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Strength Training Mistakes

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Strength Training for the Long Haul
The Top 7 Mistakes to Avoid

By John Alvino

Strength Training For The Long Haul ó I wrote this article out of extreme frustration. This is yet another great example of how someoneís greatest strength can become their greatest weakness. The other day I met an old training partner of mine to catch an upper body workout. This was the first time that we had trained together in 7 years. I always admired this guy. He trained harder and ate cleaner then anyone I knew. When on vacation, he would always seek out the best local gym and be sure to use it regularly. He trained during illness, when injured, and even on holidays. Calling him ďobsessedĒ would be an understatement. To his credit, he was a blast to go out with. Somehow even with his training fixation, he managed to balance work and fun in his lifestyle.

Anyway, as I said, I hadnít worked out with him in 7 years. Needless to say, I was excited to pump some iron with him, for old timeís sake. I noticed during our warm-up that he was grimacing in absolute agony. Every joint in his body seemed to hurt. His range of motion was hideous. I told him, ďYou need to take time off, rehab your injuries, start stretching, and when you do come back, start light and easyĒ. He gave me a look like I had just told him to murder innocent children. He lashed back, ďI canít do that!Ē My buddy is only 33 years old. Unless I can convince him that a recovery phase or even a complete layoff is not going to cause him to shrivel to nothing, his joints will probably fail him by the age of 40. Then what will he do? At 40 he will have the joint health of an 80-year-old man, and will never be able to train again. He will become one of the guys in the gym that he himself used to make fun while they did their wimpy 30-minute treadmill walks.

After a grueling workout (and a bottle of Advil) we went to the diner for a post-workout meal. During this meal I convinced him to listen to me (or at least I hope I did). It was then that I realized I must write this article and try to reach as many trainees as I could with this crucial message. Iím singling him out because he makes my point easy to illustrate due to his extreme nature. However, I see this stubborn, insecure quality in most trainees who have been in the iron game for any period of time. What Iím talking about is the psychological inability to occasionally go light, go low volume, modify a routine, or take scheduled time off.

The bottom line is that if you truly love to train, and would like to continue to be able to train for a long time, you must cycle your training appropriately. You cannot train heavy all the time. If you stubbornly ignore this point, you will for sure be sidelined with injury after injury and eventually be forced to sit out. What may start off as simple inflammation will undoubtedly lead to joint degeneration. One friend of mine who lives to train heavy has recently undergone unsuccessful shoulder surgery only to find out that he needs a complete shoulder replacement. The doctor also informed him that once he gets the replacement he would never be able to load his upper body again. Yes this means no more presses, rows, squats, deadlifts, Olympic lifts, and the list goes on. This terrible fate could have been avoided if he had listened to his body, and not let his emotions and passion get the best of him. Rehab what needs to be rehabbed, eliminate certain movements when necessary, cycle your volume and intensity properly, and take a recovery week when appropriate. Iím now going to list the top 7 mistakes commonly made and what to do about them.

MISTAKE # 1: NOT TAKING RECOVERY BREAKS FROM TRAINING

Just about any sport you can think of has a season. Even at the most elite level, athletes have several different phases annually. They have a competitive season followed by a short break, a rehab/prehab phase, a general prep phase, and a specific prep phase. Furthermore, there are many sub-phases inside each of these phases. The point is this: even the best, most well-conditioned athletes in the world take time off, rehab and treat injuries, train for strength, power and conditioning, and play their season. Even though these athletes are extremely active, the stresses put on their bodies are always changing. That combined with phases of complete rest allow adequate recovery from the demands placed on their bodies. This philosophy of sports training is in stark contrast to the way most recreational weight lifters operate. The majority of recreational weight lifters love to train year-round and try to push their limits in each and every workout. This results in overtraining, chronic injuries, wasted time, and above all, little or no progress. Not only have I found that planned recovery breaks tend to safeguard weight lifters from injury, I have also found their results in the gym to actually IMPROVE when adequate recovery is given!

An all-state football player that I trained this off-season illustrates this point perfectly. His off-season strength training lasted just a short 13 weeks. During the 13 weeks, he increased his squat by 95 pounds. Thatís 95 pounds over his best squat at the end of last yearís off-season. If he had trained heavy all year long, how much more strength would have been gained? I estimate, from experience, he would have gained an additional 20-25 pounds on that particular lift, assuming he didnít over train. So his training phase would have been 300 % longer then it was to gain an additional 20-25 pounds on his squat. And at those addition gains would have come at a price. The price would be nagging injuries, less motivation to train, and an overall lower return on your training investment.

