12 Ways You Can Make More Progress in The Gym
August 9th 2019
It is a common occurrence for many lifters to feel discouraged about not making progress in the gym. When you go into the gym and begin working out, you can’t just go through the motions and do each exercise as if they are meaningless. If you don’t have passion or purpose, then going to the gym each and every day (no matter how much time you put in) will be pointless. There needs to be a meaning, and a palpable effort behind the madness. As I said, you could be going to the gym every day, or taking care of your diet, but just aren’t hitting those body goals. Well, look no further, the tips and tricks to making more progress in the gym are right here! Let us break down how muscle strength and definition function in the human body and what you need to do in order to make more progress in the gym.
Why am I not seeing progress in the gym?
The two biggest reasons why you may not be making progress in the gym are that you are impatient and/or you are not doing everything in your power to sleep, eat and recover properly for the gym. For the former reason, we live in a time where we can reach everybody in the world; as a result, we have access to exceptional athletes who are crushing it in the gym. For someone who struggles to increase their squat from 135lbs to 225lbs, seeing 600+lbs squatters from high school stings a whole long. And the solution? Stop comparing yourself to others and focus on what you need to do in order to get stronger. It will take time and it may take years before you can even consider yourself to be “strong.” But make no mistake about it. It is absolutely necessary for you to face these challenges in order to take your mental and physical state to the next level.
In the latter reason, you simply do not place having gym PRs as a high priority. Again, for some people, they may be able to get away with not having to compromise much in order to see a lot of progress. On the flip side, many athletes need to throw themselves 100% into a sport in order to truly give themselves an extra kick in the right direction. You know your body the best. However, do not complain and try to blame your life circumstance for you being weak. There is a ton of information for why you are not progressing in the gym and how you can fix that. So, let us next debunk several myths for trying to increase maximal strength.
Popular Myths to Increase Muscular Strength
- Strength and conditioning training needs to involve special equipment and can be confusing.
- You need to lift weights fast in order to build muscle.
- Machines are better than free weights to build muscle.
There are plenty of misconceptions out there on the fitness internet where people claim the dirty and speedy fixes in order to get big quick! Well, if you think this sounds like complete B.S, you are right! Do not let yourself get caught up in these strength-building myths.
One popular misconception is that strength and conditioning training is extremely confusing and involves special equipment. This is NOT true. Strength and conditioning training should emphasize working on your foundation and form, so that variation in the exercise can come from movement patterns, amount of loading, rest periods, volume, and speed of training.
Another commonly overheard bout of misinformation I witness all the time in the gym is that the faster you lift your weight, the better it is for building muscle. That is completely incorrect. You need to take your time when lifting, which will induce greater muscle gains for sure. This is the part where you keep complete and constant muscle tension throughout the whole movement; you do not just let gravity drop those dumbbells to the floor. By accomplishing this, you can improve the amount of time your muscles undergo muscular tension and get much stronger.
Lastly, it is commonly heard that machines are better than free weights. Honestly, both have their benefits depending on your workout plan and type of resistance training you’re doing. Pin or cable machines such as the latissimus dorsi pull down machine, or the overhead shoulder press machine are great if you want to keep tension constant and have more stability. However, free weights like the EZ curl bar, barbell, or dumbbells provide a level of instability and varying muscle tension that can take your muscular strength training to the next level.
