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Lack of Progress in the Weight Room

By Gary F. Zeolla

Since I started lifting weights again in the summer of 2002, I have made very good progress, even to the point of competing rather successfully in powerlifting again. But as I watch and listen to others in the gym, it seems that many of them are not making that good of progress. I have even heard some guys mention they have been lifting weights for years, but to look at them, you would never think they had even entered a weight room. And their strength levels don't seem to be progressing that well either. For instance, a recent issue of Men's Health magazine reported that a study found the majority of men could not even bench press their bodyweight. That is rather pitiful.

So what are the reasons for this lack or progress among so many? This article will explore this question.

Not Taking/ Asking for Advice

I used to try to give advice to people in the gym, but I found they never listened. So I gave up trying. But I'm still more than willing to respond to anyone's questions. But people rarely ask. It seems everyone is a "know-it-all." They simply are not open to nor feel they need advice. But we all, myself included, can learn from others. So when I see someone who looks like they're making better progress than me, or doing something I'm not familiar with, I'll ask about it.

So my first suggestion will be that if someone tries to offer you advice in the gym, listen to what they have to say and at least consider it. Now maybe they have no idea what they are talking about. In which case, just politely dismiss what they have to say. But if they have been making better progress than you have, then maybe what has been working for them might work for you. It might at least be worth a try. And don't be afraid to ask someone for advice. Just don't bother them when they're getting ready for a heavy set. It is best to wait until they're at the end of their workout.

Not Keeping a Workout Log

Maybe this second point is just me; maybe everyone else has such a better memory than I do that they can remember every exercise they did, every weight they used, and exactly how many reps they did for each of these exercises, from workout to workout. And that is why I never see anyone other than myself writing down what they do during their workouts. But as for myself, I need to write it down.

But even if you can remember what you did in your last workout, can you remember what you did last week, last month, last year? The point is, by keeping a workout log, you can go back over your workouts and see what is working and what is not. You might think you are making progress, but when you see you're still using the same weight on say bench presses as you did six months ago, then that's a good sign what you are doing is not working.

And it is helpful to not only record what you do in the gym, but to keep track of other things as well. First among these would be your bodyweight. If you trying to gain, lose or just maintain weight, again, if you write down your weight each time you weigh yourself, then it will give you a good track record to look back over. And if you compare this log with your workout log, you might detect a pattern. It could point out that a particular workout scheme is helping you reach your weight goals better than other workouts you tried.

If you are able to include your body fat percentage, then this would be helpful as well. Skin fold calibers are one way this can be taken. Another way is by using a body fat scale.

Another helpful product is the DietPower software program. This program enables the user to easily calculate their diet for calories, protein, fat, carbohydrates, and a wide range of vitamins and minerals. And keeping track of such things can also be very helpful. I usually do an evaluation of my diet every few months. At the very least, it would help to write down what your diet is basically like. And again, comparing this with your workout log and bodyweight/ body fat logs will tell you what dietary practices help the most in these areas.

Next, it is helpful to record what supplements you are taking. Again, you might think a supplement is helping you, but when you compare these various logs, you might find it really is just a waste of money. Or you might see that a particular supplement really is living up to its hype.

And finally, if you really want to get serious, if would be a good idea to get a general health physical to find out where you stand in terms of blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol, triglycerides, and the like. Write all of this down. Then a few months after making changes in your workouts, diet, and/ or supplements, have all of these retested.

The point of all of this is that the only way to see if something is working is to look at how you are progressing in various areas over a period of time. And only by writing all of this down can you see what the trends are.

Exercise Selection

Going back to the gym, I rarely see anyone other than myself doing squats and deadlifts. Most people seem to think they will get well-developed and strong legs from doing set after set of leg extensions and leg curls, and maybe a few leg presses. Sorry, but it doesn't work that way.

If you want to get big and strong, and not just in your legs but throughout your body, do squats and deadlifts. These two exercises will do more to improve your physique and overall body strength than all other exercises put together. There simply are no machine equivalents to these two exercises. For that matter, machines in general will not give you the strength and size development that free weights will give you.

And by mentioning about getting big, I don't want to scare the ladies off from using free weights and doing squats and deadlifts. Such exercises will do more to give you the well-toned, attractive body you want than any machine or aerobics exercises ever will. Moreover, squats and deadlifts are the best exercises for warding off osteoporosis. So even the older ladies will want to include them.

The main reason squats and deadlifts are so beneficial is that they utilize more musculature at once than any other exercises. But there are other excellent "compound" exercise as well (exercises that work several muscle groups at once). Bench presses, overhead presses, rows, dips, pull-ups, and the like. These are the type of exercises that should form the bulk of your workouts. "Isolation exercises" (exercises that only work one muscle group, like triceps presses) have a place, but only as a minor part of one's workout.

Exercise Form

The form that many lifters use while doing their exercises could use some improvement, to say the least.

When it comes to guys, the main reason they use such poor form is their egos. Guys think they're impressing people around them by packing on as much weight on the bar as possible. But what they don't realize is their egos and very desire to use impressive weight is what is keeping them from being able to actually handle really impressive weights. But worse of all is their poor form sooner or later will lead to an injury.

Squats:
A while back I was watching three college-age guys doing squats. They started with one pair of 45s on the bar, then two pairs, then three, then four. One guy would scream some, get under the bar and walk it out. And while his friends are screaming for him, the lifter would then proceed to barely bend his knees and then re-rack the weight. He literally would only squat down a few inches and then come back up. But his friends would be yelling, "Good job! Good job!"

As they added each set of plates to the bar, I debated on saying something to them like, "Rather than adding more weight to the bar, why don't you try dropping the weight and actually bending your knees?" But I didn't bother as I figured they wouldn't listen anyway.

