Building strength isn’t quite as simple as picking up something heavy and putting it down. And unfortunately, there’s plenty of misinformation out there that could be sabotaging your efforts to become the Atlas you know you can be. (Yes, Atlas. Adonis just looked the part—Atlas was the real deal.) Don’t let yourself fall victim to these 10 strength-training myths.
Of course if you want to get stronger, you need to put up some decent loads that you’ll only be able to handle relatively few reps. But just going up, up, up, won’t work (work, work) if you’re goal is to get a lot stronger. “Too much of the same exercise stimulus applied over an extended period of time leads to accommodation and plateaus—not more growth,” says Pete McCall, a San Diego-based strength coach and fitness educator. So include your heavy-lifting phase for six to 10 weeks every few months, but incorporate phases where you do bodyweight exercises, or drop your weight and increase reps. Voila, no plateau.
“But isn’t strength my ability to exert?” you ask. While what they can bench or deadlift is what people brag about, it’s on the eccentric, or lowering/releasing, portion of a lift that your muscle control is really tested and your strength gains are made. “What's misunderstood is that a muscle is able to exert much more force in the negative portion of a movement,” says Philadelphia-area personal trainer Brandon Mentore. If you're flinging weights around you leave a lot of strength development potential on the table.” To that end...
Slow down there, hoss! Unless you’re powerlifting (which is a whole other discipline), taking your time through your lifts will ensure greater strength gains, thanks to something called “time under tension.” “You can’t build strength if you lift like you’re in a step aerobics class from the 80s,” Mentore says. “If your tempos are too quick, you miss your ability to accumulate tension in the muscle and reduce the effect of actually gaining any kind of strength.” If four to nine reps of your exercise falls between 20 and 40 seconds, you’re probably good. If you’d describe what you just did as “whipping through” a set, slow it down.
One reason you might find yourself lifting too quickly—and not seeing the gains you want—is if you’re not doing each movement as completely as you can. Not everyone can go ass to grass in a squat (nor should they): Body proportions, flexibility, and other individual characteristics mean that range of motion varies from person to person, says Bruce Kelly, MS, CSCS, owner of Fitness Together in Media, PA. But “approximately 20% of the population is general responders, meaning that they attain full-range strength benefits from partial-range movements,” says Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., instructor of exercise science at Quincy College in Massachusetts. “That means about 80% of us are specific responders, meaning that our strength increases are pretty much limited to the movement range in which we train.” Do your best to eke out the largest range you can safely control without pain. And unless you have a specific goal, leave partial-range sets to the bodybuilders.
As in, always doing the same number of reps and sets every workout. For your heavy lifting phase, you’ll need more than those three to four sets you’ve been doing, and fewer reps, if you’ve been exclusively in the 8 to 12 range: Go for 6 to 8 sets of four to nine reps, Mentore recommends, with the weight heavy enough that doing more than nine would be a real struggle. Why the relatively low reps? “Your body has to know how to recruit enough motor units to move a weight,” says Brandon Roberts, M.S., CSCS, a doctoral student of muscle biology at University of Florida. “In a high-rep scheme, you can get cycling of muscle fiber activation, so that when one muscle gets tired another muscle fiber can go into action.” That said, the real key is to mix it up. So, you want a lighter weight/higher rep scheme somewhere in your weekly mix, too. (And don't forget to change up your entire program from time to time as well!)
In case you haven’t gotten the memo: Those hulking selectorizer machines aren’t the best way to turn yourself into a hulk. “When a guy can do the entire rack of weights on a lat pulldown machine, but can’t do a single pull-up with his own bodyweight, that’s not foundational or functional strength,” Mentore says. “Machine training is useful and has its place but it doesn’t replace the benefits of strength development you get from free weights.”
On the flipside, strength training doesn’t need to be overly complicated or involve special equipment. “Work on foundations of form and function before you start getting fancy with chains, bands and other accessories,” says Mentore. “There are only a handful of movement patterns: squatting, hip hinging, push, pull, gait, and core work,” Kelly says. “Variety comes in terms of loading, rest periods, volume, density of training, and speed of movement.”
You might feel like the stars aligned in that kickass deadlifting session, but it’s the rest time—between sets and between workouts—that’s when the muscle-building magic actually happens. If you don’t rest enough between sets, your muscles won’t be recovered enough to tackle the next go-round. Rest too long, and you reduce the cumulative effect of your session. Hard-worked muscles also need time off between workouts. “Research shows that advanced strength trainers need at least 72 hours recovery for a given muscle to build to a higher level of strength,” Westcott says. That doesn’t mean you have to take three days off from the gym—it means you should work in some cross training or active recovery instead.
Hand in hand with rest is recovery, which happens most optimally for muscles while you’re off in dreamland. “Sleep is when the body produces muscle growing hormones like growth hormone and testosterone used to repair muscle proteins,” McCall says. That repair process is when the muscle fibers that haves been micro-damaged from your lifting session rebuilds, stronger than ever. So get your zzzs—aiming for 8 hours a night.
If your workouts are designed around a body part a day, you’re doing a hypertrophy routine—building muscles for size, but not necessarily for strength and generally not for function. “Time is the most precious commodity we have, and we can maximize our time in the gym by doing movement-based routines or exercises for the entire body in the same workout,” McCall says. “So if you work out three days a week, you'll be using your muscles three times as opposed to one or two times as in a traditional split routine program. Most professional strength coaches use movement-based programs for a reason—they work.” If you do like to add some isolation exercises, like curls, in, that’s fine. Just do them after you’ve done your multijoint work, like bench presses, squats, and pullups.