- Jarrod Free
3 ways you are leaving gains in the gym (you probably do at least 2!)
You've been lifting in the gym since you were 16. It makes you feel great, you're definitely stronger than if you weren't training, and you think you look pretty good too. But the last few months (or even years) haven't seen you make any progress. Your arms aren't any bigger, your legs aren't thicker, and your performance on the field or track doesn't seem like it has improved at all.
The bad news is, you're probably right! You probably haven't been making progress.
The good news though, is that it's probably some really simple changes you can make that will turn things around.
So, these are 3 ways you are probably leaving your gains in the gym.
1. You aren't controlling your eccentrics
The eccentric part of the lift is the lowering part of each rep, where the muscle is contracted and undergoing tension but it is also lengthening. Think of the bicep on the way down from a curl.
Chances are that you could be leaving some serious gains in the gym by neglecting this part of your lifts.
Controlling the eccentric component of your lifts means:
More time under tension for the muscles used (an essential component of hypertrophy/muscle gain)
Greater strength (eccentric loading is hugely beneficial for muscle strength)
Improved coordination between agonist/antagonist muscles (basically improved coordination and more effective firing of muscles when moving/lifting)
Improved strength in eccentric muscle actions (decreased likelihood of muscle strain injuries)
More mobility (greater control through entire Range Of Motion [ROM])
The best part is that improving your eccentrics is a simple matter of keeping tension during the lowering of your reps and making the effort to go through a full ROM (or as far as you safely can). Think about lowering your bench press with genuine control. This loads the muscles involved eccentrically and also sets you up for a stronger concentric (push) movement to get the load back up! This is where the twofold benefit of controlling your eccentric movement lies. You are developing greater strength and improvements by controlling and properly loading your eccentrics, but this is also putting you in a stronger position to produce force for the movement that follows. This happens because the tension required for a controlled eccentric movement means you don't have to waste tension and strength 'catching' the load when it is lowered too quickly, and you aren't being put into poor positions that are dictated by momentum.
Control your eccentrics, whatever training goal you have!
2. You are pushing too much
Everyone loves a good bench press. Even though Monday is International Bench Press Day, the benches are full almost every day of the week.
You see dozens of people of all types having a go at the bench press. Rookie lifters, twenty-year lifters, and everyone in between. Some lift big, some lift light, some lift well, some lift poorly.
Let me ask you something, though.
Of the lifters who move big weight and make it look easy, do any of them have a small back?
The easiest way to put this is that the more you can pull, the more you should be able to push.
Pushing out rep after rep of bench press or overhead press isn't going to get you anywhere if your lats, traps, rhomboids and other pulling muscle groups are weak or underdeveloped. Think about it. These muscles are what supports and controls the body while you are pushing away at the barbell. These muscles are what put the arms in position to push and move effectively without getting jammed up or injured.
If your supporting structures are weaker than the muscle groups you use to push, especially if you are moving a heavy load, you are at best going to struggle to move the weight effectively, and at worst you will be getting a serious injury.
The rule of thumb used by all good coaches and PTs is to pull more than you push. This doesn't mean you should be massively overloading your pulling movements with weight. It means you should be doing more pulling volume than pushing. Some coaches say you should pull 1.5 times as much as you push, and some coaches say it should be double. I suggest taking the core idea and putting it into practice, rather than following a hard and fast rule. For example, if you do 10 sets of horizontal pushing movements in a week, like bench press and push ups, you should be doing 15-20 sets of horizontal pulling movements in the same week, like rows and face pulls. You won't suddenly injure yourself if you don't get this right every single week, but it should definitely be a priority in your training.
The same goes for lower body movements. You can't do expect to be injury-free, or perform well, if you do squat after squat without loading your hamstrings through movements like deadlifts, back extensions, and Romanian deadlifts (RDLS).
Pull more often than you push.
3. You only train your strengths
So you have a good overhead press and love working on it? That's great, but what are you doing about your pull ups? They aren't very good and make you uncomfortable so you avoid them?
This happens all the time and is one of the biggest reasons you may be leaving gains in the gym. Plain and simple, you will not improve significantly if you only train your strengths. Think of a triathlete who keeps losing races by 2 minutes. She is the best runner and cyclist in the field by a huge margin, but she sucks at swimming and gets out of the water minutes behind all of her competitors. If she tries to improve her performance and win the race by getting even better at running and cycling, she probably won't go much better in the race. Her running and cycling are already elite, but if she improves her swimming to the point that is getting out of the water with the back of the pack, then she gives herself a fighting chance of winning the race. If her swimming improves to the point where she is middle of the pack in the swim then she is going to win the race by a huge margin thanks to her elite running and cycling.
The point is that by only targeting your strengths you are missing out on huge performance improvements and gains. As mentioned in point 2, weak posterior and pulling strength severely limits your ability to produce force in the opposite direction. So if you consider your pull ups and rows to be weaknesses and tend to ignore them because you are more confident on your bench press, then you are keeping your posterior chain weak while also restricting how much improvement you can make on your bench press.
The most common example of this is the guy who has huge arms and disproportionately small lats, shoulders, chest and legs. His arms are big and he can lift big loads, so he hits his arms every day, but the rest of his body is neglected and eventually starts looking much smaller, and being much weaker, than his arms. For starters, it looks obvious to everyone that he only works his arms and that usually impresses nobody, and secondly, if he is an athlete training to improve performance then he is not going to be any stronger, fitter or more capable of performing in his sport. Yes, big arms can be beneficial in sport, but having expensive tires on a terrible car is a waste of your resources.
Train your weaknesses.
Performance improvement and gains are not magical and unobtainable for anyone. These are some of the most common ways people miss out on making gains and improvements in the gym, and they are all simple to fix.
Get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions and check out jarrodfree.com for training programs and articles.
Keep making progress!