There might just be more benefits of strength training than there are letters in the alphabet. But in order to reap those benefits you have to train correctly—and, unfortunately, many people don’t. Luckily, the common strength mistakes most lifters make are relatively easy to fix. Below, two certified strength and conditioning specialists break down why strength training really is all it’s cracked up to be, what strength training mistakes typically stand between people and achieving their goals, and how to adjust your approach to finally see the gains you’re after.
The Many Benefits Of Strength Training
For starters, all humans need some strength in order to live independently. “Putting groceries away, playing with your kid, standing up from the toilet, and picking a package up from the porch all require a prerequisite amount of strength,” says physical therapist Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of digital movement platform Movement Vault. Without the necessary strength, these day-to-day activities are either downright impossible or come with a high risk of injury. So everyone can benefit from increasing, or simply maintaining, their strength.
Since strength training increases overall lean muscle mass, it can also speed up your metabolism. “Muscle is more metabolically-active than fat,” explains Wickham. “So, the more muscle mass someone has, the more calories they burn doing literally anything.” Long-term, this makes it easier to reach and maintain a healthy weight, he says.
What’s more, “muscle mass has time and time again been associated with increased longevity and lifespan,” Wickham says. In fact, one 2016 study published in the journal Preventive Medicine found that adults over 65 who resistance trained at least twice a week saw a 45 percent lower risk of all-cause mortality, 41 one percent lower risk of cardiac death, and 19 percent lower risk of cancer. Impressive, right?
The 6 Main Strength Training Mistakes—And How To Fix Them
Given strength training’s many very-legit benefits, it’s no wonder it’s become so popular. With that, though, has come plenty of confusion about the right way to go about it. Watch out for these common strength training mistakes when chasing gains.
1. You’re going in without a program
Do you hit the gym and just do whatever Instagram workout most intrigued you that day or hop in on whatever your workout buddy had decided to do? Wickham recommends against it. Choosing your workouts willy-nilly is the least efficient use of your training time, as well as the least safe, he says.
“A well-designed program gradually increases the volume you’re lifting,” Wickham explains. This ensures that you increase your weight at a pace your joints and muscles can handle while getting enough recovery.
Read More: 5 Strength Moves Everyone Should Do
Without a program to stick to, you also face a greater risk of overtraining, coming down with overuse injuries, and/or not seeing gains at all, says Mia Nikolajev, C.S.C.S. “It’s common for people to either go balls to the wall and lift too heavy, too often, or to underestimate what their body can do and therefore not see progress.
A properly designed program helps you avoid the fallout. The best strength training program for you keeps your current fitness level, age, and specific strength goals in mind, so Wickham recommends hiring a fitness professional to create a customized plan.
2. You’re flubbing form
Quality over quantity isn’t just hyperbole—it’s a strength training hymn.
“More important than weight or reps is your form,” says Nikolajev. Moving with proper form is both safest and most effective, since moving improperly can lead to injury in the long run.
Unfortunately, because most lifters don’t work out under the guidance of a coach, most people don’t actually know if they’re lifting with imperfect form.
Your move: If you can, hire a personal trainer to review basic movement patterns (like squats, deadlifts, shoulder presses, and bench presses). If hiring a professional isn’t doable, Wickham recommends recording yourself from all angles and comparing your videos to expert content on YouTube. (The CrossFit YouTube channel is a good resource.)
3. You’re skipping your warm-ups
As tempting as it may be to immediately load up that bar or grab the heaviest kettlebell…resist it. “Our bodies are not adapted to go from zero to lifting super-heavy, and doing so will likely lead to injury,” says Wickham.
Instead, spend a solid 15 to 20 minutes preparing your body for the movements ahead. “Warming up will increase the blood flow to your connective tissues, prime your central nervous system, and prepare your muscles,” Wickham explains.
He recommends starting with a general full-body warm-up. A good example: three rounds of a 250-meter row, 30 jump rope rotations, and a 50-foot bear crawl. Then, switch to movement-specific warm-up exercises that activate the muscles your lift will focus on.
If, for example, you’re doing a strict press strength session, part two of the warm-up might include a series of shoulder-activation exercises like unilateral overhead dumbbell walks or bottoms-up kettlebell presses. “After that, you can begin building up to your working weight, which gives your muscles a chance to prepare for the load,” Wickham says.
4. You’re only using one type of equipment
Whether it’s a barbell, kettlebell, sandbag, dumbbell, or something else altogether, odds are you’ve got a favorite piece of strength equipment.
Problem is, sticking to one type of equipment won’t optimize strength gains. “Different types of equipment offer different benefits,” says Wickham.
The barbell, for example, typically allows you to lift heavier weight because most barbell movements are bilateral, meaning they call on both sides of your body at once. Dumbbells and kettlebells, on the other hand, are primarily used for unilateral exercises, which you have to do at less weight because you’re using each side independently. “Because the weight is not evenly distributed across sides [as it is during bilateral exercises], unilateral exercises require an increased amount of core control and stability compared to bilateral exercises,” he explains. This makes them better at strengthening your midline and supporting muscles than the barbell. However, because you can’t lift as much with dumbbells, they ultimately limit your muscle-building ability.
Your move: Incorporate a variety of strength devices into your routine. “In an ideal world, this variety will be built into your workout program,” says Nikolajev.
5. You’re not hydrating or fueling properly
It’s not just what happens in the gym that affects gains, but what happens in the kitchen, too. Turns out, one of the biggest strength training mistakes you can make is to fuel improperly.
“When you strength train, you are creating little [microtears] in the muscles,” explains Nikolajev. “To repair those tears, your body needs adequate protein, which it breaks down into amino acids and uses to repair the muscle fibers,” she explains. Inadequate protein intake can slow muscle recovery and even inhibit repair altogether.
While strength training, research shows it’s best to consume between 1.2 and 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. To find your ideal intake, divide how much you weigh in pounds by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms. Then multiply that number by 1.2 and 1.7 for a range of recommended intake in grams. If you weigh 150 pounds, for example, your weight in kilograms is 68.2. Given that, your ideal protein intake range would be about 82 to 116 grams per day.
Water, too, is essential for recovery. One 2013 study published in BMC found that those who hydrated before and during exercise experienced significantly faster heart rate recovery following exercise compared to those who did not hydrate at all.
“It would also be best for athletes to work with a sports nutritionist who can help them understand just how much they need to eat and drink for their goals,” Nikolajev says.
6. You’re slacking on sleep
On a similar note, what you do—or don’t do—in the bedroom can affect gains, too. “Due to the nature of modern life, most of us are perpetually under-rested”, says Nikolajev. This can really affect our gains.
You see, the body builds hormones like testosterone and human growth hormone—which are essential for recovery—during sleep, she explains. Less sleep means less production of these muscle-repairing compounds and therefore slower muscle recovery.
In an ideal world, an individual who strength trains would get seven to nine hours of sleep per night, says Nikolajev. It’s also a best practice to maintain consistent sleep and wake times.