What am I doing wrong, I lift weights, but don't get stronger.
October 18, 2006 10:12 AM   Subscribe

Fitness Filter: Please help. When I lift weights, I lift to failure but still see no gains in size or ability to lift. This also applies to push-ups and sit ups.

I can sit all day and do sit-ups for example. I fail at about 15 reps. If I rest even a short time, I can go all the way to 15 before I fail for a second time, but then I have to rest again. Also, when lifting, say seated press, I use enough weight to cause failure by rep 4, this is how I was told to do it to get bigger faster, I do this 3 times with 30 seconds rest, and I have yet to increase the weight in many months, no matter what I still fail at 4 but don't get any size gains. Also, I never experience feeling sore the next day. I am just not getting stronger. Please help.
posted by Ezrie to Health & Fitness (31 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You're not doing anything. You need to do 7-10 reps at the maximum weight. You're maxing out and you're not building muscles, just pushing your body to the extreme.

Lift 4 sets on 7-10 (usually I start out with at least 8 and move to 10 on the next set).

If you're getting to the point where you can do 12 reps of 4 you need to start adding weight.
posted by geoff. at 10:21 AM on October 18, 2006

Also check Prescription Exercise which generally has very good advice, especially for beginners. Sit ups and such generally are not going to do anything beyond aerobic activity. In fact I think your whole routine right now is just increasing the heart rate for a sustained amount of time but not causing any muscle growth. Whoever told you to always max does not know what they are talking about, I would disregard any exercise advice from that person.
posted by geoff. at 10:23 AM on October 18, 2006

geoff. is right, you need more reps, not fewer. You also need to vary your workout by adding different exercises that work the same muscle groups. You can also, and should, vary the pattern of your sets and the kinds of reps you do. One suggestion, for instance, would be to sometimes do 3-4 sets of 10 reps, and sometimes do 10 set of 1-2 reps with a much higher weight and very little rest (10-30 seconds) in between.
posted by OmieWise at 10:23 AM on October 18, 2006

Regarding the weights, do more reps - 4 is not enough. I judge from your question that you are relatively new to the fitness game, and should expect rapid-ish gains (you are not doing 280-lb shoulder presses or something monstrous, right?)

You can try to do a "pyramid" - 12x weight A, then 8x weight B, then 4x weight C, for instance, where C>B>A. This worked really well for me when I was in my 20's.

In general, there are a couple of ways to add intensity. Explore each one:

1. Increase weight (but not so much where you can only do 3 reps!)

2. Increase speed - ie, faster reps and shorter breaks between sets

C. Increase duration (or number of reps, in this case).

Above all, experiment. Everyone is different. 3 sets of 4 might work for some people, but obviously not for you. Since what you are doing is not working, try something else, keep going until you find something that gives you the results you want.
posted by Mister_A at 10:27 AM on October 18, 2006

Does that mean lower the weight so failure comes at 7-10 reps, or does it mean forget about lifting to failure entirely?
posted by Ezrie at 10:27 AM on October 18, 2006

What is your diet like? Unless you regularly eat meals high in protein, you can't expect to build muscle. I am a firm believer that you can stimulate muscle growth by working any muscle to failure whether it be situps and pushups or a full free weight workout. I would recomend keeping your current workout routine and eating more protein and seeing how your results are. I usually eat a protein bar before the gym and have a protein shake afterwards. I try to eat salmon and boneless skinless chicken breast on days I plan to lift. If you want to add size and strength, you will want to eat more than you think you should.
posted by ro50 at 10:30 AM on October 18, 2006

IMO, if you lift to failure every set, you will not be able to recover adequately for the next set. It is sometimes OK to push to failure but you put mad stress on teh muscles that way. Yes I know I'm not Geoff.
posted by Mister_A at 10:30 AM on October 18, 2006

Honestly, I haven't changed my eating habits much since I started lifting. I do stay away from sugar and bread, but I have not made a point of increasing my protein intake. I do eat chicken or beef at least twice a week, but have not tried any bars or shakes.
posted by Ezrie at 10:32 AM on October 18, 2006

The pyramid sounds like a good Idea.

posted by Ezrie at 10:33 AM on October 18, 2006

Try this for your rep structure.

Warm up with whatever weight is comfortable for 10 reps.
Increase it and do 8 reps.
Increase it to your "work set" to where it is difficult to get 6 reps.
Increase weight again, or keep it the same and do one more set.

