Before we talk about why you’re not getting stronger, let’s make sure your expectations for how long it takes to get strong(er) are realistic.
How long does it take to get stronger? Well, it depends on a number of factors, including workout schedule and regime, training age, actual age, and lifestyle factors like sleep schedule, stress levels, and nutrient intake.
But the biggest influence here is how long you’ve been training.
Newbies will see results fast. Like, fast fast. “New lifters will be able to lift heavier weights within just 2 weeks of starting,” according to strength coach Albert Matheny, RD, CSCS, chief operating officer ofARENA Innovation Corp, and co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab in New York City.
Most of this progress, however, is just a sign that the person is learning the mechanics of proper lifting. “The first adaptation is neuromuscular, meaning people are simply learning how to move the weights with the correct form,” Matheny says.
Because it’s easier to move a weight with good form than bad, once people focus on form, they might see their numbers jump a significant amount.
Physical changes often associated with strength training (weight loss, fat loss, increased muscle tone, increased muscle mass, etc.) can take a little longer. The popular saying that it takes 4 weeks to feel the benefits, 6 weeks for you to see the benefits, and 8 weeks for other people to see the benefits is more-or-less accurate.
The longer you lift, however, the more slowly the results will come. “The body basically has a ceiling of how strong it can get, and as you get closer to that ceiling, the results will slow,” Matheny says. People who took AP statistics can visualize this as the inverse exponential curve.
Still, there are things even the most seasoned lifters do that interfere with gains, which is why we put together this guide.
If you’re not seeing strength gains at a reasonable pace, odds are, you’re making at least one of nine mistakes.
Don’t worry, thought, we’ll cover exactly how you can remedy it.
1. You’re starting with weights that are too light
Lifting with 5-pound dumbbells might look cute at first, but unless you’re Sophia Petrillo, those aren’t gonna be enough to build real strength.
“The bottom line, if you want to increase your size or strength, the load being lifted must be enough to stimulate the desired adaptations to occur,” says strength and conditioning coach Jake Harcoff, MS, CSCS, CISSN.
To understand why this is, you need to understand how muscle growth works.
“For any morphological changes in the muscle to occur, there must be enough tension and stress placed on the muscle to cause damage to the muscle fibers,” Harcoff explains. “Once the body repairs those muscle fibers, your muscles will be stronger and larger than they were originally.”
So… How much weight should you be lifting to elicit that response? Depends on your experience level.
If you’re new to training, Matheny recommends choosing a weight you can do 3–4 sets of 8–12 reps, with 90ish seconds rest in between. The last 2 reps of each set should be challenging… but not so challenging that you’re failing either of them.
As you become more experienced, he says you’ll want to transition to 5 sets of 3–4 sets, resting more between sets.
Here, the goal should be lifting 80 percent to 95 percent of what you’re capable of. “If you’re always lifting between 60 percent and 75 percent of your 1 rep max, your body isn’t going to get stronger,” he says.
If you don’t know your 1 rep max, opt for a weight that leaves you shaking and quaking — but not so much that you can’t complete the set.
2. You’re not lifting heavier weight than when you started
Lifting heavy isn’t enough! You also need to be lifting heavier than you did when you first started… and then heavier than that… and then heavier than that…
Basically, as you progress in your strength training, you need to keep gradually adding more plates to the bar. This is known as implementing the progressive overload principle.
Why? Simply stated: “The body will adapt to any stress placed upon it, and in order to get stronger, you need to make certain that you force the body to do so,” explains Harcoff.
So, unless you’re making a concerted effort to challenge your body and force it to adapt to heavier loads consistently, you’ll never make much progress.
How do you force your body to get stronger, exactly? Actually, there are a number of ways, including:
- adding more sets over time
- decreasing rest intervals
- slowing reps down or speeding them up
- increasing range of motion
The most evident, however and in many cases, the most neglected, is to simply increase the weight or load of an exercise by adding a little weight, little by little.
3. Your form is trash (respectfully!)
“Some people don’t get stronger because their form doesn’t support them getting stronger,” says Matheny.
According to him, if you ever uttered (or thought) one of the below excuses, it’s likely that form, not strength, is the issue:
- “I can’t go heavier because my [X] hurts at this weight.”
- “I can’t add more weight because my [X] can’t handle the load.”
- “Even at [X] weight, my [X] hurts.”
Beyond just keeping you from reaching for heavier weights, ineffective form might actually sideline you altogether.
“If your form is poor, you could actually injure yourself,” says Harcoff. “Because increasing strength relies on consistently overloading muscle slowly, over a long period of time, if your form is poor, it is likely that you will not be able to remain consistent enough to obtain the adaptations you are looking for.”
