the joy of strength training


November 5th, 2010 at 10:24 pm

How do I know it’s working?

Louise Fox deadlifting

Louise Fox puts some effort in

I often hear in the gym or read on forums about people who are not sure how to work hard at weight training. They don’t know why they don’t sweat as much or feel as exhausted as they do when they do their ‘cardio’. They feel like they are not getting as much out of their weight training as their ‘cardio’ sessions.

There are a number of reasons why this is the case, and a number of ways to fix it!

You are not strong enough to exhaust yourself

Most people when they first start weight training are not strong enough to really make their bodies work hard. They haven’t acquired enough skill in the exercise to perform it with sufficient load to cause a significant effect. When I say ‘skill’ I don’t just mean their lifting form but the neural and motor skill required to perform the movement.

A solution to this is to perform high reps (more than 10) in order to get more practise at the movement and to keep the rest periods short so that you build up your heartrate and get a sweat on. A circuit-style mode of training will accomplish this: move from exercise to exercise with very little rest in between, and try to perform all your reps as well and fully as possible.

I saw a guy in the gym yesterday doing a Crossfit-style workout consisting of deadlifts and dumbbell chest press in a ladder of 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1, i.e. he would do ten deadlifts, then ten chest presses, then nine deadlifts, nine chest presses and so on. He took minimal rest between sets and boy was he sweating buckets! He had a great workout, lifted a lot of weight and had that ‘exercise high’ at the end of it.

You are not performing the exercise properly every time

Full range of motion press up

Full range of motion is important

Cheating on range of motion is one of the most common reasons why people don’t progress in the gym or feel like they’ve worked hard. It usually happens towards the end of a set; as the exercise gets harder, people start to compromise, not go as deep, not pull back quite as far, let other parts of the body compensate. But when it gets difficult is precisely when you need to pay most attention to form. That’s when you’ll ‘feel it’, that’s when the adaptation occurs.

The same is true of sets. You often see people do several easy warm up sets and then struggle with and massively compromise on their heaviest set. Doing perfect warm up sets and then wussing out on the work set isn’t going to make you feel like you worked hard – or indeed stimulate the results you want.

You are not keeping the muscles under tension for long enough

This is a common issue with those who are training for hypertrophy. They do their standard ‘three sets of ten’, but rush through the reps trying to get them over with as soon as possible. If you slow the reps right down, you will really ‘feel’ it in your muscles, both during the work and the next day!

This notion of ‘time under tension’ is promulgated by Charles Poliquin, who recommends for hypertrophy 30 to 70 seconds. For example, in a set of ten chest presses, each rep would need to last at least three seconds (e.g. down for two, up for one) in order for the muscles to be under tension for 30 seconds.

The HIT (High Intensity Training) method involves a similar principle as it utilises very slow eccentric contractions, up to ten seconds long.

You are taking too much rest

If you want to feel like you are working hard, less rest is one of the easiest ways to do it. I’m not just talking about rest between sets, but rest between exercises. Do you move from one exercise to the next briskly, or do you faff about getting a drink of water, chatting to a friend, waiting for the machine to be free and so on? Examine your entire workout and strip out any extraneous rest. My weightlifting coach always says to me, if you’ve got enough breath to talk, you’ve got enough breath to do your next set.

You’ve been doing the same thing for too long

Chip Conrad kettlebell exercise

Chip Conrad demonstrates something a bit different in his DVD Strength Rituals

If you do the same exercises at the same tempo and the same weight week after week, your body will adapt and you won’t ‘feel it’ any more. You need to keep progressing, whether that is number of sets, weight lifted, number of reps, choice of exercises or total time against the clock.

There’s no law which says you must do three sets of ten for hypertrophy, or you must do heavy triples in the deadlift to get stronger. Even experienced lifters will change their programmes every so often, to get a new type of stimulus.

I did a bodyweight circuit yesterday, which I haven’t done for months. Man, did I feel it the next day! But that doesn’t mean I worked harder than I do in my olympic weightlifting workouts, it just means that it was something different.

You are focussing on the wrong indicators

It is a fact that people get addicted to high intensity cardiovascular exercise. It produces lovely endorphins that make you feel great and there are lots of encouraging external signs that you have worked hard, from sweating to rolling on the floor out of breath.

Weight training is a slightly different animal and you might just have to get used to that fact. How much you sweat is no indication of how fit you are, how strong you are, or how hard you’ve worked.

Strength coach Dan John puts it well: “Pavel [Tsatsouline] has mentioned to me a dozen times that simply getting gassed in a workout is easy. I always joke: Do 10,000 jumping jacks. The key isn’t so much destroying yourself in a workout, but actually training, learning, mastering and then coming back time after time after time.”

Beginners will tend to recover fully from workout to workout, so how tired you feel is not always a reliable indicator. Soreness is also not a reliable indicator of how hard you have worked. I squat well over bodyweight four times a week without feeling sore, but ten sets of lunges with 12kg kettlebells the other day had me reaching for the foam roller. The squats are harder on the system than the lunges, but I’m adapted to them so I don’t get as sore.

If you are making progress each workout, whether in terms of weight lifted or reps completed or whatever, that means that your body is working and adapting.

You are not working hard enough

I’ve been training with weights in one form or another for more than ten years. I reckoned I knew how to train. But a few months ago my coaches said to me, “Sally, you’re not working hard enough”. It took me a while to figure out what they meant. After all, I was coming to the gym, doing my programme, lifting big weights.

Finally I figured out that it was to do with my personal focus and intensity. Working hard in the gym means giving 100 per cent focus and effort to every single lift, every single rep. This is very hard to do and very rare. Many people, including myself, think that they are doing this when they aren’t. It is a skill in itself and I for one am still learning it.

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  • 1

    This is so true…I use to work out the same routine everyday for years with not much in the way of results. Then i got a personal trainer that explained muscle memory and the importance of mixing it up. Ever since then I’m seeing alot of changes. Good ones!! Keep it up..goals can be reached with determination.

    Russell on November 7th, 2010
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  • 3

    Good points from you and Russell. Many of the muscles are dependent upon eachother so it is important that we consistently exercise all of them, not just a few of them. I always see guys doing curls and all biceps exercises because they only care about their arms looking big so that they can wear the new ed hardy tshirt 4 sizes too small, instead of actually gaining some valuable health benefits out of working out.


    ryan on November 10th, 2010
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