Now Iím not suggesting that you all should train only 13 weeks per year. What I am suggesting, however, is that you take a recovery week every 3-12 weeks. Ignoring this advice is a guarantee to over training and/or injury. How many consecutive weeks you should train before taking a break varies greatly from individual to individual. Things to consider are your strength levels, types of training performed, training intensity and volume, as well as injury history, age, stress levels, recovery abilities, training experience, nutritional status, goals, gender, and for your athletes, you also need to consider how many weeks you have before you need to be at you peak performance level.

Another variable that I typically consider is vacation schedule. For example, letís say that you had just finished 3 weeks of training and were about to take a recovery week. However, the following week you are scheduled to go on a weeks vacation, I would suggest that you train on the forth week and take your recovery week during your vacation. Below Iíve included some guidelines to help you determine your best work to recovery ratio. Note: A recovery week can be active or completely off. If you choose the active option, I would still recommend taking a full week off every 12 weeks.

Work:Recovery - Considerations

3:1 A full week off is used for trainees with poor recovery abilities. For those with average recovery abilities use this week as an active recovery week, where you would train on the forth week, however decrease the volume by approximately 50% and in some cases cut down the intensity also. If you choose the active recovery option, you should still take off one full week every twelve weeks.

4:1 This is recommended for trainees who use a 4-week training cycle. For lifters that use 2-week programs, do two 2-week programs consecutively and then take your recovery week.

6:1 If you follow 3-week training phases and your recovery abilities are average to better then average, do two consecutive 3-week programs followed by your recovery week. If you use 2-week training phases, do three 2-week programs consecutively followed by your recovery week.

8:1 If you use 4-week training phases, and have good recovery abilities, do two consecutive 4-week programs followed by your recovery week. If you use 2-week training phases, do four 2-week programs consecutively followed by your recovery week.

12:1 This is used for beginners who are learning technique and not loading their bodies, people who train light, or people with superior recovery abilities. Also trainees who took active recovery weeks along the way would simply take a full week off at this point. If you truly feel that you have superior recovery abilities, you can do four consecutive 3-week programs, three consecutive 4-week programs or six consecutive 2-week programs before taking your recovery week.

If you cycle your volume and intensity properly, there are many other variations on deloading/recovering. However, trying to provide and explain all options here would be impossible. Some of my more advanced lifters can even tell intuitively when they need a recovery week, and whether it should be active or off. The point is that to continually make progress and minimize the risk of over training, you must take recovery weeks. If you choose not to, I can guarantee that you will still take breaks; only these breaks will be forced due to injuries!

MISTAKE # 2: TRAINING TO FAILURE ALL OF THE TIME

I must admit that I do admire when someone has the will and determination to go all out during training. I used to do it myself. However after years of training in that fashion, I realized that if I started a routine at 100% failure, I could not make improvements from week to week. When I trained like this, the only way I could increase the weights week-to-week was to either allow my form to break down or drop my reps. I assume that the excess fatigue caused by this type of training exceeds ones capability to recuperate and achieve a positive training adaptation from it. Iím sure this sounds familiar to most readers. The good news is that this is easily remedied. I will provide general guidelines below. You donít have to stick with these exact percentages and this does not exhaust all options, but this will give you a good idea. My point here is simply donít train to 100% failure every exercise, every set, every workout. You must cycle your intensity!

2-week training phases: Week one use 95-97.5% of current max for your chosen rep range, week two use 102.5% of starting max.

3-week training phases: Week one use 90-95% of current max for your chosen rep range, week two use 95-100% of starting max, and week three use 102.5-105% of starting max.

4-week training phases: Week one use 90-92.5% of current max for your chosen rep range, week two use 95-97.5% of starting max, week three use 100-102.5% of starting max, and week four use 102.5-105% of starting max.