The Physiology Behind Skeletal Muscle Tissue
Muscle fibers work between two myofilaments known as actin and myosin, and work by turning chemical potential energy into mechanical energy known as contracting or relaxing. In order to make more progress in the gym, it is crucial that we understand how the muscles in our body work. This means evaluating the anatomy and physiology of muscle fibers and how they increase in size and strength. There are around 640 skeletal muscles in the body which contain skeletal muscle tissue. This muscle tissue is striated and are voluntary meaning you can move it naturally. Some examples are your biceps brachii, or your rectus abdominis. Muscles are made up of fascicles, which are formed up of muscle fibers, which are comprised of myofibrils. Muscles also have supportive, connective tissues known as perimysium, epimysium, and endomysium that protect the muscle from bursting. In terms of skeletal muscle physiology, that focuses on the myofilaments of actin (thin filament) and myosin (thick filament) in the sarcomere which is located in the myofibril. So, when a muscle contracts, the sarcomeres that are side to side to each other in the myofibril get closer together. An action potential from the brain is sent to the sarcolemma, runs down the T-tubule, opens up the calcium channel and the cell becomes flooded with calcium ions. Then, the surplus of calcium ions induces some of them to bind to another protein, troponin. Tropomyosin, another filament, gets pulled and releases the actin binding site. The enlarged, myosin head then binds itself to actin and performs the power stroke which pulls at the thin filament causing a muscle to contract. After that, the entire process shrinks all the sarcomeres and contracts the muscle.
So, when you lift a barbell or some form of resistance, the muscle is contracting, you experience a little tear into the muscle. After the tear, the body calls for amino acids that represent the building blocks of protein. These amino acids repair the muscles and their muscular sheaths. This is also why many body builders or lifters take BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids) as they help the muscle repair faster if they are always in surplus in the body.
How to Progressively Overload Your Body and Your Muscle Fibers
The four main methods to progressively overload your body include integrating a better technique during each exercise, using a heavier loading weight, increasing frequency of exercising certain muscle groups, and then try to include more sets or repetitions. By adding a new level of resistance, your body will learn how to adapt over time. It is crucial to make one of these changes every few days to a week so that your body is constantly being challenged. For example, if a lifter’s goal was to strengthen the chest and shoulder muscle groups, they would try to exercise those muscle groups more often such as three days per week instead of one day per week. This has been known to increase in gym performance and strengthen the musculoskeletal system.
The concept of progressively overloading has been utilized by Olympic weightlifters and popular powerlifters as a method to increase muscular strength and endurance and increase loading progression. The results are outstanding as many people who have implemented this type of resistance training have experienced a toning and definite increase in definition. The theory of progressive overloading conveys that there “need for a greater demands to be placed on the body to see continued increases in performance” (Hernandez 2016).
Here is an example of a four-week progressive overloading plan that focuses on increasing reps, which enhances muscular endurance.
Week 1: 3 sets x 10 reps x 200 lbs
Week 2: 3 sets x 12 reps x 200 lbs
Week 3: 3 sets x 14 reps x 200 lbs
Week 4: 3 sets x 16 reps x 200 lbs
12 Ways to Make More Progress in the Gym
- Create a Goal.If you don’t have a goal in mind, how do you know what to aim for? A goal helps create the big picture about why you’re in the gym. This could range from wanting to lose weight for that new summer body, or you just want to maintain your current weight. Whatever your goal may be, make sure you have one! Also make sure you can measure that goal! By this I mean if you want to lose weight for instance, maybe aim for a certain amount of body fat percentage, or certain calorie deficit per day.
- Make the Plan. The next step after you create a goal, is to establish a plan. The plan is your treasure map to the treasure which in this case is your goal. A training program is essential to reach this. My highest recommendation would be to use a plan that integrates progressive overloading, which is used by most famous bodybuilders in the world.
- Invest in a Healthy Diet.For everything to come together, the diet is a key factor to focus on. Even if you went to the gym for five hours every day, but ate terribly at home, then your obviously not going to see any progress! This is because you need to establish a calorie deficit to lose weight or establish a calorie surplus to gain weight. A healthy diet will also increase your motivation for working out, and overall mood.
- Make Form and Technique Your Top Priority. When I say this, I mean it! Not only is form and technique essential to performing each exercise correctly to reap their full benefits and work those muscle groups, but they also prevent you from the risk of injury which could halt your progress in the gym all together. If possible, have a friend evaluate your form during each exercise for any comments or concerns.
