Lifting weights is as good for your physical health as blocking your narcissistic ex on Instagram is for your emotional health. Which is to say: very! Plus, it can help almost anyone reach their fitness goals, says powerlifter Mia Nikolajev, CSCS.
"Whether you want to gain weight, lose weight, bulk up, tone up, become more powerful or stronger, strength training can help you get there," she says. Beyond that, there's also the bone- and heart-strengthening perks — and more!
The thing is, to actually reap those benefits you can't be making common weight-lifting mistakes like lifting the same weight every day or skipping mobility work. Read on to understand why those — and seven other lifting mistakes — stall strength gains and may even sideline you with an injury.
1. Using the Same Weight Every Time
"The only way to continuously get stronger is to continuously challenge your muscles," says New-York based certified strength and conditioning specialist Kristian Flores. (This is known as the progressive overload principle).
But lifting the exact same weight in the exact same rep scheme is the exact opposite of that. "Once your body has made the adaptations a weight can elicit, you need to change your workout," he says. Fail to do so, and you shift from boosting your fitness level to simply maintaining it.
Assuming you want to do more than maintain muscle mass, put the progressive overload principle into practice. According to Flores, the absolute best way to do that is to hire a certified trainer who can map out a strength program that support your goals.
Weight training without a using a program that incorporates the progressive overload principal program, he says, “is like trying to cook like Julia Childs without any recipe.” In other words, doomed to fail.
2. Always Trying for a One-Rep Max
One of the more dangerous mistakes exercise physiologist Pete McCall, CSCS, host of the All About Fitness Podcast, sees new lifters make is not only lifting the same weight every day but lifting the same heavy weight every time. More specifically, lifting the heavy weight just once.
Similar to a PB (personal best) or PR (personal record), a one-rep max is a weight you can only lift for a single repetition. A true one-rep max is extremely exhausting and requires that every single fiber in your muscle work together to help you complete the movement, McCall says. The result? Greater muscle-breakdown than lifting at a lower weight.
"Whether you do it every day or once a week, regularly building to a one-rep max dangerously overloads your muscles, he says. Beyond being less effective than a progressive overload approach, it's actually dangerous. "Your risk of injuring yourself is so freaking high if you're doing a one-rep max every day you hit the gym," he says.
Building to and knowing your one rep max is useful. In fact, most training programs will have you test your one-rep max on day one, then prescribe varying percentages of that weight in the proceeding weeks.
But official strength program or not, McCall says, “You shouldn’t be testing your one-rep max more than every six to 10 weeks.”
To figure out what to do during your lifting sessions in-between testing day, Flores says your best bet is to hire a trainer who can write you a program based on your specific strength goals. “If you can't afford that, there are plenty of online coaches who design programs for less than in-person coaching,” he says.
3. Resting Too Little or Too Much Between Sets
How much rest you should get between sets is directly correlated with what your fitness goal is. Unfortunately, according to Nikolajev, "Generally, beginners who want to increase strength rest too little while those who want to put on volume rest too much."
Meaning, their goals and rest periods aren't aligned. At best, this stalls progress. And for strength seekers, at worse, this can result in injury, since it means they're lifting heavy or moderate weight while overly fatigued, she says.
Bust out your stopwatch. (Yes, really!). And adhere to the below suggested rest intervals even when you really want to post to Snapchat or check Instagram, Nikolajev.
“If your goal is muscle hypertrophy (meaning, increased size), you should be resting 60 to 90 seconds between sets,” she says. “While if your goal is to increase strength and power, you should be resting 2 to 5 minutes between sets.”
And to increase muscle endurance, the National Strength and Conditioning Association says you should be resting under 30 seconds per set.
4. Favoring One Weight Device Over Another
Trying to hash out whether barbells or dumbbells are better for you is impossible — the two modes offer different but equally important benefits, McCall says.
The barbell allows you to lift more weight, which results in increased muscle mass and strength, he says. While dumbbells "engage far more stabilizing muscles and require more core activation for stability." Dumbbells also work your muscles through a greater range of motion due to the limited, more fixed path of the barbell.
To better understand, consider the push press. You may be able to barbell push press 150 pounds. But because of the extra oomph of coordination and core activation required to move each side independently, you likely won't be able to dumbbell push two 75 pound dumbbells (for a total of 150 pounds).
According to McCall, typically folks can only lift about 30 to 40 percent of their barbell weight with dumbbells, not 50 percent. But while you won't push as much weight with dumbbells, you will strengthen the muscles in the supporting role to a greater degree.
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter how you intersperse the two pieces of equipment, says McCall, so long as you do.
“One way to do this is to use only the barbell for 6 to 10 weeks. And use only dumbbells for 6 to 10 weeks,” he says. “Another way to do it is to alternate days or weeks.”
5. Staying at the Gym Too Long
"There is absolutely no reason to be at the gym for two hours if you don't work there," says McCall.