That's how I typically do an average set. 10-8-6-4. Worked great for me. Also, don't overtrain. You'll never get bigger if you don't rest.
posted by dead_ at 10:36 AM on October 18, 2006

Low reps (5-6) with heavy weights is actually a good idea for a strength and size gaining workout. However, before you can get to the point where it's beneficial, you have to go through a warmup period for a couple of months, where you work out with moderate weights and 8-10 reps/set and not focus on muscle failure. The purpose of this phase is to strengthen your ligaments, tendons and smaller supporting muscles so that they can handle the high-stress phase where you actually build muscle mass.
I suspect your 'failure' after 4 reps is actually a failure of your ligaments and support muscles, and that your larger muscles aren't getting much of a workout. As you have seen, this does nothing for size & strength gains and can set you up for some serious injuries. Pick up a copy of this book and follow their advice.
posted by rocket88 at 10:43 AM on October 18, 2006

Well, for what it's worth, I started lifting when playing athletics in high school, maintained a steady program through college, and still work out with weights 3 times per week (I'm 31). I can tell you that in that time, I have seen my most significant gains in strength and size when I eat correctly. You can buy a box of protein bars on amazon.com for 20 bucks or some protein powder from GNC for about the same amount. The two things I always tell people when they ask me how to get stronger are 1. eat a lot of protein and things that are good for you (eggs, fish, vegetables, etc.). And 2. make sure you give your muscles time to recooperate before your next workout. I would think that if you are consistent with your workout intensity and duration and you follow my 2 suggestions, you will see results.
posted by ro50 at 10:44 AM on October 18, 2006

You're not working enough. Follow the advice above.

You need to build strength in all of the supporting muscles, improve bone density, etc. Higher reps, lower weight. It will take time, but quick size gains don't really do much for your fitness. In my opinion, lifting muscles, as opposed to work muscles, tend to be more of a watery, short-term, swelling. Work muscles, built by repeated hard labor, are much more permanent. I like being big but no longer lift for effect--now I just want to be strong.

The situps thing sounds more mental. 15 situps is your biggest set? Check your form, try different exercises, learn to enjoy the burning sensation.

It also sounds as though you likely don't have a strong enough core yet to support heavy weightlifting.
Back the weight down, decide to spend a couple of months on fundamentals and foundation: abs, triceps, shoulders, lats, back. Then get a trainer to show you best practices and design a program.

Most important, and my first reaction when I hear questions like this, is eating and resting between workouts. YMMV, but a coupls of days of light exercise, two full night's sleep, three or four meals a day--and I can run faster, lift more, and recover more quickly when I restart.

You don't seem to have a problem with effort, so you'll do great.
posted by Phred182 at 10:50 AM on October 18, 2006

If you are new to lifting weights, I would recommend getting your strength / endurance up with weight that you do not fail on after 12 reps. You want to make sure you are executing good form and have your 'core' strong enough to handle increased weight. After a month, you can then move up to heavier weights and shoot for failure at about 8 reps. If you try to rush into it, you are cheating yourself and may get hurt.

What may be happening is that your larger muscles like your chest, shoulders, and thighs can handle the weight, but your smaller muscles like your forearms, wrists, and ankles are getting easily fatigued. When I first started lifting weights the weakness is my wrists, forearms, and biceps were really limiting the amount of weight I could handle on things like bench press, tri-extensions, and pull-ups. Either way, drink applejuice before your workout and protein shakes after working out. Get plenty of rest, and don't overdo it.
posted by jasondigitized at 10:56 AM on October 18, 2006

I know a lot of guys who like the reverse pyramid that dead_ describes. I was already set in my ways before introduced to it but I know a lot of people who like it.

Generally I do as much as I can on the first rep without crazy straining. It's somewhat of a qualititative description but when I imagine "failure" I imagine giving 150% and my intestines shooting out my ass. Let me give you an example:

Lately I've been doing 225 on my first rep and generally get t the point where I don't know if I can make another rep after 7-8 reps. I like to stop one short of my theoretical max because I don't have a spotter and if you've ever had a 225 pound bar fall on you it's not pretty. My next rep I'll add 10 pounds and try to do 9-10 which I usually can do. I keep that added weight for the next two weights in the series. I generally rest 2-3 minutes between. To give you an idea of what I consider a failure rate, it would be 240-5 or so. That's when I give it my all and then must rest after doing maybe two reps. I woulnd't be able to do many sets of those nor do I ever try doing that as it is just for showing off and has no real benefit in my perspective.

This is on an inclined bench and I do it (or at least try) to do it every other day. If I have the time I'll also do the same thing with side arm curls (which is what I believe they're called). Right there, that's like a 1.5 heavy workout including stretching and warmup. I have a feeling if I doubled that I'd be cut for GQ or Men's Health or something but no one ever has time for that.

Also double the amount of calories you're taking. You really need to loadup on calories and you'll probably gain love handles but you can work on cutting later. This is assuming you're a skinny ass like myself who can't gain weight.
posted by geoff. at 11:06 AM on October 18, 2006

Listen to this episode of Quirks & Quarks, Exorcizing Myths about Exercise:
Most surprising is that exercise can have no effect at all on some people. Dr. Claude Bouchard, Executive Director of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, discovered early in his career that there's enormous variation in how people respond to cardiovascular exercise, with some not responding at all. His current research is aimed at discovering the genetic roots of this phenomenon. Dr. Eric Hoffman, Director of the Research Center for Genetic Medicine at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, DC, has found a similar phenomenon with muscle. Both say, however, that there are health benefits with exercise, even if cardiovascular fitness and strength don't improve.
posted by Chuckles at 12:00 PM on October 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

geoff. did I read that right -you're lifting 240lbs on an incline bench? At what angle? Is this unassisted or are you using a Smith machine? Sorry to be so inquisitive but I've never seen anyone do that much weight on an incline.
posted by ob at 1:15 PM on October 18, 2006

I also swear by the pyramid routines already shared by Mister_A and dead_.

