We’ve written a few pieces lately (check them out here and here) about how cardio alone just doesn’t cut it when it comes to getting in shape. Sure, it’s great for your cardiovascular health (hence the name) and can help you maintain a healthy weight, among other benefits, but if you’re looking to get lean, build muscle, burn fat, and get strong you really have to add strength training into your exercise routine (along with sticking to a healthy diet, of course).
So if you’ve already been pumping some iron, whether at the gym or at home, great! After all, research shows that only 6% of adults do the recommended minimum amount of at least two muscle-strengthening workouts each week. If you’re doing at least that, you’re taking the right step toward getting lean and strong. But you also might be wondering why you’re not getting as lean and strong as you wanted to or expected to. You’re lifting weights two, three, or more times a week and you’re just not seeing results – why? You might be making one major mistake.
How Do We Build Muscle and Why Is It Important?
Before we get to the root of the problem, and deal with how you can break through your plateaus and get leaner and stronger, let’s talk about how our bodies actually build muscle, and why it’s important to be working on your fitness through weight training.
First the why: muscles aren’t just for show, they’re important for our health, longevity, and metabolism. Increasing your lean body mass (LBM) can increase your quality of life now and especially while you age, and is critical to keeping you healthy. If you get sick or injured, your body needs extra protein to survive and heal, and it gets that protein from muscle tissue. In fact, studies show that people with more LBM to use while healing have better outcomes.
Having lean muscle mass is also beneficial to your metabolism as a whole. Think about it like this: muscle is the only organ that you can increase to boost your metabolic rate. You can’t add another lung or kidney, right? But muscle can help you to slightly boost your resting metabolic rate, and can help you burn fat when combined with a healthy diet.
Gaining muscle now will also help you to fight off muscle loss (sarcopenia) as you age, which can lead to your bones becoming brittle, or osteopenia. According to Brad Schoenfeld, an assistant professor of exercise science and director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Lehman College in New York, “Resistance training is the closest thing to the fountain of youth that we have.” In fact, one study found that, after following 4,000 healthy adults over the age of 55 for more than a decade, muscle mass is tightly linked to our lifespan.
So how do our bodies make more of this magical muscle? Well, it’s not magic – it’s science, and the pretty complicated science at that. But we’re not going to get into all of the proteins and reactions and that jazz: basically, what you need to know is that, in order to get your muscles to grow, you first have to create muscle breakdown. When you’re strength training, you’re actually creating microtears in your muscles – your body then needs rest time to repair those microtears, so it can build back stronger. Pretty crazy, right? Normally we think of putting stress on our bodies as a bad thing, but you actually have to stress your muscles to build your muscles. So now we get to the heart of the matter: are you stressing your muscles enough?
The Big Mistake
You’re probably going to see your most impressive strength gains, and the biggest changes to your body, when you first start doing resistance training. But over time, you’ll stop making strength gains and seeing changes, even if you’re still on the workout wagon. Why? Your body adapts – and, frankly, you might be letting it get too comfortable with your workouts.
What we mean by that is you’re not pushing your muscles hard enough to really make a difference. According to Jake Harcoff, CSCS, owner and strength coach at AIM Athletic in Vancouver, “In my experience, left unchecked, some people will use the same weight over and over again just because it’s ‘safe,’ and then they’ll never get stronger. At the end of the day, if you are not progressively overloading your muscle, the benefit of your work falls off.”
Just check out this study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in February 2021, which proves that even people who are experienced at strength training often don’t get it right. Researchers asked 160 people who strength train regularly how much weight they would normally use to do 10 reps on the bench press with good form. But when asked to actually do the reps, they found that the lifters could perform an average of 16 reps with their self-reported “maximum weight” for 10 reps – and nearly 15% of the study participants performed more than 20 reps with their 10-rep load!
What those weight lifters thought was the right weight for them, was actually just a comfortable weight for them, and as we’ve pointed out, staying in your comfort zone is not going to help much when it comes to working out. So then, you know what’s coming: making change is all about getting out of your comfort zone. Let’s take a look at how you should do that.
The Key to Getting Stronger
Complacency is a results killer when you’re working out, and you have to up the ante whenever you can. Just to prove our point a little further, consider this study in the journal The Physician and Sports Medicine. For 8 years, researchers put 1,644 men and women through 10-week strength-training programs, during which they increased resistance by about 5% every time participants could complete 12 repetitions of a lift. The results? On average, the participants not only increased their lean muscle mass by 3.1 pounds, but they also decreased fat weight by 3.7 pounds, and lowered their blood pressure.
Ok, that’s all pretty impressive, but if you’re just one person doing resistance training without a team of researchers behind you, or even a personal trainer, how do you know if you’re safely and effectively challenging yourself? Well, there are two ways. The first is pushing yourself into the “near-muscle-failure zone.” To do this, you start with the heaviest weight you can lift for just one rep while still maintaining good form (your “1-rep max.”) Then, calculate 70 to 80% of that weight, which is the amount of weight you should be using during your 8- to 12-repetition sets.
If you’re looking for a slightly easier way to do things, try the other method, called “reps in reserve”, or “2-3 RIR.” This method tells you to use enough resistance during each exercise so that the last two to three reps of your last two sets feel very challenging, but not so hard that you can’t complete them with proper form. This will get you pretty close to that near-failure muscle stress level that will get you results, but it won’t give the extreme discomfort of total failure. Just be sure to listen to your body, and don’t increase your load too quickly, or you could be headed for injury, instead of strength gains.
To break down this method, check out Harcoff’s advice: “I suggest choosing a weight that you think you can do for the prescribed number of reps… like, say 10-reps. If you can do 12 reps in two consecutive sets with good form, it’s time to increase the weight you’re using. Once you find you can go beyond those last two tough reps, it’s time to progress again.”
Other Ways to Progress
So now you know. The way to get stronger and make the most of your resistance training is to not just feel like you’re challenging yourself, but to know that you actually are, and that means constantly pushing yourself out of your comfort zone with your weights. But in addition to upping your weights, there are other ways you can make progress when it comes to working out. Try the following:
- Add more sets or reps to your workout
- Set aside time for some longer workouts
- Exercise a few more times a week
- Introduce new exercises into your regime to keep your body guessing
- Change the tempo of your lifts – for example, slow down the “eccentric” (or lowering) part of your lift, or add in static, isometric holds
Hey, you’ve only got one body, and if you’re already working out, especially with resistance training, you’re doing right by it. But if you’re putting in all that time and effort to improve your health, you might as well be getting everything out of it that you can. So don’t sell yourself short: challenge yourself with the right resistance for you, and watch yourself get fitter, stronger, leaner, and healthier!