In fact, hanging out in the weight room for hours at a time is actually self-sabotage if your goal is to build strength. "You don't want to work out so long that you turn your strength workout into an endurance workout," he says.
Get in and get out quickly! At most, aim to spend 45 to 60 minutes (after you're properly warmed up) weight training — and make it count. McCall notes that this is the underlying principle that structures a CrossFit class, so another option is to join your local box.
6. Skipping Mobility Work
Mobility means the healthy, pain-free movement of a joint through its full range of motion. While it's essential for everyday movement, optimal mobility also improves your workouts.
For example, you need hip, knee and ankle mobility to break parallel in your back squat and shoulder and thoracic spine mobility to "get your head through the window" at the top of an push press.
"Sub-par mobility often results in compensation," McCall says. In the case of both the squat and push press, that means undue stress on the lower back and spine. Long term, he says, poor mobility will lead to overuse injuries like shoulder or wrist impingement.
In an ideal world, McCall says you’d be doing a little bit of mobility work every single day. For example, doing a few sets of thoracic spine rotations, Cat-Cow, shoulder pass-throughs and runner’s lunges every morning when you first wake up.
You could also sign up and follow along with a daily mobility program like Movement Vault or RomWod. However, almost as beneficial, he says, is dedicating one active recovery day to mobility work (ex. yoga, Pilates, stretching) each week.
7. Skimping on Sleep
Tough love time: No matter your fitness goals, not getting enough sleep will undermine all the work you did at the gym. "Sleep is when your body repairs and rebuilds the muscles you workout at the gym," McCall says.
According to a February 2014 study in the Journal of Molecular Endocrinology, that's because sleeping is when your body produces the main hormone involved in muscle recovery: human growth hormone.
Aim to sleep 7 to 9 hours a night. And when you know you’re not going to be able to log that number of hours in Dreamland, plan accordingly.
“If you’re planning to go spend all night at a Beyonce concert, don’t go hard and heavy at the gym,” McCall says. “Stick to something low-intensity and save lifting heavy for the days you’ll be able to get the sleep you need to recover.”
8. Holding Your Breath
If you hold your breath while you lift, you deny your muscles the oxygen they need to function properly, physical therapist Grayson Wickham, CSCS, founder of Movement Vault, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
"Holding your breath can also make you lightheaded, sometimes to the point of passing out," he says. That, obviously, is a huge safety issue when it comes to throwing around heavy dumbbells in the weight room.
Unfortunately, according to Wickham, many lifters hold their breath during lifts when they attempt to brace their core.
"Bracing is the act of creating intra-abdominal pressure to create a stable mid-section, which allows you to move safely," he says. It's an essential part of lifting, but you need to do it correctly.
There are a few different core-bracing techniques, but Wickham recommends starting with this one:
- Make sure you're standing with your spine is in a neutral position.
- Then, take a big deep breath in and allow your belly to expand (your chest should not lift or move).
- "Next, think about pushing air out through every area in your midsection,” Wickham says. But even as you’re doing this, you should be able to inhale and exhale.
- Now, execute the concentric portion of the lift (the effort).
- Then, keeping your midline braced, exhale for momentum as you complete the eccentric portion of the lift (lowering).
For example, during a bench press, that means bracing your midline before lowering the bar toward your chest, and exhaling as you push it back up.
9. Using Poor Form
Whether you're gunning for one-rep max deadlift or a 10-minute burpee and pull-up AMRAP, form matters. "Once the quality of our movement goes down, the risk of injury goes up," Wickham says.
Good form, he explains, is defined as position that optimizes the health of your connective tissues while you move. Suboptimal form puts your connective tissues in less healthy positions. "Likely, an injury won't happen the very first time your form falters, but it increases your risk of overuse injury in the long term."
Let's consider the barbell back squat. When you descend into the bottom of the squat, you're supposed to keep your midline tight and your chest up. If you let your core go soft or your chest droops, your lower back will round. Can this result in immediate disc herniation? It could.
More likely, though, Wickham says the disc would shift over time or the muscles in your lower back would gradually pull on your surrounding connective tissues, resulting in hip or knee tightness and pain.
"If you're doing an exercise incorrectly, you're also not actually training the muscles that exercise is intended to strengthen," he says. Return to the back squat example: Those form errors reduce the amount of work the core is doing, and thus reduces the move's core-strengthening benefits.
Simple: Don’t let your form go to mush. "That means letting your muscles dictate your reps, sets and weight and not your ego," Wickham says.
Not sure what weight your muscles can handle during a particular movement? Wickham recommends getting your form checked by a personal trainer, while using a weight you can easily lift. If they tell you your form needs work, drop the weight and continue dialing in your movement pattern.
If your form gets a thumbs up, Wickham recommends implementing the 2-by-2 rule: “Increase the weight only when you can perform two or more reps over your goal number of reps for two workouts in a row,” he says.
If you’re doing 5 sets of 5 reps at 150 pounds, for example, and you easily crank out 7 reps per set, bump up the weight by a few pounds the next time you hit a 5X5.