MISTAKE # 3: RUNNING LATE AND NEGLECTING A WARM UP

I have a client whose wife has him so whipped that he is absolutely terrified to get home even one minute late from his training session. If he happens to run late to the gym, he will make the ridiculous claim that, ďits ok, I donít need to warm up, Iím already warm, my wife just yelled at me, etc.Ē After I remind him of all the injuries he has suffered due to this fear of his wife, he grudgingly commences an abbreviated warm up. It is entirely too common that I see someone dash into the gym running behind schedule and completely neglect to warm themselves up. Time and time again, these are the same people who are chronically injured. Besides injury prevention, a proper warm-up will also improve the effectiveness of your training program through the following mechanisms: increased speed of nerve impulse conduction, increased force and speed of contraction, improved oxygen transport, dilation of capillaries, increased production of synovial fluid between joints, enhanced mental preparation, etc. That being said, you must warm-up prior to each training session. There are three different phases in a complete warm-up. The first phase of the warm up includes performance of some type of cardiovascular exercises or drills for 5-10 minutes. The goal during phase 1 is to increase body temperature, raise heart rate, and increase the speed of oxygen delivery to the muscles. The second phase includes mobility and flexibility drills. The goal in phase 2 is to increase range of motion and work the muscles/joints over a full range of motion. The third phase involves doing a training-specific warm up. The goal in phase 3 is to work the neuromuscular mechanisms related to the workout. For example, if you were warming up to perform squats, you would perform squats with much lighter weight than your work sets, and gradually increase the weight each set. Be careful not to create too much excessive fatigue during your warm up sets. This is best accomplished by performing multiple low rep warm up sets.

MISTAKE # 4: STAYING IN THE GYM FOR MORE THAN 1 HOUR

Those ď2-hour plusĒ workouts that some people insist on doing are not only a waste of time; they are result-hindering as well. Earlier in my training career, I noticed that long duration workouts produced less results that shorter duration workouts. This is because long duration workouts reduce your ability to recover. Numerous studies have confirmed what I have empirically witnessed for years. Through blood sample testing, it has been shown that after the 50-minute mark, testosterone levels drop significantly. Combine this with a substantial increase of cortisol and you can see how your body can shift from an anabolic state to a catabolic state rather quickly. Iíve also witnessed and experienced a loss of mental focus beyond the 60-minute mark. I guess you can see why Iím a huge proponent of short workouts. When I create workouts for my clients, I typically keep them to a 45-minute max. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. For example, if youíre an athlete, and due to the coachís schedule, you have to do both your conditioning and your strength training in one session, your workout would obviously last a little longer. Just remember that in general, more is not always better!

MISTAKE # 5: TRYING TO COMPENSATE FOR POOR EATING HABITS BY KILLING YOURSELF IN THE GYM

Using a client of mine as the example will make this point very clear. I must say that Joe has great discipline. He trains hard and he trains consistently. His goal is always to gain muscular weight. In addition to training properly, this goal obviously involves following an eating regimen conducive to gaining muscle. At first, Joe followed the diet that I had prescribed to him religiously, and his weight shot up from 200lb to 226lb. Then, Joe started to get sick of eating all the food necessary for him to gain muscle. Slowly but surely (and without my blessings!), he cut down on meal size. Then he cut out his last meal of the day. He started eating less and less. During this time, his strength went nowhere. After approximately one month, he started to lose strength on the bigger lifts. I noticed that he was getting smaller and put him on the scale to see what damage he had done. Joe had dropped to 214lb! He was very upset with himself. Now here is where he made his SECOND mistake. Remember, he didnít lose his discipline to train; he only lost his discipline to eat. To make up for the losses in strength and size, he would go to the gym and train harder than ever. He would go to the gym even when he didnít have a scheduled workout and do extra work. He was determined to put more and more weight on the bar. He would do drop sets, supersets, forced reps, and any other technique that requires maximal effort, even though we rarely used any of these techniques during his gaining phase. Guess what happened? He started to lose weight at an even faster rate. Now he is eating less food, burning more calories during training, and over training. He did all of this to feel better mentally about his efforts. Finally, after hitting a low weight of 204lb, Joe finally decided that he wanted to follow a productive eating plan once again. However there was another problem. From the over training that he did, he was left with sore shoulders and a very tight back. How were we supposed to march back up to 226lb and beyond when we canít squat, dead, row or press? The sad truth is that we canít. Now that he is psychologically prepared to eat well, train hard and gain muscle, he canít. Because now, due to his self-abusive training behavior, he will have to rest, rehab and recover. He would have been much better off if he had not tried to overcompensate for his poor diet with over training. One bad behavior does not cancel out another bad behavior! It only makes things worse! He could have simply done two 30 minute, low volume workouts per week while he was off the ďdiet wagonĒ. If he did this, he would have better maintained his weight and had no over training issues or injuries.

