Join our list
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting stuff and updates to your email inbox.
by Thomas Kurz
This article lists errors that are commonly made in training for strength, yet can have lasting consequences. How many of you recognize your strength training experience?
1. Error: Beginning your strength training program with the greatest resistance you can overcome.
Beginners should use the smallest resistance that still increases strength. With beginners (either young athletes or adults who never did serious strength training), the strength increase does not depend on the amount of resistance as long as that resistance is more than the minimum required for the training effect (Pawluk 1985). For beginners that minimum may start at more than 20% of their personal best (Zatsiorsky 1995). McArdle, Katch, and Katch (1991) recommend resistance that permits completing 12–15 repetitions. Overcoming greater resistance does not make the beginners much stronger.
2. Error: Beginning your strength training program with high resistance/low repetitions.
Beginners should initially refrain from lifting heavy weights because these weights will develop the strength of their muscles’ contraction faster than the structural strength of the muscles, tendons, and ligaments. So, if you lift heavy loads without preparing the muscles and fibrous connective tissue for it first, you can become sore and injure your muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
Begin your strength training program with low resistance/high reps to strengthen slow-twitch muscle fibers that stabilize joints and to improve blood supply of the muscles and their fibrous connective tissue, which speeds up muscles’ recovery and is needed for increasing structural strength of their fasciae and tendons. After eight to twelve weeks of such structural preparation, you may start to build up muscle mass together with maximal strength, or concentrate only on developing maximal strength.
3. Error: Striving to reach limits of your strength or work to failure.
Maximal training resistance is the greatest resistance that can be overcome without a strong effort of will. (But beginners can make good progress with resistance above 20% of their personal best, as you know from point 1.)
Doing repetitions in a set to failure, especially with moderate to heavy resistance, causes excessive joint compression and leads to injuries.
The number of sets of any exercise should not exceed 70% of the maximal number of sets possible with the same rest breaks and pace of movements. Practically it means that the number of sets ranges from 1 to 6. Another practically tested rule is to do 8 sets of exercises per muscle group. As the muscle groups targeted in different exercises overlap, doing less than 6 sets per exercise can add up to 8 sets per muscle group.
4. Error: Using machines.
If you cannot lift a given poundage as a free weight (barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell), then you are trying to work with a too great resistance. By working with free weights light enough for you to control, you will develop better coordination, balance of strength of involved muscles, and develop the muscles stabilizing your joints so they do not lag behind the prime movers. Your joints, their ligaments and cartilaginous articular surfaces, will be strengthened if you begin with lighter resistance, rather than worn down by weights too heavy to be easily controlled—even if you lift those weights in a machine. (Cartilage of articular surfaces and ligaments adapt to training loads much slower than muscles.)
5. Error: Beginning your program with sport-specific strength exercises, especially if these call for high-velocity or high power movements.
If you want speed or power do not begin your program with sport-specific speed or power exercises. First build a foundation of basic strength. Begin with general strength exercises, at low velocities and light resistance.
6. Error: Doing isolated movements targeting single muscles.
If you can climb rope or do chin-ups, doing arm curls would be a waste of time. In chin-ups not just arm flexors (biceps, etc.) but your whole upper body gets stronger and it does so in a fashion that gives the most strength in real-life actions. Various push-ups and overhead presses are more functional than exercises isolating the triceps. Leg extensions are less useful, and less healthy for your knees than squats. Exercises isolating single muscles or muscle groups may be done in the course of rehabilitation after an injury, when you are too weak to do the natural whole-body movements.
7. Error: Sticking with the same resistance exercises, even if they no longer improve your strength.
Strength increases because of the adaptation of the body to resistance exercises. Adaptation is quicker if the exercises remain standard for some time (Naglak 1979). Because of this, you should choose a certain program of strength exercises and repeat it in several workouts, changing only the weight and the number of repetitions (Naglak 1979; Zatsiorsky 1995). The use of the same program will make it habitual, however, and from that point on the essential changes in strength can be achieved only if the volume of work (tonnage) is drastically increased. This is not always possible or desirable. Also, unvarying execution of the same exercises is mentally tiring. Therefore, it is recommended that the same program of exercises be used in several subsequent workouts, and then the program should be changed. Usually such a change is done once every two to six weeks (Kukushkin 1983; Naglak 1979). The program of exercises should not be changed if it is still effective.
8. Error: Changing your exercises or adding new ones when the old exercises still cause considerable improvements in your strength.
If push-ups make your upper body stronger then do not add bench presses or overhead presses. If back extensions on the bench increase strength of your lower back then do not rush to heavy deadlifts. (Weightlifting exercises such as various forms of deadlift, clean and pull, clean and jerk, and snatch with very light weights, an empty bar or even a broomstick, can be done for the sake of improving overall coordination as soon as an athlete can safely learn them.)
9. Error: Increasing your strength training near competitions.
Sports performance is not best during months when an athlete works out most strenuously because of the accumulating fatigue and because he or she adapts to training with a delay. The last weeks before competitions are when the athlete needs to decrease strength training (number of workouts per week, exercises per workout, and sets per exercise).
The sharper the increase of the strength training was in the preceding weeks, the longer it will take for you to fully recover and to see your performance improve. If the training was very hard, and the load (amount of resistance, number of reps) sharply increased, you may need 6–7 weeks of easier training for your top shape to surface. If the training load was increased very gradually, then it may take only two weeks of such reduced training for you to be in top shape for a contest. On the average it will take four weeks after you decrease strength training for improvements in your performance to show (Zatsiorsky 1995).
10. Error: Working on maximal strength and aerobic endurance on the same day.
If in the strength and in the endurance exercises, done on the same day, the same muscle groups are the prime movers, the rebuilding and strengthening of the muscles will be impaired. Combining strength exercises and endurance exercises in one workout reduces strength gain without affecting gains in aerobic fitness as compared to doing strength and endurance exercises on separate days. High-intensity endurance training conflicts with building muscle mass because, in the words of W. J. Kraemer (1994a), “ . . . oxidative stress may actually promote a decrease in muscle fiber size in order to optimize oxygen transport kinetics into the cell.” Adding a relatively brief aerobic endurance exercise (a 3.2 k [2-mile] run) at the end of a strength workout lowers strength gains by 10% compared to doing strength exercises only. Doing strength exercises after endurance exercises involving the same muscle groups predisposes joints for injuries. The endurance exercise fatigues the slow-twitch muscle fibers that stabilize the joints so during the following strength exercises the joints are less stable and prone to injury.
References are listed in Science of Sports Training (Kurz 2001).
This article is based on the Stadion book Science of Sports Training. Get it now and have all of the info—not just the crumbs!
If you have any questions on training you can post them at Stadion’s Sports and Martial Arts Training Discussion Forum