If you want to stay strong for life, it’s necessary to find a balance between working hard for measurable change and developing patience to let your body adapt to new challenges. For most beginners, strength quickly improves in most exercises. This is motivating, but within a few months, change will slow. This is when many exercisers give up, but that’s a huge mistake if our goals are strength, healthy aging, strong bones, and a well-functioning metabolism. So how do we both challenge ourselves and remain patience?
1. First focus on exercise form and learning your routine. If you’re a beginner, don’t try to do many repetitions or sets right away. Be cautious. There is nothing more discouraging than working hard the first day and feeling sore all over the next. For example with any squat variation including leg press, do just one set the first day with a comfortable amount of resistance (load). Then, add a few more repetitions in a second set the next time you work out. Go through your whole program in this cautious way. You’re learning the moves and learning to set up the equipment. There is no hurry to work at your maximum potential. You’ll be working harder soon enough.
2. Focus on slowly adding reps without increasing the load until you reach two full sets. Begin by adding reps to the first set. When you’ve reached your target (for example, one set of 10 reps with 5 lbs in the overhead press), pause for 30 seconds to allow your muscles to refuel. You can use this rest time to set up your next exercise. Then begin a second set and do 3 or 4 reps. The next workout, try for 1 or 2 more reps in your second set. Keep adding reps with good form until you reach your target number of reps in the second set. Now you’re doing 2 sets of 10 reps with a low or moderate load. Move to step 3.
3. Increase the load when you can do two full sets rather than adding more reps. Now that you can do two full sets, add a small amount to the load (resistance or weight) on the bar, dumbbell, weight stack, or pressure gauge. Stay with a fixed number of reps and sets, since the increasing load and intensity is what increases your muscle and bone strength. (Small partial plates or large washers that fit on adjustable plate dumbbells can help you make small increases in load.)
4. If you can’t increase the load and get at least 6 reps in the first set, do the first set with the lighter load you’ve been using. Add the smallest amount of resistance possible to the second set and do as many reps as you can. If you can only do 4, fine. Next week, add another rep, and then another until you can do 10 in the second set with the higher load. When you can do a full second set with the higher load, use this higher load for the first set. Stay with the same load for the second set and begin adding reps. In time, you’ll be up to two full sets at the higher load.
5. Progress by slowing down the movements. In some exercises, you can keep the same number of reps and sets and the same load, but slow down the cadence of the repetition so the set takes more time.
Progress achieved at a slow pace will allow your body time to adjust to the added demands. You’ll find a pace that works for you through experience and experimentation. Also, progress is not linear. Some days you feel like King Kong. Other days you feel like a wimp. You need to learn to push a little, but not too hard. Stimulate, but don’t exhaust.
- Keep your form as perfect as you can. A forced or “cheated” repetition is no improvement at all and doesn’t target the muscles you want to strengthen, plus it’s a great way to get hurt.
- Don’t abandon a good plan without giving it enough time. Missing your goals for a week or two doesn’t mean the plan isn’t good. It may mean you’re stressed or tired or who knows what. Maybe you need a week off for complete recovery.
- Don’t assume that your whole body will progress at the same rate, because one set of muscles will respond differently from another. It takes time to understand the uniqueness of your body, plus the body keeps changing so that what worked in the past may not work now.
- Don’t compare yourself with others. Compare yourself with what you were when you began or what you were a few months ago. Be your own measuring rod and progress at your own natural pace. It’s a good lesson for all of life.
- If you are using adjustable plate dumbbells, buy large washers that fit on your dumbbell bars. With these, you can add as little as ¼ or ½ lb to the dumbbell rather than adding two 1 ¼ lb plates. It’s easier to move forward in tiny increments, but small increases add up in time.
- When you have reached a plateau in an exercise, work those muscle groups in a new way. If you stall in a chest press, change to a dip or a different press variation and begin the new exercise with a lower resistance or load. Focus on form with any exercise you haven’t practiced for a while, and then begin increasing load. Changes are stimulating, and we get to enjoy the rapid progress that comes with a new exercise.
- Progress in patience and faith in your body. If you persist, you will grow and stay strong.