Eventually, after Joe recovered from his injuries, we were able to start a good size-producing program and heís now back up to 216lb. Joe is not alone in making this terrible mistake. I have even seen trainees with the exact opposite goals do the same thing. In other words, athletes who want to LOSE weight make the same crucial mistakes that Joe did. Trying to lose weight, these trainees would cheat like crazy on their diets and try to make up for it in the gym. Without explaining their exact scenario in great detail, they would suffer the same fate as Joe, over trained and injured with nothing to show for it. The bottom line is if youíre feeling at all burned out; you can follow a well thought out maintenance plan until you are ready to resume your training and diet routine. Maintenance plans are very easy to follow, require minimal effort and prevent you from losing all of your gains that you worked so hard for.

MISTAKE # 6: NOT VARYING YOUR ROUTINES

This is all too common. There are many training variables that need variety. However, since weíre talking about training longevity, Iíll discuss the two variables that, if not varied, lead to most injuries.

Exercise selection: Most trainees have a few favorite exercises. This could be because they are good at them, they read somewhere that these exercises are most effective, or because they have gotten the best results in the past with these movements. This is all well and good, but there are several problems with doing the same exercises all of the time. First, you can create muscle imbalances. Second, if you use the same exact pattern of movement, you can develop over-use injuries. Over-use injuries occur when tissues get injured due to repetitive exposure to the same exact movement. Luckily, this is easily remedied. Simply donít get caught in the rut of performing the same exercises all of the time. I would like to add that some exercises are more productive than others and therefore I tend to prescribe them with a little more regularity. After determining what exercises are most productive for your goals during a particular phase, use these exercises with some continuity because lack of continuity makes it difficult to determine the rate at which you are progressing, however you must still periodically take a short break from doing them. Remember, in the gym, too much of a good thing is not a good thing!

Rep Range: Here is yet another ego-driven mistake. Most guys want to put as much weight on the bar as possible. They see gains in maximal strength and they feel good mentally about moving heavy weights. Some claim to have a fast-twitch muscle fiber make-up and insist on training this way. Without a doubt, everyone who insists on training in this fashion eventually gets injured. Before you know it, the trainee can perform fewer and fewer exercises without pain. This fate is sad, because it is so easily avoided. Would it really kill a guy who is obsessed with doing singles all the time to do a 3-week training block using an 8-12 rep range? By increasing the number of reps, you would have to decrease the amount of weight lifted, therefore giving your joints a much-deserved break. The exception to this rule is for people in a weight class sport. A higher rep range may result in unwanted hypertrophy for this type of athlete. Because these athletes generally train with heavy weights for low reps, they must follow a well thought out plan to help prevent any joint damage.

MISTAKE # 7: NOT TAKING THE TIME TO STRETCH

I realize that most trainees find it difficult enough to find the time to complete the main part of their workout. The first thing they might be tempted to skimp out on is the stretching part of their routine. However, this is very short sighted. Stretching is probably neglected even more than warming up. Besides simply reducing tension in the muscle, stretching will also help prevent injuries. During resistance training, the weight compresses the joints to various degrees. If an individual does not possess optimal flexibility, his joint spacing may already be compromised. Additional compression from the barbell can easily result in pain and/or injury. The amazing thing is that although itís seldom done, I rarely find someone who does not agree that stretching should be performed as part of a comprehensive training program. Even with this knowledge, trainees still claim that they do not have the time. Although studies have shown that it is best to stretch 4-6 hours after a training session, I find this schedule is hardly ever adhered to. Unless you have a severe flexibility issue, or your primary goal is to increase your flexibility dramatically, simply stretch for 5-10 minutes post workout. Use an abbreviated stretching routine, and emphasize your tightest muscle groups. Even by paying minimal attention to stretching in this manner, you can make a huge difference in your career as a weight lifter.

John Alvino is a professional fitness expert. In 15 years of experience, John has successfully worked with hundreds of clients including: professional athletes, championship bodybuilders, and fitness enthusiasts. To learn more about Johns training concepts, sign up for his free newsletter at johnalvino.com


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