My point here is, the rare times I see people doing squats, more often than not, they do not even come close to doing them right. The first and foremost mistake is not going down far enough. By rule in powerlifting, you need to go down below parallel. That is a true and legal squat. Anything less would get you red-lighted (disqualified) in a powerlifting contest and is a waste of time in the gym. You simply will not get any true leg development from partial squats.

Now I need to mention that some authorities believe that going below parallel puts the knees at risk. All I will say in response to this is I had knee problems for years as a result of two accidents I was in. But after I started powerlifting again, all of my knee problems went away. But if you are concerned, then simply stop just above parallel. But I mean an inch or two above parallel, not a foot or two.

I also need to add that at times powerlifters might do partial squats as an assistance exercise. I used to do so myself in my college lifting days. But it would be just that, an assistance exercise to real squats, not a substitute for them. But I no longer do or recommend them as the risk of injury is too great. You're loading way more weight on the bar than your body is really prepared to handle.

Benches:
A while back, I saw a guy at the gym with a really odd physique. He was about 6' tall and had very impressive looking upper arms. They were at least 20". But his chest was wimpy in comparison to his arms, totally out of proportion. And his legs looked like toothpicks. Watching him lift explained the odd physique.

But first, some simple physiology is in order. When benching, the chest muscles (pectorals) are most involved in the bottom third of the lift, the shoulders (anterior deltoids) during the middle third of the lift, and the triceps at the end of the lift.

That said, when this guy benched, he would either bounce the bar off of his chest to at least a third of the way up or only lower the bar halfway down. So he was never actually working his chest, hence his lack of chest development. Only his triceps were getting any real work. Then after benches he did set after set of curls. But he never went anywhere near a squat rack. Hence the big arms but complete lack of leg development.

Now maybe all he wanted was those big "guns" to impress the ladies. But frankly, his physique reminded me somewhat of "Popeye"-with forearms totally out of proportion to the rest of his body. And I for one would not want to look like a cartoon character. But what really makes me cringe is when guys bounce the bar off of their chests. I can just hear the ribs and sternum bone cracking.

Now again, I need to mention that powerlifters will often do some form of partial benches. These are usually in the form of power rack benches, board benches, or floor benches. But again, these are assistance exercises to real bench presses. And they are usually only done by those who will be competing wearing a bench press shirt.

But if you are not a competitive powerlifter planning on competing with a shirt, then bring the bar all the way down to your chest, pause, and then press it up. And when you do, the *only* thing that should be moving is the arms. Not the butt, not the legs. But often I see people raising their butts off of the bench and kicking their legs all over the place. It is truly a silly site to see. But it is not so funny when the inevitable injury strikes.

Another point, when pressing the weight up, the arms should be coming up more or less even. A slight uneven extension is one thing, but I've seen guys almost have one arm straight before barely raising the other arm. That is a sure way to injure a shoulder.

As an aside, when benching, or doing any free weight exercise for that matter, put collars on the bar. Without collars, even if you come up perfectly even the weights are going to slide some. And that will cause the weight to be uneven on the bar, again, possibly leading to injury. And with any degree of uneven extension the weights are going to slide all the way off. I've seen this happen many times, and it is really dangerous to the lifter and those around him.

And finally on benches, always use a spotter. Any time I see someone benching without a spotter, I will try to keep an eye on them even if they don't ask for a spot. And more than once, I have had to run across the gym to grab the bar off of the lifter's chest.

The Male Ego:
I could go on with describing the horrid form I've seen on other lifts, like guys swinging the bar so much doing curls that it looks like they're doing reverse grip cleans. But again, one overriding factor is behind all of this poor form-the male ego.

Guys, the ladies are not impressed by how much weight you have on the bar. And guys like myself are not impressed either. The only time it even matters how much weight is on the bar is when you are competing in a powerlifting or Olympic lifting contest. And even then, you'll only get credit for the lift if it is done correctly. So set aside your ego and learn how to properly do the lifts now, and then maybe you will eventually build the physique you want and actually handle some impressive weights.

Lack of Consistency and Intensity

To make any serious progress in weight training, it needs to be done consistently. One needs to work out at least a couple of times a week, every week. I'm in the gym every other day without fail. But there are a lot of lifters that I’ll see once a while. Now maybe they’re lifting at other times, and if they are great. But given their lack of progress, I suspect that as often as I see them is how often they're lifting, which is to say, not very often. But if the reader wants to make any real progress, then plan it into your schedule to make it to the gym on a regular basis.

Also, when I work out, I work hard, really hard. But, of course, I am training to compete. And I do not expect non-athletes to work as hard as I do. But you need to do more than just go through the motions if you want to make any kind of progress. Unless it's the middle of winter and your gym's heater is busted, you should at least be breaking a sweat. And trust me, if you're doing squats and deadlifts with any degree of intensity, you'll break a sweat.

And if you are an athlete, say a high school or college student training for football or wrestling, and you are at all interested in being your best, you need to be training with some degree of intensity. Weight training is the best adjunct there is to such sports, but it will only do you any good if you put some effort into it.

Conclusion

I could go on with many other mistakes I have seen in the gym. But they are generally all related to a lack of planning and poor exercise form. So I will refer the reader to the two-part article Designing a Training Routine and the section on Proper Performance of Exercises posted on this Web site. Such information should help the reader to begin to make the progress you are looking for.

 

The above article first appeared in the free FitTips for One and All newsletter.
It was posted on this site October 2, 2004.

Powerlifting and Strength Training
Powerlifting and Strength Training: Training Routines and Program Design

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