The solution? Take some time to really dial in your movement quality by working with a certified personal trainer, watching instructional videos online, and taking footage of yourself when you lift to review afterward.
4. You’re training too often
Much to Gen Z’s dismay, we live in a society that celebrates excess. Case and point, wholesale stores.
Many people bring this mentality over to their training routines, believing that more must = better.
If training 3 days per week is good, then logic would dictate that training every… single… day… until you can’t feel the left side of your face or you cough up your spleen (whichever comes first) must be even better, right? Right?? W-R-O-N-G.
On the contrary, rest and recovery are a must for obtaining strength gains! “We don’t actually build muscle or get stronger in the gym,” explains Harcoff. “Most strength adaptations happen when the body recovers from a training stimulus.”
Making yourself tired for the sake of making yourself tired and accumulating more and more fatigue is a tried-and-true recipe for zapping your strength and performance. In extreme cases, inadequate rest can lead to overtraining syndrome — a condition marked by prolonged inefficient rest and recovery.
To that end, if you’re strength training 6 or more days per week, you’re probably overdoing it.
5. You don’t train around other strong people
Hate to break it to you, introverts, but training alone in your basement day after day could actually hinder your progress.
Because even if you’re super self-motivated, you’re not going to push yourself as hard as you would if someone as strong or stronger than you was training right beside you! Three cheers for the power of healthy competitive energy!
So, if you want to get stronger, commit to spending more time with stronger folks to fuel encouragement or tap into your inner competitor.
Even if it’s only 1 day per week, go out of your way to train at a facility that prides itself not on the number of treadmills or fancy gadgets it has, but rather encourages its members to use chalk and throw around some weight. CrossFit boxes, Olympic lifting gyms, and personal training sessions are all great options for that.
If you live someplace super-duper remote, consider looking into an online training program like MisFit Athletics, Mayhem, or Underdogs, all of which pride themselves on being community-oriented.
6. You’re not prioritizing sleep
“Nothing exists in a vacuum,” says Matheny. “If you want to get stronger and you’re not, you need to take inventory of what you’re doing outside of the gym, too”
How much and deeply you sleep, as well as what you eat and how you manage your stress, can support or detract from your strength goals.
“If you’re not sleeping, you’re not recovering,” Matheny explains. Sleep, after all, is the main time the body releases human growth hormone, which is the main hormone involved in muscle repair. If you’re not sleeping enough, your muscles won’t be recovering optimally, which means you’ll be getting less out of every workout.
Aim to get at least 7 hours of sleep each day… if not more.
7. You don’t have a stress management practice
Another lifestyle factor that can impede gains? Stress.
“Most folks who are stressed out just can’t hit it hard at the gym,” Matheny says. They’re just not mentally or emotionally able to get there. “And if you’re not able to bring a high enough intensity, your progress is going to be stalled,” he says.
Sure, some people use their out-of-gym stress to fuel their workouts. But according to Matheny, that’s no better. “Even if you’re able to amp yourself enough to focus at the gym, if you’re not managing your stress outside of the gym, you’re eventually going to burn out or get injured.”
If you’re frequently a 5 or higher on the 1 out of 10 stress scale, your fitness progress would benefit from the addition of meditation, journaling, yoga, nature walks, and breath work.
8. You’re undereating
Point blank, you need fuel to meet your goals. And if your goal is to get stronger, that means consuming enough calories!
Matheny explains: “When calories are scarce, your body prioritizes life-or-death functions [like breathing, pumping blood, and body temperature regulation] over things you need to get stronger [like maintaining muscle tissue and repairing microtorn muscle meat].” The result? No strength gains for you!
If you hit a plateau on your lifts, try tracking your calories on an app like MyFitnessPal for a week. It’s possible you’ll discover that you’re eating less than you think you are.
Another option is to hire a nutritionist who can use your training schedule to help you determine exactly how many calories you need to eat for your goals.
9. You’re neglecting protein
Not all calories, as the saying goes, are created equal. Whether you’ve got your sights set on a bulking bod or toned torso, you need to be extra certain that you’re getting enough protein.
“The body needs all the essential macronutrients [carbs, protein, fat] from our food in order to build new muscle and thus increase strength,” says Harcoff.
“But the amino acids [the building blocks of protein] from protein-rich foods are especially important, because they will eventually be turned into new proteins to replace and fortify the muscles that are damaged from resistance training,” he says.
How much protein do you need? It varies from person to person. But a good rule of thumb for individuals looking to pack on muscle is at least 1.5 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day.
“If there are no protein parts [amino acids] for the body to draw from, it will likely not repair itself properly,” says Harcoff. Remember: poor repair = reduced gains.