B”) in case you aren’t quite ready to execute “Plan A.”

For me personally, I attribute a lot of my progress to the fact that at one point, I actually went over eight years without missing a planned lift. It’s a bit extreme, I know, but there’s a lesson to be learned.

Mistake #5: Wrong rep schemes

Beginners can make strength gains on as little as 40% of their one-rep max. Past that initial period, the number moves to 70% – which is roughly a 12-rep max for most folks. Later, I’d say that the number creeps up to about 85% – which would be about a 5-rep max for an intermediate lifter. This last range is where you’ll find most people who head to the internet for strength training information.

What they don’t realize is that 85% isn’t going to get the job done for very long, either. My experience is that in advanced lifters, the fastest way to build strength is to perform singles at or above 90% of one-rep max with regularity. As long as exercises are rotated and deloading periods are included, this is a strategy that can be employed for an extended period of time. In fact, it was probably the single (no pun intended) most valuable discovery I made in my quest to get stronger.

I’m not saying that you should be attempting one-rep maxes each time you enter the gym, but I do think they’ll “just happen” if you employ this technique.

To take the guesswork out of all this and try some programming that considers all these crucial factors (and a whole lot more), check out Show and Go: High Performance Training to Look Feel and Move Better.

-Eric Cressey-



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