There are variations on exactly what type of pyramid you do. I generally do a routine of 12-10-8-6-12, then do another superset of 12 exercising the same muscle group but with a different exercise, with the intention of gaining definition as much as gaining muscle. I used to do a shorter pyramid of 8-6-4-2 -8 etc. but with much heavier weight for increased size. Test out a few and see what works!

Good luck
posted by The Gooch at 1:27 PM on October 18, 2006

Ditto what ro50 said. I excersized daily( pushups, crunches, and the like) for about 6 months with not much noticable gain. Then a month ago I started eating big slabs of meat for dinner and drinking whole milk with every meal and it's made all the difference.
posted by hamhed at 1:38 PM on October 18, 2006

Couple of tips I didn't see so far. Get plenty of sleep, and time your next workout to be when you have just recovered (no stiffness/soreness/tiredness remaining from the last). Too soon and you will shortchange your recovery (which is where all the benefits come from). Too late and you miss the rebound period where you have a little extra power.
posted by Manjusri at 1:59 PM on October 18, 2006

To build mass, you need at least 5 meals (yes, 5) per day of high protein -- chicken, hard boiled eggs, cottage cheese, protein shakes, protein bars, etc. Sounds like that's what you're missing.
posted by LordSludge at 2:02 PM on October 18, 2006

i would definately say diet as well.

use something like fitday to work out ya cals

www.hypertrophy-specific.com if you look in the articles section has advice on how much you should be ating to bulk
posted by moochoo at 2:23 PM on October 18, 2006

Are you doing those 15 sit-ups with weights? Most of what I've heard about sit-ups is bad - they aren't great at working your stomach muscles and they aren't so good for your back. I once caused myself quite some grief in the lower back region by trying to do sit-ups with weights, and I haven't done a sit-up since. Do stomach crunches (ie very small sit-ups) and side-stomach crunches with weights held behind your head instead, and stop at the slightest sign of back pain.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:08 PM on October 18, 2006

I actually do cruches, having had a similair back injury. Thanks so much
posted by Ezrie at 3:11 PM on October 18, 2006

T-Nation. Read the articles there about lifting and lifting plans, then keep an eye on your progress for another few months.
posted by Loto at 3:31 PM on October 18, 2006

I just counted what I did last night. The barbell is 100 and I have 130 in weights. It is just straight free weights. I don't know the exact angle ... maybe 40 degrees?
posted by geoff. at 4:34 PM on October 18, 2006

Geoff, FYI, olympic bars are only 45lbs. so you'd only be doing 175. Still good.
posted by Loto at 5:19 PM on October 18, 2006

Eat more calories. If you aren't getting bigger, you aren't eating enough. It doesn't have to all come from protein, either. You might have to add more of everything, protein, fat, carbs, to hit the calories you need.
And what everyone else said about strength. This especially seems to be popular among the hyooje guys I know.
posted by ch1x0r at 6:18 PM on October 18, 2006

Yeah 175 is great, I've seen guys do about that (I'm at more like 110) but I've never seen much above that. Most guys that are benching the really heavy weights are doing flat benches, so kudos geoff. I find inclines hard, especially after incline flys...
posted by ob at 6:42 PM on October 18, 2006

Look. It's simple.

Work hard. Rest. Work harder.

Overload is key to stimulate the musculature. Rest permits it. This crap that so many sets gets you this or that...

Your anaerobic threshold is a 90-180 second window. You have to get fatigued inside of that window (fatigued enough that you can't really continue, momentarily). The weight isn't important, the difficulty is. Some people that's alot of weight, some people that's less.

You've talked to someone who said "Lift heavy to get big." Or "Low reps build mass."

Hard work. Period. Someone people build mass easily, some don't. (Given enough food; actually, the whole nutrition stuff isn't as much as some would leave you to believe. There are studies where rats have achieved muscular hypertrophy that were being starved)

Worth reading:



Last thoughts: anything that doesn't make sense, don't do. Anecdotal evidence? Crap. Something that someone tells you? Crap. If they can't explain it in such a way that makes sense to you, don't do it.
posted by filmgeek at 7:43 PM on October 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

ch1x0r has it. You can work your ass off and you will not gain any size or strength unless you are taking in more calories than you burn. And you don't have to eat super-high amounts of protein - yes, you need protein, but many people trying to gain strength and mass massively overdo the protein. It's all about calories. Also, much of the nutrition advice given so far is pretty non-specific. I'd recommend getting a decent book or reading some articles on sports nutrition if you want to learn how to eat right. If you don't want to get anal, though, it sounds like you know what you shouldn't eat a lot of - sugar and bread - just eat whole meals, with lots of different nutrients, with a small serving of protein at every meal. And take a multivitamin.
posted by btkuhn at 8:14 PM on October 18, 2006

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