- Stop Taking Too Long of Rest Breaks. Maybe you have been chatting it up too much in the gym and you’ve noticed it’s taken time from your workout. Instead of a 30-45 second rest interval, it becomes a minute to 2-minute rest interval, and it increases with each session. Too long of a rest could decrease the amount of muscle tension that occurs with muscle fiber building and lead to no progression.
- Focus on Free Weights and Compound Exercises. Among super jacked powerlifters, it is common for compound exercises and free weights to be part of their daily routine. This is due to the combination of muscle groups that are required of compound exercises and the necessity to stabilize the load of free weights instead of using something with constant tension like a cable.
- The Way to Build Muscular Strength. One general rule known by all lifters is that if you want to build true muscular strength, you should focus on using low repetitions and a high amount of loading weight. This is typically around the 1-5 repetition range. This forces the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system to induce a higher amount of motor units for motor unit recruitment.
- Don’t Forget to Warm Up and Cool Down. Warming up allows the body to get adjusted to the specific resistance, while cooling down relaxes the body from a high intensity. If you start a workout without warming up or cooling down, you may increase your risk for injury.
- Give it Everything You’ve Got. Above all, you need to do this for you. It’s not for your girlfriend or boyfriend, it’s not for your friends or family, this is your time. Motivation can be difficult, but if it were easy everyone would be doing it, right?
- Switch Things Up by Starting a New Workout Split. A new workout split can help you get the most out of your gym session. Most beginners start by using a typical split known as working on different muscle groups on varying days. For example:
Monday – Back and Biceps
Tuesday – Legs and Shoulders
Wednesday – Chest and Triceps
Thursday – Cardio + Active Recovery
Friday – Back and Biceps
Saturday – Legs and Shoulders
Sunday – Rest Day
There’s also a workout split known as push/pull split in which you do push exercises like barbell chest press, overhead shoulder press, and other presses on one day, and pull exercises such as bent-over barbell, or a deadlift on another day.
- Start Tracking Your Macros. I’m saying track your macronutrients. The top three are your proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. It’s not for everyone, but for some people it helps keep them consistent.
- Be Positive. Last but not least, be positive. First, it takes time for results to show. They do not happen overnight. Second, make sure that you are optimistic and realistic about what goals you are setting. Take care of yourself and your body and the rest will come with it.
Overall, one of the biggest reasons why you are not seeing any progress in the gym is because you are not patient. To be fair, almost everybody who lift weights in the gym are doing enough to stimulate more growth. However, you may want to see progress faster even though your body and mind are not ready to receive such loads.
This is one reason why it is absolutely critical for you to not worry so much about what other people are doing and just focus on yourself. For instance, if you improved 50lbs in your squat this year, is that not a great feat in itself? Yeah, right? However, if you want to be compared to an elite level lifter who just packed on 75lbs on his squat, you may feel like you are not doing enough. Quit sabotaging your progress with this toxic cycle of negative thinking. Free yourself from the chains of expectations and just focus on hitting your small goals consistently so that they can turn into monstrous wins in the future.
“Anatomy & Physiology I.” Accessed July 24, 2019. http://legacy.owensboro.kctcs.edu/gcaplan/anat/notes/api%20notes%20j%20%20muscle%20contraction.htm.
Cole Matthews-Last Updated, July 18 2018. “Micro Tears In Muscles: Explaining How Muscle Growth Works.” HomeGymr, July 26, 2016. https://homegymr.com/micro-tears-in-muscles/.
CrashCourse. Muscles, Part 1 - Muscle Cells: Crash Course A&P #21, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ktv-CaOt6UQ
Hernandez, Dennis J. The Effect of Rest Interval Duration on The Volume Completed During A High Intensity Bench Press Exercise. (2016) Humboldt State University. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/965c/cfe37537e46223a47ce5ef6f557fef6072fa.pdf
“10 Ways To Grow Stronger In 31 Days.” Bodybuilding.com, February 24, 2011. https://www.bodybuilding.com/content/10-ways-to-grow-stronger-in-31-days.html.