The bad news? There are a lot of exercises you grew up doing that are dead wrong for building power. If you want to get stronger faster, you’ll need to embrace the new science. The good news? The fixes for those old mistakes are fairly simple. We enrolled two of the country’s leading fitness experts, Rob Shaul of Mountain Athlete in Jackson Hole and Ben Bergeron of CrossFit New England, to get you back on track.
Mistake #1: Light weights with too many reps
Doing eight to 12 reps, the numbers so many of us have come to associate with proper weight training, is an aerobic exercise that mostly builds endurance. To gain strength and push your body hard enough to burn fat, you need to lift heavier weight and perform fewer reps. “You won’t get huge and bulky—that’s a common myth,” says Ben Bergeron, owner of CrossFit New England in Natick, Massachusetts, “but training this way will make you stronger and leaner.”
Lift no more than five reps. Bergeron says to start with slightly heavier weights than you’ve been using to do 8-12 reps. “The fifth rep should be very slow and difficult to lift,” he says. “Each time you go to the gym, try increasing the weight a little more.”
Mistake #2: Exercises that isolate muscle groups
Lifts that isolate muscle groups—exercises like hamstring and bicep curls—aren’t movements that are used in everyday life. “If you’re great at leg extensions,” says Bergeron, “it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do something athletic, like ski or snowboard.”
Do exercises that employ multiple muscles at once. Bergeron says squatting, which works everything from your legs to your shoulders, is a great place to start.
Mistake #3: Avoiding the things you're bad at
Can’t do pull-ups? Don’t avoid them; that will just create an unhealthy asymmetry in your body that could lead to injury. “I see it a lot,” says Bergeron. “A guy will have a really strong chest but weak lats and it pulls everything forward, rounding his shoulders and limiting his range of motion. Next thing you know, he’s hurt.”
Bergeron says it’ easy to identify what you’re bad at: “It’s the last thing you want to do when you walk into the gym, “ he says. “Just start doing them. Practice the movements every time you walk into the gym. A lot of it is just mastering the technique.”
Mistake #4: Too many long runs
Pounding the pavement is great for your heart, but doing too much can tighten muscles and decrease the flexibility you need to lift properly.
Sprinting taps into the same energy systems (ATP and glycogen) used in weight lifting and will help build the explosiveness needed for lifting. Bergeron recommends mixing eight 200-meter sprints with a 1-minute rest between efforts into your running routine.
Mistake #5: Going to the gym without specific goals
“If you don’t have a goal, there’s really no motivation to work out,” says Bergeron. “You walk around the gym with no direction grabbing weights here and there and you won’t see results. Every normal person still has things they strive for. That could just be losing five pounds, but there are specific ways to lose five pounds.”
Bergeron says to make your goals SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. If your goal is to do 20 pull-ups, figure out how many you can do now, set a specific date for achieving that goal, and implement a plan that will help you achieve it. When the date rolls around, re-test yourself. If you’ve made it, set a new goal.
Mistake #6: Skipping the Olympic lift
“No other movement involves as much pure athleticism,” says Bergeron. “Strength stamina, speed power, accuracy, agility are all tested during Olympic lifts. It’s a great way to build explosiveness through the hips, which is key in almost all sports. Think about how a skier drives through the turn, there’s a lot of hip explosiveness there.”
Start with the power clean (video instructional), using just a broomstick until you dial in your form.
Mistake #7: Starting a workout tired
You won’t be able to perform to the best of your abilities. You won’t see results.
If you simply can’t get more sleep, try hitting the gym when you’re most awake. If that’s first thing in the morning, go then. Lunchtime? Grab a sandwich on your way back to work. If going to the gym when you’re most awake just doesn’t work with the rest of your schedule, grab some caffeine. Several studies have found that around 100 milligrams of caffeine (a cup of coffee) will perk you up and improve your strength.
Mistake #8: Wearing the wrong shoes
When you lift, the rubber in your running shoes compresses, throwing off your balance.
Lifting shoes, which have a solid-wood soles, will provide a steady platform for weight lifting. Bergeron recommends both Risto and Adidas.
Mistake #9: Using machines
“In the real world you don’t do anything sitting down,” says Rob Shaul, the owner of Mountain Athlete in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “You need to get out of the chair and do things that emulate real-life activities.”
Use barbells and dumbbells. “Free weight training is more athletic, engages the core, is more functional, yields better gains, and is simply more interesting and fun,” says Shaul.
Mistake #10: Lifting alone
Not only is it hard to motivate yourself to train alone and push yourself during workouts, it’s also dangerous to lift heavy weights without a spotter.
None of your buddies lift? Tell the gym you’re looking for a workout partner. They’ll usually be able to hook you up.
Mistake #11: Fearing injury
Statistics show that playing basketball, soccer, football, and skiing all have much higher injury rates than weight training. Don’t use the possibility of getting injured as an excuse for not lifting.
Hone your technique with light weights. If you’re technically sound, the chance you’ll get hurt goes way down.
Mistake #12: Not working hard enough
Weight lifting should be intense. Don’t do a set, talk to your buddy, then go back for another set. “You’ll see much better gains if you work so hard that your heart is exploding,” says Shaul.
Shaul says to do five rounds as fast as possible: 8 Front Squats, 8 Box Jumps, 8 Push ups.
Mistake #13: Skipping the deadlift
The thing humans do more than anything else? Pick things up. The deadlift trains that movement so that you prevent injury when, say, you go to grab your kid when he or she is about to grab that electrical socket. Or when you want to impress someone by picking up a heavy box.
“We do a Romanian dedalift (how to do it) because we find it saves backs and works hamstrings better,” says Shaul. “Studies have found that people who do this lift have fewer lower back issues.”
Mistake #14: Avoiding the gym because you’re weak and self-conscious
“Here's a secret for anyone who didn't grow up in a weight room,” says Shaul, “those big guys don't care how much you can lift. Most of these guys started out as weak skinny guys, too.”
“If you work hard, be humble, and ask questions,” says Shaul, “the big strong guys will give you a hand and help you become stronger.”